Young black star is blazing his own trail

DYNAMIC DUO--SNIPES

July 25, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Wesley Snipes doesn't enter a room so much as explode into it, a slash of cosmic lightning from the planet of the supremely talented, so lit up with juice and jazz and attitude he can even excite . . . journalists.

And so when he shazams into a New York hotel banquet room in service to his new co-starring vehicle, "Rising Sun," it's more like rising temperatures or rising wind currents or something: He's a blur, a tangle of arms, legs and eyes, a riot of noise and sound effects, rogue ergs of energy around the room, incendiary opinions, fierce glares and deeply contemptuous snorts.

He is, in case you didn't know, black.

In the book "Rising Sun," the character he plays is, in case you didn't know, white.

"The book was bland and boring, and Web Smith was a pawn," declares Wesley Snipes of the dim creation in Michael Crichton's original novel. "He had everything happen to him. I had to bring my own groove to it. I gave him a backbone."

And indeed, Snipes did. Nobody ever accused Snipes, 30, of lacking backbone, as he's fought his way to major roles in the past few years, after getting just the tiniest sliver of a break in "Major Leagues." Since then, he's been the real Meteor Man, in a flame-tailed trajectory up, up and up: as the bad vice king in "New Jack City," the anti-terrorist commando in "Passenger 57," the smooth-as-silk con man and world-class hoops jock in "White Men Can't Jump" and the talented but embittered architect in "Jungle Fever." Most recently he was an obsessed T-man in "Boiling Point" -- most recently as in, like, one month ago. And now he's up there big as life on posters the size of Manhattan that cover all of Manhattan with no less a figure than Sean Connery.

"I tried to find windows," Snipes continues in his disquisition on the brother Web Smith, "where you could execute some initiative," meaning where he could do his own thing to bring Smith to life.

Hmmmm. The casting is not without its controversy. Crichton himself had uttered a few nasty words about the race-changing in the production, but by that time had no power to affect it, as he had left it over what director Philip Kaufman and others hasten to call "minor disagreements about working methods."

From the other direction, an Asian group has suggested that the casting of Snipes would serve to highlight hostility between African-American and Asian communities by playing the two against each other in the framework of the movie.

'We don't have history'

That's something Snipes thought hard about and something he worked to avoid, claiming that he resisted attempts by the writers to set him up as an antagonist to the young Japanese actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in the film.

"We don't have history with them," Snipes says, meaning African Americans don't have a history with Asian Americans. "I don't have a gripe with them. I gave him a martial arts background, and I wanted to keep the respect up between representatives of both races."

Right now, however, his main problem, he says, is adjusting to being a star.

He hates it.

"Trying to survive being a 'public figure' is hard. Success is hard on relationships. It's not designed for married people. It doesn't work. Fourteen weeks on a boat shooting a movie, your marriage is over. Or fame. Getting recognized. I rebelled against it a lot. I'm a social guy. I'm not going to stay in because I'm famous. I got to flow the way I flow. I'm not the chi-chi-poo-poo type of cat. I hate limos -- too much hype."

A reporter present reveals that he was sitting behind Snipes at a recent West Coast jazz festival and recalls how Snipes had arrived very modestly with just a date, no entourage or bodyguards or any of the appurtenances of modern stardom.

Snipes is very pleased.

"I just show up. That's the way I like to do things."

He says he got into acting in high school, because it enabled him "to act a fool most of the day. I'm silly."

He's casual about it, but the facts are more impressive. He was born in Orlando, Fla., where he grew up, except for a two-year stay in New York, where he attended the High School for Performing Arts. He then went to the State University of New York, Purchase, where he got a degree in theater arts. He went on to off- and on-Broadway roles, and some distinguished cable work, including the CableACE award for best actor for a part on HBO's "Vietnam War Stories."

A bad spell in 1987

But it wasn't necessarily a flawless ascent. The worst period in his career came in 1987.

"I was out of work, and I couldn't get a job. I had done two movies, and here I am parking cars."

But things happened quickly: a "Miami Vice" episode got him a role in "Major Leagues," and "that changed everything." But the struggle taught him something: "I can be patient," he says. "If I have to step away, I can step away."

And he's not even sure he likes this "leading man" thing at all.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.