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DUNCAN, MICHAEL CLARKE: THE GREEN MILE

HOW BIG MIKE BECAME A BIG KID
Michael Clarke Duncan's life changed forever the day his agent rang to say he got the role of John Coffey opposite Tom Hanks in The Green Mile. It was the day the man they used to call Big Mike (he's 1.98 metres tall, weighs 140 kilos) had to discard his bouncer image and soften up, he tells ANDREW L. URBAN.

What are the chances of there being two black dudes called Michael Duncan in Chicago? So so? What are the chances of two black dudes called Michael Duncan, both about two metres tall and both weighing around 140 kilos living in Chicago? Rather less. So when a police car stopped one of them and ordered him out of the car prior to arresting him for a series of thefts, THIS Michael Duncan protested his innocence; to no avail. "And I'm sitting in the cell, with one phone call . . . " he recalls with discomfort.

"...stand out in a crowd"

Until a kindly female police officer, perhaps persuaded by his credible performance, asked if he had a middle name. Ahaaaaaa! Michael Clarke Duncan was not on the wanted list. Relieved, Duncan has never failed to use his middle name ever since.

But of course now that he has starred opposite Tom Hanks in the Green Mile, he is more likely to stand out in a crowd of two Michael Duncans - even without the middle Clarke.

Duncan tells the story well, his big, warmed-gravel voice rising and falling with the story's dynamics. We are sitting at a coffee table in a room at the Star City Hotel in Sydney, his bulk dwarfing mine and his good humour in fine form.

Prior to The Green Mile, Duncan's biggest role was that of Jayotis "Bear" Kurleenbear, in the Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) asteroid-busting team in Armageddon. Prior to that, he has had bit parts - including one as a bouncer - and prior to bit parts, worked as a bouncer in Chicago, after studying Communications at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. I suggest The Green Mile is a big break for him; his face opens and he blurts out a noise like a volcano erupting. "Phrrrph….like a volcano erupting, man!"

"I screamed YESSSSS!"

When he got the call from his agent that he had indeed got the part, Duncan was in his one bedroom apartment in South Central Los Angeles. He had appeared in Armageddon, but was back working as a security guard. "I didn't have any furniture. . . My agent said, are you sitting down, and at that point I was on my knees. Don't play! I said, just tell me what's goin' on! 'Cause he'd been saying they'd call the next day, then it was after 12, then it was after 2.30…and so on. And so I'm in the apartment 'cause you don't want to miss the call of a lifetime. And when a friend called while I was waiting, I just hung up so the phone would be free. So when my agent said, yes, you got the part, I screamed YESSSSS! And hung up and called my mother right away. I said, maaam, I'm gonna be working with Tom Haaaanks! And we was crying, and then I called my sister. And then I said to her I gotta call Bruce Willis so I got on the horn and thanked him. And I thank him all the time. Bruce Willis was the man who intrioduced me to 9director) Frank Derebont; he told him 'I found John Coffey…' That was back when we were doing Armageddon. And he told me to go read the novel - and he said, don't embarrass me, I'm putting my name on the line here."

Bruce Willis has not been embarrassed. Duncan has more than adequately filled the role, drawing critical praise for a performance that is both credible and engaging. But it came at a price: more on that a little later. The immediate outcome is that Duncan's stocks in Hollywood have rocketed - also at a price. "It's a double edged sword," he explains. "It's boosted my stock in Hollywood but it also has made people look at me and say, the acting's great …but he's biiiig! What else is he going to, play? He can't play a journalist, he's too big. He can't play a doctor…so I've started to try and shave down."

He has already lost the 50 lbs he put on and the 7 inches he grew . . .but he won't reveal the tricks Darabont used to make him look 7 feet, except to say it wasn't high platform heels on his shoes. "Tried that but my ankles buckled and I got off them in a hurry. But I promised Frank I would let him tell that story about how I got taller…"

"I didn't know if I could do it."

When he first read the novel, as per Willis' instruction, Duncan was petrified. "I didn't know if I could do it. When you take on a character like John Coffey - who's not really that complex - it's not that easy. You don't know how many headaches I had from crying. And the thing about it was you had to bring your own tears. . . your own bottle of tears every day, so that was hard work. Now, Tom Hanks can turn it on and off just like that. Me, takes 25 minutes to prepare. I'd go into my trailer and concentrate on John Coffey - and when I came out, I was John Coffey. Nobody could talk to me as Mike. It wasn't me. My whole mindset was different."

Duncan, the hard man known around Los Angeles as Big Mike, had to learn to soften up, to be like a kid - and whenever he is on screen, he is like a shaking mass of emotion, "yeah, I only had three little smiley scenes, as I call them."

His first journey was getting the part. Then came the second journey, playing the part. The physical pain was one thing, the other was more visceral. "I wasn't used to doing that . . . I used to be one of the boys. Big Mike…yeah! I lift all the weights, I don't show any emotion. Then, you come to John Coffey who's a little kid at heart, afraid of the dark. Big Mike could have never done that. I had to drop all that and start all over, as a five year old kid. My acting coach first said he didn't think I could do this part; 'you've got too much of Big Mike in you - you're too hard.' John Coffey is not a hard person . . . and if you're not willing to shed that Big Mike thing we're wasting our time. I said I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get this movie. And he said OK. Big Mike does not exist any more for the rest of your career."

Then, when it began, Duncan had to actually do it. "I've shocked myself - I didn't think I had it in me. The highlights were the one-on-ones with Tom, with the camera on him and then on me. That was when I saw true acting from Tom Hanks. You saw how great he is, across those prison bars from you, crying . . .and he didn't have to, the camera was on me. But his eyes were full of tears and I'd just start crying with him and then we'd turn round and he's still crying….we only did it twice. That's all we needed."

"I learnt a whole lot more . . "

Duncan admires how Hanks always stayed after his shots were done to be there for the other actors, to give them something to work off, not leave it to a stand in. "That's what I learned from him - to stay around for the others, even when you don't have to. And I learnt a whole lot more..."

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