‘On The Rocks’ Star Marlon Wayans On The Art Of Portraying Deceptively Simple Characters, Memories Of ‘In Living Color’ And His Drive To “Do It All”

Over the course of decades, Marlon Wayans admired the work of director Sofia Coppola and actor Bill Murray from afar, finally getting the chance to collaborate with both on Apple TV+ drama, On the Rocks.

Debuting on the streaming platform in October, the film tells the story of Laura (Rashida Jones), a novelist and mother to two young daughters, who grows suspicious of her frequently-absent husband, Dean (Wayans), setting off on a journey with her philandering father Felix (Murray) to determine whether or not he is cheating.

A charismatic tech entrepreneur on the cusp of massive success, Dean proved to be a challenging role for Wayans, because of the fact that he was written as a mystery for his wife to figure out—a man whose actions and true motivations would only be understood over time.

For the writer, producer and actor—who hails from a legendary comedy family, and has starred in films like Scary Movie and White Chicks—the project allowed him to return to the world of drama, which he’d previously shown a command of with his turn as heroin addict Tyrone C. Love in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.

At this point in his career, Wayans intends to dive even deeper into that space, while continuing to bring new comedies and stand-up specials to life. Up next for the actor is a turn opposite Jennifer Hudson in Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, in which he plays Ted White, the Queen of Soul’s manager and first husband, who was with her through many career highs, while imposing upon her some awful, personal lows.

In conversation with Deadline, he breaks down his experience with On the Rocks, meditating on his mission in entertainment today, and his transformational experience starring alongside his siblings on In Living Color, the seminal sketch show, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.

DEADLINE: Can you recall your first time seeing a Sofia Coppola film, and what you saw in her work that resonated?

MARLON WAYANS: I think me and the cast members from White Chicks went to see Lost in Translation, and we were all enamored by the work. You know, Anna Faris is a friend; we did Scary Movie together. She was really good, and I just thought that it had this ease to it, in terms of comedy. I thought Bill Murray was great, and Scarlett [Johansson]. I loved the dynamic in their relationship, and that was one of my introductions into Sofia Coppola.

I think if you look at the [seeming] simplicity of the movie, it has complexities. I loved the way it looked, the way it was lit. Even with the comedy, it was in conversation and through real characters. It’s kind of voyeuristic, the way she films it, and it just allows you to kind of live and be. Normally when you do comedies, it’s a much more fast-paced, desperate medium, and she’s one of those that [says], “Lay off the gas and trust yourself.” And you see how that works very well with all the actors in her movies.

DEADLINE: What would you say drew you to On the Rocks, specifically?

WAYANS: When I first heard about the project, I was like, “Sofia Coppola? I’m in.” Because at this point, I really want to work with great filmmakers, and people that you want to put your best self with. So many years, you work to figure it all out, and then once you start figuring it out, you go through this run of just work, work, work. Then, it’s like putting my work, that I’ve worked hard to attain, with somebody that will help shape and know what to do with it—and that starts with the material.

So, I read the script and thought the material was great. What resonated to me, on so many levels is, as a man, I’ve had two children, and I remember what my children’s mom went through, after having the kids. There was this place where she was trying to figure herself out, and there was kind of a depression that came along with that, because you’ve got these two little things that just steal your life from you, and your identity. And it’s hard.

As a man, we dive into our work, which is exactly what I did. But looking back, the movie was holding a mirror up to my life and what I dealt with. You know, I was very hands-on [as a new parent]. I went through the journey as close as I could with her, so I could understand where she was, and what was happening to her.

And I just feel like it told a great story. Because my children’s mom, her dad was actually sick when my kids were about the same age as the kids in the movie. She was working toward that relationship, and healing that relationship at the time, and I looked at this movie as kind of a retelling of that situation, so it really resonated with me. In the movie, it was a daughter dealing with her husband, but really dealing with herself and her daddy issues, and I just thought that it played on so many levels.

When I read [the script], I didn’t know whether Dean [cheated] or not, and then when I read that he didn’t, it warmed my heart. Like, what a good guy. And I wanted to do the role and the movie because after reading the script, I felt good. You know? I applauded for their relationship, for Laura, for Felix, and for life in general.

DEADLINE: It must be difficult to play a character like Dean, who is written to be ambiguous. So, how did you approach the role, to keep audiences tracking with Laura’s understanding of him, from moment to moment?

WAYANS: First, I had to just build the character—to build the look, find your prototype, and figure out what he did for a living. And it was in the script, but I had to go research that. A friend of mine’s brother-in-law [worked at] Instagram, so I went and hung out with him, and grilled him for two days. I watched the way he dressed and what his swag was. You’d think a guy at a company like this was going to be nerdy, but he was actually charming and good looking and dressed well. So, it was a good prototype to look at, to have some bone, so that I could put flesh on the character.

And I think when you really look at how to play it, we had to film it sometimes two or three different times, because you had to get two or three different versions. It was, “He is cheating,” “He’s not cheating,” and then “He may be cheating.” So, we’d often have to do that in our approach to scenes, throughout the whole movie.

I always felt like Dean was a lot more complex of a character to play than what it seems on paper, and even though it was a smaller role, it was very meaty, in what it had to offer. Even at the end, when he’s talking to her in the street, there was so much said behind their eyes, and I’m glad that people get to see two people have it out, and then hug and go back to life. Because sometimes, you go through things that build up over time, and you don’t know how to approach it or fix it. But sometimes, it’s just having those conversations, and seeing that you are on completely different pages. And then, it’s just like, “You know what? Let’s get through this, get over it, and go back to our babies.”

DEADLINE: From what I understand, you felt an affinity towards Bill Murray, given certain similarities in your backgrounds as performers. What do you admire about him, and what did you most enjoy about getting to work with him here?

WAYANS: I just found him to be everything we strive to be. He has such a comfort. You know, Bill has done some wacky comedies over the years, and he’s always been broad, but subtle in his approach to things. He’s loud, with a quiet voice. He’s not afraid to go there, not afraid to offend, not afraid to be hated because he knows how to make you love him. That’s, to me, the most courageous thing an actor can do, is dare to be hated…because sometimes, you’ve got to ruffle feathers. To try and be a nice guy all the time, that’s somebody trying to be nice. I think good people aren’t, most of the time, righteous people. They’re just good people, and there’s a goodness to Bill, and a goodness to the characters he plays. He’s like the best, lovable lout.

What I love, as he matures as a human, is the simplicity, and then the complexities of his silence. He has to say less, and it shows so much more—and he can make you laugh and cry on the drop of a dime. That scene when Rashida confronts him, and she’s telling him what kind of dad he is, and “How can you do that to mom?—telling him how hard it was for them—and he just says, “It was hard on all of us,” it says so much. Because as a man, I’ve been through that. You know, you’ve got to live a lifetime of guild, maybe based on the decision that you made in a moment.

So, what I loved about this movie is it resonated to me in every situation. I am Felix, I am Dean, I am Laura. But I just felt like that scene, for him, you see all that he’s been through, and you see that he loved that woman. You see he loves his family, he loved the wife, and he’s hurting in that moment, but he can’t say that to his daughter. And I just thought, “I hurt for him in that situation.” Because we’re not all perfect, and nobody’s life is lived as a perfect life. It’s moments like that that made me, as a kid, look at my parents and go, “Have I been too hard on my mom and dad? Let me go make sure that they know that I love them unconditionally, and I’m not here to take sides. I love you both, and whatever you need from me, I’m here for you.”

DEADLINE: I know you’re developing a number of projects with HBO Max, and you have another dramatic role coming up in Respect. So, what can you tell us about the things you have coming up? What are you most excited about right now?

WAYANS: Well, I’m very excited about my deal at HBO Max. I’m currently putting together my next television show, Book of Marlon, with the producers Diallo [Riddle] and Bashir [Salahuddin], who are friends of mine, and really funny writers…[and] with my producing partner, Rick Alvarez.

I’m also touring here and there, when I can. There’s small venues I’ve been doing because I want to do my [next] special in March. Then, I just optioned a book, We Cast a Shadow, to do for HBO Max in a limited series, so we’re going to start working on that. And then I just sold a movie to Netflix called Ride or Die, with Neil Moritz producing. It’s a romantic buddy action comedy, in the vein of Bad Boys—it’s Harry Met Sally with guns, basically—so I’m doing a rewrite on that right now.

Then, I’ve got Respect coming out, with Jennifer Hudson. She’s amazing in the movie; Forest Whitaker’s amazing. We have some amazing scenes where we all go toe-to-toe, and [director] Liesl Tommy’s a force. Every department really brought their A-game, and I’m looking forward to that coming out. It’s a different role for me because Dean turns out to be the good guy in the movie, but this one is the exact opposite. He starts out as a good guy, and then turns out to be the devil, and I’m looking forward to playing the bad guy.

I think you work hard over long periods of time to acquire all these different skill sets, and to really try and put together these characters, and for some reason, I have the craziest filmography. I’ve played everything from a white woman, to a little person, to a junkie, to now a villain, and I just hope to be believable and acceptable in all these different roles. I want to be able to do it all. I love having a versatile filmography because I’d get bored doing the same thing over and over again. I like to keep myself guessing, and continue to challenge myself.

DEADLINE: How did the events of 2020 affect you?

WAYANS: They taught me that no matter what, life goes on, and God’s not trying to break us—that with great obstacles come great elixirs. [Last] year, I lost 13 people, including my mom, and I’ve learned that I keep finding my smile. Life is an everyday struggle, to just keep a smile on your face, and on those of the people around you. So first, I find my smile, and then everybody in my circle, I make them smile, too. Because life is short, and I always think about, “What’s my last moment?” In my last moment, I want to be smiling, and anybody that’s around me, I hope they were laughing and smiling, too.

The only thing we can do is smile through the pain. You know, [it was] a terrible year for everybody, so my year [was] no worse than anybody else’s. But I’m just going to tell you what I do, which is, I try to find a smile. After losing the love of my life, which is my mom, I keep a smile on my heart and on my face, and trust that the days where I don’t have it, she’s going to come down and kiss my forehead and make me smile. And then, I know I can give that to the world. So, I’ve just got to be an example.

DEADLINE: You grew up in a family of entertainers, finding your breakthrough opposite your siblings and other great talents on In Living Color. When you think back now on your early years and your time on that show, what comes to mind?

WAYANS: I feel like I was touched by greatness at a young age. I’ve always been around these great, great artists, with my brother Keenen being the guru and the mentor, and just creating that playground, and my brother Damon, who’s always been tremendously funny. I remember when I was little, they used to hang out with Eddie Murphy, and Eddie would come by the house. I’d be around Black Hollywood, and Paul Mooney, and I would go The Comedy Store, underage, and watch Sam Kinison develop his set, and guys like [Andrew] Dice Clay. Richard Pryor, I got to see perform.

Like, I’ve been so blessed. And then, to take it up a notch and go be a cast member on In Living Color—which is, to me, one of the greatest sketch comedy shows of all time—that was like my comedy college. Me and Shawn just grew up watching how to do it. Jim [Carrey] and Damon and Kim used to stay overnight, writing their sketches, and that’s what we started doing, me and Shawn. If we wanted a sketch on, nobody was going to write for us. You know, nobody’s going to write a sketch for Keenen’s two little brothers, and this was my brother saying this.

So, me and Shawn, we started doing the work. We started doing what Jim and Damon and Kim was doing, and that was to stay there and work on your craft. It was a gym, and to watch them at table reads, it wasn’t like it was just a reading. They were performing at the table read, which taught me when I do table reads, I’m actually performing. You would think that we were filming.

You know, I learned so much. That environment, if you look at damn near everybody from the writers, to the producers, to the dancers, to the cast, everybody has gone on to do great things. And I’m so proud to be an [alumnus] of that school, and so proud to be of the tribe of Wayans. I mean, I’ve had a very blessed journey.

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