I first met Omar Benson Miller at the Cannes Film Festival in May, when he was with his brother Terry, who is also his creative partner. We initially argued about the NBA playoffs, an argument that couldn’t be settled in one round. So, we decided to continue our sparing session over dinner on the Croisette. Since I’m a lifelong, die-hard Lakers fan and season ticket holder, I had to defend my beloved boys in purple and gold any way I could!
While we were at dinner, I was amazed at how humble and gracious Omar was with several fans who constantly interrupted us to ask him for an autograph or a picture. Every time, and I mean every single time – even when he had a mouthful of food – Omar always obliged his fans. That’s when I knew I wanted to get to know Omar and Terry better. Soon thereafter, I learned that in addition to being a co-star on “CSI Miami,” Omar was going to be in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and that he had also recently written and directed his first independent film; a family comedy called, “Gordon Glass.” I still remember telling Omar and Terry that I was going to start writing a column for Film Threat, and that I definitely wanted to interview Omar for it someday. He said “sure,” just as another fan interrupted our dinner.
Flash forward a few months later to last Friday, when Omar and Terry were meeting me at my office to do this interview. Knowing Omar’s recent projects have given him a global reach, coupled with the fact that he’s also an independent filmmaker, made him the perfect interview for “Going Bionic,” in my opinion. It’s really cool to get some insight from a guy whose doing it on both scales, studio and independent.
When Omar and Terry showed up at my office, I greeted them in a deep purple polo shirt and purple Nike’s, just to rub in the fact that I was right about my Lakers. Omar burst out in laughter and teased me over my crazy purple shirt (pictured) and shoes (not pictured) before we headed into my office.
Omar nestled himself into a comfortable sofa with a bottle of water in his hand and the sounds of Hollywood and Vine outside my office window, as we started the interview.
You’re currently in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a massive release that opens in the U.S. on July 14th. It also opens in 36 additional countries before September 16th. Did you approach your role any differently, knowing how wide the release is globally?
No, no. I’ve been doing the same stuff technique wise from when I did plays in college that nobody came to, to now a film [“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”] that will, God willing, make a half a billion dollars or something like that. I don’t think the technique changes based on whose watching. I think that you have to do your best and figure out the angle you’re gonna connect with the material in the most honest way, at which point the audience will connect with you. That’s what I’ve found is the most delicate and important relationship. It’s this little triangle, to use a Laker reference, of how you relate to the material and how in-turn, that makes the material relate to you and the audience.
You also play Walter Simmons on “CSI Miami,” which is one of the most watched television shows on the planet. Have you considered how your role on that show affects the people in different countries?
You know, I really hadn’t until we took that trip to Cannes and beforehand, I’d gone to Paris and Holland and…um… it’s amazing. Once I ran into Jerry Bruckheimer at the gym when I first started the show, and I was like, wow man, the power of this show is amazing. The way the people react now in the street is different than they reacted to when I was the guy in “Tranformers” or when I was the guy in “Shall We Dance” or “8 Mile” because the net that it casts is so much larger. So, he [Jerry Bruckheimer ] responded, “wait till you go overseas.” And when I went overseas and got to see, it was amazing. It just further solidifies to me the power that art, film, television, and music has over the world and over people in general. I think it’s something that can be used for good or evil. And it’s very dangerous I think because some people get lost in the shuffle of using that power in the wrong way. I’d like to influence people in a more positive way, and I think the show does that.
According to TV.COM, your fan approval rating for your work on “CSI Miami” is 94% – the highest of any actor on the show. What do you attribute your loyal following to?
(beams and cracks-up as he looks over to Terry)
I think the only person that voted was my mom and my brother and my ex-girlfriend. And my ex-girlfriend was the 6%… You know, I don’t know. Thank God. That’s great. I’m glad that people were feeling it. That was one of my major concerns stepping to the show. The show already has an audience and is so established and [I was] hoping that they [the audience] would accept me, because if they don’t accept you, you’re going nowhere fast. I think it’s a testament to my writers. I get a lot of great material.
Knowing how visible you are internationally, both on the silver screen and the tube, are there images or you wish to portray through the characters you play?
Absolutely. I am very interested in promoting positive images of African American people worldwide. I think it’s time now in this Obama era to move forward, and now what I want to portray is positivity.
You’re also an independent filmmaker, who recently wrote, directed and starred in “Gordon Glass.” How different was it taking on your own indie project from being a part of much larger studio projects?
I was a bit more meticulous on the angles because it was all on us. The big thing about the financing the studio brings is that it makes everything easier. But, sometimes in making things easier I do believe it makes things less creative. I loved the family feel of the small film. I really enjoyed that, and I can’t wait to jump back into it on the next hiatus from the show.
Just having completed your first indie film, do you have any advice for filmmakers that may be in the same boat?
Absolutely. I’ll let my brother speak on this one. (Terry answering) Just be persistent and you have to have a tight, tight budget, because it’s a really a big monster and that boy comes to life once you start working it. It can take you over. It can consume you, so you have a tight budget and stick to it.
As a director, do you have a vision, or a visual voice?
I definitely feel like I have a vision. “Gordon Glass” was the first piece that I directed and I feel like after I watch it now there’s a lot of things that I would’ve changed. The primary thing that I would change is being in the movie so much while directing it. It’s very difficult. When I watch people that I admire that are in the films they direct, guys like Spike Lee and Woody Allen, they’re not in the film in the capacity as the number one on the call sheet. They’re in the poignant scenes and their characters are important for the story, but it’s [their time on screen] not enough to distract them from the overall goal, which is to make a good movie. I really want to focus on the stylization of my future work, and I really want to focus on the relationships I can build within the structure of the film. Coming from a performance background, my strong suit is dealing with performers and getting performances out of them. So, that’s something I need to focus on and I think that will happen for me more with the less I am in the movie.
Very few people will ever say that [about starring in your own film]
Yeah… I don’t know why. Nobody wants to be honest about it.
As a writer, what thought do you give to how your story will play to international audiences?
Certain topics encompass the whole world. When you start talking about family, faith. You know, they transcend your culture and your race. Because these are tenants of life, and if you can make those tenants of life intertwine with entertainment, you can really, really score. If you look at giant, giant films, they always deal with family of some sort. Look at “Star Wars.” “Star Wars” is a family story… it’s a dysfunctional story about a father and a son and a daughter that goes full circle.
You’re also a celebrated athlete. Are there any similarities between how you prepare for a film or a game?
(Omar’s face lights up. He leans forward toward me as he answers).
Definitely. In sports, you have to prepare yourself physically and more importantly mentally. It’s a combination. Everyday something goes wrong when you’re shooting an independent film. So, you have to be mentally strong and mentally prepared to deal and problem-solve and be malleable and change your thought pattern. The exact same tenants of success are in every single facet of life. It’s just about how you apply them.
You once said “I do not want to be one of those actors who are disillusioned by Hollywood Instead of letting Hollywood work me, I will work Hollywood.” Can you explain that?
It’s a common thing out here [in Hollywood] that the same people you step on getting up are the same people who are watching you when you come down. And, I don’t want to be one of those people. I’m interested in doing good business with the people that I’m involved with. I’m interested in making good projects and having fun at the same time. Ultimately, I want to create art that lasts longer than me, than you, than my brother, that people can watch down the line and say, “man, that guy got it.” I want to be the person who can tow the line between art and commerce, and who doesn’t end up at the end of the day jaded despite what happens. Even if I catch a raw deal, I don’t want to be that jaded person because that’s just not who I am.
Tell us something that we may not know about you. Do you have a special ritual that you go through when you’re about to start a new project?
(Omar leans back into the sofa, looks at his brother, and then grins widely).
I’ll tell you one thing that people don’t know I do. Every time I find out I got a job, I go see movie that night. It’s like my way of giving back to Hollywood. Even if it’s something I don’t want to see. I just have to do it.
Ten years from now, when you look back at your body of work to that point, what would you like to see?
So, say I look back ten years from now, I want to be able to be proud of the characters I played. I don’t want to have to hang my head, or hide my material from my kids, and be like, “ah, you don’t want to see that. They had me over a barrel, I needed the money.” (Omar laughs). I want to look back on meaningful work that touches people. My job is to make people feel and I think I’m successful with that because I’m honest with the material. And when people feel, they remember you, and that’s what’s been going on for the past ten years. So over the next ten years, God willing, you know, we’ll just continue to turn it up, keep getting these great opportunities, and maybe throw in a few films I made myself.
That’s where we wrapped-up the interview. Soon thereafter, Omar, Terry and I headed off to lunch to argue about if the newly revamped Miami Heat could beat my beloved Lakers next year (I think not)….
Omar Benson Miller was a pleasure to interview and it’s an honor to call him and his brother Terry my friends. Their honesty, talent, and relentless ethics are incredibly refreshing. Hollywood would be a much better place if there were more people like Omar and Terry. But since I’ll be looking up at my gravestone from six feet under before that day will come, I’ll just thank my lucky stars that a seemingly meaningless argument over basketball has lead me to this refreshing friendship with a creative force who has gone so very “bionic.”