When Bernie Mac walks into a room, there is no posse, no bodyguards waiting outside. “They would get in my way,” he says. Mac grew up in Inglewood on the south side of Chicago. And when you listen to him talk, he definitely hasn’t forgotten his upbringing. Or how to talk. But unlike some interviews, where I finish and have a pocketful of unasked questions, this wasn’t the case with Mac. I didn’t get to ask every question I wanted, but everything he said felt genuine, every tangent he took was worth hearing. It’s a rare trait, and perhaps one he learned from “Big Momma.”
Mac is co-starring with Terrence Howard in “Pride.” It’s based on the true story of Jim Ellis, who took a rundown community center and turned it into a place where blacks learned to swim and compete like never before. Mac plays Elston, and it’s a more serious role than usual. But he can still be counted on for his one-liners. Director Sunu Gonera said many people were surprised when they heard he had Mac doing drama. His response: “There is nothing surprising about that. What he does all the time, even when you’re laughing, is drama.”
Mac took time to chat with Beep about his new film, being a Sox fans in Wrigley and the responsibility his name now brings.
Bayer: You used to have a job similar to Elston’s, right? Mac: It was at 83rd and Ellis in Chatham. South Central Community Services. I was in charge of the athletic department. Putting together all the programs and trying to find sponsorship for all those black kids and teach them about sports of this nature that are so uncommon. In a black community where a lot of the kids come from single parents, mainly women … volleyball, swimming and sports like that are punk sports in their minds. There is no instant financial reward and it’s not really introduced to the black kids. I play golf and now it is so funny to see little kids of all colors missing the ball. Serena (Williams) the same thing. We have to expose the kids to these worlds, if we don’t we’re doing an injustice.
Bayer: I heard people your age, when they were in high school, had to swim naked? Mac: That’s where the line came from in the movie. There was 12 periods in school. The only way you could swim with trunks was if you were on the swim team. Unsanitary. You couldn’t wear your trunks. That’s why they had personal hygiene [class] in high school. That’s when I got my groom on, and watching my brother. He was clean as hell, when he left, you smelled him for a good hour. In high school, playing sports, they made us shower twice a day. I learned to swim under water cause we were naked, plus there was some yellow film on the water ... Don’t kill the messenger, I’m just telling it like it is.
Bayer: Your character doesn’t, but do you swim? Mac: I love swimming. If you look at the physiques of men and women swimmers, they are the best in the world. And blacks, we’re a different shape and proportion. Especially our women, wide hips, bust and all that stuff. In Los Angeles everyone is like this (Mac puts up one finger). And swimming (when I was younger), black women didn’t want to get in the pool cause they didn’t want to mess up their hair. I used to go to the lakefront late at night when things were groovy. I used to go to Northwestern and sit on the lake. Talking about our dreams and stuff and I’d say, “come on, get in the water, baby.’ And she’d say, “no.” Didn’t want to mess up the hair.
Bayer: OK, I have to ask ... In 2003, Game 6, Cubs vs. Marlins ... You and I are both there. You sing the seventh inning stretch and you say, “Root, root, root, for the CHAMPS” not “The Cubbies” as they normally say. And we all know how that turned out. Why’d you say it? Mac: The reason is because I am a comic. Being a comic, I tried to motivate them in a comedic way. I felt they were good at the time (The Cubs had a 3-0 lead when he sang). By me not being a Cub fan, I wanted to show support, coming from the South Side. And by me doing the seventh inning stretch and me saying, “The Champs,” (I wanted to) give the ballplayers that feeling that ‘we’re not going to lose now.’ But that wasn’t the case. I was 25 feet from Bartman when it happened. The Cubs asked me to sing. I am from Chicago, I represent Chi-town. They gave me a suite. The Cubs treated me very well, I’m not going to tell them no just cause I’m a White Sox fan. ... I watched them whip the Cubs the other day 13-2 in spring training. I watched (the Cubs) spend $300 million and still have no pitching. I got heat from Sox fans for singing though.
Bayer: You’re doing something different with this role. It’s more dramatic, do you intend to explore more roles like this? Mac: That’s the whole key with doing anything — it’s to expand and challenge yourself. It’s not new to me, it’s new to the fans. Since the fourth grade I was doing plays. I was a gopher at old Regal Theater with my brother. George Kirby and Smokey played there and used to get them cigarettes. The point is that I’ve been in the “gym” a long time. And my grandmother used to tell me not to hear the voices. When you introduce yourself as a stand-up comedian, that’s what people want you to stay. Every type of actor must redefine themselves in some fashion. I like when people walk away and say, “I didn’t know he could do that.” I like being underestimated. My success came in my 40s. Before that I was successful as a street comic; I was making $200, $300 dollars a day. Young comics want instant rewards, this microwave mentality. There’s no shortcuts. You got to pay your dues. Big momma — my mom — taught me that early one.
Bayer: With “Pride,” did you have room to improvise with the script? Mac: I’m a professional, and I wanted to show Sunu (Gonera) the same respect I would show Scorsese, Soderbergh and Demme. And we were on the set with some young guys. That would have been the worst thing for me to do, was to come on the set and not respect Sunu by being a comic. There’s a time and place for everything. Terrence (Howard) and I were talking and I said it’s our responsibility to show these young brothers what it is to be an actor and what it is to respect your director. We had some laughs in that arena, but when it was time to make the doughnuts, it was all respect to Sunu.
Bayer: With another “Ocean’s” movie coming out this summer, do you see an end? Mac: When they call, you do it. “Ocean’s 12, 13, 14, 15” — it doesn’t matter.
Mac left me with one more quote before he was taken away for more interviews ...
Mac: “I always have to prove myself. I’ve never been one to walk into a party and have women say, ‘who is that?’ But at the end of the party everybody say, ‘who in the hell was that?!’