HARSH TIMES: An Interview with Chaka Forman
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HARSH TIMES An Interview with Chaka Forman
October 30, 2006
If the name Chaka Forman resonates familiar it is likely because it is. Chaka, a graduate of Brown University, is the son of the late James Forman, a political activist who served as the executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee between 1964 and 1966. Chaka’s face may also seem familiar; his television credits include All My Children, CSI, NYPD Blue and Hyperion Bay where he appeared as a series regular. Chaka’s film credits include 2002’s Local Boys directed by Ron Moler and 2003’s Swallow, directed by Frank E. Flowers. Chaka now appears in his largest film production to date opposite Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez in Harsh Times, written and directed by David Ayer. In speaking with Blackfilm.com, Chaka describes his inspiration for acting, his experience working with heavy weights in Harsh Times, his personal struggles in Hollywood and his future acting, writing and directing aspirations.
What’s your background and if you have been typecast, what’s your role?
Chaka Forman: My father’s African American with Native American in his background and my mother is English. I’ve gotten parts ranging from Puerto Rican to Black to non-specific to Native American to Hawaiian to what they list as “exotic”. A lot of times for African American roles I get “well that’s not exactly what we had in mind” and I obviously can’t get roles or any roles where they are looking for white guys because I am not white. I can’t be typecast and that’s part of the problem. I think they like to typecast because they like to decide what you can do and the give you roles doing that. I have played a lot of bad guys which a lot of people of color in this business have. I think things are changing. I think more often than not I think its’ easier for people in Hollywood to make a bad guy be a person of color whether it be Latin, Asian, or Black. So I have played quite a few bad guys. I don’t want to say I’m being typecast that way though, I want to say I am not being typecast which is an advantage and a disadvantage.
How did you get involved in Harsh Times?
Chaka Forman: Harsh Times- I met David Ayer, the writer of the film several years before we went into production. He was working with the Sundance Institute- the writer’s workshop that he was working with and the people knew me from Sundance from an earlier time and put me in touch with David who was going to be doing a reading of his movie. They put me in touch with him saying, “Here is a great young actor and a great young writer and you guys should meet up.” I met up with Dave and we read his script in front of a few hundred people and Dave told me he likes what I did. I read a couple of different characters for him and a year later I did another reading for him and a year after that another reading and then he called me and said “Chaka, I’m sending you a final copy of the script and it looks like I’m gonna get money to do this. I am not promising you a part but I am telling you what you need to position yourself to get the part that I want you to play.”
What art was that, was it originally the part of Toussant?
Chaka Forman: That was Toussant and originally I read for the part of Terry Crews’ role in the movie. Toussant’s a larger part so when he actually offered me the part of Toussant I was happy because I had more scenes and a little more work to do with this role. Dave was a standup guy. Unlike a lot of guys I have met in Hollywood, Dave was a guy who told you something and that is what he meant. He said what he meant and he meant what he said.
Can you describe your character, Toussant?
Chaka Forman: This movie is loosely based on events in David’s life in his early years in Los Angeles. Again, when I say loosely, it’s not an autobiographical movie but by his own admission it’s loosely based on events in his life. He grew up in this place in L.A. and he was the only white kid in his high school; one of two white kids out of three or four thousand kids. He grew up on these streets and was telling a story loosely based on early events in his life. Toussant is a character who would have been one of his friends and Toussant is a young guy who has the world ahead of him. He’s smart, he’s charismatic, he’s a little quirky, a little bit off center and he’s a guy who thinks a lot, really sensitive and a guy who tells it like it is. So, in the film he meets up with Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez. They are all buddies. They are all best buddies and Toussant starts to realize that something is going awry here with Christian and tells him. Sometimes people who are going crazy don’t want to be told that they are going crazy. David described me as the voice of reason; my character sort of represents what the audience must be thinking.
Who is Christian’s character and who is he based on?
Chaka Forman: Christian’s character is Jim Davis and I suspect that Christian’s character is loosely based on David.
What did you do to prepare for your role?
What was it like to work with them?
Chaka Forman: They were great. Those cats are at the top of their game and I learned a lot from both of them. Christian was just coming off of “Batman Begins” so you know there was word that he might be this or he might be that but he was anything but what anyone was worrying about. He was solid and he was professional. He was open, he was engaging, he was friendly, and he was accommodating. I have nothing but good things to say about that guy. The same thing with Freddy. Again both these guys are hitting their stride in their careers. Freddy had just come off “Six Feet Under” and they were both just easy to work with. They are both family guys. We were shooting in some adverse conditions in Mexico, you might want to call it guerilla film making to a certain extent and working with them made it that much easier.
You had prior experience with David-
Chaka Forman: Yes, I knew David and I knew what to expect out of him. When we met, Dave had us get together for rehearsals and for a drive around, and we drove around south L.A. together. Dave showed us some of the places where he used to hang out. We drove around with police who showed us different things which I can’t get specific about at this point but we got to see a lot of things that I think the average actor doesn’t get a chance to see in preparation for the movie. We got to see the fire and come out unscathed.
Do you feel that you made some lasting bonds with the actors and the director in this movie?
Chaka Forman: Yeah. I definitely have some relationships that will last.
What was the most significant experience that you had?
Chaka Forman: I think that when we shot in Mexico and we were working with the budget that we were working in that it gave me a real respect for the process of film making because I got to see what David had to go through on a daily basis as a director and it was sort of mind blowing how much he had to juggle. The director of a film like that and I have aspirations to direct after learning a lot from Dave, to that end, to see how complicated the process is when you don’t have a major studio backing you, you don’t have a big budget; you have high powered actors and a high powered crew but you are working long hours under adverse conditions. When we came back and shot in LA. I think that was the year it rained like twenty six days straight or something crazy. So we were out there in the cars at night working in the rain, the crew is out there in the pouring rain and it just opened my eyes to how complicated the process is and how as a director how many hats you have to be able to wear and how you have to keep everybody happy to keep the process going. As an actor you just come at things from your world and that’s it. But I got to really watch Dave and it was really kind of mind blowing how complicated the process is and I took that away.
What inspired you to become an actor?
Chaka Forman: I fell in love with acting in college. I was floundering around in school and thought I wanted to become a lawyer but wasn’t too sure. My aunt suggested I take an acting class and I did. I had done some acting as a kid but nothing serious. I didn’t know it would be my passion until my junior year at Brown University I enrolled in an acting class and was simultaneously was cast in a play called “Short Eyes” at a production workshop which was a theatre at Brown. The combination of the acting class and the experience I had in the play totally blew me away. The opportunity that acting gave me to explore pieces of myself that I may not have otherwise entered or engaged was a fascinating experience for me one that I had never gone through before; a sort of metamorphosis that takes place when you fully delve into a character. I played a prisoner in “Short Eyes” and the camaraderie on the set was the other thing I was really drawn to. The feeling of being on a team, those things combined, I just knew it was something I wanted to pursue further. I continued to do that in college and the experience just got richer and richer for me. I decided theater would be my major.
Have you done any theater outside of college?
Chaka Forman: Yes, I have done professional productions in Los Angeles. I did a benefit for the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Program at the Tiffany Theater. There were a lot of well known actors there. I was cast with Thomas Calabro who at the time was on Melrose Place. I have done three or four plays in Los Angeles. I did a play at the Matrix Theater, at the Whitefire Theater and the Los Angeles Theater.
Have you also done television?
Chaka Forman: Yes, I have done plenty of television. My first job ever was in New York City when I was cast in a supporting role in an after school special directed by Steve Guttenberg. Immediately after that I got cast in a season finale of NYPD Blue. I also did several episodes of All My Children. I did an ABC miniseries called “Innocent Victims” directed by Gil Cates. It was based on a true story where based on the first time in North Carolina state history that anyone was let off of death row and I played the main prosecution witness, the guy who identified the suspect. I did an episode of the Marshall, of the Pretender.
Do you prefer theater, film or television?
Chaka Forman: Film and TV are similar. Film is usually shot with one camera and TV sometimes comes with two or three cameras, but to be honest with you in terms of the preparation and the rehearsal process nothing compares to theater because you don’t get that preparation and that rehearsal process in a movie and certainly not in television. You get the script, you audition, you get the part and then you go. There’s not a lot of rehearsing, there is not a lot of discussion about it. Your director wants you to tweak what you are gong to do but whatever you did in the audition is what they want you to do. Theater you may rehearse for two or three months before you go on stage so it’s a whole different process; and so the process leading up to it, I definitely prefer theater.
How challenging has it been for you to get roles?
Chaka Forman: I don’t know that it’s been any more difficult for me than it's been for any other actor. Particularly in Hollywood people are quick to slot you in a certain category. They like everything to be neat and clean. Here’s this, here’s what he gives us; here’s what we can use him for. Well, I’m a bit like a chameleon both in my upbringing, in my racial background, and in the things that my parents have exposed me to so it’s hard to slot me in any particular category. A lot of times where I think it’s one of my strengths as an actor I think in Hollywood it sometimes comes off as a weakness because if people can’t look at you and immediately say “oh, he fits this mold” and then they discount you sometimes. When you go into an audition a lot of times you get the job in the first five or ten seconds; they look at you and decide “does he look like what we had in mind” and more often than not I don’t because I have a unique look and a lot of different things going on in my background. When they see me they think “that’s not what we had in mind” and then you have to get over that hurdle to get a job. Now I have been able to negotiate those waters with all the work that I’ve gotten but it’s still not easy.
Do you have aspirations to direct?
Chaka Forman: Yes, I have been doing some writing. My family and my upbringing are really politically and socially active and I have stories that I want to bring to the people that I don’t think have been told. If I can do it through screen writing and directing that would be great.
Do you have a script or a screenplay in the works?
Chaka Forman: I have a few projects actually in the works. I have several projects that I would like to bring to the people surrounding my father’s life that I would like to bring to the masses. James Forman, who was extremely active in the civil rights movement, was the executive secretary of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and there were some events in his life that I want to bring to light.
Why should anyone go see Harsh Times?
Chaka Forman: Harsh Times is a heavy movie. Don’t go to see Harsh Times if you aren’t ready for the truth. World affairs right now are at a very delicate time. With the war in Iraq and terrorism, Harsh Times speaks directly to those topics. It speaks directly to how we treat our soldiers upon arrival back in America after serving time in war or how we don’t treat these guys who come back bipolar. These guys come back trained to kill and trained to be on fire and we say, “here come back, deal, just get a job and be in a normal society.” That’s a lot to ask. You train people to kill and then you bring them home and say “ok, be normal” when war is far from normal as you can get. Harsh Times speaks directly to that. It’s a real topical movie and it’s a topic that people sort of dance around. It speaks directly to life on the streets for a lot of people. For me, and I don’t know if David intended this as his goal but for me it’s a major indictment on our military system and lack of decompression for soldiers when they come back. We send these guys off to war and everybody knows this from Vietnam, we send these guys off to war, to the thick of things for a war that is just or unjust and then we ask them to integrate back into society with no real training on how to do that so they come back with post traumatic stress disorder.
Do you think it’s an education for American society?
Chaka Forman: I do. I think it’s an education for American society and I think people need to know the truth. If you want to go to a movie to forget about your troubles this is not the movie to go to. This movie will make you aware of troubles that you may not have known previously existed. You will be thinking about this movie for weeks after you see it.
Do you have any acting roles coming down the pike?
Chaka Forman: I did a mockumentary as they call it; it sort of like the format of “Best in Show” on the pornography industry. This is by a first time director named Michael Silver. Actually, all roads go in circles and lead back to each other, and Michael directed me in “Short Eyes” at Brown. One of my very early fans. He has gone on to have a pretty successful acting career and now is beginning to direct. He cast me in this mockumentary and I believe the working title is “The Love Shack”. I play a wanna be porn star. Again, it’s a very interesting format they give you. Set up a situation and you basically improv your way in and out of the scene. So it requires a lot of improvisational skills, a lot of quick thinking and it’s a comedy so you have to be funny and hopefully I will be funny.
Does the film have a tentative release date and any other well known names in the film?
Chaka Forman: We just wrapped so it hasn’t even gone into post production. Mark Feuerstein is in it and Jamie Denbo.
What keeps you grounded while you are in between jobs?
Chaka Forman: I do a lot of work with kids to keep me in touch with the real world. I facilitate a Shakespeare workshop for incarcerated juveniles. It’s a 16-week program. We introduce Shakespeare to them and it’s exercises in poetry and theater work and culminates in a production of a Shakespeare play that the kids get to do and the last one we did was at the L.A. County Museum of Art. Actually, it’s the same prison, the movie that just came out, Gridiron Gang and the same camp. It’s called Camp Gilpatrick, which is one of the prisons here in California and the same camp that that’s based on is the same camp that we did our group with the Foliage Theater project. I am also a certified teacher in the state of California so I have done a lot of substitute teaching in Los Angeles, Compton and Glendale. Mostly history and special education. I have also been doing a lot of public speaking and we are in the process of trying to get a grant. I have a program that I would like to bring to the schools about civil rights; a civil right history program that relates back to modern day and sort of a workshop on how students can be part of groups while maintaining their individual identities. It’s a problem that a lot of kids have as they get older; how do I hold on to what I believe in and still participate in a group setting particularly if the group does not agree with how I feel.
Are you a new dad?
Chaka Forman: I am a new dad, I have two kids, a 2 ½ year old daughter and a seven week old son and if nothing keeps you grounded the kids will. Nothing better to keep you in check then dirty diapers and spit up.
If you had your wish is there a particular director you would like to work with in the future?
Chaka Forman: I love Robert Altman films. From what I’ve read he just lets actors go so I would love to work with him as a director. I have a lot of respect for a lot of the things that he has done. I did a short film, “Swallow”, with a guy named Frank E. Flowers. It won at the Black film festival in Miami as best short of the year and it aired on HBO. I was one of the leads in it. I think Frank has got a great career ahead of him and I would love to work with him again. I would also love to work with Spike Lee. Before I became an actor, my brother took me to see “She’s Gotta Have It” and that movie blew my mind. Since then, Spike has made some of the all time best movies ever. I am shocked that he has not won an Oscar as best director. Malcolm X was powerful. He Got Game was an incredible movie. I am a huge fan of Spike Lee and I would love to get a chance to work with him.
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