Orlando Jones Interview

Actor and 7-Up pitch man plays a whacked-out 'Nam vet wannabe in the outrageous 'Say It Isn't So'

Actor and 7-Up pitch man plays a whacked-out 'Nam vet wannabe in the outrageous 'Say It Isn't So'

As a sketch-comedy player on "Mad TV," in his recent 7-Up commercials screaming "Make 7...Up yours!," and in the new movie "Say It Isn't So" -- in which he plays a jive-talking paraplegic -- Orlando Jones seems like the kind of bug-eyed zany that some comedians use as a character actor career crutch.

In person, however, Jones is much more contemplative and dignified -- although no less funny. And his eyes are like that naturally. The man just has a lot of eyeball.

Trapped in a windowless conference room at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton while on a publicity tour for "Say It Isn't So," his comic senses kick in as soon as we're introduced and I lay myself open for a joke. He asks me how I'm doing, and I say something facetious about being gung-ho to "get down to work."

Jones snaps off his purple sunglasses, turns toward a blank wall, steps back on one heel and puts a couple fingers to his chin in mock contemplation. "I think we should start by taking out that wall over there," he says.

"Push it back three or four feet to make room for the Jacuzzi?" I play along. He laughs appreciatively and drops down in a chair at the big mahogany table in the middle of the room.

Without saying another word, it seems clear that while Jones may be known for his sillier outings as an actor, he's no comedian trying to turn his schtick into a movie career. True, this latest film is about as nutty as movies get. "Say It Isn't So" is like the younger cousin of "There's Something About Mary" -- a deliberately outrageous romantic comedy about mistaken identity incest, produced by "Mary's" Farrelly Brothers. But Jones is an actor with a mind for career diversity. He's keen to do some drama (he was in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia" but his scenes were cut) and he goes out of his way to work with directors he admires.

For the moment though, he's OK with laughs as the driving force of his career. That's how he got his start as a writer for a late-1980s "Cosby Show" spin-off, which is where our conversation began.

Q: I want to jump back a few years to start out here. You started out writing for "A Different World" in 1987. How did you get there?

A: I was just sending out submissions. They wanted a younger writing staff, or at least some young people on the writing staff. They'd seen a reel of commercials I'd done, they met with me and I got the job. It was pretty much a fluke.

Q: Speaking of commercials, have you reached the point where you want to slap people who approach you on the street and say "Make 7-Up yours!"

A: [Smiles.] I'm not there yet! I'm sure the time will come. But you know what? I can pick people out a mile away. I look at a person and I can tell exactly what they're going to say. There are a couple different kinds of people: The people who say nothing, the people who yell, and the people who whisper to their friends and if you stand in one place long enough they'll double back over and say something.

Everybody has their own M.O. If it's a little kid, it's absolutely 7-Up. Now, 13 to 28, flip a coin -- it's either "Double Take" or "The Replacements." But I'll (still) get "Office Space" and "Mad TV" a lot.

You go to like 35 to 42, they either saw "The Replacements" on a plane or they saw "Double Take" ads, but they haven't seen the movie. [Affecting a stuffed-shirt voice] "Well, my kid went to see it, but I'll just wait for it on video." As for 50 and up, it's exclusively "Liberty Heights," and they don't know about 7-Up or anything else. It's like they watch "60 Minutes" and maybe something on PBS or A&E. They have no clue about anything else (I've done).

Q: So for a role like this, how much of the comedy was just turning on the camera and letting you wing it?

A: [Laughs.] You know, it was about 50/50. I always do a take of what's written. If you have any respect for your director, give them a take of what's on the page. I've worked with directors who don't care, but that's usually my starting point. But there's definitely a lot of stuff in this movie that probably wasn't in the script. But the thing is, if you wing it, you can't just ad lib in one place. If you do it in the master and you want it to be in the movie, you gotta do it in the close-up, in the two-shot, in the reverse master. You gotta do it every time.

Q: That's gotta be the worst part of the job. Doing the same thing over and over again.

A: Yeah, it is. But that's why they call it acting. If it was just being funny in the spur of the moment, it would be improv.

Q: When you're working on one of these off-the-cuff characters, how much work do you put into developing them? Do you make it up as you go or do you sit at home and figure them out?

A: Well, it's a mix. You can tell the people that wing it. They're the same in every movie. I prepare, absolutely. Especially for this -- this character could go really bad really easily. I'm playing a guy who is handicapped, and if you're making fun of the handicapped it's far less funny. I wanted something kind of crazy, but specific, because I think in a movie like this the characters have to feel real. You know, like, I got in a cab with that guy once!

Doing a big afro and bright-colored clothes, I knew immediately that was going to put me in Jimi Hendrix mode. So that gave me a foundation, but I had a pretty specific character -- what he sounds like, what he looks like -- in my head. He's a mix of a couple of my uncles, basically.

Q: I saw the Jimi Hendrix thing, but the first thing I thought of when I saw the character was a Vietnam Vet type who was never in Vietnam because he's too young.

A: You are 200-percent right. In fact, you are the only person in the last five cities to say that. That's the joke that made me laugh the most in the movie! There are two (underlying) jokes that make me laugh more than anyone else did. One is that he has white legs, which just cracks me up! It cracks me up that the dumb-ass can't afford -- or doesn't care enough to buy -- black prosthetic legs. That just makes me laugh for some reason. The other thing is that he's not old enough to have been in Vietnam, but he's acting like he's done six tours of duty over there. It's like, what the f**k are you talking about?

Q: Were CGI effects used to erase your legs in the scenes where you appear without the prosthetics?

A: No. My double in the movie was a double-amputee. When I'm in full frame, that's just me faking it.

Q: So did you hang out with your double to help enhance your authenticity?

A: Oh, very much. That was a big part of it, to make sure that looked real, because the joke isn't that he's handicapped.

Q: With the exception of your last movie "Double Take," you haven't done much that could get you pigeon-holed into the "black movies." Is that deliberate?

A: Yes. Very much so. I didn't want to be doing a "Three Strikes." No offense to that movie. I thought there were some funny parts in that. But that's not something I've ever wanted to do. And I'm not a stand-up. That's not what I do for a living. I'm really an actor. And, tell the truth -- aren't you tired of those movies?

Q: I get tired of them, sure. Some of them are really solid, like "The Wood"...

A: Good movie. Good movie.

Q: ...but so many other are just carbon copies.

A: Right. And my problem with them on one level is, are you ever going to see anyone from "The Wood" in a $100 million action movie? Are you ever going to see anyone from "The Wood" in a real dramatic piece that crosses racial barriers all together and it's just a dramatic piece about a person who is going through...whatever?

Q: That's why I asked this question. I see some of those actors -- very good actors -- who keep getting stuck in the same roles in the same movies.

A: You can make a comfortable living doing that. But I don't want to have my options cut off in any way, shape or form. And if I was doing those kind of movies, I am positive I would not have ended up in "Say It Isn't So." My competition for "Say It Isn't So" wasn't anybody black. When the Farrellys were talking about this role, I was sure I wasn't gonna get it because the people who they were out to were Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson and Billy Murray. I was pretty sure I didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell. But it wasn't as if they were talking about Chris Tucker or Chris Rock or D.L. Hughley or Martin Lawrence. I don't put myself in a position where we're all competing for the same type of stuff because I'm not really interested in that stuff. Although "The Reverend Pimp Daddy," the next movie I'm going to do, falls closer to that vein. But it's my idea. I can't wait to do it.

Q: I would think that would be more in the vein of a "Saturday Night Live" spin-off.

A: It very much is. It very much is.

Q: Do you have dramatic ambitions? Do you want to turn around and do something really serious at some point?

A: Sure. Give me the right script, the right director and I'm all over it. I try to pick that way. (Although) I didn't like the final product, my attraction to "Bedazzled" was (director) Harold Ramis. I was like, I don't even need to know what the movie is. I want to work with Harold Ramis.

Q:I can see that, because you have a pretty interesting list of directors you've worked with already. P.T. Anderson, Barry Levinson ("Liberty Heights"), and Mike Judge ("Office Space")...

A: Love Mike. Mike's a great guy. And Ivan Riteman, too. It's been nice company to keep, and it's a small community. I got "Evolution" (coming out in July) because Harold Ramis said to Ivan Riteman, "I've got this kid in 'Bedazzled' who is hysterical. You should put him in 'Evolution' as a lead."

Q: Before I let you go, I have to ask, man-to-man: Heather Graham in person...?

A: Hottie. Smokin'.

Q: Back about 1986 I watched "License to Drive" with Corey Haim like six times on HBO just to look at her.

A: [Jones rolls back in his chair cracking up really loudly and clapping his hands, then high-fives me.] I'm gonna tell her that! That is funny! "License to Drive!"

Q: I mean, she's a very good actor, too...

A: Yeah, yeah. She is. She's an extremely good actor. But that is so funny, man! That is hilariously funny!



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