October 17, 2012

‘Alex Cross’ turns on emotional complexity

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Entertainment, Movies at 5:52 pm by dinaheng

Fans of James Patterson’s detective/psychologist Alex Cross will find a nuanced portrayal of the character’s early years as a homicide detective in the new film “Alex Cross,” which stars Tyler Perry in the title role.

Set in Detroit, the film is based on Patterson’s novel “I, Alex Cross,” and reveals the origin of the character previously played by Morgan Freeman in “Along Came a Spider” and “Kiss The Girls.”

Director Rob Cohen, conscious of the need to satisfy both fans of the books and the films, has created an intricate action thriller with the emotional make-up of hero and villain intertwined. For as Cross pursues a serial killer named Picasso (played by Matthew Fox), the detective must confront his own urge for revenge when the killer strikes close to home.

“I wanted to be true to the James Patterson character, rather than the earlier interpretations,” says Cohen, a prolific producer whose directing credits include “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” “The Fast and the Furious,” and “xXx.”

“Alex Cross was written to be a 40-year-old, big, athletic guy. A couple years ago, I went to see ‘Madea’s Family Reunion,’ the theater piece Tyler tried out before the film, and wanted to meet him. He’s a big man, and my reaction was, ‘You could be an action movie star.’ He laughed and said, ‘Maybe we’ll work something out.’ “

A year later, on Martin Luther King’s birthday, Cohen received a call from producer Bill Block, who wanted the director to take the helm of a thriller based on the Cross character. When the producer asked what Cohen would think of casting Tyler Perry in the lead role, Cohen gave an enthusiastic thumbs up.

“Within days, we sat down with Tyler and wrapped it up,” Cohen says. “I told Tyler he’d have to do two things — lose weight and learn Krav Maga (a self-defense technique used by many law enforcement agencies). And he did it. I’m very proud of Tyler and his courage. To go head-to-head with stars like Cicely Tyson and Jean Reno, who have scores of credits, and hold your own as the eponymous character takes guts.”

Cohen says he had no doubts that Perry, known for comedic roles in film and television, had the dramatic chops to play the homicide detective/psychologist.

The filmmaker recalls that years ago, in working with comedian Richard Pryor, he learned that creating comedy can come from understanding pain. By figuring out where people hurt, Pryor would try to ease the pain with his humor.

“The dramatic actor has to find the truth of a dramatic character, without having to make that turn to comedy, so I knew Tyler could do it,” Cohen says.

The interplay between Alex Cross and Picasso is particularly meaningful because it’s this case that ends up defining the hero’s psyche.

“The Cross that emerges from this experience has been forged by his experience with Picasso,” Cohen says. “My take on Picasso is that he was a serial killer who channeled his energy into being an assassin, rather than picking up victims in supermarkets. The serial killer in him was at odds with the assassin, and every time the two conflicted, Picasso would start to cleave apart. In chasing Picasso, Cross ends up getting on the slippery slope of revenge, and by the end, he’s every bit as dangerous as the man he’s hunting.”

The character who is the moral center of the story is Nana Mama, played by renowned actress Cicely Tyson. Cohen says Tyson, known for her Oscar-nominated role in “Sounder” and numerous other film and television roles, is the only actress he wanted in the role of Alex Cross’s mother.

“Nana Mama is immovable and the inexorable force in the house when Alex is going for revenge,” Cohen says. “I feel Cicely is everyone’s mother, the mother we all wish we had — the one who would fight for our soul, as much as our safety. You see how Alex Cross gets his strength, from this woman.”

Cohen, who was raised by an African-American nanny named Ophelia Chambers while both parents worked, says Nana Mama is a mixture of Chambers, Tyson and the character Patterson created.

“I love people and different cultures,” says Cohen, who received his bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Harvard University. “I like it when a film has a root in culture. When cultures collide, we see what happens to make people do what they do.”

He notes that Tyson worked with the set decorator to make the Cross residence an African-American home in the Obama era.

“She came to me the first day and said, ‘This is not a black home,’ “ Cohen recalls. “So she set the menus for the meals, and made it an African-American home. No one knows better than Cicely what that should look like.”

Tyson says she decided to take the role of Nana Mama after listening to Cohen’s stories   about going to a Baptist church in Harlem as a child with his African-American nanny.

“Rob is so humane because he has encountered humanity in so many different cultural experiences,” Tyson says. “He’s able to reach out to anyone because of that.”

After reading the script for “Alex Cross,” Tyson decided that the Nana Mama she would play had a warped sense of humor, as well as a deep spiritual center and faith in God.

“When I get a script offer, the first thing I do is read, and read, and read,” Tyson says. “I’m looking to see what the author had in mind when he decided to write the script, and what he wants me to project in the character. I try to absorb it, and then little things that are unlike me begin to emerge, and I say, ‘Oh, that’s so-and-so, not me.’

“I became deeply emotional about Nana Mama because she’s the mother of a son whose life is constantly in jeopardy. She doesn’t know when he walks out the door if she’ll ever see him again or not. Internally, she’s on the edge all the time.”

Tyson says women were born the stronger gender, and having gone through the Civil Rights era, the model-turned-actress doesn’t take her success for granted. Being a recognized performer, she takes the responsibility that comes with that seriously.

“If you’re going to project an image to people, it should be as truthful as you can get it,” Tyson says. “You never know what someone will take away from it. One time, I was going to get an honorary degree from a major college, and a young woman came into the ladies room in tears. She said they had pulled her out of the graduation line because she didn’t have something.

“I couldn’t believe they waited until then to tell her. So I said, ‘That won’t happen.’ I went out and said if she leaves, I will have to leave. So she graduated. Years later, I was walking on the street when someone yelled my name. She came up, and asked if I remembered her. She said, ‘I’m the girl who graduated from Spelman because of you. I’m now an engineer.’ So you never know how the things you do impact others.”

Supporting educational efforts is important to Tyson, whose parents immigrated to the United States from the island of Nevis in the West Indies. She tells the story of once being asked to lend her name to a magnet school in East Orange, N.J., and refusing to do so because she felt no tie to the school.

“The principal would not give up, and one day, my cousin said I should do it,” Tyson says. “She told me that when my parents first came to the United States, they came to live with his brother, and that house is six blocks away from the school, and still standing. That means I have to complete the circle. So I said yes, as long as they allow me to be actively involved.”

So Tyson wholeheartedly supports The Cicely Tyson School of Performing and Fine Arts, looking at each of its 1,223 students as if they were her own children.

As for “Alex Cross,” the woman who plays Nana Mama clearly brought her own deep faith to the scene where Cross decides he must confront Picasso himself.

“Nana Mama tells him he can’t leave his children without a father,” Tyson says. “She asks how is he going to explain the things he does to them? Like all things, she believes it’s best to leave it to God.”

And as Cross discovers, a body can’t truly live unless its soul is at peace.

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