Mo McRae is no stranger to being in front of the camera.
From blockbuster films like Gridiron Gang and Den Of Thieves to hit TV Shows Sons of Anarchy and HBO’s The Flight Attendant, McRae’s catalogue is extensive. After spending more than 20 years in Hollywood, the actor, writer and producer is ready to conquer the art of being behind the camera, starting with his debut film A Lot of Nothing.
Written and directed by McRae, the film follows affluent black couple James and Vanessa as they find themselves caught in a whirlwind of nothing after deciding to do “something” once they learn that their cop neighbor shot and killed an unarmed man.
Executive produced by two-time Emmy and Golden Globe nominee David Oyelowo, the film stars Y’lan Noel (Insecure, The First Purge) as James and Cleopatra Coleman (The Last Man on Earth) as Vanessa.
Its initial release took place at SXSW in Spring 2022, followed by its fall releases at The Montclair Film Festival and the 58th Chicago International Film Festival shortly after. Now, after storming film festivals across the country, A Lot of Nothing will release in theaters nationwide on February 3rd.
A Lot of Nothing tackles (almost) everything that is wrong with society today with satire and in a way we’ve never seen it done before. It shines a bright light on how complex humans can be, even when we have complete autonomy and the power to decide exactly who we are.
With the help of the most absurd humor you’ll ever come across, intense drama, mystery and whole lot of “nothing,” the film acts as a mirror being held up to society to reflect on where we fall short and perfectly encapsulates how the choices we do or don’t make are only a part of who we really are.
We got to sit down with Mo McRae and talked about his favorite part of being a director, how the recurring social issues brought up throughout the film are relative to our current climate, and the character that represents him the most.
The Knockturnal: Let’s talk about the title. So, the film is called a lot of nothing but obviously, due to its satirical nature, that’s not entirely the case. The premise is that these characters are doing a whole lot of nothing that is ultimately creating a snowball effect of a whole lot of something. What was the inspiration behind the title?
Mo McRae: A lot of that happens in the film, for sure. The title is one of those things where it has multiple meanings and thoughts.
The two major ones are, like the title justification moments in the film, a character realizes they’ve done so much towards accumulating and amassing certain things where, ultimately, they discover that all those things amount to a lot of nothing.
Another less literal interpretation of the title was the examination of things like strife, conflict and confusion. When you really break down what those things are, they’re really a lot of nothing that comes between us. And the things that are actually something and that are meaningful, those are the things that bring us together.
The Knockturnal: Was it a nod to how social media has forced a lot of people to feel that they “have” to do something, even if they’re not completely sure what that something is?
Mo McRae: Yes, it was absolutely a nod to society in the social media era and how we react to things or don’t react to things.
I started working on this film in 2018, before the pandemic. Which speaks to the fact that we’ve been ingratiating ourselves in to this pattern of armchair activism and tweeting, and facebook-ing and Instagram-ing when there’s an issue. But then the question becomes ‘what can we actually do?’
So, with me being aware of the way we’ve been responding to things, that question begins to get more and more intriguing. What does it look like when you are in a position to actually do something and then discover you’re completely ill-equipped?
The Knockturnal: This is your directorial debut but you’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years, why do you feel like now is the perfect time to tell this story?
Mo McRae: This is going to sound dramatic but it just felt like I would never feel complete or happy or fulfilled as an artist if I didn’t tell this story. I get overwhelmed with these emotions, thoughts and desires to connect and to make a contribution to the media that I felt like was meaningful and it had to happen as soon as it possibly could.
It was just one of those things where if it didn’t happen as soon as it possibly could, I would be terribly unhappy.
The Knockturnal: Did the pandemic ever create any second thoughts about releasing the film?
Mo McRae: I honestly never had thoughts of scrapping it. There were more concerns that I wouldn’t get the chance to finish telling the story because [filming] shut down about 1/3 of a way through the shoot.
Irrelative from everything that was happening around the world, it’s just a movie so I don’t want to take lightly to people that lost lives. I was in my own battle of not being depressed, and investing so much of my energy, time and resources and then we shut down for 16 months. So, there were definitely times where I felt like I might never get to complete this film but I never abandoned it.
The Knockturnal: How did Cleopatra and Y’lan become Vanessa and James?
Mo McRae: I had known Y’lan because we had worked together and we had become friends. While I was going through the auditioning process, there was someone else that was supposed to play James. Ultimately, it just didn’t work out, schedule wise. So, I had to open it up to auditions.
A lot of really incredible actors came in and then Y’lan came in. The first time he came in I just knew I didn’t see the full potential of what he could do. For whatever reason, it wasn’t there. I talked to the producers and everybody about Y’lan coming back in again, and because we have a relationship I was able to call him and tell him what I was looking for [in James].
He came in the second time and just exceeded any and all expectations I had from our conversation of what the character was. He took it and made it something of his own, and now he’s nominated for Outstanding Breakthrough Performance in a Motion Picture at the NAACP Image Awards. It’s incredible to see him take ownership over this character.
The first time Cleo walked in the room… I do photography, as well. I do a lot of photography… and as soon as she walked in, she had such a striking face and energy that my first thought was I would love to photograph her.
She did the scene and it was like ‘Oh my God, she is this crazy combination of Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett and Angelina Jolie all wrapped up in to one unique package.’ So, I was like ‘that’s my Vanessa, this is my James.’ They did the chemistry read together and it was magical.
The Knockturnal: What was your favorite part of the directing process?
Mo McRae: I loved everything. Casting was special because that was the first time I was hearing the words inhabited by someone else, going through their vessel and their interpretation on top of these words I crafted.
But if I had to pick a favorite part… definitely the time on set. The collaborative process. I was very fortunate to have so many incredible artisans come together and work at a rate that was a fraction of what they could have been making, based on their skillsets and talent.
Those days of having that amazing cast with the phenomenal production designer, AD’s and my cinematographers who I just really love and will probably work with for the rest of my career. Just being on set and telling a story together was the most special part of the process for me.
The Knockturnal: Is there a character you feel like you relate to the most?
Mo McRae: To be honest, It’s James. James’s character is very much inspired by a lot of different elements from my life and trajectory from where I started to where things end up. Just the navigation of it all. Being a man of color trying to succeed in places where there aren’t, oftentimes, many men of color. Just trying to navigate and build something special while still struggling with insecurities and all the things that make us people. I feel like James is probably the one that embodies who I am, intrinsically, as a person.
The Knockturnal: You said last year during an interview with INSIDER, that representation was important because it signifies something that’s tangible and attainable. Are there any black filmmakers whose work influenced you or that you enjoy watching?
Mo McRae: I’m from South Central L.A., and when you think about South Central L.A. and cinema, the first name that comes to mind is John Singleton who was an incredible human being and filmmaker. He saw me as an actor early on and told me I was special and was always supportive [of me].
The Hughes Brothers and Gordon Parks. Spike Lee really in terms of style, boldness and influence. Even right now, Ryan Coogler. He’s mind-blowingly talented. Antoine Fuqua, all these guys showed me what was possible.