By John Black
It’s fascinating to watch Christopher Mann in his latest film, Underground Kings, not just because he gives a great performance but because the work he does in the film is unlike anything fans have seen him do before.
“I played a good guy (Councilman Anthony ‘Tony’ Gray) on the HBO series The Wire for a long time and while some people remember me, they usually remember the bad guys from that show,” Mann said in an interview with Color Magazine. “There’s nothing wrong with playing the good guy, mind you, but sometimes, as an actor, it’s just better to be the bad guy.”
Underground Kings, originally conceived and written as a web series by Skye Dennis and now a taut urban crime film directed by Lionel Cook, tells the story of a Philadelphia cop that finds out his partner was set up to be killed by a dirty cop in cahoots with the local crime boss. In the movie, Mann plays the crime boss, Walter ‘Smooth’ Davis, a suave and sophisticated night club owner who lives up to his nickname until someone crosses him and the ‘smoothness’ turns very violent, very quickly.
“What I do as an actor is try to bring something fresh to each scene I am in. I think about the people who are in the scene with me and imagine how Smooth will react to them and what they have to say. I try to really explore their relationship in that given moment of time,” Mann explained. “I was lucky with this project because there was a lot of room to improvise, which allowed all of the actors room to stretch out and not only capture the truth of the scene, but to do it in unexpected ways.”
There’s a scene in the movie that perfectly illustrates what Mann brings to the role. It’s a moment shared by Smooth and his girlfriend, played by Jaguar Wright, as she prepares to sing at the club, an intimate moment that is shattered when Smooth decides to teach her a lesson about how to treat him in public. It’s the first time in the film that you see the other side of Smooth and it’s shocking enough that you never trust him again.
“That was an improvised moment,” the actor said. “I mean, she knew what was going to happen, but she didn’t know how or when, so it was almost as shocking to her as it is to the audience. That’s what I mean by capturing the truth in a scene. It felt real to us and that’s what the camera captured.” Mann was quick to add that the actress in the scene was not harmed in any way during the shooting. “She did an amazing job,” he added.
And while it seems easy to decide, after watching that scene, how you feel about Walter ‘Smooth’ Davis, Mann’s performance is strong enough that it’s easy to be seduced back by the crime lord as the story moves along. “There are many shades to Smooth. It’s all part of the palette an actor brings to each role, Mann said. “All the prep work an actor does to discover who the character is – emotionally, physically, psychologically – all lead up to that moment when you stand in front of the camera to do a scene. You start the scene and push it all away and try to live in the moment. So, you may think you know who Smooth is, but he will always surprise you.”
Underground Kings will be available on DVD and On Demand February 7.