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Film Tue Jan 25 2011

The Guest at Central Park West: An Interview With John Marshall Jones

Thumbnail image for JMJ.JPG

John Marshall Jones is certainly one busy actor; through a myriad of roles in television and film, he has engaged audiences for years with characters that are consistently diverse and that portray positive images. Here, the Northwestern University alumnus and founder of Mastering the Audition, talks about his award-winning project, The Guest at Central Park West.

In addition to Northwestern, your Chicago roots also include Second City. Talk about that experience and your transition when you decided to head for Hollywood.

Second City was notorious for only having one black person at a time--I was "the black guy" there from 1985 to1987; in fact, I used to tell people they didn't have to remember my name--just ask for "the black guy."

That must have added a lot to your experience, then.

It was an incredible training ground. You had to learn how to defend yourself against other comics who were all looking for a way to position themselves at the top. A lot of times, the humor was very racial, so you had to learn how to defend yourself without getting offended that that was all they could come up with. Again, it was a tremendous training ground for learning how to do the kind of comedy done in sitcoms. When I walked out of there, getting a job in Hollywood was no problem because I was already trained. I have a lot of fond memories--it was tough, but in the end, it was fair.

The Guest at Central Park West, premiering in Chicago next month, is a story that centers on the politics and sociology of race--how did you become part of this project?

I started a production company four years ago and began reading scripts right away. I probably read 100 film scripts and just wasn't getting the kind of feeling I thought was necessary. One day, I ran into this writer, Levy Lee Simon, who asked me to read The Guest at Central Park West, which at the time, was a stage play. It was everything I wanted to say and it was what the audience wanted us to talk about and deal with. They were doing the play in New York and I told Levy I'd come there and do the role because it was amazing.

So you were immediately drawn to the story, then.

While we were doing it, something magical was happening on stage. I've been at this a long time and very rarely do you have those kinds of experiences. I then thought we could wait to make the movie or we could bring in a camera crew and catch the magic live on stage--so that's what we decided to do. The interaction and energy between the audience and the cast is something you cannot duplicate unless you do it live.

The story takes place in New York, but can really be applied to "Anytown, USA."

Absolutely. The story itself revolves around two very successful couples who have this intellectual cocoon they've built for themselves, which is broken by this homeless man who is also very intellectual; in fact, he's smarter than anybody in the room, except that life has dealt him a different set of cards. The play is really about how they resolve the issues that come up while facing how disconnected the successes are from the realities on the street.

An important element of this film emanates from your character, Terrance, who is dealing with several issues, among them, homelessness. Homelessness and race are a whole new dynamic together--talk about the mix of these two issues as they relate to your character.

Look, people are scared of a black man when he has a three-piece [suit] on, but when he walks in a room and he's smelly, dirty and highly intellectual, those three things together terrify people.

You also directed it--what were your thoughts or what was your approach with the story from a directorial standpoint?

I co-directed it; Bruce Edwin Jenkins directed the play and I directed the video shoot. The main thing I looked at was how to translate the live stage experience to a movie theatre. One of the things about live stage is that a lot of times, you're sitting so far away that you can't actually see the emotions of the actors, which makes them have to project. Our challenge was to get in close enough to the actors so they didn't have to project so much for the camera, yet still have that live theater experience. I think we caught it perfectly. We also shot it this way because we wanted to do it in a small space, so the audience would get the sense they're actually in the apartment with these people. That was important and I think we captured it well.

Did you spend time with actual homeless people to prepare for the role? Do you know any "Terrance Barlows?"

I think we all know a "Terrance Barlow." Everybody has someone in their family that is one drink or one experience away from going completely off, but we don't stop loving them. That was Terrance's situation; he had an experience that blew his mind and when it did, he started acting out all the things in him that he never had an opportunity to engage in before. I have a cousin who was institutionalized in the 80s for just this type of thing; when I read the script, I thought about him. It made me feel like it was something I just had to do.

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John Marshall Jones and Michael Green in The Guest at Central Park West.

You noted Sidney Poitier, John Amos and Morgan Freeman as three actors who inspired you because of their positive on-screen images--as an actor how important is it to you to keep that alive?

Dr. King had a dream that he articulated and left for us and these actors, and many others, have been keeping that dream alive through media. One of the main things I'm trying to accomplish is to create art that creates a discussion about the issues that are dear to us but that we don't have a way to really talk about. When you see The Guest at Central Park West--whether you're white or black, Republican or Democrat, there's a meeting place in here because it shows the human experience that transcends all those things. In my interpretation, that's what Dr. King was trying to get us all to.

Through this role, was there any self-discovery on your part? Something you didn't realize going in that you brought out with you?

I realized I can be as crazy as Terrance is. We all got a little crazy in us and being able to acknowledge that it was actually a part of me, and look back on things I've done and say, "Oh, I'm not so different from him." I think that applies to all of us. If we can get to that, we can stop acting like people are invisible and start treating them like human beings.

What do you want people to take away from the movie?

That life is filled with choices and one bad choice can send your life in an irretrievable direction. You have to always be aware of the choices that you make--if you don't' get anything else out this piece, get that.

What's next for you?

Later this year, we'll be touring with Mastering the Audition and in April, I'll be in Canada to work on "The Troop" for Nickelodeon. Also, Levy and I have a project called The Bow Wow Club, which is our first successful venture together and the next film project we'll do.

Well, we look forward to The Guest at Central Park screening in Chicago in February.

Yes--we got a one week guarantee, but there's the possibility of extending the run if it's popular enough.

See The Guest at Central Park West at ICE Theaters, 210 E. 87th St., Thursday, Feb. 3, at 7pm. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the box office. Contact 773-892-3204 for more information.

Crystal B. / January 25, 2011 1:43 PM

Great review! I've been wondering what Mr. Jones was up to these days.

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