Wesley Snipes: Action man courts a new beginning

After a decade of legal problems and straight-to-DVD duds, Wesley Snipes is back on top with his finest role since Blade. James Mottram meets him
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The Independent Culture

Dressed in a black suit, purple T-shirt and a pair of Ray-Ban glasses, Wesley Snipes does not look like a man facing hard time. Good humoured, garrulous even the actor best known for his role as the vampire hunter in Blade arrives for our interview seemingly without a care in the world. Announcing his "spirit is well", it's almost understandable. With a decade of straight-to-DVD duds with titles like The Detonator and The Marksman behind him, he's just pleased to be back in a major release. An intense cop drama from the director of Training Day, Brooklyn's Finest unquestionably offers him his best role in years.

Playing a drug dealer named Caz, just released from jail, it's savagely ironic that it coincides with the very real possibility that he may be heading in the other direction to his character, if the court appeal against a three-year prison sentence he is currently facing is quashed. It's a legal battle that began back in 2006, when the US Attorney's Office alleged that Snipes, along with his financial adviser Eddie Ray Kahn and his accountant Douglas P Rosile, attempted to defraud the IRS of more than $11m in bogus refund claims. "I never got a dime," he later insisted. "I didn't defraud the government by taking money that was not mine."

It didn't help that, filming zombie-Western Gallowwalker in Namibia at the time, he was branded a fugitive as well as a tax cheat. Two years later, Snipes escaped these more serious charges, after a jury accepted his argument that he had innocently taken bad advice by questionable advisers. Yet with the IRS claiming he had not filed tax returns at all between 1999 and 2004, he was sentenced to three years, the maximum term possible for tax evasion, as well as being fined $5m. But a court has ruled that he may remain free while his appeal is being considered.

Having been forced to pull out of films due to this legal quagmire, notably Spike Lee's 2008 war film Miracle at St Anna and Sylvester Stallone's forthcoming The Expendables, I wonder how it feels with a jail sentence hanging over his head. "What's new?" he splutters. "I'm a black man in America. There's nothing new about that. We grew up with that. Yeah. Even going into the business, I told my accountants and agents that the objective is to do as much as I can before I can't do it anymore, before I'm taken out of here. I never anticipated, like many of us, that I would live this long. So it's nothing new!"

According to Snipes, he's "very well trained" for dealing with such pressures. "I come out of repertory theatre so I've been working under pressure my whole career. It's no different for me." But surely having this hanging over your head must affect you? "It's no different!" he cries. "It's all in your head. It's a matter of perspective. For some people, it's legal. For some people, it's money. For some people, it's relationships. It depends on where you're at. It's a matter of perspective, you know what I'm saying? It depends on where you're oriented. What your orientation is."

While Snipes has a family to worry about if he did go to jail – he has five children in total, four from his current seven-year marriage to his wife Nikki – he seems almost at peace with himself. Perhaps it's because he knows he could survive prison, both mentally and physically. He has been training in martial arts since he was 12 – studying shotokan karate, and Brazilian jiu jitsu and capoeira, along the way. Has he ever had to use his skills in a real-life situation? He nods. "It ended very quickly." What happened? "They were disrespectful."

He may even be a hero of sorts inside, given how many people still associate him with his crack-baron character Nino Brown from the 1991 gangster film New Jack City. In December 2007, he told Entertainment Weekly that this image didn't exactly help his cause. "All these things, they play into our stereotypes. People think I'm Nino Brown... they think I'm an evil dude" – "they" being people in positions of authority, who control the mass media. "Every day," on the set of Brooklyn's Finest, he says, it was happening. "One actor called me Nino in the middle of a scene! I don't know why people like it. It wasn't even my best work. I have no idea. But they love it."

He sees Nino as different from Caz in Brooklyn's Finest, which co-stars Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke as three cops all crumbling under the pressures of the job. "Nino was a very different kind of a guy. He was a monster, basically a bad guy pretending to be a good guy. Caz, on the other hand, is a good guy. He got caught up in some unfortunate situations. He's a good guy! He really means well. I think that's the biggest difference. Nino didn't want to get out of the game. Caz wants to get out of the game and change his life."

Etching a sympathetic portrait of a man trying to go straight, Snipes hopes he gets the approval of those who have been through that world. "A lot of guys who come from that experience do have that sensitivity, softness and hope – a vision for the future. Isolation can do that to you. Any kind of solitary experience can humble you, can quiet you, so that's what I wanted to bring to the character." What does he mean by isolation? "Well, whether you sit in a tree in the mountains, like a monk, or you lock down in cell block D!" he says, in a manner that suggests he knows what it's like to be incarcerated.

Iwonder whether Snipes could have ever turned out like Caz. "I doubt that," he says. "You might see me in the subway, tap-dancing with my hat out, or something like that. But I never gravitated to that kind of life. I never sold drugs. I never got into it." Not that he wasn't living in a tough neighbourhood, mind. Born in Florida, Snipes and his two siblings moved to New York's South Bronx with their mother after she split from their father. Gangs were all around when he grew up, but Snipes stayed out of trouble, he says. "My mother was pretty much on my case all the time."

Winning a place at New York's High School for the Performing Arts (yes, the one from Fame), Snipes never got to graduate, after his mother decided to move the family back to Florida, where she got a job washing windows at Disney World. Even so, he continued acting – dinner theatre and regional productions for the company Struttin' Street Stuff – before returning to study acting at the State University of New York. He got his first role in the 1986 Goldie Hawn vehicle Wildcats while he made ends meet installing telephones and parking cars.

A year later, he got his breakthrough as – you guessed it – a gang leader in the Martin Scorsese-directed video for Michael Jackson's "Bad". Spike Lee saw it and wanted Snipes for a small role in Do the Right Thing. He turned it down, preferring to take the more sizeable part of baseball player Willie Mays Hayes in 1989 film Major League. Nevertheless, Lee cast him as a musician in Mo' Better Blues, opposite Denzel Washington, and then the introspective architect in Jungle Fever. The critical respect these performances generated was matched by the commercial punch of films like White Men Can't Jump, Passenger 57 and Demolition Man.

Snipes went on to win Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his lead

in Mike Figgis's interracial drama One Night Stand, as well as establishing the Blade franchise in 1998, which he helped to produce. Yet it's in the last decade that Snipes has concentrated on B-movie action roles, a sort of downward spiral that his seen the fee he commands plummet and the roles he gets offered dwindle. "You'd be surprised at how much garbage is out there, how much repetitive stuff is out there," he says.

Of course, it doesn't help that his legal problems have prevented him taking some of the bigger offers that have come his way. Yet surely Snipes – a man Ethan Hawke says is the only actor he's ever known to be able to hold the screen with the mighty Denzel Washington – can't go the way of a Van Damme or a Lundgren? He maintains that all the films he's made over the last decade were meant to get a theatrical release.

"The people that control the money, they had other ideas. I thought we were making a theatrical movie and they said: 'No, no, no – this is a hamburger. We don't make great films. We make hamburgers.' But now I'm in a great film."

'Brooklyn's Finest' opens on 9 June