Damon Wayans: Taming Wayans
Damon Wayans shot to fame on the sketch comedy show, In Living Color. As the show’s breakout star, Wayans quickly made the jump to the big screen where success eluded him. By 1996, Wayans’ movie career was cooling off. That year, he starred opposite Adam Sandler (who was still best known for Saturday Night Live) in the buddy comedy Bulletproof. In this interview from the December 1996 issue of Movieline, Wayans talked about his difficult childhood as one of ten children and how he hoped a biopic about Richard Pryor would set his career back on track.
It’s lunchtime at the Beverly Hills coffee shop Nibblers, and Damon Wayans seems curiously out of place. The 36-year-old actor–who rose to prominence on the TV series “In Living Color” and has gone on to star in feature films like Bulletproof, The Last Boy Scout and Blankman–is the only big, black, bald man sitting among the profusion of senior citizens and middle-aged businessmen. But he is so focused, he doesn’t even seem to notice. My eyes are briefly drawn to the gold-and-diamond horseshoe he is wearing around his neck, but his gaze is so intense, I end up looking directly into his eyes for the duration of our conversation.
One of 10 children, Wayans grew up in the projects of New York City. His brothers Keenen, Shawn and Marlon, and sister Kim, are also actor/comedians.
KEVIN KOFFLER: What was it like growing up with your nine brothers and sisters? How did your parents handle you?
DAMON WAYANS: My father is a Jehovah’s Witness, and he raised us under a very strict hand. He believed that if he did not spare the rod, he would raise functional, obedient children. He failed to realize he didn’t need to beat [us] all of the time; he needed to talk to us, to try to understand us. I think that he learned [to do that] towards the end of his career as a father. [When I was young], he didn’t know there was any different way of being. He’s two generations away from being a slave; [when he was growing up] he got beat, so he passed it on. The good thing is I don’t [beat] my children, and none of my brothers and sisters do it to theirs. We’ve broken the chain.
Q: When you were young, what was your mother like?
A: My younger brothers and sisters really caught the sweet end of my dad. My mom was a rescuer. She was always there to save us when crises arose. One time I got caught in the assistant principal’s office with this girl–she was the school slut, and I had been getting my feels in. I was born with a clubfoot, so any titties was pretty titties to me. I got suspended, and my mother came to pick me up at school. The dean was going on and on about how I was a pervert, and how he found “this kind of behavior unacceptable.” Right in the middle, my mother said, “Don’t waste my time with this bullshit. I can’t help it if my son is a lover.” From that moment on, I looked at my mom differently, and I looked at women differently, too. When we got outside, she smacked me and told me, “Don’t you ever do that again!” But in the moment, she rescued me, and I think she’s done that for every one of her children. On some level, she’s given them one powerful moment that has shaped them as adults.
Q: What do you remember about the apartment where you grew up?
A: The smell of urine in the hallway, and in the elevator. For some reason, people felt it necessary to pee in the elevator–there was always a little puddle. Then, when the elevator doors opened, there was a constant smell of soot–the incinerator always seemed to be burning. Our apartment was a railroad flat, a long hallway with different rooms off to the side. The kitchen was on your left– that’s where the roaches lived. Further down the hall was the living room, where my mother covered everything in plastic slipcovers–even the lamp and TV remote control. We were afraid to go in there to play. Still further down the hall were two bathrooms. The one on the right was my parents’ bathroom, and the one on the left was for all 10 children to share. We never really had time to wash up in the morning. We would just sort of wipe the soot out of our eyes, and maybe brush our teeth–if there was toothpaste.
Q: You had to be in by six o’clock every night, right?
A: Six o’clock, no matter what. I got into a lot of trouble hanging out with street guys–you know, doing little petty thefts–but I was only tough until about 5:58. Then I knew I had to get home.
Q: Did you escape by watching a lot of television?
A: No, we could only watch one show per night, usually “Batman.” Then we had to go off to bed. I’ve probably always been fascinated by TV because I didn’t get to watch a lot of it growing up.
Q: So what did you do to entertain each other?
A: Keenen and I would play with this clay that Con Edison put around the pipes. We’d make Batman and Robin, or cars, or houses, anything that would come to our minds. The great thing was it was reusable, and we could always smash it to make something new, so we could always have a different toy.
Q: Did you and your older brothers always get along?
A: No, my oldest brother never really liked me, and would beat me up. His idea of baby-sitting was to hang me on the hook on the back of the door for hours, just hang me there, and punch me if I complained. A lot of it had to do with the fact my mother had children so fast after he was born. He never got attention, so he had a lot of resentment towards the other kids, especially me. Because of my clubfoot, she gave me her undivided attention until Shawn was born, 11 years later.
Q: What fictional film or TV family comes closest to your own?
A: The Corleones from The Godfather. We Wayans have a thing about respecting the hierarchy of the family–everybody knows their place. We all know what we bring to the table.
Q: Can you give me an example of which siblings parallel which Corleones?
A: Keenen is the brains; he’s the Godfather. He can see things from an aerial view. He’s really smart, so Keenen’s the one we go to with our problems. I’m Sonny–the one who wants to kill everybody. I’m emotional, irrational, passionate, Shawn is Michael, because Shawn sits back and he learns from both of us. Marlon is Fredo, ’cause Marlon will do anything, and he just doesn’t care. He’s passionate, impulsive and unpredictable, all in the same day.
Q: You’re Sonny, the one who wants to kill everybody? Would you say you were an angry child?
A: I don’t think it was anger. All of my teachers wrote me off as being the uncooperative asshole of a kid. Smart-mouthed. They didn’t know–or they didn’t bother to research– what my problems were. I came from a house where food was scarce. I was coming to school hungry. I had headaches and cramps from wanting to eat. I got a nickel per day, and I would buy candy with that money. So I’d get a sugar rush, and then crash. Because of my brace, I was the laughingstock of my school. My mission was to change that. Maybe the subtext of it was anger, but I think it was the fuel I used to prove myself.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about you?
A: That I hate people. My God doesn’t allow me to hate anyone. I hate things people do, and, being a comedian, I’m supposed to hold up a mirror and say, “Look, this is what I saw–do you see this?” It pisses people off.
Q: Your critics have sometimes accused you of portraying characters that cross the line of good taste. How do you feel about that?
A: I haven’t built a career of making fun of [minorities]. I’ve built a career on being funny. It’s either funny and you like it, or you don’t and you turn off the TV.
Q: Moving on to your film career: The Last Boy Scout made $59.5 million, but since then your films have hardly been blockbusters. Yet Hollywood keeps giving you chances. Why?
A: One, let me say I’m grateful. Two, I think people believe I could shine in the right vehicle, I’m the guy who they give something mediocre to, and hope I can make it great. I’ve yet to be given a great script. That’s coming up for me, though, with the script about the life of Richard Pryor.
Q: Tell me about that.
A: I couldn’t put down the book Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences; I read it in a day. My secret fantasy has always been to be Richard Pryor. Marty Scorsese loved the book, too. So I met with Richard.
Q: Had you met Pryor before?
A: Yeah. I love him, I adore him, but I can’t be his friend. He doesn’t know about trust, loyalty, things like that. I believe he’s an emotional invalid.
Q: What do you mean?
A: I went over to his house once with my wife, and we’re hanging out with him, and what, his sixth or seventh wife? He’d seen me perform at The Comedy Store, and he said, “Man, you’re a funny motherfucker.” He’s telling me all these great stories about Africa–I just felt like I was in the presence of a god–but then, out nowhere, he goes, “Get the fuck out!” And he just left. I thought he was joking, but his wife leaned over and said. “He’s serious. He wants you to leave now.’
Q: How hard will it he to play someone as complicated as that?
A: I think there is enough rage and complexity to Damon that, coupled with Martin Scorsese’s direction, I’ll be able to pull it off.
Q: Where does all your rage come from?
A: I hate the system and I hate the hypocrisy in the world. I know this is not what God intended. We’re way off base. What we really want is peace and peace of mind, but the human race is headed for self-destruction. It’s because Satan is controlling this world, and people are just going along with the program. They think welfare reform and a 17 percent flat tax are going to help? They won’t, because those aren’t the roots of the problem. People in Hollywood are driven by money, power and fame–none of it makes you happy. Having people that love you and people you love makes you happy. God made our needs very simple. Money is some shit man invented.
Q: If there are kids reading this interview who one day hope to get out of poverty and the projects to make it big in Hollywood, what advice would you give to them?
A: Make sure you have got something to bring to the table before you get to Hollywood. Learn to write. If you’re an actor, write. If you’re a producer, write. If you’re a director, write. Because writing is where it starts, writing is the secret to success. You can always fall back on it. That way, if you get blackballed as an actor or producer or director, you can do what you do forever.
Kevin Koffler is a freelance writer. This is his first piece for Movieline.