What was the audition process like?
It's a long story, I'll make it short! I was working on the Disney lot, doing a television show, and my agent sent me the script for the movie called Blue Maaga (Jamaican Slang for "In a state of great distress and starvation") and it was a drama. There was a different director attached, a guy called Jeremiah S. Chechik, and I met with him. I assumed the movie was being prepped to go.
Then they decided not to do the movie as a drama and it went into turnaround. So, about a year later, my agent told me they were going to make the Jamaican bobsleigh team film a comedy, so they sent me the script again, and I was like, 'Okay! A different direction...'
They told me to meet with the director and the producer, Jon Turteltaub and Dawn Steel, and I read for them, and Rawle [D. Lewis] - who ended up being in the movie, of course - was the reader. That's when I first met him. Then I went away, and later we had a screentest on the lot with the other guys, and we did the "naming the bobsled" scene on camera.
Did you know any of the actors before?
I'd only met Rawle, when he was reading, auditioning for the first time. I had not met any of the other guys.
Do you get recognised for Cool Runnings a lot?
Oh God, yes. To say the least, yes. Every day, every waking moment of my life! (Laughs)
When was the last time it happened?
This morning! It's 10am now, and it happened to me earlier, when I was walking the dog. Sometimes they sing the bobsleigh chant, or ask me if I feel the rhythm, sometimes they ask me where my egg is, or if I'm dead yet. It goes on and on and on. "Are you feeling very Olympic today?" That happens occasionally.
Do you meet fans on the set of other jobs you're working on?
|I have the eggs! They're all rubber, by the way. They're not just rotting in my basement.|
Every film or television show I work on, someone who I work with will tell me they love the movie. I just did a movie produced by Martin Scorsese called The Wannabe, and a gentleman who's on Boardwalk Empire, his name is Vincent Piazza, he said, "Before we work together, I have to tell you Cool Runnings was one of my favourite movies growing up!" I'm like, "Can we get back to the scene?"
It's fun. We actually talked quite a bit about it. I was telling him that I don't really understand why people who are known for certain "iconic" or "classic" works don't appreciate being recognised. It's wonderful. I still get a kick out of it, 20 years on. Someone asked Donna Summer how it felt to be the queen of disco, and she said she was glad to be the queen of something. So, I'll take it!
How did Cool Runnings change your life?
Oh boy. It's been the biggest impression I've made on the public, Cool Runnings, as far as film is concerned. It's changed my life in every way imaginable. I ended up working in film regularly after that. As a matter of fact, I did a series of Disney films as a result of the success of Cool Runnings subsequently, and I was able to make a lot of money - that doesn't hurt! - and I was treated within the industry as someone who had something to offer other than talent. There was a sense that I could bring an audience, which was unusual for me. From one role, in one film!
I got exposure to a lot of people who might not have otherwise had interacted with me because it was such a huge international film. It was more popular outside of the United States than it was inside the United States. It was wonderful to travel to France, and Britain, and Italy. People in France were calling me "Rasta Rockett", which I guess was the name of the movie there. When you do a movie, you're in a fishbowl - you're not aware of the impact it might have.
When was the last time you watched it?
Leon and I went to Calgary last year to celebrate this festival they have there, and in it they were honouring the film, and I saw a little bit of it before I thought, "I've seen this movie too much!" so I went and got a juice or something. We attended two screenings and there were two packed theatres, and people had memorabilia, and stuff I hadn't seen in a long time, posters and things like that.
What mementos did you keep from the set?
I kept the winter hat that said "Jamaica" on the front of it. I have the eggs! They're all rubber, by the way. They're not just rotting in my basement. I actually have a room - you might call it a junk room - and it's got the bobsled T-shirts, production stills, lots of stuff.
How often do you see the rest of the cast?
I wouldn't say that we're close or anything. We're friends, and we've emailed and called all of each other over the years, but everybody is busy doing their things. I see Leon a little more than the others because we've attended some of these functions. Sometimes I see the guys at auditions! We're working actors... I've seen Malik twice at different auditions in the past 20 years. That was for an HBO television show and a film.
What scenes from the film do you remember being particularly difficult to pull off?
Well, we had a philosophical disagreement with the director, believe it or not! We all were young and taking ourselves very seriously, and of course this movie was very important to all of us. So there was this scene where Jon wanted us to put a spliff on a snowman, and we staged a mini protest. Jon got upset there was this mutiny... (laughs) in retrospect, I think he might concede we did pretty well without that. But at the time, he was insisting we get back on the set and but a spliff in that snowman's mouth.
What are your memories of John Candy?
It came out of the blue. I actually hadn't spoken to him prior to his passing. It was not long after the movie came out. I was totally shocked, floored. Honestly, he was one of the nicest people you could meet. Certainly one of the nicest people I've met in showbusiness. In an industry that doesn't pride itself on moral strengths, he was such a beautiful person. At the beginning of the movie, he invited us to his dressing room and talked to us about many things, and tried to prepare us for what was to come, so he was a wonderful person.
You do a bit of line-dancing at one point, did you have to learn that in advance?
The woman I was dancing with was very attractive, so I suddenly found myself looking deep for some line-dancing talent.
When people recognise you in the street, do some people not realise who you are at first?
Yes! Yes, it's true. Sometimes, when they're trying to work it out, you can tell it's them thinking, "Wait a minute. WAIT A MINUTE!" It's a lot of work. You can see them saying to themselves, "If that's who I think it is, I am going to go crazy."
Was there much room for improvisation?
|I don't really understand why people who are known for certain "iconic" or "classic" works don't appreciate being recognised. It's wonderful. I still get a kick out of it.|
That was the real, primary skill of Jon Turteltaub, which is that he has a comedy background. His father, Saul, was a producer of television or comedies here in America for many, many years, so he has a really strong sense of humour, and we worked together a lot on creating bits for Cool Runnings. We basically decided that Sanka was going to be the Jamaican Jerry Lewis! That was our plan. Most of his skits were not scripted.
Was it you who decided to shout "Yippee-ki-yay!" when Sanka was divebombing into the bar fight?
Ha! That was not me, that was a stunt man, but "Yippee-ki-yay!" was something we put in during post. That was not scripted.
When you're discussing Talullah as the bobsled name, Leon's character says that's the name a "two dollar hooker" would have. Was that you?
"Two dollar hooker"? Yeah, I think that was me. When I see that scene, I think... "This is a bit grown-up." It was a different time!
How about the pull-ups where John Candy is just pushing you up?
That was another Jon Turteltaub joke! I think Jon was really in love with that character, I don't know if it was really me and what I was doing more than what Jon was doing. He saw enormous potential in him, and since it was a comedy, he thought he had to exploit every possible opportunity, and this character was the most obvious vehicle for that.
How did you get your job on Justified?
One of the producers, Graham Yost, was a producer on a Disney movie I did after Cool Runnings called Operation Dumbo Drop. A very diverse career, hey? Actually, Malik was on that show for an episode too.
What are your next projects?
My YouTube channel has scenes from my show on Dish network here. A weekly series of comedy sketches. Then there's The Wannabe, produced by Martin Scorsese, a film about the trial of mobster John Gotti, and people who are fanatics about the trial and project themselves into it one way or another.
How does seeing the Jamaican bobsled team in this year's Winter Olympics make you feel?
My father is from Jamaica, so I'm very proud. But it wasn't surreal or anything, seeing them qualify - I have an expectation! It's been 12 years, come on guys. I was always extremely optimistic. There's a part of me going, "Well, I could do it, so why can't you?" (Laughs)
You do stand-up comedy now. Has anyone heckled you with 'I'll pay you a dollar to shut up?'
(Laughs) Not yet, no! You may have given them the idea, though...
Interview by Ali Plumb