Editor's note: This interview was done prior to the actors' strike.
Justin Simien considers himself to be a storyteller. We have come to know the Dear White People creator as a filmmaker, writer, producer, author and director, so yeah, he is a storyteller, a damn good one, which is why it seems like such a no-brainer to have the 40-year-old Houstonian sign on as the director of Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
Set in New Orleans, inspired by the spooky ride of the same name in Disney World, Haunted Mansion keeps the integrity of the ride with the same thrilling twists, however through Simien’s lens, the experience on the big screen is enhanced in countless ways. One of those ways was ensuring there was a star-studded ensemble cast with strong, Black leads: Lakeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, as well as, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis and Owen Wilson.
Haunted Mansion is a much deeper film than you’d imagine. Simien prides himself on challenging the status quo with his work. Along with the expected goons and goblins, we’re thrust into the story of Ben, a Black astrophysicist played by Stanfield, who opened his heart and life up to love, only to be devastatingly incapacitated by the death of his loved one. With Haddish and Curtis as mediums, DeVito as a ghost-obsessed educator and Wilson masquerading as a priest, Haunted Mansion explores humanity, bonds and the handling of death and spirits.
BET.com caught up with Simien, Haddish and Standfield, before the writers and actors strike, at the historical Elms Mansion in steamy New Orleans for an in-depth chat about why Haunted Mansion thrills.
BET.com: What a lovely, surprisingly Black ensemble cast! We love to see it!
Justin Simien: It’s everything to me to be in a position to be able to do that. I was a kid growing up, just thirsty, desperate to see myself in something. And I think that's why I'm a filmmaker. When I feel seen and felt by a movie, I'm not excited if I can't do that in some way.
LaKeith Stanfield: I just love to see us as multi-dimensional humans and everything that we show up in, that's a story. We're all kinds of things. There's gonna be many different representations as long as we're able to tell our own stories. We come in all different shapes, forms and fashions. It’s not news to us, but I'm glad that the world at large is able to get some clear understanding about it, because it's true.
It is important how we're represented and how we represent ourselves. We have seen that a lot of the way that we've been able to move through representing ourselves without any inhibition has caused others to be able to do that and share their stories. We want the whole world to be able to do that. And so it's a good trend that people are being able to be seen in different kinds of lights. I like to and I'm attracted by things like that, which is one of the reasons why this character, Ben was attractive to me. It was a dope opportunity; I don’t see a lot of Black astrophysicists.
BET.com: What made you take on a Disney movie like Haunted Mansion?
Justin Simien: It felt really kismet. When I read the script, it was such a surprising read. I was not expecting an ensemble comedy. I was not expecting this emotional grief journey. I was not expecting a roller-coaster ride of a movie to hinge on whether or not this man was gonna feel his feelings–that just really touched me. I know how to do that.
And the rest of it is super fun, it’s comedy, set pieces, genre and cinema. But at the core of it, what we're doing actually feels right as a storyteller. That plus the cultural specificity…New Orleans is 85% Black folk, so we have to route this ride and we have to route this experience in real, authentic New Orleans. These people have to look like the folks that live here and it has to sound like New Orleans. I told the studio if you get New Orleans, right, you get the ride right. New Orleans is already a place where laughter and sorrow and all these things aren't supposed to go together, they're just there. They just exist together. Luckily, the studio agreed and decided to say yes to me.
LaKeith Stanfield: I was really excited at the opportunity to be able to work with Disney. That is something I hadn't done before and I knew that it might be a chance to tap into a market that I hadn't tapped into before. I was interested in leaving the new generation with some sort of legacy that felt good in the same way it felt good for me growing up seeing Disney movies. The real thing that drew me in was that this seemed to be a story that could be grounded in a way that I really wasn't used to seeing these big movies be. It was actually a cool story at the core of this, a guy who was actually digging deeper to find out more about himself and his life. It was funny, and it was fun. I knew Tiffany was gonna be in it, that was freaking dope. I was just excited that Rosario Dawson and Danny DeVito were going to be in it, who I grew up watching. Owen Wilson, who's hilarious! With this cocktail of people, and Justin Simien, the director, I've seen his work before and I was really glad that they put somebody Black at the helm. If you are going to make a film in New Orleans with a Black cast, have a Black director.
BET.com: When Tiffany Haddish is put in something, we rely on you to be a comedic relief. You are indeed that in Haunted Mansion, but you’re more than that…
Tiffany Haddish: Did you ever play imaginary growing up? It felt like that. Everybody had their part, everybody had their thing and I didn't have to carry so much. Just having fun and being in the pocket of that character and what I would like a medium to be, it was a combination of things. I watched Ghosts. I watched Miss Cleo. Call me now! And people would call her and how she would answer them and do her readings and then I watched a documentary of her. I wouldn't mind making that movie. Did you know she was from LA?
BET.com: What does Haunted Mansion say about death?
Tiffany Haddish: The message I got was there's another level to this soul. My soul is hanging out in a meat suit. The meat suit can change, but your soul is your soul right? And like those spirits in the movie, they were representatives of who they were in life. Like the bride lady, she was a monster in life. But then, really, she wanted to be good, and she did get good because she was helpful later. The different characters that are on the ride, each have their own story, just like we each have our own story. The spirit never changes.
LaKeith Stanfield: It kind of feels like, especially toward the end, it's not necessarily something to be looked at as a bad thing. Maybe it's something that we should celebrate. We should celebrate one's life and that they lived it fully. It's something that we all have to contend with and meet one day so it doesn't really make sense to be afraid of and to cower at the mention of, or to try to get away from all the time. It's like you're running from the inevitable and so learning how to embrace it and actually just embrace your life while you're here seems to be the more important thing to take away from it. It's a thrilling, fun, crazy, weird, strange, funny, sad ride but you're not going to be available for any of that if you're too busy thinking about the end result. Sometimes you just gotta enjoy the ride. That's some of what you walk away from this film feeling and thinking; it leaves you on a high note, which I'm happy about. It makes you look at it. [death] There's also a lot we can learn about death. We can look at their lives and how they lived and then structure our lives around that to make it better.
BET.com: One of the themes that stick with you is doing things that scare you. In real life, how do you approach that?
Tiffany Haddish: I do a lot of things that scare me. I be scared to walk out the house some days. Somebody was asking me, ‘Tiffany, how are you so confident?’ I'm not confident, I'm courageous. It's having the courage to accomplish the goal, to do the thing that needs to be done, to get the end result that you want. I have this list of goals, and every day I do something towards my goals, every single day. Some of the things that I need to do, I don't want to do. They scare me a little bit. It makes me uncomfortable. I just went to the French Riviera, you would think, ‘Oh, yes!’ But I had to talk in front of a bunch of people that I don't necessarily connect with and I don't necessarily understand. And I was a little bit like, ‘Dang, I don't know if they're gonna get me. Am I wasting my time? Maybe I should just stay home.’ You know what? Be courageous. Just have the courage to go get it done because what you're trying to do, the mission is bigger than you. Whether I succeed or fail, at least I gave it a good old college try. It actually turned out really good and I am gonna be opening my grocery store in South Central. Buckingham and Martin Luther King. Making it happen! Being courageous!
BET.com: Your career has been beautifully Black thus far. Haunted Mansion is helping to expand your territory. What do you think that it’s saying about your career trajectory and the things that you hope to continue to be able to do going forward?
Justin Simien: I think that like my stories, up until this point, they do a couple of things, they entertain you, but they also they're meant to challenge you. They're meant to leave you with a bit of an aftertaste…something to chew on. But I also really love entertainment. I love escapist entertainment, especially when you return to your regular life, there's something that you didn't quite think about or feel strongly about before you saw it. I grew up on those movies. I think those kinds of movies are important too. I wanted to make a crowd-pleaser. I really did. I wanted to entertain people and leave them with something. And maybe on the next one, I'll leave you with that bitter taste again. But on this one, I think, especially because when I got the script, it was 2021, we were all coming out of a really tough time, especially in Hollywood with the pandemic and all that kind of stuff. I needed some joy. I needed some escapism, and I wanted to provide that and have the folks on the screen just look like Americans period and this was a grand opportunity to do that.