Boots Riley’s feature debut “Sorry to Bother You” premiered this past Wednesday during the BAMCinemaFest in Brooklyn.
The film, which stars Lakeith Stanfield, follows a telemarketer in a dystopian version of Oakland who finds the crazy key to success in his field. The cast and crew were all present in full swing for the movie’s opening night, and we were on hand to talk to some of the film’s talent to discuss its themes and impact.
The Knockturnal: Your character felt like he was from a certain era like he was out of a period piece. Were their certain characters from the blaxploitation era of film that you looked to inspire your performance?
Terry Crews: First of all movies like Cotton Comes to Harlem– actually Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song is one of my favorites when you look at what Melvin Van Peebles did in regards to actually having a voice, and giving us a voice. It actually started the whole blaxploitation movement! I even wore an outfit in homage to that whole era! I said ‘I’m going 1970’s, 1969!’ But my thing was that’s when everybody realized we could do it. You know what I mean? You slowly get hypnotized into thinking you can’t do something. Because you’re not recognized, everyone poo-poos you, everybody disses what you’re trying to do, and then once you realize ‘Wait a minute, that’s not up to you, that’s up to me’, people like Spike Lee, People like Melvin Van Peebles. A lot of those guys that put stuff together– even with Sidney Poitier when he started making his own movies, putting together Uptown Saturday Night or Let Do it Again, it really meant, ‘we have a voice, we can say this stuff!’ And this really harkens back to that time. Sorry to Bother You is this generation’s Sweet Sweetback or Do the Right Thing.
The Knockturnal: Obviously, a running theme in this film is the “white voice.” Now you’re a huge figure, you’ve established yourself, but was there ever a time in your life where you felt you needed to put on sort of a “white voice” to move forward like Cassius?
Terry Crews: I wanna describe this because it’s kind of wild. I would never say I did any of that code-switching, but there’s a difference between code-switching and being bilingual. Bilingual means, there were times where I could say something in a certain circle and they wouldn’t understand what I’m saying. Then I realized ‘Oh Y’all don’t get me so I have to be bilingual.’ Code-switching is about fooling people into you know– ‘No I’m really like you.” It’s about hiding who you really are, and I think that’s the mistake because I have never done that. I’ve always been an anomaly! I’ve been an athlete, I’m an artist, I play the flute, and then I go on the football team. I’ve been this way since I was a kid, I’ve always been accused of it- ‘You talk white!’ and these are by my people, they’re like ‘you’re talking white man.’ It’s like, as long as you understand me, get out of my way! [laughs] So it’s one of those things where I had to realize at a young age if you’re going to be successful, I had to really go against the grain. Because if you gotta line up with everybody, it not going to work, so I hear what you’re saying, but I have never done that whole faking people out stuff.
The Knockturnal: Obviously, this film has gotten such great reception, but what’s the most poignant reaction that you’ve heard to this story?
Terry Crews: You know, after the San Francisco Film Festival, there was this woman who stood up and she was like ‘Thank you.’ I don’t even know how to describe how good that felt because, people are hungry, this audience is so hungry to see themselves and be recognized as 3-dimensional people. Female, black, Hispanic, Asian, you didn’t actually treat us as a footnote! And we weren’t the best friend. It’s so refreshing to say what you’ve been thinking the whole time, and to see it on screen! Let me tell you– the biggest thing I heard was thank you and it makes your heart warm and you know you’re doing the right thing.
The Knockturnal: I got the same vibe from this cast that I do from Brooklyn 99. What’s it like to be apart of such great representation within those casts?
Terry Crews: It’s a family, I would dare you to try to put together a more talented cast than Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa [Thompson,] Jermaine [Fowler], Steven Yeun, Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker produced it! You know what I mean? The voice talent, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Rosario Dawson. This is an A-list cast all the way– Armie Hammer! I’m telling you, right now I dare you to put a better cast together and you will not find a better cast.
The Knockturnal: I love your look today, your character has such an empowered look and her vision was communicated through her look, what was it like collaborating with the costume designer and developing her style?
Tessa Thompson: It was incredible [the costume designer] is right over there! I was so excited to play a character that had the ability to look so iconic. The one thing that was in the script were all of her earrings so that was sort of our North Star, sort of the base point. To get to have wild colored hair and create these looks, I wanted to create something that people could literally be for Halloween, so it’s been so exciting to see women wearing the earrings. She’s someone that uses every inch of her body like a canvas, and she’s someone that’s interested in the intersection between arts and activism, and this idea that even what you wear can say something, can challenge people, can agitate in a really productive way. That was really exciting and inspiring to get to do.
The Knockturnal: As a black woman I’ve never seen a character like this on screen.
Tessa Thompson: I know! We don’t get to occupy those spaces even though we do all the time. You walk around all of the cities in America and you see sisters with wild hair, I feel like we’re the inventors of those ideas, but they are so often co-opted and we don’t get to own them as ours. It’s how I felt, even getting to do projects that come out in the space of magical realism, I’ve watched so many of those films and loved them, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, getting to see Kate Winslet change her hair color. For whatever reason black people are just excluded from those narratives, we just don’t exist in those spaces. That’s why when I read this script I was so excited. I was like ‘Finally!’
The Knockturnal: Playing such an iconic character [Detroit], what’s been the best reaction you’ve heard from someone?
Tessa Thompson: I guess just that probably. More than actually what anyone has said, its been more affirmation, particularly shooting in Oakland, that when I was walking around and getting to know that community and hanging out that I saw so many Detroit’s walking around. So many of those women were of color, they were black women, they were Latina, they were Latinx, they were of color. I just felt like, oh cool, those women will get to see themselves onscreen in a way they possibly haven’t before, and hopefully that that can inspire folks to tell their own story, and hopefully maybe that can move the conversation forward a little bit. So in the future, it won’t be such a wild idea that people of color can exist in those spaces.
The Knockturnal: In this movie you play a power-crazed man, were there any real-life figures looked to inspire you?
Armie Hammer: Yes! I did a lot of research on CEOs in general, and also a few specifics. But what I found that was really interesting was that the rates of psychopathy are actually disproportionally higher in the CEOs, because you have to be the kind of person who is willing to do anything to succeed. Whether it be stab you friend in the back, or put the value of the dollar over the value of human life, and all those shitty things that Steve Lift really exemplifies, and then I just cranked up the dial to 11 and tried to bring truth to it.
The Knockturnal: Did you have more fun playing the villain in this movie versus playing the good guy?
Armie Hammer: I mean look being the villain is alway fun, especially if you’re playing a villain that doesn’t think he’s a villain. Steve Lift thinks he’s going to save the world, and he thinks that he has the perfect plan to make everything right. The problem is, is that his plan is batshit crazy.
The Knockturnal: Many times during your performance there are moments where Steve dissociates. In one scene Cassius is rapping and everyone is screaming the N-word and Steve almost is away from himself. What was it like putting on that shift?
Armie Hammer: He’s a man with a plan who’s always scheming, and he’s always got what he thinks to be a good plan going but his plans are insane. I can tell you that the filming of that scene was really uncomfortable. Because its a guy being forced to do something that he thinks will make him fit in, at the expense of himself, and when Steve Lift sees him sell himself out like that he knows, ‘I can get this guy to do anything.’
The Knockturnal: This story is so layered, when you first read this script, what was the initial social commentary that you took from it?
Steven Yeun: I think the initial social commentary you can’t help but ignore is just oppression, control, and a larger theme of being free from that control. But you know, I think what I saw was that initially but like you said there’s so many layers to this thing.
The Knockturnal: So this cast is so diverse but no one feels tokenized, there were no weird stereotypes anyone was subjected to. What was it like to be apart of a story where everyone was used well.
Steven Yeun: Yeah, I think it was Boots [Riley, director] was really great at casting, and that’s the sign of a good director. He’s able to see the world and people for whatever condition that they’re in at that moment. So to feel free, to not have any parameters around you, like a tokenized version of yourself, is one of the most liberating experiences. Sometimes you don’t even get that in real life, so if you can experience that on a film set, then what’s real life.
The Knockturnal: Your character is such a revolutionary, are there any modern revolutionaries that your character would look to for inspiration?
Steven Yeun: I think there’s the small guys. During the preparation for this film Boots hooked me up with a lot of salts, who are union organizers who are kind of laying the groundwork for a turn. I got to talk to one over the phone for a while over the course of a couple weeks. To see what he’s going through, and to know what he’s putting on the line, and to know what his heart is focused on is a really brilliant amazing thing. Public figures are great, but it’s the ones that don’t get heard that really are doing God’s work. It was brilliant talking to him.
The Knockturnal: Obviously, a theme is this film is suppressing who you are to get ahead, do you ever feel like in your career you’ve had to downplay who you are?
Steven Yeun: Yeah, and sometimes you’re not even aware that you’re doing it. You’re just trying to get the film. I think that can disguise itself in many ways. It might not even boil down to ethnicity or something like that, it might even boil down to ‘I just want to do what the casting director wants me to do cause I just want to act.’ But those are the slippery slopes when you look back in the rearview mirror when you find out that the person that wrote this already had a short-sighted version of who you were anyway. I feel that when it’s obvious, [you know] when it’s happening, but when it’s very subtle you can only know when you’re out of it. I’ve felt that before. Coming out on the other end of a project and not knowing who you are is pretty bizarre
Sorry to Bother You hit theaters nationwide July 6, 2018