Musician-turned actor Common may’ve burned up TV screens
recently as Elam Ferguson in “Hell On Wheels,” but he takes a sincere and
promising turn as Civil Rights leader James Bevel in
Director Ava DuVernay’s highly-praised film, “Selma” which chronicles the
momentous marches that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
With a striking resemblance to the young Bevel, Common infuses a contemporary
defiance into the character. I caught up with Common to discuss his elation at
getting the role, his research into the real-life James Bevel, and why he sees
“Selma” as a superhero film in its own right.
in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Atlanta Christmas Day. It
opens nationwide January 9th.
Shadow & Act: How did you get involved with the project?
Common: I met Ava at Sundance and had a lot of respect and
reverence for her, and I knew about the film because I’d auditioned for it four
years ago with David (Oyelowo). I did a reading for it and after that, David
and I bonded but it didn’t happen so when I got the call that I was going to
get the chance to meet with Ava, and she was interested in me playing James
Bevel, I was like- I live for this. It’s a movement.
S&A: What was the process of getting into the character and into the
backstory of James Bevel?
Common: For me, it was definitely reading about him and then I had access to
some people who lived and knew James Bevel, and were part of the SCLC so I
talked to them about different things. It was more about watching footage about
King and his team and really getting to know James Bevel as much as possible
because he lived, and when you’re a character that truly lived, you want to
bring the truth out of that and the spirit of who that person is out of respect
for him and his life, so I did that.
S&A: One thing I noticed about the film was that unlike other biopics it
wasn’t just centered on Martin Luther King Jr.’s character- it had a very
communal focus. It really paid attention to the contributions of everyone,
which I think reflected the activism of that time that led to a lot of change.
Was that something you picked up on when you read the script and what are your
thoughts on how the film reflected the grassroots organization?
Common: One of the most valuable things I got from the movie was that Dr. King was
the chosen one but there were so many that contributed to him being the chosen
one, so many that contributed to the movement and it wasn’t just him. One
person can win the war, but it took many different people and many people we
don’t know their names, some we do. It could be Annie Lee Cooper to Cager Lee to Jimmie
Lee Jackson who died, to CT Vivian and
some people that are still living that walked those streets and walked over
those bridges and contributed and we’ll never know.
But what I loved is that you got to see that it took the community to make this
happen and it brought many people together and these individuals were
superheroes in their own way. When I was doing it, I was like, man this is a
superhero movie in a way because each person brought something to the table-
Diane Nash, James Bevel, CT Vivian and they were ordinary people but they did
extraordinary things so I loved the fact that you know this because we only
knew about Martin Luther King Jr. but to know about these other individuals and
to pay homage to some of the nameless individuals, I love that Ava approached
it from that perspective.
S&A: Definitely, just to see Jimmie Lee Jackson’s family and his mother
crying, was a really powerful part of the film-
Common: Yeah, that scene was a really tough scene and my daughter actually saw
part of that. We had walked into the editing room for a second to say hi to Ava
and my daughter as soon as she saw it, she’s 17, she just started tearing up
because I guess it’s her getting to see what people went through so that she
can go to any school she wants to go to, and be able to hang out with different
friends, whether white, Latino, or Asian. That’s what “Selma” and
people of the SCLC, that’s what they created for us.
S&A: What were some of the conversations you got in on set, being in a
place where this history took place but you’re reenacting it, were there any
interactions or experiences during the filming that have stayed with you?
Common: When John Lewis came to visit the set and when he talked to us, and he
told me about James Bevel and he told us about Diane Nash – just him coming and
his presence. Him actually calling us by the characters names- he was like “You
look just like James” and it was just really encouraging and supportive and he
said, the only type of trouble they wanted to get in was good trouble, and
trouble for a real cause. They obviously were put into jail and resisted, and
not even resisted, but standing up for certain things because they were doing
it for a cause.
The moments I got to have with the ambassador Andrew Young, John Lewis, the
conversations we were having, we were talking about what these characters were
going through and at the same time, all of us were grateful for being there.
Our hearts were in it and every person there was committed and Ava was
a true catalyst for making everybody feel wanted and feel important.