Courtney B. Vance has been one of the best of the best for a while now, but rather than coast on his experience, he much prefers to go back to the beginning on every project. As he puts it, “It doesn’t matter if you’ve had all the experience or no experience, you still have to start all over again, together.” I suspect that mentality had a very positive effect on his new Netflix movie Uncorked because one of the film’s standout qualities is cast chemistry. Vance, Mamoudou Athie and Niecy Nash are the beating heart of Prentice Penny’s feature directorial debut, a film about finding the balance between personal passion and family commitments.
Vance plays Louis in the film. He took over his father’s popular Memphis barbecue restaurant and now he wants the honor of being able to pass it down to his own son, Elijah (Athie). Trouble is, Elijah’s passions lie elsewhere. He dreams of becoming a Master Sommelier, a member of a highly exclusive group of wine experts.
With Uncorked arriving on Netflix on March 27th, I got the opportunity to hop on the phone with Vance to talk a little bit about his experience making the film. Check out the interview below to read all about what drew Vance to the movie, why he thinks it’s important to go back to the beginning on every project, what it’s like going wine tasting with his wife, Angela Bassett, his experience working on the upcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country and loads more!
COURTNEY B. VANCE: Well, it’s a great character. That’s the first thing. That gentleman goes through a major, major, major transition, and goes from knowing that his son is going to be doing what he thinks he should do and knowing that the restaurant will be secure and that my son’s going to be taking care of the restaurant, to the whole world being turned upside down with the events that happen in our family.
And then having to make that middle-ground area where you don’t know [if] the relationship [is] going to completely fracture because the dad won’t come around and begin to help with the son’s dream. And what is it that makes that transition happen? What is it that happened that all of a sudden their relationship spins and the father, Louis, is all in and is helping put up 3×5 cards to help grill the son. I mean, that’s so beautiful to see the transition of life happen. It’s all about family. “We may have to agree to disagree, but you’re my son and I want the best for you and let’s go. What do you need me to do?” That’s the mantra that Louis had to come to; “It’s not about me. It’s about you. How can I help you now? I see you. How can I help you?”
I loved the chemistry between you and Mamoudou so I wanted to ask about working with him and also as such a prolific veteran in the industry yourself, what do you have to keep in mind when you’re working with someone who’s accomplished a lot, but is still an up-and-comer like Mamoudou? What can you bring to his experience so that he can make the most out of it?
VANCE: It’s all about talking and listening. It’s a continuum. I started out the exact way he’s starting out. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know on stage, I didn’t know upstage from downstage. I didn’t know upstaging. I didn’t know anything. I literally knew nothing about stage, and all of these people helped me. They brought me along. They took care of me. As my man says in On the Waterfront, ‘I could have been somebody. You should have took care of me, Charley.’ They took care of me. They got me up to speed and once we were up to speed, the play that we were in took off. But it only took off because they recognized that the play, we’re all in it together. We all need to support each other and bring each other along so that we’re all bigger. It doesn’t matter that they just started or that I’ve done a lot. Together we still have to go back to kindergarten and not know, and build it up.
I was doing a scene with Genius: Aretha over in Atlanta, and with a young girl who had never been – it was her first project. She was playing little Aretha, little Ree we called her. Her first scene was in front of 1,500 people. She had to lip sync, but sing, in front of 1,500 people, a huge song and she was completely nervous and fell apart, and ran into the little room off the room off the church and closed the door, and her mother was in there. And I knocked and I knew exactly what I had to do. I said, ‘I see you. I know you, and I know where you are.’ And I said, ‘I guarantee, if you start where you are and we build it together, within four or five takes, you will be in rhythm, and you’ll be breathing and having a wonderful time.’ I said, ‘Just give us five takes, and just get in there, and let’s do this together.’
And we sang a little song, and she started laughing, and we went back out there together, and that little girl transformed our project because she was exactly where she was, and we supported her right where she was. That’s all it’s about. When we start a project, we start a scene, we all have to start from kindergarten. You got to go back to kindergarten like we don’t know. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve had all the experience or no experience, you still have to start all over again, together.
So it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t even focus on that at all because I know it doesn’t matter. It’s all about talking and listening. My man, Clint Eastwood said when they were doing that orangutan movie, Charlie Sheen was so excited he said, ‘Oh, Clint. Mr. Eastwood, I’m so excited. Just so you know, I’m just so excited to be up here doing this scene with you and doing this movie with you.’ Clint Eastwood stops him and says, ‘Son, we’re gonna say some lines, hit the mark.” Sheen walked away from him. And that’s what it is. It’s simple. Don’t make it complicated! It ain’t complicated. Let’s just get relaxed up here and get out of here and go home.
One thing I think we don’t see happen enough are filmmakers asking each other questions about the movies they worked on. I spoke to Prentice yesterday and he had two questions for you! First, do you feel that the movie translated from what you read initially on the page?
VANCE: Beyond. Way beyond.
And what about something that you thought might not translate but wound up working well? Where was there the biggest difference between what you thought when reading and how you felt while filming?
VANCE: The script was complete when I read it, so it just became bigger because I can actually see things now. And there’s certain scenes, of course, that I’m not in, so I don’t know what that is until I’ve seen the movie. So I don’t know anything about Paris and what it’s gonna to be. But it was a complete piece when I read it. Everything was on the page. When you read on the page, it’s stick figures in your mind, but now, when you actually do it, it actually comes to life.
In my mind, I see that scene with Niecy when she tells me about what she’s grappling with, but I don’t know how it’s gonna be staged. So the fact that how it was staged and how we did it is just, it’s so wonderful to me. In your mind you see it, and when you’re learning the lines before you come in, you see it a certain way and then when you get on the stage and block it, you have to leave yourself open to what it’s gonna be there. I’ve learned that you must know just enough so that you can let someone else in. If you try to know everything, I harm myself when I go to the next level. And the next level being when I let people in, when I let people involved into the process as you invariably have to do.
I can’t not ask you this while we’re talking about Uncorked. Do you have a favorite wine?
VANCE: I don’t because I don’t drink. I sip off my wife’s (Angela Bassett) wine when she tells me, ‘Oh, this is good,’ because I really appreciate smooth red wine. And the only thing I do like is a Riesling because I like sweet. So, I will sip on like a dessert wine, a Riesling dessert wine. But I like a butter Merlot or something that’s real smooth. You don’t feel it till it hits the back of your throat.
But we used to go up to Napa Valley and hang out for the long weekends, and just go wine tasting. She would say, ‘This is really, really smooth.’ I go, ‘Oh, okay. Let me taste that.’ Boom. ‘Oh, that’s nice. Yeah, okay.’ And I’d be the designated driver, and she would be, you know, after the third, fourth place we hit, she’d be, ‘Ohhh, I’m done!’
I’m a big Lovecraft fan, and I love the fact that we seem to be getting more Lovecraft-inspired stories than ever. So, what was it like working on Lovecraft Country, and why do you think right now was the perfect time for that show?
VANCE: It was crazy. Absolute crazy because we shot the pilot and then we had to retool because it didn’t go as we thought it would go and then we came back with a retooled version to shoot the series. What I will say, it was great people. Absolute great people.
This final question addresses a major spoiler. Please don’t read until you’ve seen the film!
I’d love to know what you thought of the ending when you first read the script. It’s a very bold and effective choice to have Elijah not achieve that specific goal in the end. Did that surprise you when you read it?
VANCE: It didn’t surprise me so much as, that’s the choice that Mr. Penny [made]. And it’s a life choice. It’s life that everything is not wrapped up neat. But the fact that he’s won in that he eventually is gonna get there. You know he’s gonna get there because he knows what to do now. And to me, that was more impactful for us that life is not always neat and tidy and with a bow on it, that the major hurdle was that his dad is now with him, that he and his dad – ‘How you doing, dad?’ ‘Oh, I’m good, son. Just hanging in there.’ ‘I’m gonna be in town for a couple of days. You need me to come in and help get some of that wood?’ ‘Man, come on over here and help me get some of this wood!’ You know, those kinds of discussions that now they can have discussions. They can now be two men talking about life because they’ve been through something.
He’s given it his all, Elijah, and his father saw him give it his all, and that his son just came up short, and his father has to be there to go, ‘Let’s play with these bones, boy. Come on in here,’ to get him to relax and to realize that the thing that you do know, that you did learn in this house was that you pick yourself up and you do get back in there. You don’t quit. And it’s those basic things in life that parents lay in, that you treat people well and they take care of you. Those basic things that, no matter what happens in life, those are two or three things that you got out of this house that’s going to take you through life. All that stuff in school? Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. All that stuff in Harvard, Yale, and all the big schools that you went to? Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. But the main thing that you’re gonna take through life, ‘Was he a good person? Did he take care of his family? And there’s only one line that’s gonna be on your tombstone; ‘He was a good man,’ or, ‘She was a good lady. She loved her family.’ Now we can have discussions. We can talk now at the end of the movie, and I think that’s more impactful to me than the bow at the end.
Uncorked is now streaming on Netflix.