So how did you feel when they first offered you the role?
When I first read that John Singleton was going to make it, I wondered why they were doing
it. I said, ‘Shaft is good enough and it’s passed the test of time’. But as
they continued talking about it, I read more and more about it in the trades and I
actually started trying to think of actors who could do it. My name never crossed my mind
and then when the script showed up on my desk, I read it and wondered what character they
wanted me to play, which cop would I be. When they told me they wanted me for Shaft,
finally something clicked. Once I got in there and hashed out the elements that needed to
be hashed out and wrapped my mind around the fact I might be able to pull it off, I knew I
had to do it.
What kind of advice did the original Shaft, Richard Roundtree, give you?
Mostly he told me to keep my head down, watch the ball as it hits the club and give him
four strokes each side! (laughs) But we never talked about the role of John Shaft. The
closest we came to that was being at a celebrity golf tournament with him and before we
went out, I heard someone calling, ‘Shaft, Shaft’ and I knew Richard was there
so I just assumed they were talking to him. I kept ignoring this voice going, ‘I want
to talk to Shaft’ but when I turned around there was Richard talking to me, so I
guess all of a sudden I realized it was OK for me to be Shaft too.
How would you describe John Singleton as a director?
I guess in one word, enthusiasm. John comes to work bouncing along, like he is shot up
with speed every day, talking about, ‘boy, this is going to be cool’ all the
time. And I’d have to talk to him and say, ‘well if this is going to be cool,
it’ll have to work its way into being cool – we can’t impose cool on
something.’ But it was tough in some ways because the majority of directors I’ve
worked with have done somewhere between no films and seven, and I’ve done somewhere
between 60 and 70 so a lot of times when they want to do things like the gunfights, I have
a different way of approaching it and hopefully they’re not so egomaniacal and
know-it-all that they’ll listen to somebody who has been around the block a few
What do you think has kept the original Shaft alive for so long to so many people?
Well, I think Richard created something that all guys wanted to be. All guys wanted to be
in control of the situation and get the girl and look good doing it. Five years ago my
daughter put up a Shaft poster in her room. She was thirteen years old at the time and all
of a sudden there is a Shaft poster in her room! The answer is right there – there is
something about him that attracts the male audience and it attracts the female audience
too, and it still works. In the beginning a lot of people said, ‘we hear you’re
doing a remake of Shaft’ and I’d say, ‘no, we’re not remaking it,
it’s an updated story’. But that made me realise that if they thought I was
doing a remake, then they thought I was pretending to be Richard Roundtree and the best
way to kill that idea was to get Richard Roundtree in this movie as John Shaft. Once we
got Richard on board, it was OK for me to go out and create whatever it was I actually
needed to create to be this new Shaft for the millennium.
What is the biggest difference between the two Shafts?
When Richard did John Shaft, his enemies were the man and the system. Now I’m
fighting race hate and drugs and my enemies are a bit more volatile. Therefore my
character tends to be a bit more impulsive and a lot more violent than Richard, and
that’s the major difference. My character embraces the violence and kind of smiles
and enjoys the fact he doesn’t have to negotiate with anybody. That he can take care
of everything with his fists and guns. Hopefully I’m as charismatic and as cool and
as well-dressed and sexy as Richard was!
And your Shaft doesn’t seduce women at the rate of the original, either.
I guess in the beginning the studio visualised me lying there with a naked woman entwined
in hot passion and I was trying to get over there and they kept saying, ‘don’t
worry we’re going to get to that’. But as things progressed, I guess they
figured I never had time to go to somebody’s house or bring someone back to my place.
It kind of worked in the 70s, to go to bed with five women in the same movie, but
it’s the year 2000 and maybe the studio also felt it wasn’t politically correct
– although James Bond still gets away with it.
What can you tell us about Star Wars?
I was a huge, huge Star Wars fan so it’s been such a thrill to actually be in a Star
Wars movie. (George) Lucas doesn’t want me to say too much about this one but he did
mention he hopes I’ll be on stage getting an award for best fight sequence, so you
know I’ll turn my light sabre on! Being able to do a fight sequence like that
satisfies my need to do this swashbuckling thing that I’ve always wanted to do
because of Errol Flynn and those other guys who wielded swords.
Everybody describes you as cool, like Shaft. Do you think you’re cool?
When people ask me, why do you think you’re cool, I don’t know. It’s not a
conscious thing but I’m very comfortable in my own skin and I put the right clothes
on and stand in front of the mirror and I can go, "OK, I look all right’, and it
helps you stand a bit more upright and you carry yourself with that confidence - but you
have to temper it with humility and hopefully I’m able to do that. It was really
funny while we were shooting in New York. There were days when I had to walk from my
trailer to the location and pass people on the street and I passed a woman who said,
‘Oh my God, it’s you, you look so much better in person than you look in the
movies’. And I never realised I was something cinematic to some people. But I guess
that’s OK because I’d like people to think I look all right in person!