Q&A: Michael Clarke Duncan Talks His New Film and Former Bodyguard Days

The actor on his “hardest” client, Queen Latifah, and a close call the night the Notorious B.I.G. died.


Michael Clarke Duncan is one of a few brawny, hulking figures Hollywood usually calls upon when it’s time to bring in the movie muscle, but this former bodyguard to Queen Latifah, Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and Jamie Foxx is still out to prove that he’s much more. Tomorrow, you can catch the 57-year old Chicago native on the big screen as Augy in Redemption Road, the Mario Van Peebles directed film about the pitfalls of alcoholism.


Duncan chatted with about his new movie, being a bodyguard to the stars and keeping a sense of humor about being mistaken for Ving Rhames and Magic Johnson.


Unlike other movies that sometimes glamorizes it or treats it like comedy, one of the best things about Redemption Road is that it actually shows the ramifications of alcoholism. Is that something you and Mario Van Peebles discussed beforehand?

Mario and I talked about alcoholism and a number of things that he was passionate about that he wanted me to do. The script was well written but there were a couple of things I wanted to bring to the forefront. Mainly that a lot of people don’t know that alcoholism is a very dangerous disease, it’s a disease and it spreads like one. It is just as dangerous as any other disease out there.


Your character Augy has a towering presence but he’s more of the gentle, spiritual type. Because of your hulking stature is typecasting still a problem for you, or do you just embrace it?

I try to avoid typecasting by doing different roles.  But after I did The Green Mile, I did Scorpion King, Daredevil and Planet of The Apes and all those movies called for me to be the big heavy guy. I don’t mind playing [roles like] that but I like to play things in between. I think as an actor you want to keep being challenged.


Rappers turned actors sometimes get a little heat for their thespian aspirations. Did you get similar backlash for being a former bodyguard who wanted to act?

It was a pretty easy transition but I didn’t study anywhere. Once an actor told me he went to the Shakespeare School of Acting, and I said, “I went to the Shakespeare of Acting, too” and he said, “Oh really?” And I said, “I went to Shakespeare Elementary School in Chicago."  He didn’t take the joke well, he didn’t laugh and didn’t think it was funny—I thought it was funny. It's all the same to me. I love acting it’s apart of me and I try to put a little bit of myself in each of my roles.


You did a lot of bouncer and security roles when you started in movies and TV, but at what point did you realize you were an actor?

I appeared in a Fresh Prince of Bel Air episode with B.B. King and I had to say one line, it was, “Shut up.”  I got paid fifteen hundred dollars and I knew then that’s when I recognized I was an actor. Once I saw that check I said, “Okay I’m in this, I’m doing this for a career.”


So I know you can’t spill too many secrets but what was it like being a bodyguard to stars? What stories can you share?

I think the hardest one [I had to bodyguard] was Queen Latifah. Because she was doing Living Single at the time and I used to have to go to her trailer and get her out. At that time, Queen Latifah was not the size she is now. She preferred to get on my back and get a piggyback ride to the set, which was maybe like 75 yards away. So, you know I wasn’t going to tell her no. So every time I’d went over to her trailer, they’d be like,“You’re gonna get Queen out?” I’d be like, “Okay, I’m working out, I’m ready."  And she’d always be like, 'Michael, let me see if I can get a piggyback ride.' And I’d be like, 'Okay, c’mon let’s do this.'" That was one of the highlights of my bodyguard career that nobody knew about. But she was a lot of fun and we had a good time.


And is it true you were supposed to be the Notorious B.I.G.’s bodyguard the night he was shot and killed?

Yes and I remember it like it was yesterday. A co-worker friend of mine called because he was supposed to guard Babyface that night but he liked being in that [hip hop] limelight and I didn’t. He asked to switch so I went to pick up Babyface, he went to pick up Notorious B.I.G. and the rest is history. I woke up the next morning to the news and I called my friend and he said everything happened so quick and so fast. So every year when that day [the anniversary of Biggie’s death] comes around I think about two things, a young brother lost his life for nothing— it was senseless and stupid and that was the last day I worked security. I quit that day turned in my stuff and said I’m not willing to put my life on the line for somebody, because as a security guard or bodyguard that’s what you’re supposed to do.


Finally, do people ever mistake you for Ving Rhames?

All the time, all the time, I did one picture with Ving Rhames and I gave him a piggyback ride on the red carpet just so people could see that we were not the same people. A young Black lady just walked up to me the other day and asked, “Mr. Rhames can I have a picture?"  I said, “If he were here I’m sure he would be happy to give you one, but I’m Michael Clarke Duncan.” She was like, “Damn!” But most of time when people come up to me and I ask them, “What’s my name?” Usually, the answer is Ving or Tommy 'Tiny' Lister. Once an old lady came up to me and said I was Magic Johnson. I just took a picture with her so her family could tell her, “No Grandma, that’s not Magic Johnson.”


Redemption Road opens in limited release Friday, August 26 2011.

(Photo: Frank Micelotta/PictureGroup)

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