It’s no secret that Lee Daniels initially envisioned Wesley Snipes—over Terrence Howard—in the role of Lucious Lyon on Empire. While Snipes is not ruling the Lyon clan, he has joined TV’s diversity party with NBC’s The Player, a high-concept, action-packed drama set in Vegas where high rollers gamble on whether a player will stop a crime. Snipes plays Mr. Johnson, the pit boss.
The series is a huge enterprise for the 53-year-old Snipes, whose Hollywood career was stalled by a prison stint for tax evasion and other complications. Still, because Snipes’ résumé is packed with badass big-screen roles like New Jack City’s Nino Brown and Blade, his presence on the small screen is noteworthy. The Root caught up with Snipes (who has also reteamed with Jungle Fever and Mo’ Better Blues director Spike Lee for Chi-Raq, Amazon’s first original film) to talk The Player, diversity on television and his career overall.
The Root: You were offered The Player and Empire around the same time; was it gratifying to be in demand?
Wesley Snipes: It’s always gratifying to know that you are appreciated for your work and have the opportunity to work with others and they want to work with you. Getting a job is good, but having a career is better.
TR: So who is Mr. Johnson, and what sold you on him?
WS: The idea that this is a guy who rose from the streets, came from the streets, came from a very diverse background, was a player and ended up rising to the highest ranks of becoming the pit boss of pit bosses. It’s intriguing to even think about how he got there, what he had to go through, what he learned and the people he encountered along the way. What we’re bringing to the show is, I’m going to be able to bring and explore some of those experiences, not only the martial arts aspects or the physical aspects, but the languages, the dialects and the disguises that Mr. Johnson would use to protect the house and make sure the game continues.
TR: In the past, a show like The Player would have been on cable. It’s not a typical network show.
WS: Well, the networks have to compete now, too, and they still have access to some of the best talent that’s out there, and the market is opening up. We are not only talking about the show broadcasting here in the States, but it’s already sold internationally just on the premise alone and the casting alone and the success of the pilot. So, yeah, they have to be competitive, and they got a marketplace that’s hungry for new material, so why not give it to them?
TR: It’s been reported that you are doing your own stunts.
WS: All the martial arts and the combat action you see me do in this show will be done by me.
TR: And why is that important?
WS: I think it gives a unique authenticity to it, and I’m going to bring elements of the energy and the style of martial arts and combat that is rarely seen on TV, that’s unique to me and the community I was raised in, the kind of flavor we like, and it can be fun. We see the guy who can act, but he can also get down when it’s time to get down.
TR: Speak on the diversity we’re seeing on TV now, because even five years ago, a black actor, regardless of how great he is, probably would not have been cast as Mr. Johnson.
WS: Isn’t that the blessing of us hanging around long enough to see the efforts of the trailblazers pay off? And we can participate and carry on that tradition. Each one will teach one. It’s nothing new under the sun. There were great ones who opened the door, and now we’re standing in the room, so now we got to put some food on the table, if not only for ourselves but for the ones that will come after us.
TR: The year 2016 marks the 25th anniversary of New Jack City. How do you think Nino Brown brought you here?
WS: How do I think Nino Brown has brought me here? Well, I don’t know if it’s just Nino. The movie, at the time, was considered a surprise success and did really well at the box office. It showcased a different side of my acting ability, and as it turned out it, became a cult classic or a cultural classic. I think that always helps. Over the years, it’s grown to appeal to people who didn’t see it when it was first released.
TR: How were you able to break out of the hood-film genre? You went from Nino Brown to Blade.
WS: I was also doing all kinds of other films as well. I was doing the Money Trains. Even before that, I was doing films with Harvey Keitel, action-related films, the Rising Suns of the world, even a piece some people may be less familiar [with], titled The Waterdance, which is about paraplegics and people who have spinal injuries. I played a cat in a wheelchair, a much older type of character than I was, so it gave people a chance to see the range of my acting skills before all of the action stuff jumped off and before all the hip-hop-hero stuff jumped off, so I had already laid the foundation for being a diverse actor.
TR: What do you want viewers to get from The Player?
WS: I want [viewers] to get into the world of these people who are the high rollers and live with $10 million-a-day credit lines, and the lifestyle they live and the intrigue and the political influence they have because they have so much wealth, and how we live in an age where there’s technology where you can predict a particular crime like you predict the weather.
TR: What would you like Mr. Johnson’s impact to be?
WS: Hopefully Mr. Johnson will stand toe-to-toe to Nino.
Editor’s note: The Player premieres on NBC Thursday, Sept. 24, at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.