Laz Alonso talks James Cameron’s AVATAR – Could it be the first of a Trilogy?

     April 5, 2009

Written by Christina Radish

With the huge opening weekend for Fast & Furious ($72.5 million, at last count) and the highly anticipated James Cameron sci-fi adventure Avatar on the horizon, actor Laz Alonso is certainly not missing the grind of the Wall Street career he left behind when he decided to follow his dreams of becoming an actor.

After memorable performances in Jarhead and Miracle at St. Anna, the Washington D.C. native plays the scary Fenix Rise in the first Fast & Furious sequel to include all four of the original cast members. Taking time out to talk to me on opening day, Laz shared the experience of going head-to-head with Vin Diesel, as well as spilled some secrets about the upcoming Avatar, scheduled for release on December 18th. The script was so guarded under lock and key that he is sworn to secrecy on plot, but he did let it slip that he was glad “to have the opportunity to be a part of this trilogy”.

Let me be clear: I don’t know if Laz revealed a major surprise about “Avatar” or if he said “trilogy” by accident. All I know is I haven’t heard a word about “Avatar” being the first of a trilogy of films, so take it with a grain of salt for now.

But if “Avatar” is the first of a trilogy, that’s extremely cool news.

If you’re a fan of James Cameron, Laz tells some great stories about how he got cast and some of the technology involved in making “Avatar” as he said they were “filmed by 197 cameras, simultaneously, in real time.”

Of course we also talked about “Fast & Furious” and what he has coming up. Here’s what he had to say….

Question: How did you get involved with Avatar?

Laz: I got a call. Supposedly, Jim Cameron was seeing every actor in the world for it and I was like, “If he’s seeing everybody, it can’t be so bad. At least I know that he doesn’t have one thing stuck in his head.” They were pretty open to ethnicity. I went in, in June of ‘06, and I didn’t hear anything until November. I had forgotten about Avatar and then, all of a sudden, I got a call from my agent, who said, “You’re one of three, and you’re his top choice, so you’ve gotta go in and nail it.” I actually did my final test with Jim manning the camera. He had this huge camera on his shoulder and he was directing me. The casting director was reading the scene with me while Jim was shooting, and we shot some big scenes. We shot one of my most emotional moments of the film, in that audition. I literally played with Jim Cameron for two hours. When I left there, I was like, “Even if I don’t get it, I had so much fun. I was in the room with Jim Cameron and he was directing me. I already got the role.” Sure enough, at the end of the scene, when we finished, he said, “Listen, man, I have to see two other people today, so I’m not going to say yes, but we’re going to move forward with this.”

Had you been allowed to read the script, at that point?

Laz: At that point, he had only given me the scenes that he wanted me to read. I didn’t have a chance to look at the script and really arc out the character, so I had to just be instinctual with it. After the audition, he said, “Go upstairs and sign out the script.” I literally had to give them my ID. There was this whole process, where I signed all these legal documents and I got a script. Jim said, “Here’s my home # and here’s my cell #. As soon as you finish reading it, call me. I don’t care what time of the day or night it is. I want to know what you think of it, and if it’s something that you like.” And, I was thinking to myself, “Are you freakin’ kidding me? You’re joking right? Damn, I’ve got James Cameron’s home #!” It reminded me of that episode of Entourage, when Vinnie Chase got Aquaman. It was a surreal moment for me, and it’s a moment that I’ll never forget.

So, did you actually call and tell him what you thought of the script?

Laz: I called and told him how much I loved the script. I asked for his email address and I sent him a breakdown of the character, the arc, his motivations and his history. I just made this whole character outline. And, he was like, “Listen, man, you already have the part, but this work that you’ve done is amazing.”

What can you say about the film and who you play in it?

Laz: Unfortunately, I can’t say anything because that was part of what we signed. None of us are allowed to talk at all about the script or what the story is about. All I can say is that the technology is something that no one has ever seen or used before. We were being filmed by 197 cameras, simultaneously, in real time. It was something that took two and a half years to do, and when you see it this December, you’re going to know why it took that long. It is just unrivaled by anything that my eyes have ever seen in cinema. It blew me away, when I saw some of the finished scenes.

How does it affect your performance when you’re dealing with all of that technical stuff?

Laz: It affects the beginning and the end of the day because there’s a huge process. It literally takes over an hour to prepare and get synced in with the technology that they’re using, in addition to make-up and all the other stuff you have to do. So, there’s a whole ritual that takes place, at the beginning of the day, but once you get on set with Jim, you literally get transported into a different place. Once you’re there, you’re there, and you don’t leave for the next 15 hours, until you wrap. Working with him, you work long hours, but then you get to set the next morning and he’s cut the scene that you did the day before, and you realize that he never got any sleep. You’re a foot soldier and this guy is at war, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, when he finds something that he’s passionate about, and he’s passionate about this movie. That’s why I know the movie is going to do well.

How does it feel to think about the fact that, not only are you in one of the most anticipated films of the year, but it’s also one of the most anticipated sci-fi films of the last decade?

Laz: My dream was to be in Star Wars and, unfortunately, I wasn’t big enough in my career at the time that Star Wars was casting and getting characters. To have the opportunity to be a part of this trilogy is the biggest gift I could have. Star Wars was the revolutionary sci-fi movie for the generation when I was a kid, growing up. And, I believe in my heart that Avatar is going to be the revolutionary sci-fi movie for this generation, in this era. I am always the guy who doesn’t like to oversell because, in this business, you can get so excited about something and, if it doesn’t pan out, you have egg on your face. But, this is one movie that I feel very, very confident selling, standing at the top of a mountain and screaming at the top of my lungs how great this movie is because I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.

How did you end up as an actor? Did you just always know that you wanted to be a performer?

Laz: My entire life, I’ve always known that I wanted to be a performer, but I didn’t know exactly how, where or when. I never learned or studied the craft, formally. I grew up doing martial arts and playing piano. But, something inside of me always said that I was going to do this, as far back as I can remember. I was an only child, and I would perform for myself and for my imaginary audience. I’d stand up on the bed and do a whole play, and I’d play different characters. It was the type of thing where something in me always said, “This is what you’re going to do.”

Did you have a moment where you decided to make a career out of acting and not just have it be a dream?

Laz: Yes. I went to school for business and got my degree in marketing. I busted my ass and ended up getting hired on Wall Street. There was a day where I was sitting at my desk, working 90-hour work weeks, in a suit, looking at a computer, with all these pitch books on my desk, and I just thought, “This can’t be my life. This can’t be what I’m destined to do. I’m just not using anything here, except numbers crunching.” That’s when I decided that I was going to pursue my love and what my heart desires. I wasn’t going to chase money. I was going to live. That’s when I started doing theater for free. I left Wall Street and I started auditioning for commercials and doing a lot of off-off-off-off-Broadway stuff. Slowly but surely, I worked my way up the ranks.

Did you ever think about how crazy it was to leave behind such a steady career for something that could be totally unstable?

Laz: Yeah! The biggest decision was coming from New York to L.A. I feel like a lot of actors end up staying in New York because they want to be really, really true to their craft. L.A. has a reputation of selling out for the money, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that. If you really want to get to the next level in your career, all roads eventually lead to L.A. This is where the hub of the business is. You can get a phone call at 11 and they’ll say, “Hey, this director wants to meet you at noon, at this coffee shop. Can you be there?,” and you can say, “Yes.” If you’re in New York, you can’t. Or, they’ll say, “There’s a last-minute audition. This actor couldn’t work it out in his contract. There were dates that conflicted. We need you to go and do a quick read, down in Manhattan Beach,” and you can shoot down there and do it. Whereas in New York, you have to get yourself put on tape and you don’t make that human connection. At some point, if you want to move up, you’ve got to come to L.A., and that’s a very, very big decision for most New York actors, just as it was for me.

How did you get involved with Fast & Furious? Did you audition, or did they specifically ask to see you?

Laz: I was in Italy, shooting Spike Lee’s movie, Miracle at St. Anna, when I first got the call for it. Justin Lin had already seen me. I had actually auditioned for The Fast and the Furious 3 and I didn’t get it, but he remembered my audition and became a fan after that, and kept up with what I was doing. So, when Fast & Furious 4 came along, he was really, really interested in me playing the bad guy. The problem was that, for Spike’s movie, I had to put on 20 pounds to play my character as an 80-year-old man. So, when I went in for Fast & Furious and met with Justin, they loved what I brought to the role, but they were a little concerned with me being able to get the weight down and get in shape quick enough to star opposite Vin Diesel. I had to not only lose weight, but get muscular enough to be an imposing threat to Vin. So, I just really had to bust my butt. I hired this trainer, named Mike T., who’s an amazing trainer for a lot of people in town, and he got me right. He had me doing a non-conventional work-out with stuff that I had never done before in my life. I had never hiked. I had never worked out in the mountains where the air is a lot thinner. It causes your metabolism to burn a lot more calories and it makes your heart rate a lot faster, so you get a bigger bang for your buck. I did a lot of extreme things to trim down, but I knocked off 17 pounds and the three that I kept were muscle, and it really made a difference.

What was it like to be the new guy with this cast? Was it nerve-wracking to come into that?

Laz: I was a little nerve-wracked, but they never made me feel nerve-wracked. More than anything, I was nervous about being a convincing threat to Vin. Just being face-to-face with the guy, he has a natural edge and presence to him that is undeniable. He’s a big dude, and not only is he big, but he’s tough. He’s a very, very nice guy, but you know you don’t cross him. My thing was that I had to be convincing when I’m on screen. I can’t look, at any point in time, like I don’t pose a threat, or else the entire movie is done. That’s where I was nerve-wracked. I had already worked with Michelle Rodriguez on Avatar, so her and I already had a rapport. Paul Walker is just one of the nicest, most down-to-earth human beings you could ever meet. And, Vin was extremely welcoming, too.

How do you approach a character like this, who doesn’t really seem to have redeeming qualities?

Laz: It’s hard because you want to do something that hasn’t been done before. I just decided to smile a lot. He’s a bad guy who’s having fun being bad. Redeeming qualities are all relative. They’re all based on perspective. So, when you play a character like this, you really have to put aside your personal judgements of what redeeming qualities are and embody the redeeming qualities of that character. This character was fiercely loyal to his boss and to the mission. If you look at it from that perspective, regardless of what kind of business he’s involved in or who he has to trample to accomplish his job, as long as he remains fiercely loyal to his boss and never, under any circumstance, sacrifices that, then that is redeemable. Loyalty under any circumstance, even when you’re wrong, is still loyalty. That was the mind-set that I had to get into. I couldn’t look at what he was doing, I had to look at how he was doing it. As long as I was faithful to my boss and I went to any extreme to keep him alive and keep the operation going, which is what I was hired to do, then that was an honorable quality. That’s how I was able to play it with true integrity and authenticity.

Did you develop any of your on screen relationship with John Ortiz ahead of time, or did you guys just click right away?

Laz: John Ortiz is somebody who I’ve admired since Carlito’s Way. The day that he and I clicked was the day that I was just playing with him and threw out a little Al Pacino from Carlito’s Way, and he jumped in as his character, and we did some of the Carlito’s Way scenes. For me to play Al’s character and him to play off of it was the biggest compliment I’ve ever had in my life. I was literally a child. After that, you’d better believe I was loyal to that guy. He won me over in 30 seconds, when we role-played for a day. We had our own little bond that we had created, and nobody could come between that. If Vin tried to jump in, or if Paul tried to jump in and do Al, John wouldn’t play. If I jumped in as Al, he jumped in as his character, and that was our own little thing that was our bond. Nobody could mess with it. We really had a good time.

What was it like to have to go head-to-head with Vin Diesel?

Laz: It was definitely a partnership. Vin is completely committed to things being real. The script is a blueprint for him, but it’s definitely not the be all, end all. When they’d yell, “Cut!,” while everybody went back to hair and make-up, Vin and I would stay on set and just talk about it and feel it out. I really enjoyed working with Vin because I never thought it would be as much of a team effort as it was. He was very, very team-driven, when it came to what we could do to make something work. He’d be like, “Right now, this is anemic. We need to throw some meat on them bones.” And, I was like, “I can’t agree with you more!” And then, something would click and we’d both smile and be like, “That’s it!” I tip my hat to Justin Lin because he was so trusting of us that he was like, “You guys work it out and then show me what you come up with,” and he’d love it, every time. He really gave us the creative wing, as artists, to figure out those beats between us. Originally, Vin and I were supposed to fight, but Vin was like, “We need to have a bigger ending. We need to have something that just really stamps how dangerous this character, Fenix, is.” That’s how we came up with a much bigger, more grotesque ending than just beating the crap out of the character.

How was Justin Lin, as a director?

Laz: When you think about it, how creative can you be with cars, after four films? What more can you do, besides drive fast? There are a lot of moments in film that have really wowed us with cars, and I feel like Justin Lin really did raise the bar. He didn’t do it with gimmicks. He did it with good, old-fashioned American muscle cars. He’s just an amazing director. I had so much fun working with him.

What was the most fun thing about making this film?

Laz: The most fun part about this job was being able to just let loose and not have to pull yourself back, but allow the director to pull you back. It was really not being afraid to just be creative and free. That was the essence that I felt with Justin Lin, on set. You weren’t being judged. He wants you to feel free to make mistakes, and I loved that.

What was the most challenging aspect of it?

Laz: One of the more challenging things was that, when you have these vehicles that have certain limitations, you have to work within that framework. Working with these very, very powerful machines that are like rockets, a lot of things took a lot longer than usual. One explosion could take all night to do and, if you mess it up, you’ve gotta do it again and that’s a whole shooting day gone down the drain. But, the special effects team on the film was just so great that there were very few moments where everything didn’t go as planned. Fast & Furious is a well-oiled machine. Those guys really know what they’re doing. The guys that work behind the scenes are just as important as the ones in front of the cameras. They are car enthusiasts. They live and breathe this world. They’re always tearing cars apart and welding them back together, cutting roofs off and adding different stuff. The set was like a big garage, and they were constantly working on cars.

Having done huge budget films like Avatar and smaller independent films, do you prefer one style over the other, or do you enjoy them both?

Laz: I honestly enjoy them both. There are some comforts that you sacrifice when you do independent films because you move at a much more rapid pace. You don’t have an entire day to shoot one scene. But, it’s the type of thing where the kind of work that you do moves your soul. I love both mediums. I can’t choose one or the other. I think Will Smith is one of the masters at doing the big-budget, huge blockbuster movies, but at the same time, still doing smaller, more character-driven projects. He’s figured out the proper balance of art and entertainment.

You’ve done really varied projects with a number of very interesting filmmakers. Has there been one experience that you feel has taught you a lot, either about yourself or about acting?

Laz: When I worked with Spike Lee, it really was one of my most challenging situations. Spike is literally a perfectionist. He accepts nothing short of perfection, when it comes to those that work for him. Working with him on Miracle at St. Anna really made me feel like I was making progress, as far as my career and my acting goes. I’ve always respected him, since I was a kid, because I grew up on Spike Lee’s movies and I knew that his bar was very, very high. Those days when I walked in and exceeded his expectations and he let me know that, let me feel like I actually was making progress and that the right people were aware of it. To know that I was being watched by people of his caliber, it made me feel like I was onto something.

What have you been up to, since completing Fast & Furious?

Laz: When I finished Fast & Furious, I took a little hiatus. I had been working for about three years straight and I needed a personal hiatus. I said, “If there’s any time that I’m going to take a break, this is the time.” And, recently, I shot a pilot for CBS, so we’ll see what happens with that. I want to tackle all mediums.

What is that show called and who do you play on it?

Laz: Right now, it’s called U.S. Attorney, but I’m not sure if that is going to be the name, if it were to go to series. It’s this really cool cast of young, aggressive United States Attorneys. I’m a news junkie, so I’m always watching everything that’s going on with things like the Ponzi schemes, Bernie Madoff, the economy and the G-20. The U.S. Attorneys are basically where the buck stops, when it comes to the law. They’re the ones that go after big cases, like Bernie Madoff, or big federal crimes, and white collar as well as drug stuff. Anything short of the President, they are there, holding it down. For me, it was cool because when I read the script, the character sounded like a combination of Barack Obama and Denzel Washington. He has the intelligence of Obama, but he still has some hard, real, Alpha male qualities that Denzel possesses. Right now, it’s important that I find characters that I love, and this was a character where I thought, “Okay, I can stick my foot in this and really do some damage with this character.”

Was there any hesitation about signing on to play a character that you could possibly be playing for a number of years?

Laz: A lot of people have done that and still been able to maintain a successful film career. As long as my agent and my manager don’t get lazy, and it’s my job to stay on them, then I can continue doing films. You have a four-month hiatus so that you can knock out some really cool stuff. My agent has people like Katherine Heigl and Michael Cera, who have been able to have successful television and film careers. My challenge to them was, “If I do this, can you guys maintain that same level of productivity in film that we’ve been having up until now?” There might be some stuff that I might not be available for, but their specialty is taking TV stars and keeping a film presence and star quality going, so I have no fear of that.

Are there any types of roles or specific genres that you’d like to do, that you haven’t gotten the chance to do yet?

Laz: Yeah. In some ways, I wish I had been born Italian because I would love to be able to do a mob movie, but you never know. There’s a lot of stuff that I would love to sink my teeth into. Public Enemies is a movie that I’m really looking forward to seeing. If there were every the opportunity for me to play in that type of genre, I would jump at it. Denzel did American Gangster and that was that type of genre, so there’s always that possibility. For me, it’s the period. I love that period, between the 20’s and the 60’s. I love doing period pieces, and those eras are my favorite period in time, music wise, and the elegance and the way of being.

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