If ever a celebrity exudes strong Creole credentials combined with undeniable Southern charm it has to be actor and producer Marcus Brown.
Despite the pull of Hollywood and a myriad of appearances in some of the most epic Oscar-winning films of all time – Twelve Years A Slave and Monster’s Ball spring to mind- this ultra-talented yet humble, level headed man still retains strong roots in the Southern Louisiana he grew up in long before his non-stop journey to fame.
Right now, we are sitting together in his home in Lafayette, just a 30- minute drive from the sleepy South Louisiana town in which he was born. We are instantly swept away by my host’s easy unassuming manner, there’s an unassailable authenticity here, which can only be described as refreshing!
While it’s true he has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Forest Whitaker, Anthony Hopkins and Billie Bob Thornton on the silver screen many, especially in his home town, know him as a tireless educator. He provides a vital lifeline to the state’s burgeoning film industry, through his film-making training initiatives, and also through the work of the pioneering film production company he formed with his wife Yvette.
How it all started
“I was raised in Jeanerette, Louisiana in a very small town…” He tells us. “…an agrarian town…lots of sugar cane!” His grandfather had been a salt mine foreman over on nearby Weeks Island, while his parents were both educators and now retired principals. Up until the age of seven he had lived just two doors down from his maternal grandparents: “So there was a really close-knit family behind everything…” The additional presence of a forthright aunt meant there was “always a lot of influence!” He smiles as he recollects those early days.
Both he and his wife studied locally at Louisiana State University where he transitioned from high school Sports (principally Basketball) to his high school speech and debate team competing on a local, regional and even national basis. He left us in no doubt that these early experiences provided him with valuable raw material for his stunning appearance in “The Great Debaters” (2007), also starring Denzel Washington. This film chronicled the true story of a predominantly black college in 1935 Texas, whose home-grown debating team challenged Harvard’s and won!
Being educators Brown’s parents were naturally keen that their son should gain a thorough grounding in a “sensible, safe” subject such as engineering or marketing. But things took a different turn when he met his wife. When she asked him what he wanted to do he wasted no time in responding that he wanted to be an actor. She replied: “Well why don’t you do that?” It proved to be an inspiring life affirming moment for him, and from then on his course was set.
But what did his parents think about his decision? “They were like, how are you going to eat? You have to have something sustainable…” But then fate played a hand and the theatre department embraced him fairly quickly as an actor. In a stroke of good luck they were staging a play by South African playwright Athol Fugard called “Sizwe Banzi is Dead.” “It helped…” he elaborates “that there weren’t a lot of black actors in the program. I auditioned and it took off from there. I played two characters in the play. The first was up there for about thirty to forty minutes by myself –so it was a “trial by fire!” It was also Brown’s first experience of critical acclaim, as the production received regional recognition.
Acting but still an educator
Yet despite this new direction, he was not entirely ready to abandon his educational path: “So I got out of college and then I was thinking about going straight to LA, but they were offering me money to stay in school and being the child of educators, more education was a good thing!”
It turned out to be a fortuitous decision as while he was studying his Masters of Fine Arts in Performance, a Doctoral Fellowship Program was introduced to provide opportunities to students of colour (named after Huel D Perkins one of the first African American administrators at Louisiana State University) During this same period (2002) the tax credits started in Louisiana and there was an influx of film production activity. (It’s interesting to note that the State has since outstripped California for film activity in terms of the annual number of movies being made!) This transitioned him away from his dissertation. As Brown proudly puts it: “We had these tax credits coming in, but we didn’t have a workforce, so I moved to help (establish) the first community college system in the State. I was an actor but with academic credentials, that’s how I helped to set up some benchmark training programs for film. When our course got started I acted as a liaison between the corporate and public sectors…”
While giving back to his community, Brown still nonetheless found time to pursue his career as an actor landing his first big break in a film called “The Badge” (2002) alongside Billie Bob Thornton. The story involved a homophobic Southern Louisiana sheriff (Thornton) investigating the gruesome murder of a transsexual. Brown played his second-in-command. “After I was cast, there were so many individuals in smaller roles that helped to support the movie. I was surrounded by so many accomplished actors… One of them, Ray McKinnon, the next year after we filmed went on to win the Academy Award for Best Short film.”
Straight after “The Badge”, Brown went into his second back-to-back movie with Thornton. This was the truly unforgettable “Monster’s Ball.” “I remember sitting in The Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and watching that film and thinking if ever she (Halle Berry) wins an Academy Award it’s going to be for this movie!” He was right of course. “That time”, he says smiling broadly, “was one of the most remarkable ever as far as opening myself up to the Industry…”
When asked if he enjoys watching himself at premieres. “It’s always nerve-wracking”, he replies “It’s something where I don’t necessarily enjoy it. It’s almost like a rollercoaster….there’s always a critique. My last project was with Nicolas Cage and it’s called “The Runner”. I haven’t seen it yet but a couple of people have seen it on Netflix, and I’m like I’m OK with that one…I’m not nervous because I play the Attorney General for Louisiana. Politics and being a politician –that’s always something that’s interesting for me to play. I’m comfortable with that!”
What’s the hardest part when he acts? “Personally for me it’s letting go.” He sighs. “It’s intensified on a film when you’ve got one hundred and twenty individuals watching you. You know I’ve just done this film with Anthony Hopkins and in my first scene with him I’m standing having a conversation and there’s this voice in your head that goes “what are you doing here?” You’re not supposed to be here. So I’m getting these little demons out of my head.” This was an example of that special brand of disarming modesty one had come to expect from our host.
“When I’m acting”, he reveals, “it’s the only reprieve I get from thinking about producing.” He expands, “I really enjoy acting. It’s my guilty pleasure, but being a producer challenges me …with your acting your key is to be hyper focused in that moment, with that character in your performance. It’s a sniper like vision as opposed to being a producer who has to have 360 degree vision. Producing is 24/7. You’re running a business.”
Time for family?
As father of a close-knit family (Brown has three children) We ask him how far his acting and producing impacts on his family life. With more than a little tinge of sadness he sadly recalls a time when he was called away to appear in a science fiction film in Romania. He recalls, “I was gone for thirty days, and it was before Hurricane Katrina. I was looking at the internet at this huge swirl across the State and my wife and family were in Louisiana so it was difficult. The funny thing is hurricanes are kind of commonplace, but in that process I remember calling her in a panic and saying “Is everything fine?” and she replied “Yeah, it’s not even raining. It’s two o’clock in the morning I’m going to bed”. I guess that’s part of it. It took a lot of people by surprise. For me it’s always that sense of making sure your family’s safe. “We have regular family life to the most significant extent possible. My wife is the primary caregiver. She has to remind me –“hey we have to be parents as well!”
Dogs and Swahili and a little Romanian
As he finishes his sentence, we hear a deep and distant growl coming from the adjacent room. It reminds us of an amusing story we have heard about him.
“Is it true?” we challenge him “that you speak to your dogs in Swahili?”
Brown smiles at us. “I learned Swahili in graduate school. There was a teacher who was a former CIA agent in Tanzania, so when he retired he became a professor at Louisiana State University.” His dogs he tells us all have Swahili names! Speaking Swahili to them keeps it “fresh in his mind.” He adds, “I have this big German shepherd, I call him my Swahili Shepherd, and it means no-one else can command him!”
While he was away filming in Romania he also developed a passion for learning Romanian. The only drawback was that his trainer, a local man, steadfastly refused to speak the language preferring instead to brush up on his English! It’s clear Brown feels a deep affection for the country having taken time out to visit the Carpathian Mountains and the Black Sea. However, as he reminisces, his mind steadily glides closer to home, like a bird swooping back into its nest. His love for his native Louisiana is so palpable we feel as if we can touch it! It seems to swirl round him, infusing the very air he breathes.
I am Creole
We are intrigued to know how someone as passionate about their roots as Brown, defines the word “Creole.” “Before I define it”, he ponders, “I agree that wherever you go you’re hearing these definitions. I remember being in my doctoral program and a professor coming in and defining Creole extremely differently to the way I had been exposed to it. It was almost like to section out the people of colour from the definition. For me, being part of the culture and being married to a woman that would fit almost the text book definition of a Creole. There is a responsibility to articulate that I think, for a Creole in Louisiana, the Creole culture is fundamentally based on people of colour, where you have an amalgamation of French, Spanish, native American, and African. Add to that music, the cuisine and their language.” He continues, “Seeing people who identify as Creole is not just about the language, cuisine and heritage it’s about the level of appreciation for those things that are Creole.”
So how Creole does he think he is? He responds, “Well I would say some people are more Creole than I am, for sure, but I’m more Creole than others and being a person of colour living in Southern Louisiana, having an amalgamation of different heritages I would definitely say that I embrace the Creole culture. Some people may want to cherry pick which things they want to use in that definition, but I think it’s the inclusiveness of the Creole culture that’s such an important part of it. Like a gumbo it’s taking all these different ingredients that normally would not be put together and it creates this wonderful flavour that is difficult to duplicate or replicate anywhere. What’s amazing about the Kreole magazine is that it does embrace a larger scope of what “Creole” is. It acknowledges there are Creoles in different areas and enables them to include each other into that culture in a way that allows them to come together and share in a unique way.”
A bit of advice
We take the opportunity to ask him for the one piece of advice for any readers contemplating taking up a career in acting? He replies, “I would say if this is something you love, and you want to do, then you must do it every day and be persistent. That determination carries you through to a path, not necessarily a straight path… The arts and entertainment are about passion. It is something individuals would do if they are paid or not.”
Wise words indeed from a man whose life and career have been the very embodiment of passion. Given his unstoppable rise, one can only begin to imagine the new heights Brown’s career is surely destined to soar to. For now, one thing’s certain Southern Louisiana will continue to bathe in the glow of one of its brightest, most talented and deliciously selfless and driven sons. Amen to that.