Ernie Hudson: Everything's Jake

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Ernie Hudson

When I was given the opportunity to interview Ernie Hudson, I'll be honest: my first thought was, "What's he done since 'Ghostbusters'?" Then I learned he was promoting a new DVD called "Everything's Jake." So I said, "Okay, let me take a look at that, and we'll move on from there." So they did, and so I did, and so here we are. And I couldn't have been more pleased. Hudson is a man who's passionate about what he does and what he believes in, with concrete opinions about the message of "Everything's Jake," acting on television, and the ongoing WGA writers' strike.

In addition to playing the title character, you also have a producer credit. Did you help finance the film?

Well, I helped in terms of getting the finance, and also getting the cast -- really, pretty much anything. These are two young filmmakers who had just graduated from Syracuse University, who happened to write this extraordinary script and created a character that I totally related to, and I felt spoke to some of the issues that I'd been concerned with, just in terms of how we as a society began to look at ourselves -- and, more specifically, what I felt was happening in the African-American community. This character seemed to kind of "get it" on a certain level, and I thought it was a great story about friendship and relationships. So when I read the script, I really felt that it was something that I wanted to see happen.

I was working with a couple of young people who had never made a movie before -- never really been on a movie set. They had studied film and writing in college, but, you know, the real thing is a little bit different. But I knew they were very talented. For one, they were able to write the script. The director, Matthew Miele, who was one of the writers -- one meeting with him and I knew that he really got it. And Chris Fetchko, who produced it -- I really liked him.

And then once I came on board, I thought, "Okay, whatever they're deficient in, I have to step up and make up the difference." They were young enough to be open to that help, which I find missing in so many directors as they get older -- they tend to want to be little demigods who run everything. But these guys were pretty open; if something didn't work, they would listen. So, yeah, I kind of stepped in, meeting the money people or whatever was needed to get this project off the ground and see it through.

Once we finished the movie, audiences always responded really well to it. It won a number of festivals: Santa Barbara, the Big Apple, the Atlantic City Film Festival. But we had a hard time getting a distributor, so it sat for years. And I pretty much -- I think we all kind of thought, "Well, that's that." And someone from Warner Brothers happened to see the movie, and they decided to get it out there.

So you got to play the role of the experienced mentor to the writers.

Yeah. You know, it's funny, when you've been in the business as long as I have, you find that happens a lot. The studio system is going through a lot of changes, and rarely do you get these movies where they kick in a hundred million dollars and everything is paid for, and every problem is solved with money. A lot of times you're working with people who have a lot of desire but they don't have money to throw at the problem. So it's great when they're open to listen. That's just the nature of the business that it has become.

A lot of the roles in this film -- even the cameos -- included a number of well known actors. You've got Stephen Furst, Robin Givens, Lou Rawls...

I felt that, if you're going to do it, then you want to get really good people. I find that so many young filmmakers feel they can get anybody to do a role, but there's something that comes with experience. Stephen Furst -- we did St. Elsewhere together years ago, and I called, and he came out to New York and just really just contributed time. Of course, everybody got paid, but they sort of waived what their normal salaries were. Debbie Allen -- we did a TV movie called "Women of San Quentin" years ago, so she came aboard. Robin Givens -- Debbie and Robin -- we had done "Michael Jordan: An American Hero." I knew Lou Rawls and went to see him in New York, and after the show we were having a drink and talking, and I told him the story, and he said, "Man, I want to be in the movie!" So we had this little vendor scene, and I told him, "Well, we're shooting a scene tomorrow," and he came down and wrote a song on the spot.

Doug E. Doug, who used to be on The Cosby Show came in. Phyllis Diller and I appeared on a talk show together, and at the end of the show she came up, and she knew my work. I was totally surprised. I mean, I knew her, but I had no idea that she would not only know my work, but know movies I had done. And she said, "Well, you know, I'm an actress, and I want to be in the next one when you're working -- I want to do a movie together." Then I got the script, and I read the part of this woman who was living on the streets, who used to be a former showgirl and sat outside the theater hoping to be called again. It was such a tragic part, and I called her, and she got on a plane and came to New York at her own expense. We were shooting nights, and she worked all night. It was a bigger part and, unfortunately, because of time, it got cut back. But she was great. I mean, everybody there just had a personal connection.

Graeme Malcolm I met in the audition process. I had a friend who I'd thought of in that part, but when Graeme came in and read, I thought, "This is the guy."

Everybody made sacrifices to make this happen. Tony Jannelli was the director of photography -- he's Jonathan Demme's cameraman, and worked with him for years. He read the script and brought his crew with him, and pretty much did the movie for... I don't want to say "free" but it was pretty close to free.

So it was just a lot of people who loved the script, and who respected me and cared enough for me to say, "Okay, I'll do it."

Your character in the film, Jake, appears throughout the film as a sane and sensible man. And yet he chooses to remain homeless voluntarily, even though he clearly doesn't have to. What kind of a man is Jake?

My grandmother who raised me used to say, "You can't change the way things is, but you can change the way you view them." And so Jake is a guy who's been on the streets for a long time, but... at some point there's this awakening or this awareness that goes off in a person, and for him it's looking at people rushing around, trying to convince him that he needs to join their world, and that he'd be better off being like them.

But he's looking at them going, "But you don't seem that well off. You're stressed out. You're worried. You're running here, running there. In fact, maybe I have the best deal." There's a line in the movie, "If you can tell me the difference between the North Pole and the South Pole." And you can't tell the difference -- it depends on which way is up. That's his perspective.

And I also think that it's the fear that "I can't join that -- I can't get what I've never had before. I don't know what that's like. But what I do know is what I know. And so this is my choice." And knowing that it's his choice, it's almost like being at cause, as opposed to most people, who operate at being at effect, thinking, "This is what's happening and I have no choice but to be this way." And I liked that. There's something about that spirit that I think is admirable.

Now Jake also realizes that most of the people he comes in contact with, they don't have that philosophy. They don't see the world that way. In fact, he's kind of a... I don't want to say a protector, but he kind of looks out for those like the Lou Meyers character (Abe) or the Phillis Diller character. He has his people. I met a guy -- we did a fair amount of research going to some of the shelters and talking to a lot of people -- and we met this one guy who had this sort of world. He was, "You know, Thursdays I go down here, and it's the best soup you've ever had," and then, "I go over here and you can take a shower, and then I check in on my friend," and, "I see my girl on Wednesday because she's up at this place." He had a life, and that was sort of a real clue to the character for me, because I think, most of us, we look at it like life ends when we lose our stuff. I mean, that's really the big fear that we all have. "Oh my God, what if I hit that wall and it all disappears? Life is over, and I'm gonna die!" And of course you realize that you don't die, you just keep going on. Now, if you're afraid of it and you stress out and get high or drunk... there are things where you can go unconscious. But if you don't go unconscious, life will continue like it always does -- slightly different, perhaps.

I think, most of us, we look at it like life ends when we lose our stuff. I mean, that's really the big fear that we all have.

So I think that's Jake's perception of the world, and I think, on some level, it's always been mine. And so, when I read this character, it really spoke to me, because I grew up hearing people talk about being disadvantaged, and I'd go, "What disadvantaged?" Did being African-American meant that I'm handicapped? Handicapped how? In whose world? I don't see myself as handicapped. I'm not lacking anything that... there are things that people put value on, and assume that everyone else must have those values. I feel, in fact, that I'm extraordinarily blessed. And the more I see around me, the more I'm totally convinced that's true. I think my making the decision to become an actor, all the things that have happened in my life -- I'm doing pretty good! I'm not lacking anything that I can feel. I think Jake sort of feels that. And I'd never read a character -- certainly a black character -- that got it that way.

In the film -- and not to give too much away, because this was a very nice twist -- a character produces a best-selling book, titled "Everything's Jake," about the homeless experience, and Jake accuses him of glorifying the existence. Couldn't Jake say the same thing about "Everything's Jake" the film, since it shows how to live a fairly good life of chosen homelessness?

That's one of the issues, and I think the writers also knew that, because the story is about a man -- it's not about a condition. I've done some work with the Union Rescue Mission here in LA -- the largest in the country and, I think, the oldest, and they did not like the movie. I should say, the individuals liked the movie, but the organization felt that it did not help them in terms of fundraising and the things that were important to them. Because on a certain level, they have to make the condition real. They have to convince people that they are really bad off, and then other people can feel sorry and contribute.

With Jake, you have an individual who's saying just the opposite of that -- that we are all making these choices, and we're all responsible on some level for the choices we're making. So that's a little bit tricky. I totally believe that, but I also get that other people don't get that. I think Jake realizes that he's had that "A-ha!" moment, but he also recognizes that other people don't understand that about themselves. It's almost like the Christian thing, that Christ gets that He is the Son of God; but He also recognizes that other people may not realize that that's who they are as well. And until you get it...

So that's one of the things where people look at it and say, "Well it's a movie about the homeless." It's not really about the homeless. Here's this man who's living his life, not as a homeless man, but as a man who's making certain choices, and that's a very different thing.

It's a reflection of the social circles I travel in, but when I told people I was interviewing you, the first thing I would hear is, "Ghostbusters!" and "Be sure to tell him about 'the Twinkie.'" Obviously that's one of your more famous commercial works.

It's great to have a "Ghostbusters" in your repertoire -- something that you've done that people can respond to. I mean, there are so many actors who've been in the business for years who've never even had a movie released, or who've done a number of movies that never hit the mainstream. So to have a movie like "Ghostbusters" on your resume and have people still respond twenty years later, that's great.

You've also had a decent number of dramatic television roles over the past few years, with shows like Crossing Jordan, Bones and Cold Case -- even a semi-recurring role on Desperate Housewives.

Yeah, I had a series called 10-8 a few years back. Television is certainly a way to pay the bills. It's very hard to get the characters with any kind of depth. Now, if you're starring on a series, it's a little different, because you have time to hone that character and mine it for dimension. But when you're coming in as a guest-star, it's pretty much cut-and-dried, and that's very, very frustrating for me as an actor.

I remember doing an episode of Bones, and when the director called and asked me to do it, he explained the character to me: he's an attorney, he's on a case, here's what his case is about. And I was all, "Yeah, I want to do that." But then, when I got the script, it's not about the attorney -- it's about the regulars, and he's just kind of there to move the story along. And so you come to work with maybe ten percent of what you have to offer, and they don't really want you to bring the rest of it, because it kind of... I was doing an episode of Crossing Jordan, and I was told, "We're making hamburger, not steak." So you're not expected to bring your "A" game a lot of the time.

Now, if they've written a really complicated guest-starring role, maybe, but... The Desperate Housewives character, he was the detective who investigated -- and that's all he does. He comes in and asks a couple of questions, and then goes home. I get paid, but ultimately you end up very frustrated because, going into those things, you think, "Oh, wow, I'm going to really be a part of the storyline." But there are so many stories running, and of course the primary concern is the regulars. So that can be frustrating. But I still do it, because I think it's important for an actor to be able to work in all those arenas, be it stage or television or movies.

Speaking of paying the bills, what work do you have coming up in the near future, and how are you being impacted by the WGA writers' strike?

Well, the writers' strike is going to hit everybody, I think, and hopefully it will be resolved. The industry really has changed, and so we're trying to develop a new model more than just figure out how to get paid for these things -- and not only the writers. I know the directors' contracts are coming up, the actors' contracts come up in about six months, and unless these things are resolved on some level...

What I'm beginning to hear rumors of now is, "Well, maybe we don't have to deal with these people. We can go to other countries. We can look to Britain."

But once we get with this globalization, and we talk about outsourcing... What I'm beginning to hear rumors of now is, "Well, maybe we don't have to deal with these people. We can go to other countries. We can look to Britain." In fact, I'm looking at most of the stars on the current new TV shows, and I think they're pretty much all British or Australian or whatever.

So that becomes a real dilemma, because there are the guys in power who don't want to share. We created a real strong middle class in the fifties and sixties, and it seems like the last ten years or so, we've been doing a lot to undermine that; it's been shrinking. People are either doing really well or they're falling behind. So at some point it felt like "union" had become sort of a bad word for a lot of the business people. Of course the union was what was the basis for that middle class, and I think it's important as a country that we support that. We're at a really interesting time in our country's history, and we're really at a point where we can step up to greatness or we can fall back. And I think this strike speaks to all of that -- I think that we can really grow and create an industry that is unparalleled and amazing, or we can lose so much ground like we've lost it to Canada and other places, and it can get pretty bad.

What projects will we be seeing you in next?

There's one called "All Hat," with Keith Carradine, Rachel Leigh Cook and Luke Kirby that played at the Toronto Film Festival. I'm in a film called "Nobel Son" with Alan Rickman, Bill Pullman and Mary Steenburgen; it played at Tribeca. Those should be coming up soon... within the next six months. There's one called "Lonely Street" with Jay Mohr and Joe Mantegna, but I don't have a date on that one. There's a recurring thing on a television show called Psyche with Phylicia Rashad -- we're playing Dulé Hill's parents. There's Las Vegas -- I do a couple of episodes where I play a bad guy on those. I try to stay busy, and keep doing what I feel called to do, and I'm very thankful for that.