Wednesday, May 8, 2013

S. Epatha Merkerson Shows Out In 'Peeples'

 By Darlene Donloe

S. Epatha Merkerson is best known for playing the no-nonsense Lieutenant Anita Van Buren in ‘Law & Order’. It’s a role she played for 16 years. So audiences will be in total shock when they see her in the comedy, ‘Peeples,’ set for release nationwide May 10. She is drop-dead hilarious!  Who knew she could do comedy? 

Although the film is produced by Tyler Perry under his 34th Street banner, that’s where his involvement ends. In his latest production Perry doesn’t wear the hat of director, writer or star.

‘Peeples’ is a comedy about the pros and cons of meeting ones perspective in-laws.  The film stars Kerry Washington, Craig Robinson, David Alan Grier, Diahann Carroll, Melvin Van Peebles, Tyler James Williams, Malcolm Barrett, Kali Hawk, Ana Gasteyer and Kimrie Lewis-Davis.

S. Epatha Merkerson, who is originally from Detroit, can currently be seen hosting TVOne’s ‘Find Our Missing,’ which draws attention to missing Black Americans whose stories are largely ignored in national media coverage.  She also has a recurring role on NBC’s ‘Deception’ opposite Meagan Good.

Having gotten her start on ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse,’ Merkerson has had a diverse career. She recently made her directing debut with her documentary, The Contradictionsof Fair Hope, and also serves as executive producer.  The film explores the benevolent societies that formed in the South after the Civil War and helped emancipated slaves adapt to their newfound freedom.  The film recently won four awards at the San Diego Black Film Festival, including the ‘Filmmakers Choice Award,’ ‘Best Documentary,’ ‘Best Film’ and ‘Best Director’ for Merkerson and her co-director, Rockell Metcalf.  She is currently directing, 'The Great Ladies of Apollo' for a May 11 event at the Apollo Theater in New York.

I caught up with S. Epatha Merkerson to talk about her role in the film and what she has next up her sleeve. She plays Daphne Peeples, the wife of Virgil Peeples, played by David Alan Grier.  Daphne, who has a problem with alcohol was, at one time, a successful singer who set her career aside to take care of her husband and raise her children. 

DD: Tell me about Daphne Peeples. Who is she?

SEM:  It’s pretty much in the script who this person was. Tina [writer/director Tina Gordon Chism] did a good job being clear who this woman was. I asked her a few questions. Here is a woman who had her own career. She made choices that moved her husband’s career forward.  She is still a free spirit. That’s how she goes through life. Although it’s through a slight bit of a haze. There are people in everyone’s family where they partake a little bit. The essence of Daphne is a woman who has a real zest for life. She has made the life they planned.

DD:  It is refreshing to see you let down your hair and play a role for laughs.

SEM: I was nervous initially.  But, I'm a risk taker. I can only take the risk if they give me the job.  The question always comes to my management - Is she funny?

DD: Your character struggled with alcohol. How were you able to relate to her.

SEM: Everyone has someone in the family who partakes. And they are functional. When it gets out of hand you deal with it. The essence of Daphne is she has a zest for life. She has made the home that they planned. Now her children are all doing well. They are bright, functioning kids. 
DD: She seems to have done a good job raising her children despite her limitations.

SEM: Whatever way she has allowed them not to follow her path is important to her. She has an urge to go back to when she was singing.  That’s what I like about them, you can tell they still love each other, that’s what I like about this story. They started out young and had children, but in the midst of their perfectness is dysfunction. So many people will come to this with the same experiences. 

DD: Talk about working on a set with people who look like you.

SEM: I can only be specific about this set. I don’t think I’ve been on a set where the film was directed by a female. I have been with a black male director before (George Wolfe). But it’s all about Tina this time. Tina is extraordinarily bright. But she also has this playfulness that is really infectious. She has her own type of vocabulary.   If it was ‘delicious’ we were moving on. It all has to do with the people who want to work with her and came together with her that allowed the set to be so much fun. It was great fun. Every moment was great fun. We can produce the product that we have, which I’m proud of - in the midst of enjoying the company and knowing that it is something rare. These are people you want to stay connected to. It doesn’t happen a lot.

DD: What kinds of projects get you excited about working in your profession

SEM: It’s always about the character. Someone asked me about a changing career as I get older. The one thing I’ve had as a constant is that I’ve always been considered a character actor. Never the ingénue. The idea is to find something that is different from the character I just played. Sixteen years I played Van Buren. In the midst of that I have played other characters. I did a play, ‘Come Back Little Sheba’, playing a character who had no control in her life.  I had the opportunity to play Nannie, but she was a woman of authority in a different time period. I try to find something different from what people know. I did three episodes of ‘Deception.’

DD: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the business and the role of African Americans in it.

SEM: I’m hopeful. I’m not pessimistic. I think it’s possible for us to make our own films because of technology. My hopes are that young folks will get the education that’s needed to write the script. 

DD:  You look like you had a ball doing this film.

SEM: I love laughter. I have no qualms about laughing at myself. I love singing and did quite a bit of it when I started in New York in musicals. It’s been so long since I’ve done that. No one remembers that I sing. It was great playing Daphne knowing she’s going to sing a song. I said to Stephen Bray (the movie’s executive music producer), I want to sing the song. Let me learn the song and present it to you. My favorite part of doing this is the opportunity to show people this very different side of me that my friends know.

DD: You have been in film, on stage and television. You’ve won a Golden Globe, an Emmy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Obie Award and four NAACP Image Awards. You have received two Tony Award nominations. Which medium do you prefer?

SEM: Stage is where I started. I like to get back every time I can.  When you do live productions it shows your mettle. There is no cutting in live performances. No do-overs. I appreciate that for the sheer gratification of getting a story succinctly in that time period. Television I love because it’s fast. I love TV because it’s fast. You have to think on your feet. When it comes to film there is luxury to me in doing film. I’m a little awkward still with a lot of waiting. I’m still learning how to adjust to making film. I enjoy them all for those different reasons.

‘Peeples’ (Lionsgate) is rated PG-13 for some violence, sexuality and drug content. Running time is 95 minutes.

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