Drugs, Stand-Ins, Mood Swings and Legal Action: The Real Wesley Snipes
By Chris Parry
Posted 04/22/05 08:08:06
News came out today that Wesley Snipes, the one-time action hero who has crashed and burned repeatedly over the last decade, only to hold on to his career by a fingernail through the success of the Blade films, has decided to sue the producers of Blade: Trinity for upwards of $5m. The crimes he alleges: that the screenplay, director, and cast were foisted upon him without his knowledge or approval, that he was harassed and defamed because of his race, and that he is still owed part of his fee – some $3m. Well, I don’t know about the financial issues, but I can clue you in on the rest of this sordid story, because I spent two days on the Blade: Trinity set on behalf of Spin Magazine, and the Wesley Snipes that I witnessed was very different from the Wesley Snipes portrayed in his lawsuit. What I saw was not a put-upon actor just trying to make things work. What I saw was a drug-affected, moody, uncooperative piece of garbage, masquerading as an actor while all around him tried to cover for his shitty attitude. In fact, Snipes was so uncooperative that Spin ended up killing my story. And so I kept Snipes’ goings on private… until now. This is the story of the real Wesley Snipes.
Dateline: Vancouver. I’m called out of bed, breaking a long and healthy dream that involved myself, Natalie Portman, and a condo in desperate need of plumbing repairs. If you’ve ever watched a German porno from the 70’s, you know that I really didn’t want to be woken up, but the caller ID said “Spin”, and seeing that word on my telephone display is the equivalent of Bruce Wayne spotting the Bat-Signal shining against the clouds outside his window. I have a job to do. Time to jump in to action.
The job seemed simple enough – the production of Blade: Trinity was in town, shooting on the McBarge docked in North Vancouver. The McBarge is awesome – considered the world’s largest McDonalds during Expo ’86, it has since become a permanent fixture on the Vancouver waterline, rusted and odd-looking, worth more as a film set than it could ever be as scrap metal. I’d always wondered what it would look like inside, but little did I know that it had become a vampire’s lair, where cool weapons are created and Natasha Lyonne was about to be murdered.
So I show up to the set and deal with a very helpful publicist. This is worth mentioning because, having done my fair share of set visits in the past, I’m used to being told, “You’ve got an hour, who do you need to talk to”, not, “Stay as long as you want. Isn’t this cool? Look at all these neat toys. Sure, you can touch it. Go on... touch the funky longbow. You know you wanna.”
My helpful publicist showed me all over the set, introduced me to everybody, from walk-on actors to leads, producers and director. She gave me time with everybody, with no limits to access at all. As long as the person wasn’t needed in front of the camera, I could talk to them for as long as I wanted. And that I did – director David Goyer, co-leads Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds, co-stars Parker Posey, Patton Oswalt, Triple H, Callum Keith Rennie, producers Lynn Harris and Peter Frankfurt – I was starting to run low on tape when Wesley Snipes’ assistant told the publicist, “No, Wesley’s in a mood. He’s in the zone. You don’t wanna be interviewing him right now. Maybe tomorrow.”
Okay, no problem, I thought. I’ll hang around for a while, and maybe Wesley will soon be out of ‘the zone’.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long. Three takes later and, with his close-ups done, Snipes went back to his trailer for the afternoon. The only problem was, though Snipes considered himself finished, his character was still needed in the scene. In fact, he was still a part of many scenes being shot that afternoon, but the rules were clear – if the camera wasn’t in Wesley’s face, then Wesley would not be on set.
Now, I’ve seen a lot of actors do their thing during a film shoot, and they vary in how much of themselves they'll give to the scene. The great ones will be there, even if they don’t have a line, just to help their fellow actors out. I’ve seen actors turn up to set just so they could speak through a telephone to another actor on camera during a scene. I’ve seen actors stand for fifteen minutes while lighting crews dealt with tricky sunlight, or grab a light themselves and help a PA moving heavy equipment. I’ve seen actors stand off camera to give their compadres the perfect eyeline, and watched in awe as others even acted off camera, just to help the scene along. Others still lose a ton of weight, or gain weight, or endure hours and hours of heavy make-up.
But Wesley Snipes? Not only was he not prepared to help his fellow actors during their close-ups, but if the shot involved anything less than a front-on close-up, he called for a stand-in to do the acting for him. What does that mean? It means Wesley Snipes’ stand-in was in more of Blade: Trinity than Snipes himself was.
Now, action stars often have a stand-in around to handle stunts, fight sequences, anything that involves the likelihood of danger, and that’s okay. We accept that as film fans, but here I was, watching the final scene of the movie being set up, with elaborate camera moves, cranes, extras, stuntmen, effects and explosions – and at the end of it all the camera zooms in on Wesley Snipes’ Blade character, dying next to a monstrous demon… only, that’s not Snipes you’re looking at in the climactic shot of the film. It’s a guy called Clay Donahue Fontenot.
See, Wesley didn’t feel that he needed to be a part of the shot, so he sent in the clones. “We’re going to have to CGI Wesley on to Clay's body in post,” said director David Goyer, barely masking his frustration that the star of his film – an Executive Producer of the project, no less – preferred to sit barely fifty feet away in his smoke-filled trailer, rather than turn up for the most important shot of the movie.
But that had been the story of Wesley Snipes involvement in Blade: Trinity from the start. What I was told by crew members on set was that Snipes had made it clear he wasn’t happy with the original choice of director for the film, so screenwriter David Goyer had been brought in to take over. But Snipes wasn’t happy with that either, it seemed. The producers stood firm, however, and told Wesley to deal with it. Wesley responded by refusing to show up for work unless it was absolutely necessary.
And fair enough that Goyer would be left in place. I mean, he might not have a lot of directing experience, but he has had some, and his screenplays for the previous two Blade films had done huge business, keeping Snipes in food at a time when his career had been rocked by bad choice after horrible choice. Once Hollywood’s most sought after black actor, Snipes was now a parody of his former self, his choices proving as sloppy and ill-thought as just about any actor you could name.
So this, the third Blade film, should have been something he put every ounce of effort possible into. He should have given it his all. He should have exploded onto the screen. Instead, he retired to the Winnebago and enjoyed Vancouver's most famous export... which let's just say is illegal in the US unless you've got glaucoma.
As a means of trying to make up for the fact that Snipes wasn’t going to do any press for the film, the publicist offered me some face time with his stunt double, who was also handling the stunt coordination for the film. I politely turned her down, eliciting a response from her of, “Yeah, that’s what the other journalists said too,” which told me in no uncertain terms that Snipes had pulled this stunt on every other member of the press who had showed up to talk to him. In fact, subsequent investigation on this topic seems to indicate that the only interview Snipes did throughout the shoot was with Wizard Magazine, the comic book collectors’ bible, and that was on the first day of proceedings.
So I began to wander the set and talk to other people about their star. I talked to some of the grips, who spoke of how whenever the door to Snipes’ trailer was opened, a plume of thick, ganja-smelling smoke would emerge. I talked to make-up people who spoke of how they could barely do their job because Snipes wouldn’t sit for them for the length of time they needed. I spoke to the producers, both whom claimed Snipes was a 'great actor to work with', but went on in lengthy detail about everyone else on the shoot and how they were just incredible. “Jessica Biel, she’s just amazing… Ryan Reynolds – hysterical! Great guy! Oh, Wesley? Yeah, he’s a professional. He’s definitely a professional…”
Taped to the side of the camera monitors was another giveaway as to what the crew thought of their star – an article from a tabloid magazine, telling how an extra on the set, a member of a biker gang in his spare time, had actually walked up to Snipes and threatened him with violence if he didn’t stop being an asshole to everyone. That seemed odd to me, that the director and producers would allow their star to be talked of in such a way, and would put such an article in such a prominent position, but by that point in time, Snipes’ attitude was not something anyone on the crew had the slightest intention of hiding.
“He’s a dick,” I was told by a crew member who asked to remain anonymous, due to her executive position with the film. “He’s the star of this fucking movie, it’s the only thing he’s got going for him in his career, and he treats us all like idiots. Even his own co-stars! He doesn’t talk to them face to face, instead he has his assistant do it. He refers to Ryan Reynolds as ‘that cracker’… ‘tell that cracker to get out of my eyeline,’ and ‘tell that cracker to get his lines right.’ He refers to Jessica Biel as ‘that girl’. Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this in a decade in production, and if it weren't for the fact that everyone is working so hard to make up for his crap, I probably would have walked, first week.”
According to Variety, in his lawsuit Snipes alleges that, “in contrast to the first two Blade films, in which efforts were made to select a multiracial cast and crew, [the] defendants intentionally hired only white people, leading to feelings of isolation and exclusion by Snipes.” Now, it might be true that there weren’t many black production workers on the film compared to what Snipes might be used to, considering it was shot in Vancouver Canada, with a mostly local crew. But during the time I was on set, I saw many more black people around than I have ever seen working on a film in this part of the world, which I still recall had caused me to think at the time that the production must have brought many of their own people up north to work on the film. In fact, an African American stand up comedian who makes his home in Vancouver nowadays has a routine he does where he extolls the virtues of living in Canada as a black man because, "if any shit goes down in this city, they know it wasn't me. 'Was the suspect black? No? Well, get the hell away from my front door and let me finish watching Canadian Idol, motherfucker!"
Variety continues, “[Snipes] also claims that Goyer made racially motivated statements about Snipes being unprofessional and difficult to work with, and that Goyer refused to discipline a crew member who wore a racially discriminatory T-shirt on the set.” The T-shirt incident is not news to me – I’d heard about it on set as one of the multitude of stories crew members shared about Wesley’s behavior. “Man, that was so freaky,” said a member of the camera department. “This guy was wearing a shirt, I can’t even remember what it said, but it was something you buy at The Gap or something, you know? It was so not racist. But Snipes flips out, starts yelling at the guy, fuck this, fuck that, storms off the set. Goyer was like, what the fuck? So Snipes sends out his PA with word that he wants the guy in the T-shirt fired, and Goyer says no way. Snipes didn’t come out of his trailer for two days after that.”
A member of the publicity department, normally the department least likely to tell a journalist anything but the rosiest of rosy pictures, was similarly open when it came to Snipes and his work ethic. “You know, it’s normally a pain to work with people with a big ego. But when you can only get the guy on set for an hour a day, and we have to deal with the fact that he has red eyes and he won’t talk and he’s had us waiting for an hour when he finally shows up, it’s really not easy for any of us to do our jobs. I shouldn’t say that, I'm supposed to give you the company line, but it’s true, and I’m really sick of covering for him.”
Ryan Reynolds stayed professional when asked about Snipes, but he was hardly effusive with praise. “Wesley’s intense, man. Yeah, he’s intense. He’s all ‘method’ n’shit. I dunno. We don’t talk much, but he’s a heck of a presence.” Jessica Biel dittoed; “He’s a very intense guy. Always in character. At least, I think he’s always in character. What if that’s really him?”, which prompted Reynolds to add, “Yeah, those are his real teeth, you know.”
Co-star Parker Posey had not a lot to say about Snipes, with the exception of this: “I came here to do something fun and stupid and big budget and I don’t normally get to do that kind of thing. Don’t have the boobs for it, you know? So I’m just showing up, saying my lines, having fun with it. And Wesley… isn’t.”
The second day I spent on set was a lot easier than the first. The shoot was wrapping up, everyone seemed happy to get out of Dodge, and the anti-Snipes feelings had bubbled into open discourse with anyone who would listen. I would hear the same stories over and over, about Wesley calling people cracker, turning up for work stoned off his gourd, refusing to interact with anyone but his personal assistant, even refusing to say his lines in anything but the most rote fashion. The make-up people had basically given up on Snipes altogether and he was now wearing his sunglasses everywhere he went. The stunt double was on set full time, acting in place of Snipes for just about every scene. He’d done most of the fight scenes by this point, and much of the spoken stuff whenever it was from behind or there was movement involved, and he was totally prepared for the fact that his first ‘starring’ role in a film would end up with someone else’s face over his own. “I’m really interested to see what it looks like when they do it. If they can pull that off, then maybe there’ll be a time when we don’t need actors anymore, right?”
Surprisingly, Snipes wasn’t the only headcase on set during this film. Natasha Lyonne, who has been involved in run-ins with the law, dalliances with drugs, and her own celebrated fall from stardom, was so erratic that the publicist on set asked if I might prefer to interview her via email. As a favor, I agreed, but I would soon learn that my questions had to be emailed ahead of time, vetted by her lawyer (!), and would then come back to me shortly thereafter. Now, I’m not one to cede to that kind of request normally, but I was interested in just how far Lyonne’s people would go to protect her from further hurting her rep, so I played along. Despite three separate emails over the course of a month assuring me that Natasha would get to the answers shortly, they never arrived. But hey, if Lyonne is having a rough time staying clean and sane, then so be it. She’s a bit player in this deal, not a star that the entire franchise is hinging upon.
I came away from my time on the set of Blade: Trinity absolutely disgusted with Wesley Snipes, and amazed that despite the constant negativity that was thrust upon one and all by the 'star' of the show, that the rest of the cast and crew seemed to be in great spirits, and working really hard to put out the best film possible. In the end, the reviews were mixed, mostly leaning towards the negative. Personally, I considered it to be a fun flick, with plenty of humor and a ton of awesome over the top hammy-ness from one P. Posey. But anyone who watched that film, whether they liked it or hated it, has to agree that the one uniting factor that blew throughout was the performance (or lack of it) from Wesley
Of course, Snipes has always had an inflated opinion of himself; he once publicly bitched that John Singleton should have cast him in the title role of the updated version of Shaft , instead of Samuel L. Jackson, which Snipes claimed would have doubled the $60m box office. He was also once quoted as saying, "Lot of the scripts I've been in with other non-white actors haven't been great. Lot of non-white actors ain't all that great.” what it comes right down to is, this lawsuit is so without basis as to almost be considered amusing. Snipes claims, according to Variety, that it was Goyer’s fault the movie didn’t turn out well, “citing reviews describing Goyer as a ‘disastrous choice’ and calling the film a ‘bloody mess.’”
Reviews like these?
"The Blade movies, which have allowed the star to coast for several years on box office insurance, demand only that the 42-year-old actor stay pumped up and ready for kung-fu action. But the only emotion that his character, a glowering half-human half-vampire hunter of the undead, is able to muster in the third installment is a sense of mild irritation at having to go through the hassle." -- Stephen Holden, New York Times
“Snipes doesn't act — he never delivers more than one simple sentence at a time — as much as pose and swagger. Thankfully, he's off-screen for extended periods.” – New York Post
“Stranger still, the guy we're all supposed to be excited about - Blade, played by Wesley Snipes -- does less than ever in this movie. His detached demeanor comes off like your mom yelling at you for the umpteenth time about your messy room: "Just how many times do I have to come in here and kill all these vampires?" -- Bill Muller, Arizona Republic
"Goyer ... who wrote the previous installments, displays a keen eye for casting in his directing debut." -- James Verniere, Boston Herald
"Blade:Trinity gives us front row seats to watch the end of Wesley's career" -- Willie Waffle, Wafflemovies.com
"If Blade himself can't carry a movie with his own name on it, then perhaps the time has come to hang up the stakes for good." -- Rob Vaux, Flipside Movie Emporium
"[Goyer] achieves an equitable balance between grim gore and sneaky humor." -- Gene Seymour, Newsday
It’s no secret that Snipes has had tax problems for several years, and with the aftermath of Blade: Trinity looking like it will send his career deep into the toilet, it’s perhaps no surprise that the actor is looking for a way to justify his situation. That he would do it with a lawsuit, however, alleging racism from a man who worked with him over three films, two of which were among Snipes’ most successful ever, is nothing short of disgraceful, especially when Snipes personally exhibited an abundance of racism during the few times he turned up to set.
But perhaps the most revealing line of Wesley’s lawsuit goes right to the heart of why he’s doing what he’s doing. “Snipes claims that because he was employed by a Swiss loan-out company and the movie was filmed in Canada, he should have been exempt from tax liability. But New Line withheld income taxes and failed to cooperate in obtaining a tax indemnity from the Canadian government.” Read: Wesley doesn’t want to pay his taxes. Scumbag.
In the end, my Spin story was never published, and the reason why was made plain by my editor: "It's a Wesley Snipes film... who cares?"
A judge and jury, perhaps?