After decades of making us laugh, Marlon Wayans takes on his meatiest role yet, in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect
The Wayanses could easily lay claim to being the first family of comedy: More than half of the 10 siblings have made a career of making people laugh. But Marlon Wayans, the youngest, has also found success while not making them laugh.
After debuting on the groundbreaking sketch comedy show In Living Color in 1992, at the age of 19 (almost every Wayans sibling appeared on the show at some point), he went on to create The WB sitcom The Wayans Bros. with his brother Shawn. The two then wrote, produced, and starred in a string of box office smashes and comedy classics, including Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, the Scary Movie franchise, and White Chicks.
In 2000, the year that gave us Scary Movie, Wayans also began to show his range, with a starring role in the psychological drama Requiem for a Dream, and in the last decade he has jumped between tentpole action flicks (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), rip-roaring parodies (A Haunted House), and prestige dramas (the Sofia Coppola–directed On the Rocks). “At this point, I want to be able to do it all,” Wayans says, calling from Los Angeles in early June. “I look to guys like Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, and Eddie Murphy. I want that kind of career.”
This month, he continues his dramatic turn in the Liesl Tommy–helmed Aretha Franklin biopic Respect, starring opposite Jennifer Hudson. As Ted White, Franklin’s first husband, Wayans presents a man who hides deep insecurity and a violent nature behind a suave exterior; he sways with the menace of a tornado and freezes the screen with shocks of anger. The decision to take on this character, after 30 years in the industry, shows that Wayans believes he still has something to prove.
You first appeared on In Living Color as a teenager. What was it like finding fame at such an early age?
It’s weird, because I’ve been famous for more than half my life. There was a lot of anxiety at first, but then you just grow into a new normal, and you don’t realize you’re famous until you hang around people who aren’t in the industry. I live in a different kind of world and at a different kind of pace, because I’ve been famous for so long. And before I was famous, my brothers were famous, so I got to go to all the clubs, get the carte blanche treatment and the notoriety, and learn what it meant to be famous before I became famous. That was important, because it made me realize that [acting] was something I really wanted to do. While this is a 24-hour job, at the same time, it’s so rewarding. It’s such a beautiful thing. And I’m so grateful and blessed to be doing what I love.
I’ve gotta ask about the “Ugly Wanda Meets the Ugly Man” sketch from In Living Color—one of my favorites. There’s so much physical and facial comedy in that skit. What was the lead-up to performing it?
With the cast of In Living Color, we always kept something in our back pocket. Especially the veterans, like Jamie [Foxx], Jim [Carrey], Tommy [Davidson], David [Alan Grier], and Keenen [Ivory Wayans]: They always had stuff in their back pocket to use on take three or take four. I just knew the [Ugly Man] so well, in terms of physicalization and dialogue, that I fell in love with him at the table read. In fact, I don’t even think I was supposed to read for him. It was supposed to be somebody else—I think they were sick, and I got it. When we filmed, every time Jamie would improvise, I was right there with him. It was such a fun sketch. And I felt so proud because I made my brothers laugh out loud. [Keenen and Damon] don’t laugh a lot, but to see them laugh, it was like an arrival.
You’ve been in the business long enough that your children are now grown up. When did they first watch one of your movies and know you as someone other than Dad?
I took [one of] my kids to see G.I. Joe. He was 4 or 5 years old, and he goes, “Dad, this is the best movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life.” For him, it was an action movie for kids. To see his reaction, to see how proud he was, was [incredible]. And then I took [the kids] to see A Haunted House. And I think I f***** them up. I blew their entire minds. They thought it was the most inappropriate movie they’d ever seen, but it was awesome. They closed their eyes so many times. And I was like, “Come on, you’re missing the best part. Open your eyes.” [Laughs.]
As a comedic actor, you tend to improvise. Have you carried that into your dramatic roles?
It’s important to create authentic moments and not be afraid to improvise, even in a drama or a light comedy. It adds fluidity, and then you get natural reactions from other actors. You have no idea what you can add to a scene just by doing something simple. In On the Rocks, I called the character my wife is jealous of “Fifi”—her name is Fiona. You should have seen the look Rashida [Jones] and every woman on that set gave me when I called Fiona “Fifi.” I did that because that’s what men do, but that’s like putting salt in a wound and smearing it in. And it played so great, because I knew I was going to get a reaction out of Rashida.
What about with Respect?
In one scene, Forest [Whitaker] pulled a gun out on us. It got such a natural reaction and heightened the stakes in the scene, because we had no idea he would. I tried to stay in character, but a lot of Marlon came out. I thought Forest was losing his mind [laughs]. But it worked out, because you can see the fear in people’s eyes. So yeah, you put something in your back pocket so you get natural, honest reactions. What I loved about working on Respect was how all the actors challenged each other every single day. Forest is a very powerful performer, but we had a great inner dialogue going on, and you could see the fire in our eyes. And Forest is so damn good. Jennifer [Hudson] is so damn good. It was great to box with giants.
Was working with Forest the biggest challenge on Respect?
It was definitely challenging. I’ve loved Forest’s work from before I began working. You have to give kudos to your peers who are giants. But I think the challenge on Respect was Ted White. He’s such a dark character, and it was difficult bringing that dark intensity to work every day, mostly because that’s not who I am. I’m a light spirit. But I would go to bed a certain way. I would wake up a certain way. I had a certain cologne I would put on in my dressing room. I gargled whiskey just to have that whiskey taste on my breath. I smoked cigarettes to change my voice. I did my best to embrace and create that character. As dark as he was, I knew I needed to add nuance to the performance. I needed to find the insecurity in him. Any man that hits a woman is an insecure man. But as dark as you want to play him, you have to play the flaw. You have to understand where that comes from. Why is he this way? I had to build that character from a vulnerable place, because I didn’t want to play him as a flat villain. I wanted to play a broken man who fell in love with a woman, they built something great, and then he started to lose control, and the insecurity he always had eventually broke them.
For people who know your career, that character is going to feel like a total 180. Was taking the role of Ted White a conscious effort to show your range?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t say it’s a star-making role, but it’s one where you get to showcase a lot. I get to be the leading man, but I’m a villain. I have scenes where I’m violent. I have some where I’m sweet and romantic, and others where I’m broken. I got to play a grounded, nuanced character who had a different voice, a different walk, hair, and smile. We had a movement coach, an acting coach, and a voice coach. I got to showcase what I can do on a dramatic level.
Is this the kind of role you had a desire to play earlier in your career? Or do you feel that you’re getting to this part at the perfect time?
I don’t question God and his purpose. I have had a very weird journey, and I love that little by little I can showcase what I do while I’m learning new skill sets. I’m glad I’ve been doing this for 30 years even though I’ve never been the guy that’s gotten the best scripts, the biggest budgets, the biggest marketing. I love the fact that I still have something to passionately work toward.
In what ways did you try to build chemistry with Jennifer Hudson?
That was the easiest. Well, not easy, because Jennifer is a huge star, an award-winning actress. She’s a diva herself, in the sense that she’s one of the legends of her craft. And I just wanted to make her comfortable. I did that on set. I’d make sure she was eating; I’d send somebody out to get food for her. On the weekends, when she was sore from all the dancing, I sent her to a spa. You know what I mean? I always wanted her to know that I cared about her. So we carried that into scenes. We had such a great time working together. It was so much fun, so much love, to the point that we hated the fact that we couldn’t hang out and be friendly for a few hours.
Next up you have a stand-up special, Marlon Wayans: You Know What It Is.
I’m a weirdo. I have this drama coming out, and a week later, August 19, I have my second stand-up special coming out on HBO Max. I just wrote a romantic-buddy-action-comedy—I sold that to Netflix. I have a [pilot], the Book of Marlon, over at HBO Max, and then I have another movie that I’m talking with Netflix about. I’m putting together my tour, because I have a whole new hour of comedy I’m working on later this year. I’m just trying to do it all, because I love it all. And hopefully, one day, when it’s all said and done, I can say I’ve left my mark on this world.