Villains are often the most enticing characters on screen. They draw in their audience; inviting us to hang on to every word they say. Though Edi Gathegi has had many roles in films and on television, some of the most terrifying characters on his resume are some of his most brilliant. You may remember him as Cheese in “Gone Baby Gone,” or more recently you may have been watching his antics as Mr. Solomon on NBC’s “The Blacklist” over the past several weeks. Either way, you’ve probably realized that Edi Gathegi is master storyteller. Gathegi recently sat down with Shadow and Act to talk about his new film “Criminal Activities”, his role on “The Blacklist” and what it’s like to play the bad guy.
Aramide Tinubu: Hi Edi, it’s great to meet you; I’m really excited to chat with you.
Edi Gathegi: It’s nice to meet you!
AT: Let’s get right to it. You’ve sort of become this master at playing villains. You were kind of an evil vampire in the “Twilight” saga, and currently your characters on NBC’s “The Blacklist” and this current film “Criminal Activities” are still rather unsavory. How is Marques different from the other menacing characters that you’ve played in the past?
EG: I think the idea, first and foremost, is to understand that people may label these characters as villains, but at the end of the day I have to fall in love with the characters that I play. For me, they have to be real characters with real objectives, and driving forces. So they’re all different. For instance Laurent (“Twilight”) is a vampire who has a strange desire to feed off of humans, but he tries to be a vegetarian. Unfortunately, that’s too hard for him so he ends up killing a human. So, I guess you can look at him as a bad guy, but that was just in his nature. Now Mr. Solomon on “The Blacklist”, he’s bad. He is probably the worst character that I’ve played, in terms of having very few redeeming qualities, other than the fact that he’s fun to watch. He’s someone who really enjoys living without a moral compass.
AT: Yes, he is extremely entertaining; you never know what he’s up to.
EG: Marques is a man who has been groomed and raised by unsavory characters. I think that maybe he’s potentially a victim of his own environment. He’s just sort of got into the family business. Maybe if he was raised in a different environment he might have had a different outlet. But, I guess he’s bad because he engages in criminal activity. (Laughing)
AT: (Laughing) Yes, Marques has that cold and calculating demeanor that is similar to Mr. Solomon. However, “Criminal Activities” has this humor twist to it that is very atypical of traditional gangster films. I really enjoyed that comedic element.
EG: Yeah and what’s interesting is that I have to assume it was filmed the way it was intended, but when I read the script I didn’t really see a whole lot of humor in it. It wasn’t until the actors totally committed to each scene, and what they were going for that certain things become hilarious. After all, it’s a truly outlandish situation.
AT: What intrigued you about “Criminal Activities”? How did you come to be involved with the project?
RG: I was told (and I don’t know how much of this is true) but I was told that there was a name actor that was negotiating for the role of Marques and somehow that deal fell apart. So, my agents urged me to make a tape for it. Jackie saw my tape and really liked me, but he wanted to see me do a slightly different version of the character, so I made a second tape and then they gave me the gig. I liked the role because it was a cool project. It was well written and it seemed fun, but there was a challenge for me. The difference between Marques and any other character that I’ve ever played is that he has got pages and pages of dialogue. I looked at the script and I thought this is a challenge. How in the hell am I going to say all of this and have the audience not fall asleep?
AT: He definitely has some of the best lines in the film.
EG: So I had to figure out how to personalize everything that Marques was saying; and I also had to figure out where it was all coming from, and say it in a way that was engaging. By the way, I’m in a chair for the entire film so I have to go out there with just my words. (Laughing)
AT: But you did it so well! Your character really brings together this motley crew of individuals together.
EG: I appreciate that, it was really this Shakespearian exercise.
AT: “Criminal Activities” is actor Jackie Earle Haley’s directorial debut. As an actor, how was it for you to be directed by an actor turned director? Have you ever thought of sitting in the director’s chair yourself?
EG: Well I did Ben Affleck’s first film, “Gone Baby Gone” and I remember asking him why he wasn’t in it, and he said it was too much of a challenge. He said he wanted to learn more before he stepped in and began to act as well, and he did. He ended up acting in “The Town” and “Argo.” My experience with Affleck was terrific. It was someone who knew exactly how to create an environment that allowed actors to be creative, and I loved it. We spoke the same language because he’s an actor. I’ve known Jackie Earle’s work for years. He was [Oscar] nominated for “Little Children”, and I knew what a great actor he was. I remembered what my experience was with Ben Affleck, so it was a no brainier. Jackie didn’t disappoint. He knew when to rein us in, and when to set us free. To answer your other question, I’ve thought of directing ever since “Gone Baby Gone”. That film inspired me and I even tried it out on a short project last summer, and I fell in love with it. I think it’s something that I’ll pursue in the future. I’m not going to give up acting because that’s how I’m paying my bills, but there is a burning need inside of me to direct. However, I don’t want to direct myself until I know exactly who I am as a director.
AT: That’s dope; I think that’s a great approach. Can you tell me who your favorite character that you’ve portrayed is?
EG: I actually loved playing Cheese in “Gone Baby Gone”. I know I said that, but the only thing that could have made the Cheese experience better was if I was in more scenes. I think I was in one scene and then something else, so Marques (in my opinion) is an extension that. It was the opportunity to work with an actor/director on a cool project, and I had a bit more to do. Marques was a lot of fun, and I’m excited to see what happens when audiences see the film. I also did a play at the Geffen Theater called “Superior Donuts” with playwright Tracy Letts. I know that’s theater, but that might have to be my favorite character that I’ve ever played.
AT: Well just to wrap things up, can you reveal any details about any other projects that you’re currently working on along with “Criminal Activities”?
EG: This past Sunday was series premiere of the new AMC show “Into the Badlands”.
AT: Oh yes!
EG: I joined that show, so you can catch me on that. And in two weeks, I start shooting an independent thriller called “Raven’s Watch”. It’s in the same vain as “Rosemary’s Baby”.
AT: Fantastic, well it sounds like you have quite a few amazing projects coming up so I’ll definitely look out for them. I also really enjoyed “Criminal Activities”.
EG: I’m glad you dug it, did you like Marques?
AT: Yes, you, Rob Brown, Michael Pitt, John Travolta, it was kind of this hodgepodge of characters that you would have never ever been able to conceive of, so it was really fantastic.
EG: I know and Rob is my dude, you have to catch him on “Blindspot” on NBC.
AT: Yes for sure! Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.
EG: Thank you so much, it was nice to talk to you.
“Criminal Activities” will debut in theaters and on VOD Friday, November 20th.
Catch “The Blacklist” Thursdays at 9PM ET on NBC
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami