When it was released in 1990, director Adrian Lynne’s “Jacob’s Ladder” was a moderately successful film that grew a cult following; with time, it even influenced other works, including the horror franchise “Silent Hill.” The idea of starring in a remake of a film with such a dedicated fanbase might be daunting for any actor. But it wasn’t for Michael Ealy, who leads director David M. Rosenthal’s reimagining of the 1990 psychological thriller.
“I had zero inhibitions about remaking it because, first of all, while the original film became a cult favorite over time, it wasn’t exactly ‘Jaws’ when it came out, in terms of box office and reviews,” said Ealy. “When I read the script for our version, it was clear that we weren’t doing a shot-for-shot remake or anything even close to that. It felt fresher and I knew it would be more up-to-date in terms of the kinds of things we can now do with visual effects that couldn’t be done back then.”
While the remake borrows the originals thematic elements, it tells a very different story. In the 1990 version, the protagonist (Tim Robbins) is a Vietnam veteran whose experiences prior to and during the war result in fragmented flashbacks and bizarre hallucinations that continue to haunt him as he desperately tries to get to the bottom of it all. In the 2019 remake, the war in the Middle East is the source of trauma, and the story follows two brothers (Ealy and Jesse Williams) instead of a single protagonist.
Ealy plays Jacob Singer, an army medical officer and veteran of the war in Afghanistan finally getting his life back together, with a wife (Nicole Beharie), a new baby, and a successful career as surgeon in a VA hospital. Singer believes his brother (Williams) died in the war. But when a stranger informs him that his brother is actually alive and living in an underground shelter with other homeless vets who are addicted to an experimental drug, Jacob’s life starts to unravel.
Because the plots were so dissimilar, Ealy, who has an executive producer credit on the film, said that there had been discussions about changing the title of the film after some early screenings, but he disagreed. “This is the movie that both David Rosenthal and I set out to make — a psychological thriller that is a mindfuck, which is really what the original was,” he said. “We were going for a similar effect and spirit of the original, but not the same storytelling devices.”
He was especially drawn to the opportunity to tell a story with an all-black cast, for a mass audience, in which race wasn’t at all a factor.
“It’s nice to see a movie where the cast may be black, but their blackness is not necessarily woven into the storyline as a plot point or a character,” Ealy said. “The original had nothing to do with being white. Likewise, ours isn’t trying to say anything about race, and it was one reason why we signed up for the movie. We all just wanted to tell a good story about a soldier and his family and the toll that war takes on your family, which is something universal.”
He was also drawn to the complexity of the character. He called it “one of the most immersive roles I’ve ever taken.” And it was taxing. Ealy said he had to go to dark places in order to capture Jacob Singer’s many layers, and ranges of emotion as a man who begins suffering hallucinations, believing he is being followed by violent attackers, and becomes paranoid about the truth of what really happened to his brother. Ealy called the experience “one of my top three most demanding but also greatest filming experiences of all my career.”
Actors often need to clear their heads after digging deep for dark roles. Michael B. Jordan said that after portraying the dark character Killmonger in “Black Panther,” he had to go through therapy to address the toll it took on his mental health. For Ealy, his therapy was a solo five-day Mexico vacation where he spent much time on the beach, reading and drinking tequila.
He expressed glee over the film’s release three years after principal photography, but stressed that the delay had nothing to do with the quality of the end result.
“I don’t like the term ‘sitting on the shelf’ because of what it implies,” he said. “We had to come back and do some reshoots, and tweak some other aspects of it, which took some time. And because it’s an independent film, the financing was such that we couldn’t just knock out reshoots when everybody wanted us to so. But we got it done.”
At the 2019 Cannes Film Market, arthouse distributor Vertical Entertainment acquired U.S. rights to the film, and set an August theatrical premiere date, following an exclusive DISH July window premiere.
“I’m glad that people will finally get to see what we’ve done with it, and I’m truly prepared for whatever the response is to the film,” Ealy said. “I fully expect there will be those people who aren’t going to be happy that you’re remaking their favorite cult classic, and let me just tell them right now that I understand. But there’s nothing I can really do about that. Just don’t watch it, if that’s an issue for you.”
Up next for Ealy is co-starring with Hilary Swank in the thriller “Fatale,” which is due in 2020. Before that, he’ll appear on the small screen in a new ABC series called “Stomp Town” that premieres September 26.
Vertical Entertainment will release “Jacob’s Ladder” on August 23. The film is already exclusively available on DISH.