An update to our December 4 piece, announcing that British actor and co-star of Showtime’s hit drama series Homeland, David Harewood, was in talks to play Paul Robeson in an independently-produced biopic on the life of the legendary man behind the voice, the actor, singer, activist, and all-around Renaissance Man, which was followed by a revelation that revered jazzman Wynton Marsalis was in talks to score the film…
It looks like Harewood is no longer “in talks” and is definitely going to play the part, as this new interview with Screen Daily indicates. Louis Gossett Jr.’s is also attached to the project, although we haven’t been told what role he’ll be playing.
The project comes from Four Stars International, and will be produced by Greg Carter and executive produced by Richard Akel, with a script penned by Akel and Terry Bisson, with promises of a film that’s worthy of its subject.
In the new interview with Screen Daily, Harewood and Richard Akel discuss the Robeson project specifically, revealing bits and pieces of it that I thought were worth sharing.
First, on how he, Harewood, heard about the role:
About 15 years ago I came across Paul Robeson and buried myself in biographies and found out what I could about him. We’re all familiar with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Civil Rights movement, but I had no idea that what predated this was this extraordinary figure. When Richard originally sent me the script I had been shooting Homeland and I very unconventionally circumvented my agent and went straight to Richard. I told him I would walk across broken glass to play this man. I have played Martin Luther King on stage and Mandela on screen but this would be the pinnacle.
I hear that there’s a Marcus Garvey project as well with Harewood’s name on it. I’m joking…
Secondly, on how the story will be told, Harewood replies
We’re going to use a linear story model, so both myself and the actress playing my wife will have to age into our 50s and 60s, so it’s going to be a real challenge.
He’s right. I’m always nervous when makeup has to be used to age actors for the screen. It’s rare that it really, really works well, and is believable.
Third, on other cast & crew members currently attached; Akel replied:
We are in confidential discussions with a director and a star to play Robeson’s wife Essie.
So, no director is attached yet, but they’re talking with one; and they’re also talking with “a star” he says, to play Robeson’s wife. I can only wonder who that “star” is that they’re talking to. When it comes to black actresses of any notoriety, especially internationally, the list is a terribly short one. But we’ll see eventually.
Eslanda (“Essie“) Goode Robeson was an anthropologist, author, actor and activist. She actually died 11 years before Paul Robeson did. She was also an actress, but not near as prolific as Paul was.
There aren’t a lot of pictures of her on the web actually – especially as a younger woman. But my guess is that a Brit actress will likely be cast for the role, someone who is somewhat known, both here in the USA and in Europe, which narrows the list down to names like Naomie Harris, Sophie Okonedo, Thandie Newton, maybe even Ruth Negga, or Zawe Ashton, although they aren’t as well known right now as the first three names I mentioned.
And finally, with regards to planned shoot dates, Akel replies:
The goal is to shoot this in August in Toronto and Montreal.
So, with that project, we should know the rest of the cast, as well as the director, in coming months.
Depending on when the film is released, assuming it’s high-profile enough, it could very well be a film that will find itself in Oscar conversations for whatever that year is.
I wonder who’ll play Oscar Micheaux, since Robeson made his film acting debut in Micheaux’s Body and Soul (1925).
Given the long life that he lived, the events he lived through, the other historically-significant public figures he knew, interacted and worked with, his on-screen and off-screen accomplishments, his activism that would lead to his black-listing, and so much more, there’s a lot of great history here in this one, single life. And a big screen account of that life is one that’s definitely warranted.
We’re definitely excited to see what develops here.