After about 20 years in the business, it was high time that Mekhi Phifer switched it up a bit. We’ve seen him in hit TV shows. We’ve seen him in classic Black film. We’ve seen him work with revered directors and actors; we’ve even seen him play the encouraging sidekick to Eminem (in the Curtis Hanson-directed, critically acclaimed 8 Mile).
So the 39-year-old actor—always looking for a good, new challenge—signed to co-star alongside Zoë Kravitz, Kate Winslet, Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd and Shailene Woodley in Divergent (out March 21). The sci-fi thriller is set in a futuristic Chicago; it’s based on author Veronica Roth’s bestselling 2011 novel of the same name. Divergent will be Phifer’s first trilogy, and you better believe he’s up for the challenge.
EBONY: You’ve been at this for 20 years now. Surreal?
Mekhi Phifer: I know! It’s crazy. I’m very comfortable with what I do, but it just seems like yesterday that I just started, at 19, and it’s been like a whirlwind ever since. I’ve gotten to travel all over the world and meet all kinds of people and do all kinds of great things, so it’s, like, surreal. It just lets you know how time flies, especially when you’re having fun. It seems like time keeps going by faster as I get older.
EBONY: You came out the gate working with Spike Lee. How did that change the moves you might have made as a novice?
MP: I wasn’t even trying to act. I just went to an open casting call. When you come out the game with that sort of film, working with Harvey Keitel and Delroy Lindo and all these other great people, including Spike Lee, it really sort of sets a tone on where you want to be with your career. When I did Clockers, I didn’t even think about having a career in acting, I just thought, “Wow, this is cool. I get to do a little movie.” But it really does affect your selection, because you’ve already set a tone for what you expect of yourself and what people expect of you.
EBONY: You’ve always picked interesting projects—TV, indie and big budget films. And you’ve worked steadily for 20 years, no easy feat as a Black man in Hollywood. What’s your secret?
MP: Just being a student of the game and constantly learning. Just starting to really get into film and loving film and loving good television. When I got in the business I was a blank slate. And once I got in, I was really intrigued by everything and all the components that it takes to even make a successful film. I don’t need to know anything.
When I did ‘Clockers,’ I didn’t even think about having a career in acting, I just thought, ‘Wow, this is cool. I get to do a little movie.’
EBONY: What was it about the script of Divergent that made you say, “I have to be a part of it”? It’s a phenomenal cast, so I get the quick yes, but what was it in particular that attracted you to this?
MP: I had never been a part of a trilogy. It was just a really well written script. And I knew we were gonna be shooting in Chicago, and I love Chicago.
EBONY: The storyline du jour is that things are looking up for Black people in Hollywood. Does it feel different for you as an actual actor?
MP: I’ve kind of always just been in the mix, so I can definitely see that there’s certain genres of “Black actors” that are being explored. I still think there’s a lot more that they could give to us. A lot of our stuff now is all comedies, because that’s what Hollywood thinks is the only way that we’ll come to the movie theater. They don’t really give us romantic stories, or just straight dramas or even action to a certain respect.
So I think that there’s room to grow, as far as being a person of color in film. I went to the theater the other day, and there’s a whole bunch of Valentine’s Day movies coming out. And the only ones that you see a lot of us in are us goofing off and clowning around; it’s this kind of pseudo-romantic comedy kind of thing. Those aren’t necessarily my favorite, so I would like to see more quality, [not just us in] comedies where we goofing off and talking loud and acting crazy.
EBONY: Does that inspire you to want to go behind the camera at all?
MP: Yeah, and I have. I have a production company and I did direct a little movie years ago [2006’s Puff, Puff, Pass]. But I’m always constantly trying to do things that step outside the box. So I have been inspired to step behind the camera and bring quality things to light.
EBONY: People are loving you in House of Lies. What’s it been like working on that show?
MP: Aw, it’s been great; it’s been awesome! We had a lot of fun and we’re still having a lot of fun. As you see the episodes unfold, it gets even crazier. Don Cheadle’s a good friend of mine, so I definitely looked forward to working with him again. This is a fun cast, great group of people.
EBONY: The net feels cast a bit wider in terms of job opportunities. You now have Netflix killing the game, and you have outlets like Showtime and HBO delivering quality stories and scripts…
MP: Oh, absolutely. And, I mean, look, there’s still tons of actors that want to work and do all that kind of stuff. Netflix, all of those guys that are putting out original content, it really does help. Even all those different cable channels, all that kind of stuff. It really does help have more job opportunities out there, more outlets in which to hone in on your craft. I definitely applaud Netflix and all of those guys, whether it’s Hulu or whoever, for doing original programming.
EBONY: That said, what would you love for the next 20 years to look like?
MP: I want to see my family prosper, see my kids grow old. I would love to keep having a really solid, strong career and just being happy. My life isn’t just this business, so there’s so many other things that I like to do. I just want to be able to have the freedom to do all of the things that I want to do.
EBONY: Is there a role out there that you’ve been eyeballing for a while that you would love to take on?
MP: I always wanted to do the Al Green story. I’m a big fan of Al Green, and so I’ve always wanted to do that.