About Features Reviews Community Screenings Archives Home
October 2004
Ray: An Interview with Clifton Powell

Ray: An Interview with Clifton Powell

By Wilson Morales

From "Menace II Society" to "Dead Presidents" to "Lockdown" and more recently "Woman Thou Art Loosed" to name a few, Clifton Powell has played some of the most memorable characters on screen. He's one of the hardest working actors in the business who I believe has been underrated because the films he's been are not as high profiled as some of the films that his fellow actors (i.e Samuel L. Jackson, or Ving Rhames) have been in. Nevertheless, all of their works are equal and for Clifton, his next role produces another amazing performance to add to his resume. In "RAY", Powell plays Jeff Brown, the guy who became Ray Charles's road manager and to a certain extent, his best friend. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Powell opens up on how he got the role and how blessed he is to be a working actor in this business.

How did you get the role? Did you audition for it?

Clifton Powell: I was out on the road working and I had spoken to Jamie about a couple of months earlier before the movie and he told me it was in the works and he said, "I'm going to bring you in for it" and I went in and auditioned, and for the grace of God, I did a good audition, but they weren't sure if they wanted to go with me, and Jamie decided to go and bat for me. Jamie said, "This is the guy I want and this is the guy I'm going to get" and he made it happen.

With all the memorable roles you've had, would you say that this is against type?

CP: This is not against type because for the folks who have followed my career, I'm the same actor who was in "Selma, Lord, Selma", where I played Martin Luther King, Jr, "Buffalo Soldiers", "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", "The Brothers", "A Private Affair". Those are all characters I played before. The perception may be that I'm going against type, and it's not. The perception is that I'm the quintessential bad guy and the thing is that I play more good guys than bad guys but the bad guy always has more interesting things to do.

Yes, that's true. The bad guy roles you've played are more colorful.

CP: I'm ready to open my website up and one of the things I'm going to have is a chat room where people can come into my chat room and discuss all the movies that I have done and the history behind the movies because one of the things that people don't see is what went into how we made the movie and how I got the role. For "Woman Thou Art Loosed", it's a very dark character but how I got the role was a story itself, and a lot of times I don't get the bad guy role. A lot of times they may be friends of mine or I've got to do a favor or somebody drops out and I end up getting the role.

How much research did you do in portraying Jeff Brown?

CP: I did some research. I went and read several book on Ray's life and Taylor Hackford had a package for us when we got to New Orleans about Ray Charles' story and certain individuals in and out of Ray's life and Jeff Brown was one of the prominent people in his early life. So I was able to do a little research but Jeff Brown is a very understated kind of guy, very simple kind of guy. He was Ray Charles's best friend and he was his road manager, so he was a guy that was with Ray for the first 15 years; so I just tried to play him as simplistically as possible in terms of just making him and sincere and caring about Ray.

Is Jeff Brown still alive?

CP: No, Jeff Brown died of stomach cancer years ago and there's a scene in the movie when he and Ray have a falling out. Ray thought Jeff was stealing money from him, but Ray didn't understand the whole situation, and he got rid of Jeff and it was kind of sad.

How was working with Jamie?

CP: Incredible. Incredible. The most incredible experience of my life. Jamie is by far a head and shoulders above the rest, and deserves to get an Oscar for this role. His spirit for this movie was impeccable. He was funny. He was professional. He made us feel comfortable everyday. Once again, he went to bat for me and stood up and said, "Clifton Powell is the guy I want in this movie" and everyday he came to work and that's not an exaggeration. It was hard for him because he was blind everyday but he just entertained us all and he just did a wonderful job and it shows in the work.

What's your favorite Ray Charles's song?

CP: "Georgia" and "Hit the Road Jack". Those are my two favorite. I remembered those songs as a young boy growing up in D.C.

You are one of the hardest working actors out there. Just about every year, there's a film that comes out, studio or independently produced, that has you in it. Having worked with so many creative artists, what do you think about the state of black cinema today?

CP: It's getting better but I think there's a lot of progress to be made. It's a work in progress and I think we have to continue to fight to get better roles. We have to fight to get distribution. We have to fight to get behind the fence where we are producing and directing and creating the projects. I have definitely seen things where it's gotten a lot better. I think things will continue to get better. This is a very important movie for African Americans especially to go see. We have to send a message to Hollywood that we will support wonderful filmmaking.

There have been a number of films directed by African Americans, and while the quantity may be up, what do you think of the quality?

CP: Let me just say this. If you knew how difficult it was to get a black film to fruition; there's a lot of junk out there, Black films, White films, Latino films, but what's happening is that black people are producing now, and while some of those films are going straight to DVD, we don't always have to go to the normal sources for money anymore. There are going to be setbacks. There are going to be films that are not as fulfilling, but when a movie does come out, like a Ray Charles story that is wonderful and has no negative content in it at all, and if we could talk about brilliant this man's life was, then let's go out and see it. We ought to go to see this movie just like we went out to support the Civil Rights Movement.

It's strange that no studio at first wanted to pick up this film.

CP: All that doesn't matter. When Jamie walks up to get his Oscar, all that doesn't matter; the bottom line is that he would proven that he reinvented himself in Hollywood. We know Hollywood has some things it has to work on. We all have things we have to work on, but I thank Universal (Pictures) for stepping and wanting to do it. I don't think the producers at any point had any doubt that someone would pick this movie up because it's a brilliant movie and if you love filmmaking, somebody's going to want to buy this movie. For all the studios that decided not to step up, they missed out on a wonderful opportunity; not just an African American opportunity, but a wonderful opportunity make box office history.

How do you feel about where your career is at now?

CP: I feel good about my career. I'm a working actor and that's all I wanted to be, a working actor, but I will say that I get more love and respect from African Americans than anybody in the business and I honored that I get love from my people. I'm moving into producing and maybe directing some stuff, but I'm just grateful to God to be a working actor and being supported and loved by black people.

What's next for you?

CP: I'm getting ready to do the Richard Pryor story with Eddie Griffin. I play Bucky, Richard Pryor's dad. I'm excited about that. Again, Richard Pryor is another American icon and I've been fortunate in my lifetime to play the ultimate icon of American life, Martin Luther King, Jr. A lot of people didn't see it and a lot of people didn't know it was me, but the kids all saw it because it was a kids' movie, but I've been honored to play another American icon in "Ray" and now "Richard Pryor".

How much research are you doing for that role?

CP: I'm doing a lot of research on that because Richard Pryor's father was very complicated. I'm reading about a lot of stuff and I'm just starting to do my research on that.

Thanks for the interview.

CP: Stay cool and thank you.

Terms of Use | Privacy Policy