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Tonight Exclusive with Morris Chestnut

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Morris Chestnut is in his element playing a love interest in rom-coms. He also proved he could be a formidable villain and hero, as was seen in the TV remake of V. Now he is trying his hand at something that takes him out of his comfort zone – playing a modern African king in the tentatively titled Asylum Down. Debashine Thangevelo had an audience with the actor-producer during his recent visit and found out, aside from him being excited about playing a character with South African roots, he had just finished shooting the sequel to The Best Man…

HOLLYWOOD actor and producer, Morris Chestnut, visited South Africa once before, but says his return was special as it involved something he has been hankering to do – play a South African character.

The tentatively titled Asylum Down is a joint effort between Uzanenkosi Mahlangu (the creator of Intersexions) and the US contingent comprising pro- ducer and director Samad Davis, executive producer Tarek Stevens and Chestnut, who produces and acts.

I was able to steal away Chestnut from the press conference at the National Film and Video Foundation’s offices in Houghton.

Suavely dressed in a black suit and white formal shirt – sans the tie to maintain an element of casual- ness – Chestnut was sexiness personified.

And I could clearly understand why that perfectly sculptured physique, square jaw and disarmingly genuine smile has often seen him often cast as the love interest in movies like The Best Man, Two Can Play that Game, Not Easily Broken and Think Like a Man.

At 44, he is ravenous for a role that will take him to another level. And he believes he has found it in Asylum Down.

He says: “This is the first time I am taking on a character with South African roots, with an accent and everything.”

As history has noted, many Hollywood A-list actors have depicted historical South African characters, only to field heavy criticism for not getting the intonation right. Is he worried about faltering on the same aspect?

Chestnut smiles: “You know, it is all about the challenge. That is the fun part of being an actor – it is the challenge of going in and stepping into someone else’s world and just being as if you were them.

“So I’m really looking forward to mastering and getting the (Twsana) accent right as well as the language.

“I’m here learning more about the tradition, the heritage and everything about the character.”

When asked to share his criteria when being approached for roles and how that has helped him firmly plant his foot in the film industry, the father of three shares: “Primarily, it would be me being able to relate to the character. (I have to) see something in that character that I want to expose of myself, because that is pretty much what we do.

“When I have a character, whatever that character is going through, I have to heighten that emotion, that moment, and relate to the character’s life. So it is, firstly, the character and the project.

“There are some projects I have done just because I had the opportunity to work with a good group of people.”

No stranger to the small screen, with a plethora of guest roles and a lead role as Ryan Nichols in V, he gives his take on big screen actors venturing into TV.

“I have been in the first season of American Horror Stories. And I just did Nurse Jackie (he played Dr Prentiss for seven episodes). I’m doing that here and there.

“The reason is that Hollywood isn’t making as much movies. So in order to work and keep your skills sharp and still be relevant, you have to go to the small screen. We just want to keep working.

“Also, sometimes the movie roles aren’t as challenging because you have all the CGI special effects and it becomes a mundane process. So television definitely freshens things up a bit.”

As for the role that really pushed him to the max recently, he recalls: “The week before I came here I wrapped up a project. It is The Best Man Holiday, a sequel to the movie I did called, The Best Man.

“That role pushed me like no other because the character was so emotionally conflicted. His emotions were high at some points but, for most points, they were very low. So I had to be in the headspace that I don’t like to go into often. That was extremely, extremely challenging. Probably, the most challenging to this day.”

With more than two decades in Hollywood, it was a natural progression for him to explore other facets of the industry. He chose producing.

He offers: “The one thing I love about being a producer is when you are an actor, you come to work, you show up on time and then you go home. Being a producer allows you to be more creative overall.

“Now I’m looking at all the characters and how they come into play. How the visuals come into play. How the wardrobe comes into play. How all the factors come into play.

“It is just part of flexing that creative muscle and being able to express that is the challenge and fun in being a producer.

“I was a producer on Not Easily Broken, but I was working on another project just prior to that so I kind of came in towards to the end.

“So yes, you are absolutely correct (about having a finger in many pies so to speak). I am venturing into doing more things behind the camera. I don’t want to be director, I enjoy just bringing projects together.

“You know, in America I have sold a couple of television shows. None of them have aired yet. I will probably get a few projects as a producer so that is my next step in Hollywood.”

Talk about being king of his career – Chestnut is certainly conquering with his projects.

• The pre-production for Asylum Down is expected to get under way in January.

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