Mario Van Peebles Talks ‘Superstition,’ Diversity & Taking A Break From Oscars [Interview]
Photo Credit: Mitchell Galin / Xlrator Media / Syfy
Okayplayer's Danielle A. Scruggs sat down with Mario Van Peebles to talk about his new Syfy show, Superstition, and his favorite Hollywood experiences.
“We don’t run. We improvise, we adapt, we overcome.”
This is advice that Isaac Hastings, played by Mario Van Peebles in the Syfy series Superstition gives to his on-screen son more than once. And it’s sound advice we can use in this current moment in 2018, which is by design.
Superstition follows the Hastings, a close-knit family in the fictional town of La Rochelle, Georgia, who own a funeral home. But they’re more than just humble morticians, they are also soldiers in a fight against “infernals,” supernatural forces that have come to settle a debt with humans. The show also blends in social commentary into this Manichean battle between humans and infernals, who might not really be the bad guys you initially thought they were when you first watch the series.
READ: Mario Van Peebles' Horror-Themed Show, 'Superstition,' Gets New Night On Syfy
The series also stars Robinne Lee as Bea, Isaac’s wife and partner in his fight, Brad James as Calvin, their estranged son who comes back after a 16-year absence, Demetria McKinney as May, the town sheriff and Calvin’s high school sweetheart, Morgana Peebles as Garvey, Calvin and May’s fiery and politically aware daughter, and Tatiana Zappardino as Tilley, the town coroner and the Hastings’ trusted assistant.
Van Peebles not only stars in the show but also is the co-creator (along with showrunner name Joel Anderson Thompson), writer, and also directs multiple episodes. We caught up with Mario Van Peebles to talk more about the show, his experiences in Hollywood, coming from an acting/directing dynasty, and some of his favorite contemporary filmmakers and series creators while he was taking a break from submitting his Oscar votes. (Fun fact: Clint Eastwood and Sidney Poitier ushered in Van Peebles into the Academy.)
Okayplayer:: Superstition is really fun for me to watch, because for the most part—aside from everyone battling ancient evil demons and your character is immortal—this is a normal, tight-knit family, who reminds me of a lot of my own family members.
Mario Van Peebles: You got it. At the core of the show is answering the question “What would the Obamas be like with the cameras off?” If the cameras were off, would Michelle really tell her daughter how to do her hair next time. What would Barack really say? I wanted to tell the story of a family that was smart and loving but had issues. There's something life affirming about the family, there's something loving at its core. They’re a moral compass at a time when we can't count on folks acting with the kind of moral compass that the Obamas had. I don't care what party you're from, but come on, we’ve got to do better, you know what I mean?
So that was the kind of fun that you have all around these infernals. Even that is a tricky one. Early on, Isaac notes to Calvin and says that the more that humankind destroys the planet and all life forms upon it, the more the infernals are coming to put us in check. So the notion of who's a bad guy and who's a good guy gets pretty blurry when we're the ones who have been the bad guys of the planet. The water's polluted, we're doing it. If the air is polluted it's we doing it. Whether white, black, Republican or Democrat, when those fires burn we all breathe the same air, so what would it be like if the infernals were coming through with their own agenda but to some degree putting our species in check like we were a virus run amok. So there's different layers to the show besides the family dynamic that are I think pretty exciting to deal with.
OKP: Absolutely, I thought that that was really interesting, too, that you're making these political statements, too, without it being super obvious. But if you're paying attention, you'll get that aspect of, well the fact that your son in the show is a war veteran and he talks about what he went through with that, making reference to like you were saying, environmental justice and how people aren't taking care of the earth and there are consequences to that so there is a lot of layers to this show that I was really intrigued by.
MVP: It's been exciting that way and it's also been exciting in where I am as a human being right now. I've lived for a while, I've gotten to do what I love doing for 20 to 30 years and I have family obviously and it's helped me I think growing as an individual, it's helped me to not just be my best but to create an environment where other people can be their best and I think that's really exciting to get to the place where I can welcome everyone and everyone's A game and know how to synthesize it, know when to use it, when to hold it, when to fold it, when to claim it, when to not do it this time, do you know what I mean?
That's a real balancing act, but as a human being, when you've lived enough and you've got people skills and you love people as I do, it's lovely to go, “hey Brad you know how to do that dope spin kick? Kick that zombie's ass, put that spin kick on him, baby.” Robine, she speaks fluent French, I speak fluent French, this family's educated. We can switch to French, we can switch to Italian, we know some words in Patois or Swahili, we can flip it up, you know what I mean? And that's beautiful. “May [Demetria McKinney], you can sing? What? Sing your ass off. And dance and Garvey can dance, well let's have mother and daughter working out, part of your everyday thing, that's why you guys stayed so beautiful, work out together as you dance and you continue to sing while you do that, just like we do in real life.
OKP: What have been some of your favorite on-set memories?
MVP: So one of my fun on-set moments was I had the actors rehearsing in the other room and meanwhile, I had my assistant get wrapped up in this shroud and lay there like the dead body. When they came back to rehearse the thing, I tapped my assistant and she jumped up and Tilly (played by Tatiana Zappardino) damn near shit. [Laughs] That was fun. I'm a clown like that so I have a lot of fun with them.
OKP: What has been like to direct your daughter, Morgana?
MVP: Directing Morgana is interesting. We don't make mistakes in my family that just because we love them, we think they're good at what they think they love to do, right? We know we're like the Jacksons without all the talent. [Laughs] We know that. We're business smart, you know what I mean? Some of us can act, some of us can direct, you know? We know our limitations. It just happens that Morgana can really act and she really fought for the role and brought a lot to it and it's really easy to direct her because she knows it's coming from a place of love. In fact, you're welcome to call her, she's a real fun chick to talk to. If you ever want to talk to her, she's great. She's a bad girl and she's a hard worker. She's not afraid to get in there. She's also a filmmaker, she directs and she's won some awards with her films. She's a cool chick.
OKP: I was curious to also get your thoughts on how you've seen opportunities for black folks and people of color in the film industry especially because you've been on the acting side, the directing side and also the producing side. I was just curious to get your thoughts on how you've seen things change or maybe haven't changed during your career.
MVP: I think ... what's that Dr. King quote? The arc is long...
OKP: Oh, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
MVP: ...But it bends towards justice. I think it is long in terms of casting, but it's bending towards justice. I think we are getting to a place where we're understanding that people of color are changing the face of America and we have setbacks, we have a clearly drunk driver in the White House which is a bit of a setback.
OKP: To say the least.
MVP: But to some degree, it's also a wake up call. Democracy is more like a car, if you take your foot of the gas, it slows down. You can take your foot off the gas and take a knee at the ball game and wear an afro because it looks cool, but it would have been a good idea to vote as well. You know what I mean? To set up a way for you to do it, it's called voting. It kind of does work. Oh, I don't want to vote, it doesn't make a difference. Oh yeah it made a difference. If you don't do politics, politics will do you. That's important.
And I think like anything we're voting with our dollars as well. When we say, ‘Oh wait a minute, folks, some of the highest grossing movies like Fast and Furious are multicultural.’ You get black folks, white folks, racially ambiguous folks, you know what I mean? You get the whole mix, the whole world, and I think we're starting to see that multiculty is just good business. Why leave money on the table?
I've always done it, from the time I did New Jack City and suddenly I have the power as filmmaker to have a say in casting where I hadn't as an actor. I didn't just cast all black New Jack cops to go against my New Jack gangsters. I cast an Asian brother, Russell Wong, Judd Nelson, Ice-T, and then I put the attorney that takes down Nino, made her a sister (played by Phyllis Yvonne Stickney). So it was a black woman and I played the police commissioner. If you look at Posse, it's predominantly an African American cast but one of the funniest characters was Little J (played by Stephen Baldwin).
OKP: Very underrated movie by the way, I really enjoyed that. Sorry to get off track, I just really like that movie a lot, so I just wanted to tell you that. I really enjoyed Panther, too, I grew up watching that.
MVP: Wow, so you know your Van Peebles history.
OKP: These are things I grew up watching and I think my parents kind of understood the power of images so they wanted me to watch movies that had people who looked like me; it makes a big difference.
MVP: That is really cool because we grew up wanting to be the successes we see. Long before we saw it in the White House, we'll see a black president on television. When apartheid fell, my two favorite shows were The Cosby Show and Miami Vice, which had a white leading man and a black leading man. So that makes a difference. So I think that little by little it's bending towards justice, it's bending towards no taxation without representation. It's bending towards a visual representation of us in front of the camera and slowly, slowly behind the camera.
You're seeing more and more writers, directors, little by little we're starting to understand that those are important jobs to have. We're seeing powerful smart women like Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay and the birth of the new nerd. From Donald Glover in Atlanta to Awkward Black Girl or Chewing Gum out of England.
My long answer is I think the diversity of casting is bending towards justice, but I hope that—and that's a wonderful thing—but if it's not bending towards consciousness, it doesn't matter.
OKP: Could you elaborate on what you mean?
MVP: What am I saying? I'm saying is that it's not enough that black folks get in power. If we get in power or get some money and we just buy a car that pollutes and we kill the planet as quick as the dominant culture did prior to us, we're now imitating a behavior that leads to human genocide.
We now have to learn to live together as brothers and sisters in harmony with nature; that’s part of the other subtext of Superstition. There are other awarenesses, not just a racial line, a bigger consciousness that we better get on board with quick. To do that, we may have to embrace infernals and embrace people that don't look like us and deal with and get along with people even when we don't always agree with their choices.
Some of those choices are hard choices to make in life and that's part of the fun of the show.
Superstition will air its season finale on Thursday, Jan. 18, at 11:00 p.m. EST / 10:00 p.m. CST.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a Chicago-based photographer and writer who runs the website Black Women Directors and is also the Director of Photography at the Chicago Reader, an award-winning alt-weekly newspaper. Follow her on Twitter at @dascruggs and view her site at daniellescruggs.com.