Mekhi Phifer on Racism: 'You're Gonna Have to Deal With It'

The actor on prejudice, the N-word and his new film, Suspect.

Posted: 04/30/2014 01:45 PM EDT

Mekhi Phifer is the type of actor who doesn't shy away from a challenge when it comes to choosing roles. The 20-year Hollywood veteran has played everything from a doctor on ER and a rapper in 8 Mile to a romantic leading man in Honey. With his new film, Suspect, Phifer may have found his most boundary-pushing role to date. The actor plays a college professor wrongly accused of a bank robbery who uses his incarceration to conduct an elaborate social experiment with some very real consequences.

The film is a natural conversation starter on issues of racism and prejudice, and we chatted with Phifer to get his perspective on everything from how to talk to kids about race to use of the N-word.

Plus, the actor and Broadway veteran taps into his lighter side to tell us which of his nearly three dozen films he would most like to see turned into a musical.

Suspect is a truly thought-provoking thriller. Tell us about what drew you to this project.
In Hollywood, you get the same running themes...romantic comedy, action films, explosions. This just felt different. It spoke to socio-economic issues, racial issues, political issues, and I just felt that it was a lot rolled into one in this particular project. I felt like audiences would walk away with something that’s different than what’s just in mainstream at the movie theater. It’s like In the Heat of the Night meets The Usual Suspects.

You play a character that’s wrongly accused of committing a crime based on appearance. In your own life, have you experienced that kind of prejudice?
I have. Unfortunately, that’s just the way of the world. I don’t hold a chip on my shoulder, I’m not bitter about anything, but I’m just very observant. I have experienced racial profiling...that’s what also drew me to this project, because what we’re doing is playing off of people's prejudices. To answer your question, I've felt that prejudice but it doesn’t keep me up at night. It’s like going to war in Iraq and not expecting to hear any gunshots — you’re going to hear it and you’re going to have to deal with it, it is what it is.

You have young kids. What do you tell them what they can expect from the world?
I don’t sit around and necessarily talk about race. I got to let them be kids. But, as they experience life and if that’s part of their experience, then, yes, that is definitely something that we will get into and discuss. I will explain to them that as an African-American, you always have to be conscious of what you do and the way you look.

A big topic on BET.com is the use of the N-word. Obviously, its used a lot in hip hop and among Black people, but white folks catch a lot of heat for using it. Do you think that there is a double standard, and if so, is that how it should be?
I can't speak for everybody. I'm not anybody’s leader or anything like that. But I do feel a lot of times, in our community, that word is not necessarily used as a derogatory term. A lot of times it was a term of endearment. I think it’s interesting what African-Americans have done throughout our history, turning negative connotations into something that is a positive. That said, I’m uncomfortable when I’m in certain circles and [white] people may feel comfortable enough to use that word. I’ve had to check a couple of people on that throughout my life. I don’t condone it being used in a derogatory way, and listen, it’s just like everything else — whether you are an artist or comedian, you've got to know your audience. You’re not going to go up to Barack Obama and say "what’s up my n---a!" That don’t make no sense.

Okay, switching to a lighter topic. You're a Broadway veteran and there's a big trend of adapting Hollywood films into Broadway musicals. If you could turn one of your films into a musical, which one would it be?
I think it would be a lot of fun to do 8 Mile as a musical, because it’s such a music-driven film obviously. It would fun with the talent of Eminem to write lyrics!

Is that something you can see happening?
I don't know, I just want to put that out in the universe...and I want to play Future!

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