Interview: Mario Van Peebles Talks ‘Superstition’, Acting and His Long Career

Mario Van Peebles also discusses what he was looking for when casting the series and the advice Clint Eastwood gave him.

Actor Mario Van Peebles

“As an actor/director, it’s easier to actually direct other actors because you kind of give them what you want to get.” – Mario Van Peebles

Mario Van Peebles is a one-man force of nature on Syfy’s new TV series, Superstition. He’s an executive producer, writer, director and star of the supernatural drama. The show centers around the Hastings family, owners of the only funeral home in the mysterious town of La Rochelle, Georgia. The family also handles after-life care for unexpected deaths that people suffer at the hands of demonic entities and other unexplained paranormal activities. 

In this interview, Van Peebles chats about wearing three-hats on the show, what he was looking for when casting the series, his father, Melvin Van Peebles and the advice Clint Eastwood gave him.

Superstition airs on Fridays at 10pm on Syfy

How hard is it to kind of do all these things at once, to direct, write and act?

Mario Van Peebles: Yes. That’s a good question. I think part of it is that when you grow up – if you grow up on a family farm, you learn a little bit about feeding the chickens, plowing the north 40, taking care of the horses. It’s all sort of part of the Zen of farming.

And, you know, when you grow up with Melvin Van Peebles – or Melvin Van Movies, my dad, you know, and you’re an independent filmmaker, you learn as a kid to take care of the cables, to be a PA, to be an editor, to do all those things.

And it’s all part of the Zen of, you know, independent filmmaking in that you kind of need to know it all. And I didn’t really realize until later on as an adult that those were sort of carved up into different sections because it was all part of the family filmmaking thing.

So I kind of grew up doing it and being pretty fluid. And I saw my dad do it if you think back to when my dad did Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in 1971 that became the top grossing independent hit of that year.

And I grew up seeing him do it. He was acting in it. He wrote it. He produced it. He worked on the music with a new group called Earth, Wind and Fire. And so I kind of grew up, oh, that’s what filmmaking is. Gee, I didn’t know any better.

And my family is kind of like the Jacksons without the talent. You know, we just get in there and we’re scrappy. And we make it happen. And then 20 years later, almost to the month after 1971 and 1991, I directed and acted in my first feature, which was New Jack City.

So I guess I grew up with it and it feels very organic to me. And I think sometimes as a filmmaker/director, I mean, as an actor/director, it’s easier to actually direct other actors because you kind of give them what you want to get.

So you create a climate where they can do their best work and you sort of, you know, you have a different bedside manner if you’re not only a doctor but you’re also a patient.

So I think it allows me to talk with them, you know, and speak the language and really get in there and mix it up. So it’s actually something that I grew up with.

I’m all about diversity this year. And I’m totally loving, you know, the cast and how it’s all set up. It’s great.

Mario Van Peebles: Yes, well, it was really – this has been a collaborative effort. So it was Barry Gordon and Justin and Chris and Joel, you know, and really looking at it saying this is, you know, sort of an underserved demographic.

And the world is getting more diverse. America is getting more diverse. And we kind of kicked around and laughed about – first of all sort of the American South is sort of this very rich sort of setting, sort of this fictional town of La Rochelle that has this sort of American Gothic kind of quality.

But it had so many – because, you know, America is a melting pot. And, you know, you take a place by America, and you take, you know, Italian immigrants and Africans who maybe didn’t come voluntarily and Native Americans and Asians and Jews from Europe. And you put us all together and you do get sparks.

But out of those sparks you get great art and great music. And so out of America you get jazz and rock and roll and hip hop and gospel and all this great music and all this texture. And that’s because you’ve got all these folks in this sort of cultural human melting pot. And we thought the New South really reflects that.

You get Republicans and Democrats and climate change deniers. And, you know, especially a place like New Orleans and around there, you get all kind of people who voted for the president. People who didn’t. All kind of folks. And you get sparks and you get friction. And it’s exciting.

And we thought this is a very exciting diverse America that we wanted to show. And I think part of the other thing we kicked around was this notion that, you know, what would the Obamas really be like when the cameras go off?

You know, if you took a family that was a pretty tight family, had a lot of love, smart family, when the cameras go off, if they had to deal with infernals and demons and fight the forces outside, what would that family look and feel and sound like? And that became sort of something we kicked about as well.

So it was a number of things, but the notion of seeing America like you don’t traditionally see us, all of us, and all our flavors and that on both sides of the equation, the “human and infernal side,” you’d see all flavors, all colors, all choices.

I remember all your TV shows and love New Jack City. And I remember you on All My Children.

Mario Van Peebles: Right. Yes. I’ve had a little run at this. Well, Clint Eastwood said to me once during Heartbreak Ridge. He said, you know, you can’t be flavor of the month for 30 years. So if you hang in there, you’re doing something right.

There’s this concept that a kid grows up in a family business, goes away for a long time, then comes back to the family business and his dad is hesitant about bringing him back. And it kind of seems like the story of your life in little ways. In some ways that’s pretty fun.

Mario Van Peebles: Yes, that’s great. That’s an acute observation in that some ways, yes. You know, Mark Twain has a great forward where he says all my life my father was an idiot and at 21 he was a genius.

And when I wanted to go off and get into film and do all that, I went to sit down with my dad and my dad sort of said, okay, so we’re going to make you a star. And I said, well, yes, actually. He said good. He drew a little star on a piece of paper and he handed it to me.

And then he said, here’s my free advice. Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise and that was it.

And so I went off and, you know, I wasn’t happy with that. But I went off and I got into theater. I did a lot of plays in New York. And then I got a break in a film called Cotton Club directed by Coppola.

And people I would later work with were in the film, including Nicolas Cage. And slowly, you know, got out to LA and started to work my way up. And then I got my own TV show called Sonny Spoon.

And Heartbreak Ridge and started directing New Jack City, et cetera, et cetera. And I looked back later on and was really glad that my dad had, you know, sort of that thing of do it yourself, man.

Do it yourself and because you can’t – everyone loves to, you know, every kid has an innate understanding of playing make believe. And we all love to, you know, play make believe.

But that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a living as an actor or filmmaker. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to monetize it. I think if everyone could do what they love, you would have a lot more food tasters and porn stars. But we’re not all cut out for that.

So as much as I would love to, you know, do those, you know, that’s not what everybody’s cut out to do. So it was really good to have to fight my way up a little bit. Having the last name Van Peebles didn’t hurt. Oh, sometimes it did. But most times it didn’t.

And so in a way, yes, then I circled back. I was in the family business, circled back. My dad sort of said do it yourself. But by the time I really started rocking and rolling, I was able to connect with him.

And we were on a movie called Panther about the Black Panthers. And New Jack City, which was, you know, the biggest winner hit of that year. And then I did Posse.

And then I went off to do a movie on the Black Panther party, which is a tricky movie politically to get done. And my dad wrote it. We produced it together.

And he looked at me said, son. He said, I am so amazed that we get to work together in this lifetime and that you’re courageous. And you have the heart to do films that are not always easy to do, but films that really say something. And whether people like them or not, they’ll remember them when they see them.

And that became part of what I wanted to do. I wanted to do films and television that have something to say. That entertain you, yes, but hopefully have a little nutritional value.

So there are parallels to that and I suppose that to some degree in Superstition I am now playing the dad. But secretly, I want my son back. I want to work with him. This is a dream come true.

What were you looking for when you were casting for the roles of the show?

Mario Van Peebles: Yes. What I wanted was a cast that I felt – that felt smart. That felt like people that you’d want to have a drink with and that at the core felt like people that you would laugh and hug and that are in essence positive and happy to be who they are.

So what do I mean by that? There are certain people that you feel from them that they enjoy being themselves. And I wanted a family that one, you believed was a family that could overcome issues that families often face.

But at the core of the show it’s like life for me. I wanted the family to feel like they were multicultural. That within the dynamic of our American family, you know, you could feel that, you know, at times my wife could be, you know, more the Michelle Obama mode. But at night, you know, when she’s got to get into her full set of, you know, mystic side, other things come out and other sides come out.

So I wanted people who had a duality. People who were multicultural. People who could speak other languages. People who could laugh at self.

And people who were bilingual. And I don’t just mean bilingual in terms of language, but even bilingual in terms of socio-economic divide. That they could talk to the brother or sister in the street or the brother and sister in the trailer park. But they could also talk to someone at the White House, kind of like that Kipling poem.

You know, talk with the crowds nor lose your virtue. Walk with the kings nor lose the common touch. Ifneither loving friends nor foes can hurt you, and if all men count with you but none too much, if you can feel the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run, yours is the world and everything in it, which is more, you’ll be a man, my son, or a woman.

And I wanted folks who kind of got the joke of life. I felt like if we’re going to do this in the long haul, I want the (funnest), best, smartest, you know, family that I can get. And that’s what we went after. And we found them. And it’s been a ride.

And as we go on, it just becomes more and more that way. Not to mention the fact that some of them are legitimately my family. It’s been great.

When you sit in the director’s chair, such as in New Jack City and Baadasssss, how does that experience help you direct the pilot for Superstition?

Mario Van Peebles: Oh, good question. Well, you know, I’ve had the honor and the – I’ve directed a lot and I’ve often done it with my own money. And I think when you do things with the family dough and suddenly your dad’s going, hey, you better not go over, you know, I’m shot. So then okay.

It gives you a different set of consciousness about the whole thing because, you know, as my dad would say when I was growing up, he said, look son, some dads might teach you to play ball. Hopefully, I can teach you how to own the team, how to understand the business side of show business.

And so I went to Columbia. And he pushed me to get a degree in economics which I did. And later on realized that speaking the language of finance freed me up as an artist. So now I realized, oh, well, if I can make this in this many days and save this money over here, then I can use it for the ending and not be sort of – not be reactive artistically without understanding the business part of the show.

And so I think that experience, the experience I’ve had early on directing film, but also theater and also TV and I started out doing – my first directing job was my own show, Sonny Spoon, back when Brandon Tartikoff was over at NBC and I was working with Stephen Cannell.

And so I directed that show. And then I directed Jump Street with Johnny Depp and Wiseguy with Ken Wahl. And then I directed New Jack City. So I got a lot of experience.

But one of the things that I also think is very helpful is to keep pushing the envelope. So when I’m not directing film – I just did a new film coming out called Armed. It’s a thriller that takes place, you know, with a guy that’s dangerously armed in a kind of world of the climate of lax gun control or lax gun sense.

And so that comes out February 2. And I produced it and wrote it and directed it. And Bill Fichtner’s in it and Ryan Guzman is in it and a bunch of folks.

But part of what I do is I put projects together a lot. So it allows me to cast people from film and television, to take great techniques I’ve learned in television and move them over to film.

I directed a bunch of Bloodlines and acted in those. So it all mixes up and it gets very natural. So people, you know, you say, left hand, right hand, which do you like more? I sort of find that they worked really well together.

And again, like I said earlier, it allows me to get in there with the actors and really have a dialogue with them as one of them. And that’s super helpful when you want to get that great performance.

When you’re writing a show like this, how do you keep yourself from going into tropes? Is it kind of a challenge thing for you or is it just kind of easy for you to kind of go around and maneuver?

Mario Van Peebles: Oh, good question. I mean, I think, you know, part of it is drawing on life experiences that we have. You know, in the writer’s room, a lot of the writers brought, you know, experiences they had. And all of our experiences vary.

So, I think, finding that line between where something can be entertaining is a concept, and, you know, where it’s real. And I think one of the ways that we avoid it is by really by having great actors that bring that to the role that, you know, that there are fathers and sons and mothers and daughters.

And, you know, so allowing them the space to say let’s take this and rework it. So there’s sometimes where we’ll rework a scene, you know, together. And we’ll find it together and make sure that it’s based in – you know, that there’s a sense of reality.

And I think even in this first pilot you get a sense of, okay, there’s stuff going on but there’s layers to this cake. So it’s not simplistic. I think you get a sense that they are stronger together but they have real issues to work out.

And that’s how we’ve been finding our way so far by understanding that the script is a blueprint often. It’s a good blueprint but we have to make sure that the human element, the family element, feels right. And there have been times when we say, you know, that doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t even feel culturally right for us sometimes.

So there’s sometimes thing we go and we’ll try it on and go, no, it bumps for us. And we’ll find another way around it and that’s part of the process.

I was just doing a scene just now and one of the second team guys came up to me and he said, you know, I’ve got this idea. And, you know, often there are filmmakers that don’t listen to ideas from other people. And I find some of my best ideas weren’t my ideas at all. Well, before you tell me, I’m going to pretend it’s my idea.

And he came up with a great idea. So, I said, oh, it’s got to be. We made the adjustment in the script right then and boom we did that. And so there’s a fun in that in that I think everyone knows they can bring their creativity to it and their perspective to it and you don’t have to leave yourself at the door.

And I think that’s what makes it fresh. I think there’s sort of timelessness to La Rochelle that this fictional town that we’re in that also makes it fresh. And also, I think, the more multi-culty dynamic just terms of cast gives it a different perspective.

In this particular episode we’re doing right now, there’s a character called Uncle Bubba who is played by the comedian Bruce Bruce from Atlanta. And he brings a whole other vibe to it, you know, just a whole other fresh look.

So we mix it up and you go, oh, this cat is in it? And then Jasmine Guy comes into an episode. And, you know, someone else comes over here. And, you know, it’s exciting to see that this is a show that folks want to come in and out of.

And I think that’s partly due to the writer’s room, you know, hopefully making it smart and character driven. You know, if you don’t care about who’s running and jumping and kicking, you don’t really care. You don’t give a shit. So you’ve got to go, oh, wow, I like – I want to be with these people.

And here’s the other thing, you know, and they’re not doing stupid things. So sometimes in horror movies people do stuff you would never do. If we get to the page, and go, man, my character would never go back in that haunted house looking for the kitten. He’d be, like, I’ll come back tomorrow.

You know, so we try to read it that way with the bullshit meter and go, man, I would not do this. You know what I mean?

You know, so how does that happen? How do we make sure that Robinne Lee’s character Bea is elegant and all that great stuff and a loving mom but still might, you know, cock that shotgun when it comes time to be mama bear? You know what I mean?

So that each character is 360, you know, each character is multidimensional.  And that’s part of the fun of it. And that’s part of the challenge. That’s a good question.

Do you see your father in you and if so, what are some of the things that you experienced with him that you see yourself doing now?

Mario Van Peebles: Quite often. You know, that’s an interesting question. And I think that’s one of the things that is so terrific about life — if you’re lucky enough to live a long full life as I am, so far anyway, knock on wood — is that, you know, one day you’re the child.

And the next day you’re climbing over trying to pick apples from your neighbor’s yard. And the next day you’re a homeowner and you have an apple tree and that kid is climbing over into your yard.

And now, you know, one day you’re chasing someone’s daughter and the next day you have a daughter. You know, and so life gives you a chance to play all those different roles and learn from each perspective.

And I grew up seeing my dad do a lot of this. And I learned, you know, what to do and what not to do. And, you know, often he had these great Melvinisms, you know, he’ll just say certain things that just – you know, he like, for example, someone would ask him, well, Melvin Van Peebles, do you feel lucky? And he goes, oh, luck is preparation meets opportunity.

You know, and I find myself, yes, if you’re prepared and your life provides you the opportunity, then you’ll be lucky. You know, if you’re not prepared and life provides you the opportunity, your ass is not going to be lucky, you know.

So he had these great Melvinisms. So he had this way of talking that he calls ghetto gothic, which is he’ll hit you with a nice big word, but then he’ll break it down into sort of everyman style. And there’s a fun to that.

And one of the things that I sort of thought about with my character of Isaac, is that he can be lofty and he can quote from, you know, an African quote or something from the Motherland and something from, you know, a European quote.

But then on the other side, he can talk to that everyman brother in the street. And that’s a really great thing. I look back at the Kipling thing, I go, talking to the crowds nor lose your virtue, walk with kings nor lose the common touch.

And there’s a great – he has a great sense of humor and getting the joke of life and has never been bitter. That’s the thing, you know, he’s gone through a lot. I mean, this is the cat who started directing when there were no Black directors. And he went to Columbia Pictures and said I want to direct movies. And they said we don’t need elevator operators.

And he didn’t get bitter. He said to me, son, there’s three kinds of people in the world. There’s people that watch stuff happen. There’s people that complain about what happens. And there’s people that make things happen.

And the Van Peebles, we get out there and make it happen. You might not like the show. You might not like the movie but rather than just complaining about what’s on TV or what’s not on TV, get out there and put it on TV. And hopefully if you build it, they will come.

And so that’s very much a Melvin Van Movie sentiment. So, you know, and Barry has that, Barry Gordon has that. And Joe, my partner on this, and, you know, we’re all scrappy guys that have had to make our way out of no way. And that’s fun. You know, so it’s a fun team like that because we’ve all been poor kids.

And when you make a movie like that or you make a show like that, you appreciate all of it, you know. So I think there’s a lot of that – you know, there’s a lot of – I like to think that I’m a good – I’m not a boss, but I’m a good boss if I am a boss.

That I’m fun and I can create a climate where people can do their good work. But they know to take it seriously. They know to work hard. They know I will call them out, you know. You know, if they got the same last name as me, they better get there early and leave late, you know.

There will be no weak link – you know, and the other thing is we, in my family, you never confuse people that you love with being people that are good at what they think they want to do.

Case at point, I have a child — I’m not going to name no names — that is a wonderful singer. She’s got a voice like Whitney Houston, I mean, awesome, in her head. But to the rest of us she sounds like a dying cat when she sings, right? I know in her head she’s Mariah Carey, but to the rest of us she can’t sing a lick, okay?

Luckily, she’s very smart. So I will say, baby, singing might not be the way. Maybe you should work on your law degree. Now she’s killing it, making laws in the Senate. She’s doing her thing. She’s a powerhouse.

You know, my mother, my mother loves to act. And I’m sure my mother in her head is Ingrid Bergman, but I never hire her because the girl can’t act. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my mother. You know what I mean?

So I may, if I love you, I’m going to tell you the truth. That’s just a part of the Van Peebles mantle. So I don’t just put you in because you want to be in. You better bring something to the mix.

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