BLACK KNIGHT - Movie feature on Martin Lawrence
Martin Lawrence isn't afraid of a challenge. As a child he was the class clown, a position his teachers actually encouraged, and by the early 90s his stand-up act was so successful he ruled the US TV charts for five years as the lead in popular sitcom Martin. His ready wit and easy charm naturally paved the way for a movie career, which took off in 1995 with the explosive Bad Boys, pairing him with superstar-in-waiting Will Smith. From here on, Lawrence's mettle was truly tested; not only did he face the daunting prospect of stunt work that faces all would-be action heroes, his comedic streak also brought its own problems: as undercover agent Malcolm Turner, he dressed up in full drag for the outrageous 2000 farce BIG MOMMA'S HOUSE.
Now, with the time-travel fantasy BLACK KNIGHT, scripted by BIG MOMMA'S Darryl J Quarles, Lawrence again finds himself in a tight spot. As Jamal Walker, a lowly worker at the Medieval World theme park, he tries to recover an amulet from the park's moat, falls in and is mystically transported to 14th century England. Mistaken for a Frenchman because of his bizarre dress sense, Jamal becomes swept up in a plot against the king and helps the down-at-heel knight Sir Knolte (Tom Wilkinson) regain his self-esteem. As soon as he read the script, the 37-year-old actor knew he couldn't pass it up. "I couldn't help laughing when I though of myself holding a sword," he says, "but I also thought this would be a little different, a change of pace from some of the other things I've done. I loved the whole fish-out-of-water theme. I mean, what's a bigger fish out of water than a brother from modern-day America going back to mediaeval England?"
Unlike the savvy, wise-cracking characters he played in BAD BOYS and BLUE STREAK, Jamal is a loveable loser, a 21st century guy who still has a lot to learn from modern times, let alone history. He is thrown, for example, by the feisty heroine Victoria, a mediaeval babe who seems to belong in the emancipated 60s, but he soon comes to respect her spirit and independence. "I like Jamal," says Lawrence. "He's a young, vibrant, guy who finds himself in the middle of a rebellion, so he has to take on this whole new persona - the 'black knight' - to help win the battle." He grins. "It's a nice ride."
This 'ride' entailed a lot of unexpected graft along the way. To disguise himself, Jamal is forced to go undercover yet again, this time as the court jester Sir Skywalker, which caused Lawrence a few headaches when preparing for the role. "I wasn't sure about the song and dance thing, man, and I didn't want to do it," he laughs. "First of all, I can't sing. In the shower, maybe! Man, I was so bad..." He shakes his head. "But, you know, this is a comedy, so it didn't have to be good." To bring him up to scratch, the producers brought in R&B star Paul Abdul to choreograph for Jamal and co, planning the film's climactic dance scene where Skywalker cuts loose at a huge, lavish banquet. "I applaud Paula for coming in and showing nothing but love for myself and for the project," says Lawrence. "And I got a kiss on the cheek, OK, so I suppose that's what made me do it."
To fully capture the flavour of Jamal's journey, director Gil Junger pulled out all the stops to recreate the sights and sounds of mediaeval England. But as well as special effects, this also required some very sharp casting, specifically Oscar nominee Wilkinson as the washed-up Knolte. Lawrence admits that this didn't make things any easier. "I was working with some classically trained actors," he says, "and they were very much authentic in their roles, and so I had to be in mine. I had to step up to the challenge of trying to understand where they were coming from, in order to get them to understand where *I* was coming from."
Together, though - much like their characters in the movie - they were able to work it through, establishing a mutual sense of pride and respect. "Pride and respect," says Lawrence, "are the things that help us to shape our consciousness of who we are, our strength of character. And they're good qualities to have." So what is he most proud of? He gives it some serious thought. "Let's see... what am I most proud of? I'm most proud of the blessings that God has bestowed upon me, in my life. He's given me the vision to truly see that you can fall down, but you can still get back up. Hopefully I'll learn from my mistakes and have the opportunity to strengthen and improve the next thing I do."
This, of course, is a reference to some of Lawrence's darker moments, when his real-life bad-boy exploits were the stuff of tabloid headlines and his turbulent marriage to pin-up Patricia Southall filled gossip column inches. Now, though, he's put all that behind him and claims that his sense of humour has helped him through. "I don't want to sound facetious," he says, "but humour is the key to the soul. You know what I mean? It massages our life, our being, and our character. It's just a wonderful, relaxing spirit that we all need in our lives, because, without it, the task of being who we are as human beings takes on its own pressures. So laughter soothes all that and allows you to really reflect on the things that can be difficult. It provides a strong crutch to get through it."
Now, instead of partying, he wants to concentrate on his career and still has plenty of goals left: one in particular. "I haven't really done a good drama," he says, "and I'm in the middle of talks about doing one. But a little bit of both is right on the line for me. Y'know, I just want to get better, as a comedian and as an actor. I just love to entertain people, and I want whatever I do to be genuine and real. Whether I'm in medieval times or whatever, I just want it to have its own authenticity. And as long as I have that, it will allow me to keep getting better. That's what I want to do: keep it real."
This doesn't mean, though, that Black Knight should be taken as a serious warm-up for his first Oscar role. "Go in there and just enjoy it," he grins. "Enjoy your popcorn and enjoy the jokes. It's just a movie, so have fun!"
Question and Answer text Copyright Twentieth Century Fox