With Friday’s highly anticipated release of I, Frankenstein, Kevin Grevioux solidifies his place as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after African-American screenwriters, graphic novelists and producers in the sci-fi and fantasy genre.
Grevioux is a Chicago native and graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., but he’s best-known as the co-creator of the successful Underworld movie franchise, which has grossed more than $448 million worldwide. Although he studied microbiology in college and started a graduate program in engineering, Grevioux eventually moved to Los Angeles to pursue a film career, and the rest is history. Known for his towering physique and echoing voice, he has appeared in films such as The Mask, Congo, Batman Forever, Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, The Hulk, Men in Black II and Underworld, in the latter as the infamous character Raze.
Updating Mary Shelley’s classic 1931 story of Dr. Frankenstein’s notorious monster, in I, Frankenstein Grevioux plays Dekar, the right hand of the leader of the demon world—the film’s Gothic universe that exists in the shadows of the human world.
Grevioux sat down with The Root to talk about his new film, his unconventional path to the big screen and his challenges as an African American in Hollywood.
The Root: Given your background and education, what inspired you to change your path in life from applied science and research to being a graphic novelist and screenwriter in the genre of sci-fi and fantasy?
Kevin Grevioux: I was 7 years old when I became a fan of science fiction and developed a love for monsters. But there was no real way to make a career out of that, especially where I grew up and when I grew up. So you supplement that kind of desire and you become something more socially acceptable, which was to go into the sciences, and that’s what I did.
I wanted to be a doctor at first, but I changed my track to research. I worked at [the National Institutes of Health] in Bethesda and graduated from Howard and studied genetic engineering in graduate school. But I had a growing love for the film industry. So I thought, “You know what? This is a good time just to go for it” and see what I could do, and that’s what I did. I was 28 when I moved to Los Angeles.
TR: Was it challenging to gather the courage to make such a drastic career change after investing so much time in academia? Was your family supportive of your decision?
KG: Both of my parents are academics and went to Harvard. So here I was, the black sheep of the family. You know, going off in another direction, something more creative. They didn't really understand that until I started getting some work and they started seeing me on TV. Once Underworld broke, I was then able do other things that I really liked.
I loved comic books growing up, so I broke into writing for Marvel Comics and DC Comics. I have written for characters like Batman, Superman, Thor, Spiderman, Ironman. They even allowed me to create my own character called the Blue Marvel, which I actually created when I was a kid, at least in part. The Blue Marvel character asked the question, “What if Superman were black in the early 1960s, and how would the world react to him?” I brought that character to Marvel Comics, and now the Blue Marvel has become an Avenger, which is pretty cool.
TR: What was the inspiration behind taking a universal character like Frankenstein, which many are familiar with, and creating a storyline that is not just a story about a monster?
KG: When you start looking at monsters, I look past what they were originally intended to be. Frankenstein is basically the story of Prometheus, but there’s another story there. Because here you have a character, Adam, the monster, who is a creature created by man, who was created by God. He was angry at Victor Frankenstein because he didn’t do for him what God did for his creation. Adam was not taught right from wrong, morality from immorality, and is alone. So what I think happens with these stories is that you use them as metaphors for the larger human condition.
Frankenstein could be a metaphor for abandonment or wanting to be accepted based on who you are, or not liking who you are and wanting to change. How do you do that if you have no viable moral compass? So I take these concepts, these aspects of these characters, and kind of turn them upside down on their ears so we can really get into seeing what they’re about. I want to see that conflict, but expand it.
And that’s how you start creating races of these kinds of creatures. It asks the questions: Are you man? Are you monster? Or are you somehow both? I think, a lot of times, metaphorically speaking … sometimes as black Americans living in this country, there’s who you know you are, but who you’re perceived to be based upon how we look, based upon our size, the timbre of our voice, things like that. And so it’s one of these things that you have to struggle with. You define who you are, and not the outside world. So with Frankenstein, it was no different. And … that way I was able to identify with the character and build upon that vast universe around him.
TR: Do you feel that being African American has an effect on the stories you tell or the approach you take to the metaphors or stories you focus on?
KG: Being a black man, it never leaves you. But in terms of viewing the world a certain way, when you’re talking about monsters and you’re talking about the metaphors you try to create, as black Americans, you ofttimes stand apart. And you have to look at things from the inside out or the outside in. And that can really play an important factor.
I mean, for me, when I walk through the doors … I am already an anomaly. Because here I’m working in a genre that, you know, black Americans don’t typically engage themselves in. And then you look at my background and people are like, “OK, wait a minute!” … People are flabbergasted, because my background is microbiology, or a hard science, and now I work in something speculative. And that can really mess with people’s head: “Why would you do this?”
And I’ve had brothers come up to me and say, “Hey! We don’t do things like that. What made you think of this?” But actually, it’s a metaphor for the struggle a lot of times. And so, in terms of the role race plays, it does and it doesn’t. Because we are much more than just this.
TR: In your opinion, why are there not more African Americans contributing and participating in the genre of sci-fi as creators, actors or writers?
KG: I believe there are a few reasons. I think one of them is that most people take the path of least resistance. And for a lot of people, comedy is that path—it’s more mainstream. It’s easier to sell a comedy than it is a drama, and so we tend to go for that. Now, our drama, since it’s cultural, seems to go in certain stereotypical directions because we make fun of ourselves. So that’s where the stereotypes come from sometimes.
Now, when it comes to blacks doing speculative fiction, there are not a whole lot of us. There are some, such as Octavia Butler and Steven Barnes, to name a few. But there are less of us. And I think one of the reasons why is the large aspect of our environment and culture.
A lot of times, you talk about what you know, but since our reality is so difficult, it’s hard to think about traveling beyond the stars to other dimensions or fantasy worlds if, in your reality, you can’t get a job on Earth. So that’s why I think a lot of our stories tend to be more drama-based, based upon our narrative here in America.
I would like for there to be more of an African-American presence in speculative fiction. We traditionally do dramas and comedies, which are all good, but I believe we are leaving a lot of good talent on the table when we don’t get into and explore other genres of storytelling.
TR: You have had an outstanding career in the last 10 years. What can we look forward to in the future?
KG: Lord willing, I see myself with my own production company, making different films, TV shows, animated series, video games, comic books. I will be releasing more African-American female characters, including Shurika, who is a fashion model by day, ninja warrior by night. Sheba, who is part of The Vindicators.
I just started my comic book company, Darkstorm Studios, and the first book we’re putting out is, of course, I, Frankenstein, based on my screenplay. And I think that’s important because … you want to be able to generate your own work because it’s hard to get people to hire you, for a million reasons.
I mean, like, being an actor is very difficult … because you fall into different categories. And everyone has to worry about it, whether you’re black, white, Asian, Latino. It’s like wow, you know? There are only so many roles available. So you have to be able to generate your own work and show that it can, show that it has legs and that it’s viable.