Rob Brown Boards ‘The Express’
by Paul Fischer
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Actor Rob Brown was born in Harlem and raised in Brooklyn, New York. A natural who never studied acting and who had no professional acting experience, made an auspicious acting and motion picture debut in Finding Forrester (2000). Rob celebrated his 16th birthday just before the start of production. He was a talented athlete in high school playing both basketball and football, skills he utilised to great success in The Express, which chronicles the true story of tragic footballer Ernie Davis in racially torn America in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The recent psychology graduate talked to Paul Fischer;
Paul Fischer: It must have been a very irresistible opportunity for you to play this character. Did you know much about him before you took this on?
Rob Brown: No. I knew that he went to Syracuse. I knew he won the Heisman and that was it, but people keep asking me oh, what attracted you to the role. I’m like man, what didn’t attract me to the role?
PF: Did you do a lot of research?
RB: Mostly just watching film. Game film, actually, because there’s not much media on Ernie. Gary gave me a disc of Ernie speaking for the first time like a month before we wrapped, so I haven’t heard it. I haven’t even listened to it.
PF: Now, you played a wide-receiver was it much of sort of head trip for you to go to wide receiver to running back?
RB: It’s football. At the end of the day if anything I was like a kid in a candy store because playing receiver, you know, you’re in a parameter, you’re on the outside, you’re on an island so to speak. You run a route. You’ve got to run your route. Guy’s got to protect it, got to pick up blitzes. The quarterback has to make a great throw. You catch the ball and that’s it. You play running back, you’ve got the ball in your hands for most of the time. It was a lot of fun. I kind of felt like why didn’t I play running back?
PF: There is a huge difference between playing football in real life and obviously playing football—shooting football scenes in the movie, what were the biggest challenges for you in still being adrenalin charged on film take after take after take?
RB: No, we played. The differences were in the game today as opposed to playing ball 45 years ago. That was the difference, so a lot of guys lead with their head these days, or their chest. Back then people used their shoulder more often so Coach Allen Graf had to stress things like that. Little things like if I was to score today I’d give my friend a high-five. This movement didn’t exist back then. People didn’t do this all these chest pumps and stuff so things of that nature were different. But playing it’s just football and coaches say things all the time—say things like no disrespect to Saved by the Bell but we’re not trying to make no Saved by the Bell football movie here. We’re trying to get it cracking, so in a lot of ways we just played and we had a lot of guys who are basically division one ball players. A lot of USC guys because Coach Graf he’s an SC guy. He wears his ring all the time and his son played center. He’s like I’m Carson Palmer’s center, things like that. So we had some real deal football players and football is—well at least I hope looks pretty real. Looks great to me.
PF: Did you get any real hits?
RB: Whenever I could I tried to stick a shoulder in somebody or you know try to do something I wasn’t supposed to do. I was told very early on that I couldn’t take any hits because that would jeopardize the production. If I get hurt we’re messing up, so I did as much as I could and then up until they said no and then brought in one of four doubles I had.
PF: How about research on Ernie’s family? Could you talk to any of Ernie’s family at all?
RB: No. First time I met them was in Atlanta at a screening. I didn’t know they were going to be there and Ernie’s nephew stood up and basically—mind you my heart was pounding—he was satisfied with the film. So in a lot of ways we were just trying to just capture Ernie’s spirit and Ernie’s essence and not worry about an impersonation because you know there isn’t that much of a blueprint out there because he’s not in the media and he passed away so early. So we just wanted to capture his spirit and still maintain his legacy without disrespecting his family.
PF: With the emotional stuff you had to do in the movie, because it’s a very—you had very emotional moments—were they more challenging for you than physical football differences as an actor?
RB: Yeah, football is football and that’s all fun for me. But either way I just wanted to be prepared so whenever I work I just try to be as prepared as possible, you know, even for auditions I just like to think that I’m so prepared that I have to book it. So I treated this no different. I just wanted to be prepared every day I worked.
PF: Ernie had a kind of father-son relationship with the coach ultimately—Coach Schwartzwalder—and I’m just wondering working with Dennis on this what was your relationship like on and off the screen? How did you guys get along?
RB: Similar because you know he’s a more tenured guy so I just try to soak up as much knowledge as possible and whenever I had a question I would just ask him and he was very responsive. In a lot of ways it’s a father-son relationship because just of where he is in his career and where I’m at now. I have a healing blister on my thumb because he took me out with Dr. Gross and Jim Beheim to the golf course last week. You know, I’d never played before and it’s a wrap for me now. I’m hooked so—
PF: How did it go?
RB: It went well for my first time, you know? I think I’ve got a knack for it. I double-boogied a hole. I had a chance for a birdie putt. It felt good, so I think I’m going to get after it.
PF: Give it a few more games, you’ll start hating it.
RB: All right. I’ll keep that in mind.
PF: What do you find most inspiring about Ernie’s story?
RB: Most inspiring to me is just his effect on people. People who—there’s people my age in Syracuse even last weekend when we were up there, there are people my age—I’m 24—with anecdotes about Ernie that were passed down from their parents and so forth. And it sticks with them until this day and it’s like well, how could this guy who passed away at such a young age make such a huge impact on people? You know, I think the most inspiring thing is the fact that people look at him as such as example. They ask themselves what would Ernie do? You know those bracelets What Would Jesus Do bracelets? Now blasphemy aside, that’s the kind of impact he had on people. People would think about things and say well what would Ernie do in this situation? I find myself doing that even up until this point I think I’m more mature as a function of getting to know Ernie a little bit.
PF: Is it more daunting for you as an actor to play someone who actually did exist at one time and is no longer here so that you can’t really draw?
RB: It was a gift and a curse as an artist because there was no blueprint to go off of. It was kind of a curse but it was kind of a gift because there’s no blueprint. I can get to kind of do what I want and I have the flexibility to be an artist. So, you know, I think the thing that’s daunting is just the responsibility associated with the role to him, his family, to Syracuse, to the Brown’s organization, to Jim Brown—definitely don’t want to get him upset—but with that responsibility I took it on because I figured it was a dream role and it was an honor to walk in his shoes for a minute.
PF: Did you meet Jim Brown?
RB: Yeah, last week for the first time. I spoke to him over the phone a few times.
PF: Was that scary?
RB: Yeah, but I was like a kid in a candy store. I got to meet Jim Brown. So when I met him, this was right before a press conference, I kind of had to bottle up my emotions because I’m too cool to go like ahh, Jim Brown in front of all these people at a press conference!
PF: Now, do you look at life a little differently knowing that Ernie’s character—he died at the age of 23 or 24—how does that make you look at life right now?
RB: I turned 23 while we were shooting so I put that in proper perspective. That definitely affected how I approached things and I definitely had that life is precious approach and I needed to be dedicated and fully committed to the role, you know, keeping in mind that you know what, I could not be here right now. And that goes along with the maturity I was talking about that I gained as a result of getting to know Ernie a little bit.
PF: What are you working on now? Do you have anything?
RB: Nothing. Nothing.
PF: So you didn’t start anything else after you finished this?
RB: No. After I finished this I had another semester of school to get done. So I got my degree. I walked in May so that was my next project.
PF: What’s your degree in?
RB: Master of Psychology.
PF: Do you want to use that? You use psychology as an actor, though, don’t you?
PF: What university?
RB: Amherst College in Massachusetts.
PF: One of the most poignant scenes in the movie was the talk about the white girl talking in the movie. What was that like for you because the director spoke highly of that scene and it was the honesty that you portrayed in listening was the part to watch as opposed to the dialogue that you had between him. What was the preparation like or what was the mindset you were in in that particular scene?
RB: Reading that screen that would definitely would strike a chord especially if you’re a black male, so Gary just stressed don’t play the end of the scene at the beginning of the scene and that’s something that if you read it it’ll piss you off and I just didn’t want to go in there and get there too early. And that was all. Other than that, you know, I knew what it was so I just didn’t want to as Gary says play the end of the scene at the beginning of the scene.
PF: What do you think audiences will get from this film emotionally?
RB: A lot. What I want them to get is just general knowledge of Ernie. I just want to generate that interest of Ernie because everyone knows about Jackie Robinson. Nobody knows about Ernie. I didn’t know about him and I played college football. In a lot of ways, he’s responsible for whatever success I have, you know, as a college athlete and Emerson is not the most diverse place either so I felt kind of embarrassed that I didn’t know about him and I just want people to know about Ernie’s story and it’s kind of like a lost history lesson.
PF: He wasn’t able to go to certain places on campus. Did that come up in—?
RB: You know what? I doubt that because the way he looked at everything—he looked at people as if race didn’t exist. He joined a Jewish fraternity. Okay, that’s crazy especially for an African-American. Just think about it. So there was resistance definitely like there was a—he got in due to a voting I guess loophole and he had to be accepted because he was just the type of guy that you couldn’t deny him. You couldn’t deny him like you couldn’t deny him the Heisman.
PF: What kind of perspective do you have as a young man who was born after the civil rights era and then going back and having to encounter it through the movie? Did he give you any kind perspective that you didn’t have before?
RB: Yeah and basically it’s like this. Stop whining. So things I complain about today being put in that situation on-set is like man, I really have nothing to complain about. So I just feel as though if Ernie could overcome those odds and such diversity, you know, in the late ’50s and throughout his life then I have no—I really have no excuse. I should succeed despite any adversity I face today.
PF: He was always running to something, never from something. I think that’s a line from the movie and that’s great. Is that how you try to live your life?
RB: Well, that implies a lot of ambition. I realize I’m an ambitious guy but I just try to take things as they come, you know for the most part. I think I went after this so vehemently because I just identified with it, you know, upon reading the first 10 pages, that you know I read this script like 3 years ago and I was just on people. What’s going on with it? What’s going on with it? What’s going on with it? You know? And that’s a long time to think about something and for it to come finally come into play. That’s huge.
PF: Why did you decide you wanted to study psychology at college?
RB: Well, in high school I thought I wanted to be… Well, just typical, you know how it is. People figure it out when they get to college. You think you want to be an astronaut and then after a while you’re a geo-major for whatever reason. That’s just the way it is in college. I guess that’s what happened. I started out wanting to be an engineer and then I was taking computer-science. I figured I wanted to do that. Shut that down once I got to school. Tried econ, didn’t like it. Shut that down. Then I realized all these psychology courses I really liked, so let me just stick to what I’m drawn to.
PF: As someone who played the game, and Gary mentioned this, like sometimes you watch sports films, particularly footballs films, and you see casts that you know can’t play the game. Have you ever seen any of those films and just kind of went eehh and were you happy to kind of be in this situation where you did have some D1 players around you to make it look a little bit more authentic.
RB: Yeah definitely, but you’re not fooling anybody. We’re at the point where if you make a sports movie you can’t just cut to a ball going in or cut to somebody making a catch. You can’t do that anymore because audiences aren’t going to respond to that, so I’m glad we got Coach Graf on here and he had—he talked a lot about SC, SC but I’m glad he had those guys around there, you know to make the film look good.
PF: I was going to ask you what did you enjoy most about making this film.
RB: I can’t pick any one thing because it’s a tough film to make. They don’t make films like this all the time and the conditions in Chicago were such that sometimes it made production a nightmare. Just trains, planes and automobiles and sirens. A lot of sirens in Chicago and I thought that was—being a psych major—I just thought that was a function of the Chicago fire, you know, they still have that mindset like oh—anyways. Sorry to go on that tangent but it was a hard film to make so much like football which a lot of people say is the ultimate team sport because if one out those 11 guys screws up you jeopardize the integrity of a play and ultimately of the success of the team. You’ve got the whole crew working on this and for it to finally be here, I’m just glad we got the film made and that it’s coming out because people worked hard on this film.
PF: When you were up in Syracuse, I’m sure there’s a lot of emotion going on the night at the premiere and people that had known him and those that had grown up admiring him in that area, was there anything or anyone in particular that came up to you that night and said something to you that just, you know, or was it just kind of the whole experience of being up there surrounded by 40,000 of his closest friends and admirers? I mean, what stands out for you about that night?
RB: Again, nothing—the whole time it was crazy. The whole time we were up there it was pretty surreal. I guess I didn’t know what I was getting into. And honestly that weekend did it for me in terms of talking about how much money the film will make or whatever. That money will be spent. The film is forever and people who were around Ernie, who were close to Ernie, they think we got it right and that’s all that really matters, so you know, I’m satisfied. I’m good.
PF: Making a period piece like this, does it make you look at football today, you know, whereas you have your athletes bringing Sharpies on the field and things like that? Does it put you in a different perspective to appreciate the old game of football or does it turn you off from football the way it’s become?
RB: No, I definitely took that mindset. You know old school coaches—a lot of my coaches—would say things like when you come on the field don’t walk—run. And that’s the mindset I kind of took because it’s Ernie Davis. You can’t just be slapping around with your helmet off on the field—that’s another thing—don’t take your helmet off on the field. I don’t know if anyone’s from Cleveland but Dwayne Rudd did that a couple of years ago—lost the game. He was celebrating, took his helmet off, you know that’s just disrespect. It’s a rule that’s in the rule book but no one calls it became it’s just like you just don’t do that. So I kind of looked at the overall culture of the sport and I really wanted to respect it as Ernie did, down to shoelaces being tied. My doubles were sagging something, hey man tuck that in. You know, don’t disrespect the game.
PF: Wasn’t there so issue with his statue at Syracuse because they put Nike’s on him and the helmet was wrong?
RB: Yeah. It was bad. I watched Jim Rome—you know that show Jim Rome is Burning? Anyone know? I watch that show religiously so I was like ironing a shirt and his final burn was about that—the statute of limitations. I was like oh man. But it’ll get corrected. People make mistakes. It’s a bad mistake to make but it’ll get corrected.
PF: But back to psychology for a moment. What are you going to do with the degree?
RB: I’m not sure. I’m not fresh out but I haven’t just had any free time in a long time. I’ve either been in school or working for so long that I’m just going to kind of let it breathe. I might get my Master’s in Social Work. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m just taking life as it comes to me.
PF: Is this like a backup in case you decide you don’t want to act anymore or do you want to do something else besides acting?
RB: It’s not a backup. It’s just something I’m interested in doing. My mother’s a social worker as well so I really admire how she serves her community. She works with a lot of people with the virus and substance abuse people as well, so I look at that I see a lot of good that she does and I figure, you know what, I can definitely use my celebrity to the extent that I can give back to my community and on top of that if I had my Master’s people really can’t tell me nothing, so—
PF: You can use it to get into the heads of your characters can’t you if you know psych—?
RB: Yeah, definitely. Yeah.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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