Charles Dutton – Now retired but never forgotten

                                                     September 2004 By Philip Berk

Long before he was a film actor, Charles Dutton was a theatre actor.

I remember the first time I saw him on stage, it was when he played Boy Willie in August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize winning play, The Piano Lesson. His commanding presence was evident even then, but it was his  electrifying voice that  knocked me out. I hadn’t heard a voice like that before.

Last year he appeared in another August Wilson play, a revival of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which he reprised the role he had created twenty years before.

Knowing the production had been savaged by the critics, I asked him about the experience, and he was quite bitter.

We were at the Four Season hotel in Beverly Hills for the press junket of Against the Ropes, which he directed.

“I probably waited too long to do the revival,” he admitted, “but what absolutely hurt was all the personal snipings against Whoopi and me. I agreed with the New York Times review that I should have done the play ten years earlier when I was 30 pounds lighter, and I took that on the chin, but some of the other stuff complaining that Whoopi’s part in the original production was played by a big heavy black woman, and that Whoopi should go home, stay home, not do theatre, she’s embarrassing, she’s horrible. I’m glad you brought up that question and I hope you print this because I know hundreds of actors that could write a review, but I don’t know of a single critic on this planet  that could give ten seconds of a credible performance either on stage or in front of a camera. And after that, I said to myself, ‘This is my farewell to the American theatre!’

The theatre’s loss fortunately is Hollywood’s gain, and nobody’s complaining about his work on Against the Ropes, an appropriate choice for his big screen directorial debut considering he started out as an amateur boxer.

The film is another risky role for Meg Ryan, who plays real life boxing promoter Jackie Kallen,  known for her chutzpah and her outlandish dress.

Whose idea was it to hire him? I ask him.

“The producer had seen the work I had done on the HBO series (The Corner.) He sent me the script and asked me to sit down and have a meeting. The script still needed a lot of work, but he told me Meg Ryan was interested in playing the lead and after I met with her and she wanted me to direct, I signed on.”

Did he always intend to both direct and play a key role?

“Originally they were trying to get Morgan Freeman for that part. I was in pre-production, and two weeks before we were to start shooting I got a call saying,’Why don’t you play the part?’ so I don’t believe they were after Morgan Freeman at all. I think they were just waiting because it was my first feature film and I was a little nervous. I wanted to stay out of it and just direct; I didn’t want to wear two hats. But then I looked at the part and it was a pretty good role, and they had assigned me a  pretty good director of photography, Jack Green, who does most of Clint Eastwood’s movies, so I was comfortable doing both.”

How difficult was it directing and being in front of the camera?

“I knew exactly how I wanted to play the character, that I should play him low key, and because of that choice I was able to direct the move in a very relaxed atmosphere. I didn’t have to shout and scream at the crew. Being in scenes with the actors, I felt internally connected to the film making process. I don’t know how other actor-directors work, but what I did was shoot everybody else in the scene first. When I was in a scene with Meg and Omar (Epps, who plays the fighter) I would shoot them until I was satisfied; then I would turn the camera on me, and that gave me the luxury of many rehearsals so that when my turn came all I needed was one or two takes.” 

And making a film about a real person, how challenging was that?

“Having known Jackie Kallen and having respected her achievement, I wanted to do right by her. Of course it is a movie inspired by her life, not every aspect of it is true. Before we started shooting I spent countless hours with her reassuring her she’d be proud of the movie and the creative decisions we made. The real Jackie was married with children, and in the early scripts we had that,  but then we decided: what is the story about? Is it about her breaking away from her family to achieve her goal or the story of her and this fighter?  Maybe a single woman would be even more interesting because she’d be even more susceptible to taking  abuse from men. She wasn’t there during the filming, but I was always concerned  that she was happy with that decision. And she was fine with it.” 

Which brings up the love angle (between Meg and Omar) only hinted at in the film. Did Jackie ever have a sexual relationship with any of her boxers?

“That was a rumor, put out  by men in the industry, that she was sleeping with her fighters. I went around to all the fighters she was involved with, and I got an emphatic, unequivocal, absolute ‘No.’  Even today twenty years later there’s absolute resentment. The minute you mention Jackie Kallen’s name to some boxing promoter, he goes ballistic. So I came to two conclusion. 1. She didn’t sleep with them. and 2. They were upset because this woman had achieved what 90 percent of men in the boxing game never achieve, and that is having a champion. Maybe they worked with a contender but never a champion. And she had six of them; so the resentment still lasts even to this day.”

What would he say made her so successful?

“Perseverance, and ambition. In my opinion she’s the ambitious woman I know, yet she’s someone you can count on, and probably the most honest manager in the fight game. When I first met her twelve years ago, I had a television show on the air. called Roc. She walked up to me, put her hands on my chest, ‘Don’t move. You’re Charles Dutton, right? I’m Jackie Kallen. When are you going to put some of my fighters on your show!’ That was my introduction to her. I found her vivaciousness, her audacity refreshing; she knew just how to use her femaleness not in a way that sells sex but in a way that says, ‘Listen, I’m a good looking woman, I’ve got a great shape, and I’m not going to hide it.”

And Meg, how was it working with her?

“Meg’s a very intelligent actress. She approached the role by saying, ‘Charles, i don’t know a damn thing about boxing. I’ve never been to a boxing match. I’ve never watched it on television. So  we went to some fights in Vegas, we went to boxing gyms in South Central (LA.) She got into it and started watching the fighters and hitting the bag with people sparring. She was chomping at the bit to play this character. And all I needed to say to her was, ‘Meg, have fun!.”

Speaking of perseverance, Dutton, too, has overcome adversity: As a young man he was incarcerated for seven and a half years for stabbing a man to death. While in prison, he educated himself, got a high school equivalency diploma, and was eventually accepted at Yale School of Drama where he met famed director Lloyd Richards and through him August Wilson.