[caption id="attachment_3466" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Mekhi Phifer as FBI Agent Ben Reynolds in Lie To Me. Photo copyright of Fox Television"][/caption]
In the season one Lie to Me episode Blinded, FBI Agent Ben Reynolds enlists the help of Dr. Cal Lightman (Tim Roth and his team to help in the hunt for a serial rapist. This marked the debut of Mekhi Phifer as Reynolds, who by the end of the episode is made a member of Lightman's team.
Perhaps best recognized for his starring role on ER, which garnered him two NAACP Image Award nominations, Phifer is also known for his many successful feature films. He began his acting career in Spike Lee's Clockers and then went on to star in such movies as 8 Mile opposite Eminem, O opposite Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles and Soul Food with Vanessa Williams. The actor's other TV credits include The Tuskegee Airmen, Subway Stories: Takes from the Underground, Brian's Song and Carmen: A Hip Hopera. Additionally, he earned a third NAACP nomination for the film A Lesson Before Dying.
At the end of September, I joined several other journalists on a conference call with Mehki Phifer. The following is an edited version of our Q & A. Enjoy!
What are the similarities and differences between your role on Lie To Me and your character of Dr. Gregory Pratt on ER, which you were so good in?MEKHI PHIFER - Thanks, I really appreciate that. The only similarity is that they're pretty strong characters. They have different backgrounds and things of that nature, and, while both men save lives, they do it in different ways. Obviously, being able to, for example, carry a badge along with a gun and having gone undercover adds more layers to my character in Lie to Me and makes him different from Greg Pratt. So I'm having a lot of fun unveiling all those layers.
As the season goes on are we going to find out a lot more about your character and get more into the personal side of things?MP - Yes, definitely. Shawn Ryan [series executive producer] and the rest of us really want to delve into this character and see what makes him tick.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you first become involved in the series and your audition process for the role of Ben Reynolds.MP - Fortunately, they [the show's producers] knew my work and loved it, so I didn't have to audition. This job was an offer to come do the last two episodes of the first season and see how it all worked out, including how we gelled as a cast, and it worked out great. So once hiatus came I was officially asked to join the cast for season two.
What were some of the acting challenges you found first stepping into the role, and how have you seen your character grow and develop so far in year two?MP - It's always hard, especially those last two episodes I did for season one because my character wasn't at all scoped out yet. Starting out, you kind of have to make it up as you go along, so you're sort of walking on egg shells when it comes to character choices that you're making because those choices affect the next episode and the one after that and so forth. I just knew that I wanted to portray someone who could go in many different directions, so I tried to bring a three-dimensional side to Ben. In season two, we have a little bit more clarity on the way we want things to go. You will get to see into Ben's past as an FBI agent and even him doing undercover work and how that affected his professional as well as personal life and what he's had to deal with because of that.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your production company; as an actor, how important do you think it is to have a role behind the camera as well as in front of it?MP - I guess it's personal preference. Me, personally, I like to be able to tell the stories that I want to tell and do the things I want do to. It takes a little bit more work, but that's what the production side is. You're still going to have to sell [the idea] to someone who's going to give you the money and things like that. However, it does give you a bit more control to tell the story that you want to tell as opposed to just reading a script that somebody else wrote and saying, "Yes, please, can you hire me for this job."It allows you to be a bit more hands-on and closer to the heart.
What influence do you ultimately hope to have or leave in Hollywood?MP - The point for us actors, just from the creative side, is to entertain and affect people. It's always the best compliment when people come up to you and say that they were affected by your film or performance on a TV series or whatever. I don't know yet what my ultimate legacy is that I want to leave. I'm still a fairly young man and hopefully I have a lot more to do.
You character on Lie to Me is kind of like the "cops and robbers" type while everyone else is more scientific. Can you talk about the push and pull between the characters and what that friction is like?MP - You're right, Tim Roth's character and all the other guys at The Lightman Group are a bunch of scientists who may want to do something that's beyond the limits of the law if you will. My character is kind of the liason between them and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We do bump heads a lot because I don't necessarily understand, at least right now, how much their methods really do help solve cases. As the series goes on, he'll come to better understand that. Ben Reynolds has his own methods and it's hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but ultimately both sides come together for the betterment of these cases.
In terms of your breadth of work, you seem to be drawn to drama more than comedy - is that correct, and if so, why do you think that is?MP - I can do comedy but it's a certain type. I'm not a physical comedy guy or slapstick. That's not my style. Even when I was on Curb Your Enthusiasm I wasn't playing this over-the-top crazy character. I was playing it kind of straight, but it was funny because the situation was funny, do you know what I mean? That's how I portrayed him. I like dramas because you can laugh and joke and still be serious and real. I like the realism of the genre.
You did such a great job in The Shield, which was such an edgy show. Are we going to see the same thing in Lie to Me? Is it going to be a little edgier and darker this year?MP - Yes, I think so. It's already kind of going there. The networks are different so they have a different approach. Obviously, The Shield was on the FX Network, so they had a bit more leeway as far as the dialogue was concerned, as well as with the content and what they showed viewers, which is a great thing. But on Lie to Me we will push it to the limit as far as Fox will let us go, that's for damn sure.
What sticks out most in your mind about our first day on the Lie to Me set and shooting your first episode?MP - The first day, in particular, is always one of those weird days because you're thrown into your trailer, given your wardrobe, haven't really been on the set, etc. Fortunately I had been watching Lie to Me, so when I walked onto the set for the first time it was like, "Wow, this is what I've been watching on TV." You're also meeting people for the first time. I had never met Tim Roth before, even though I've always loved his work. It was the same thing with the rest of the cast, and to come on and have everyone welcome you with open arms and really be there for each other was definitely a breath of fresh air. It was the same thing on ER. We had a great camaraderie and that's more or less what I was concerned about more than anything else. It's a great group of people here and we're having a lot of fun.
What did you enjoy most about working on ER and playing the character of Gregg Pratt?MP - I was able to be here [in Los Angeles] and be close to home and my kids every night and all that kind of stuff. Again, though, it was the people. The cast and crew on that show hung out together, we travelled together and did so much together. I always like having that sort of rapport with the people I work with because life is too short not to.
What would you say makes a career in this industry rewarding for you so far?MP - What makes a career rewarding is being able to do good work and know that people respect and appreciate your work. As an artist and a creative person you always want to receive the accolades of others who are watching you or you wouldn't be doing it, do you know what I'm saying? No one wants to do this if people say, "Man, you stink." Actors want to do well and, to me, that's the basis of having a stellar career, earning peoples' respect. When your name comes up and people go, "Oh, yeah, he's a good actor, and I loved him in this or I loved him in that." It's a good feeling to have people appreciate you.You're on a show that has a multi-cultural cast just like ER. Can you talk about the importance of having a multi-cultural cast and what that brings to television?MP - I just think it opens up the viewership. The beauty of watching a good television program or a good movie is that, yes, you may have a multi-cultural cast, but those roles could go to anyone - they could be played by persons of any color, you know? To show the world that we have more in common then we have different from each other is, to me, the ultimate goal. It helps reinforce in peoples' minds that thought that we're all the same. Yes, there are going to be cultural differences, but for the most part we are all the same as human beings.
Was the character of Ben Reynolds written with you in mind?MP - Yes, I think so. I know that they wanted to introduce a character who could go toe-to-toe with Tim Roth's character and be a sort of on-site lawman with a badge and a gun to deal with crisis situations right there without having to outsource or try to find an agent who was willing to work with The Lightman Group.
As a Black man in Hollywood who is specifically doing drama, can you talk about the challenges of that. Do you feel there are challenges in finding work, having been fortunate with ER and now Lie to Me?MP - It was tough, just like anything else. I've been in the industry for 15 years and throughout that time I've mainly done dramas, but I've always tried to portray each character differently and make them three-dimensional. Lie to Me came up as a testament to my work in the past. Again, I didn't have to audition for it; the producers and director had seen my work as well as heard about my work ethic and asked me to come on. So in order to really be respected in this town, you have to have a foundation of good work. Without that, you have a shell of a career out here, rather than the meat and bones of it all.
As noted above, photo is copyright of Fox Television, so please no unauthorized copying or duplicating of any kind. Thanks!