Indeed, the strongest motives for this two-toned casting have always been commercial - Snipes has clout in black and white markets alike - but that needn't rule out more interesting considerations. His best performance to date was in White Men Can't Jump, which began with the routine odd-couple premise of an unlikely alliance between a couple of basketball hustlers (Snipes & Woody Harrelson) yet blossomed into an exhilarating, abrasive comedy of racial manners. The film gave Snipes a chance to show off his licks as an athlete - he's been training in various kinds of martial art since he was 12 - at the same time as allowing him the room to improvise some dazzlingly funny torrents of invective. It also confirmed that there was a great deal more in Snipes's thespian range than the kind of brutal strut and swagger he'd shown as Nino Brown (the diabolic crack baron of New Jack City) and has reprised in some of his more unfortunate thick-eared outings, such as Passenger 57. One of the best scenes in White Men Can't Jump involved Snipes hustling his fellow hustler; it ended with a close-up on Snipes's face as his phoney remorse started, faintly but unmistakeably, to shade over into real remorse.
There aren't many young stars who could have managed that bit of emotional athleticism as neatly as all the physical stunts, but then, as Snipes observes: 'I don't think a whole lot of actors really study acting, or be having intelligent conversations about it. Especially in films - you don't have a lot of actors, you have a lot of personalities, or people who are in films and they say they're an actor, but know nothing about what acting is really all about.' Out of character, Snipes talks in a relaxed, emphatic manner. He slips readily between formal English and street slang, laughs loudly, and picks up and discards different accents with mercurial swiftness. Talking about his training at the State University of New York, he recalls that 'they prepare you primarily for repertory theatre: Shakespeare, Chekhov. Film is kind of secondary, because - Heh] - the THEEAYTUH thinks that film actors are NEVAAH as good'.
Spike Lee was the first major league director to disagree with the SUNY line, and recognise that Snipes could be subtle as well as murderous; he cast Snipes first as a musician in Mo' Better Blues and then as an architect in Jungle Fever. Philip Kaufman, the director of Rising Sun, was so taken by Snipes's talent that he re-wrote the part of Connery's sidekick expressly with the actor in mind. In Michael Crichton's novel, the character is Detective Peter J Smith - a 34- year-old male Caucasian, as they say in the cop shows. In Kaufman's film, which slightly softens the anti-Japanese thrust of the novel, the man has become an alumnus of the South Central LA 'Hood called Web Smith, a name which echoes 'Wesley Snipes' ('Dig it. Dig it,' the actor agrees) just as his mentor's name, John Connor, chimes with 'Sean Connery'.
Connor is the senpai, or tutor, to Smith's kohai, or apprentice, and it's tempting to wonder how far the edgy on-screen relationship between the veteran and the young turk coloured the actors' off-screen dealings. Snipes denies that there was any friction between himself and Connery - 'Smooth, man, smooth' is his summary - but is happy to admit that he kept a studious eye on the old pro.' I will sit and watch, and when I was working with Sean I would pick up little things here and there, how he does stuff with word phrases, how he gets away with certain phrasing which gives a ring, a regalness to what he's saying.'
The duo found it easy to get along, he says, because they both come from relatively poor, non-showbiz backgrounds. 'You know, we made ends meet, but sometimes there wasn't no meat at the end. (He lets out a whoop of laughter.) People now maybe want me to sit back and say 'Oh, it was terrible, how can a child be raised in such a dysfunctional manner . . . '
'And I'm like (he adopts a streetwise drawl) 'Yo, man, that's where I grew up and that's cool, it was fun when I was there', you know what I'm sayin'? That's one of the things that enabled Sean and me to get along, because he knows what it's like to come from quote unquote nothing. There were no guards standing outside my house . . . just the neighbourhood crackhead.'
One of the major differences between his work on Rising Sun and the Spike Lee movies, he says, was that Lee not only allows, but relies upon his performers to come up with their lines - 'If we all got points and had writing credits for all the stuff we had contributed to Spike's films . . . You know, I probably would have met you guys a couple of years earlier.' In Kaufman's film, by contrast, his invention was restricted to details of playing: 'I try to include very subtle things that suggest dual thoughts, different kinds of motivations, conflict . . . ' One such moment comes just before Rising Sun's final frames: Snipes, dropping the heroine off, moves his hand involuntarily towards her, repents, and drops it. 'Yeah, that was mine,' he nods.
Locked as he is into an upward career trajectory, Snipes says that he now has the bargaining power and self-confidence to build on his knack for dialogue by moving into screenwriting. His debut piece, co-written with 'a guy called Tiger Williams', is entitled Seekers: 'It's about seven guys who are bounty hunters, but operating out of New Jersey. I figure, if I can do it for everybody else, why can't I do it for myself? I may be more fearful of it than I need be, but if they're giving money to everybody else to try out and they keep coming up with garbage, well, give me some of it] I'll come up with garbage too]'
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