Eli Goree (‘One Night in Miami’) on what makes Regina King special as a director [Complete Interview Transcript]

Eli Goree stars as Cassius Clay, a.k.a. Muhammad Ali in the new film “One Night in Miami,” directed by Academy Award winner Regina King. The film is developing major Oscar buzz, with King earning a directing bid at the Golden Globes and the film’s ensemble earning a nomination at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Goree recently spoke with Gold Derby editor Rob Licuria about what made him interested in “One Night in Miami,” how he thoroughly researched for the role and how the boxing scenes were physically demanding. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the transcript below.

Gold Derby: What drew you to this project? I mean, it’s so exciting to be able to play a legend and to work with people like Regina King but was there one thing in particular that really made you want to be a part of this? 

Eli Goree: I mean, I’ve wanted to play Cassius/Muhammad Ali for years, long before I heard about the project. It was something that I was very passionate about. A lot of people had told me that I favored him and he was someone that I kind of looked at as an inspiration, just as a person and a public figure. So it was a role that I really coveted. Well, not coveted, but really wanted to have the opportunity to try to portray for a while. 

GD: What do you find most compelling? I mean, there’s so much. We could literally spend hours just talking about Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali. But what do you find most compelling about his story when you started to look into it more than what you had already known as the public figure that he is? 

EG: For me, it’s just his determination and faith, his willingness to stand by what he believes, regardless of public opinion, regardless of public ignorance, and to say, “This is what I think is true. These are the principles that I live by. I believe that the way I’m living is making the world a better place, I’m called to be this person in the world and I’m going to be true to that.” I think very few people have that kind of courage and just total honesty and transparency. 

GD: Yeah, absolutely, and I always wonder when you’re playing a famous person or someone that people are very much aware of, there’s a lot of material that you have to draw upon in the public domain. Was that your main source of inspiration and research in trying to get him authentically right?

EG: I mean, it was everything. It was the public interviews, it was books. “Blood Brothers” was a book that I read, several other novels and pieces and autobiographies written on him, movies about him, “Ali,” the one that Will Smith played, obviously, but there was another one called “The Greatest,” and it was starring him, playing himself from the 1980s, I believe, after he had retired. Plus, there was tons of interviews, tons of pre-fight, a lot of Howard Cosell documentaries, “When We Were Kings” by Spike Lee, just everything and anything I could absorb.

And then on top of that, I tried to build a foundation of where I thought a character would start with him. So I found a dialect coach from the South to really try and build that Southern accent without even doing any Ali rhythms or affectations, just really getting a solid Louisville accent from the style as a Black man in that time and Tre Cotten, my dialect coach, was very helpful with that. Rob Sale was my boxing coach. He worked on “Creed,” he was on the “Ali” set, he’s done a lot of other great stuff. So he was working with me, I had a lot of other boxing coaches as well. I did a lot of weight training with my trainer, Kenneth Oh, to try to build my body in the right way. So it was everything and anything I could throw at it because you’re talking about probably the greatest athlete of all time, one of the most popular world figures of all time and it’s going to take everything you put into it to get the best possible performance. 

GD: Yeah, nothing seemed to have been spared in your preparation to play him and I could only imagine the pressure, perhaps, that you’d be under to ensure that you get him right and you also bring your own vibe to the guy because you still have to play this person. He’s not just a figure, but you mentioned the voice work that you did. I just found it so spot on. And I just wonder obviously as an actor, this is what you do. This is your bread and butter. But how difficult was it to get these rhythms right? Because I just found sometimes I could close my eyes and it was like I was listening to him talk. 

EG: Well, thanks, I mean, coming from an Aussie, that’s a big compliment. You’re like the kings and queens of the accent. 

GD: That’s right! 

EG: Russell Crowe

GD: They’re damn good. 

EG: Yeah, you guys are very, very good at that. I got to work with Bob Morley and Liza [Taylor] when I was on “The 100” and they’re also very good. I’m trying to think of my favorite. She’s in “Lord of the Rings.” She’s in so much stuff, but I can’t remember. 

GD: Oh, Cate Blanchett?

EG: Yes. Cate Blanchett. So, yeah, you guys are really good at that. It’s time. It’s funny because as I listen to a lot of other actors that have done accents, I’ve listened to Leonardo DiCaprio‘s interviews on doing accents and a lot of other people and I’ve heard them say that before that it’s just time. You can’t rush. It’s not something you can say, “Oh, I’m going to play this next month,” and just try to cram it in. It’s something that you consistently build and you start at the basics with just “How does this person breathe?” I know one thing was being from the South, when I talked to my dialect coach, Tre, he was like, “In the South, it’s hot, so people don’t speak fast.” That’s why they have that kind of relaxed, similar to Aussies. So there’s a relaxed, kind of loose jaw, “I’m not trying to speak too fast, I’m not trying to move too fast and it’s not that I’m stupid. It’s just that I’m thinking and I’m taking my time because I don’t want to waste words, because I don’t want to waste energy, because it’s hot.”

Little things about that is how you carry your jaw and that influences how you carry your body and that influences how you box. Breathing is a huge piece of the dialect that takes time because it’s such a subconscious non-present thing that we do. You don’t even really realize how you breathe until you start thinking about it and then to change your breathing to another person’s style of breathing, it makes a huge impact and then building on that with other things and flat As and all those kind of regular things that you learn as you’re pronouncing vowels and stuff like that. But it just takes time. It takes time to get the muscle memory and it’s funny because it takes time to get out of it, too. After I was finished, I was still speaking like Cassius a lot of the time, for probably a good month after we finished shooting, because that was how I now talked. I was always talking like that on and off set and it wasn’t something I could just turn off. It took time to figure out, “Oh yeah, this is not me. That’s not how I talk.” Even today, I’ll say certain things and I’ll be like, “Oh, that’s funny. I pronounce that that way. That’s not how I used to say that.”

GD: There’s a little scene, it’s actually in the trailer so I’m not spoiling anything for people who haven’t seen it yet but when he looks in the mirror and says, “Damn, I’m so pretty,” that really stuck with me. I just think you got that right and I could just imagine him possibly saying that in real life, although we would never know for sure. Have you had much feedback from people who knew him well or his family and friends about your performance so far? 

EG: Yeah, I’ve gotten to speak to people. Not his family and friends, but people that met him, people that were around him, I had makeup ladies that worked with him when he was in L.A. and when I was in New Orleans at boxing clubs, the owner of the boxing club that fought him when they were younger and had a fight or a lot of people that had that would love to share stories with me when they found out I was playing it because he had such a big impact on their life and had such admiration for him. So they really, first of all, wanted to make sure I was getting it right and they also wanted to just share a bit of their story. It was all a blessing.

It was all stuff that I took and kind of tried to take in and process and hopefully things that I could use came out in their own way. I’d try to take little sayings or little jokes or just any little thing that I could find and just find places I could put it in the telling of the story. But I would also say that Kemp Powers, the writer, did a fantastic job. That whole thing around, “Why am I so pretty,” in the mirror, that was all written. That was all in the script and he did a great job of just capturing with his style of writing how Ali would talk. So we were able to marry the two. You kind of need that because otherwise, if it’s written in a way where it’s not how I would talk, I would have to reconstruct the script. But in this case, it was like the script helped me to do a better job and kept me on track.

GD: Yeah, when the script is firing on all cylinders and the actors are really killing it, and then you’ve got someone like Regina King, her first time directing a feature film and just blew everybody away so far with what she’s been able to achieve, that’s when the magic happens. And I just wonder with Regina, she’s won every award under the sun over the last few years. She’s so respected and admired and now she’s done this. What’s the upside when you’re working with a director who’s also a fellow actor directing you? What’s the upside to that relationship? 

EG: When you’re working with someone who is so accomplished and so talented, you can trust them a lot more and things that I would do, if I was doing, let’s say, TV, where you have to kind of get to be a lot quicker, you find little shortcuts, acting shortcuts, fake intimacy, or pre-conditioned reactions. She would catch all that stuff and she would see it. She’d say, “No, no, no, no, no. Don’t do that. Just trust the script, trust the other actors and trust yourself to just be present and to just allow whatever happens to happen and if it’s not right, then I can direct you, but don’t force anything. Just allow this to really be a conversation, you and your brothers.” That made it so much better, because then there was things that would happen that we didn’t expect. There were things that were alive that were flat in other ways if you weren’t honest, and we had that confidence and that encouragement from her that she had the eye on things and that she could direct and lead and kind of guide the ship. So it was great. It was really a blessing. 

GD: Did anything surprise you at all about working with her, from your preconceived expectations of what you’d be getting from someone like Regina King? 

EG: Yeah, I think the thing that surprised me the most was I knew as an actor, even from the auditions, she was gonna be able to be spot on with all the direction she was giving in her communication with us as actors, but her ability to communicate with the crew and to pick crew and to have a vision for the film and to have colors for the film and to communicate with each department and then to be able to translate that information that was coming from all the other departments and give it to the actors and vice versa, that I was really blown away by. She has a real gift. I think her authenticity, her grace and her communication are at such an amazing level. She has such a natural talent in those areas. She’s a very special director. 

GD: Yeah, she’s kind of found her calling, which is unbelievable, given how amazing she is as a performer. You talk about Kemp Powers’s screenplay, obviously based on his play. A lot of this, you can tell, is based on the confines of a play and what you would see on stage but there’s so much that is bigger, particularly in the scenes where you’re boxing. They’re so grand. Was that fun to do, that boxing? Obviously, physically challenging, but how much fun was it to actually perform those scenes? 

EG: I’m not going to lie to you. It was hard work. It was a lot of fun to be in that moment and to step into the ring and have fans and to feel like a fighter. I was in there with real fighters. I wasn’t in there with stunt guys. I was in there with professional fighters. So there was a real sense of danger. These guys are not trained to miss you. They’re trained to hit you. So you always have to be aware and alert and there’s a lot of needing to navigate all that stuff. But at the same time, it was very challenging. I was probably in bed for about two weeks when we wrapped those fight scenes.

We were there for 16 hours a day under hot lights, doing take after take. All the body shots are real. You’re taking real hits to the body from professional fighters. You’re on your toes. At one point I cramped and they had to bring in a massage therapist to the set so that I could get over lunch, worked out my cramps and then they brought me back in after lunch, I had an extra-long lunch. It was physically probably the most demanding thing I’ve ever had to do and I think it was wonderful because that’s what it would have been like. It got me in the mindset of fighting. Obviously, I don’t know what it’s like to fight for a world title, but for me as an actor, to have to gain the weight, lose the weight, train to fight, learn the choreo, get in the ring and stay in that ring for hours and hours and hours and hours until you’re completely exhausted and then do it again, it gave me that same mental and physical place where I felt like, “OK, I think I can connect to what he might have been feeling in this moment.” And so, it helped a lot. 

GD: Wow. I’m exhausted from you just telling me that. I don’t know how you did that. But yeah, it sounds really exhausting and hard work. Most importantly, my takeaway from the film is just being a fly on the wall, listening to what these four legends might have said on that night. It’s a really timely and lively discussion of the tumultuous civil rights movement at the time. What’s your takeaway from the themes that the film explores with the conversation that these giants were having? 

EG: That’s a great question, “What’s my takeaway?” Because I think that’s the key is everyone gets something different from it. For me, I think what I got from it is that we’re allowed to have our own opinion. Just because we are Black men, it doesn’t mean we’re a monolith. It doesn’t mean we all agree. It doesn’t mean that we see the struggle the same way. The way Cassius saw it, he was not for integration. He was not for a lot of things that were very popular in the Black community, but he was just as pro-Black as anybody else. But he saw things differently. The way Sam [Cooke] saw it, where he was doing a lot of mainstream music and a lot of people considered what he was doing to be selling out, selling Black music to white stars so he could make more money. But he said, economically, we’re going to be free. Jim Brown and his work in the communities and Malcolm X and his belief that we needed to have a voice.

Everybody had different opinions about what was the right thing to do and they were all fighting towards the same goal. I think that’s part of the message. I know I don’t have all the answers, but part of it is just saying, “I’m allowed to think for myself. I’m allowed to have my own opinion and at the end of the day, the goal is for me to be a human being, for me to be seen as a whole person, not as a subset of the rest of society, but as a full and complete and blessed human being.” So I think that is a great thing because we rarely see a movie with four different perspectives of what it is to be a Black man and I think that that in and of itself is a huge message. 

GD: Yeah, it really is. It was very powerful, actually, to see those perspectives play out during such a difficult and challenging period of time, which reminded me that it sounds so obvious to draw parallels and I’m sure these questions are asked all the time when talking about the film, about how what’s unfolded over the last six to 12 months, it’s become like a reminder that history repeats itself often. What are your thoughts on that and how the film has really touched on things that are really, really quite important to us right now? 

EG: I mean, these things have been important. Like you said, these are things that are constantly cycling. We’re constantly getting reminders. For me, it’s always an ever-present conversation as a Black man. I know that depending on where you’re at, whether you’re in Australia, there’s people there that are dealing with certain questions, Aboriginal people have had a lot of struggles in Australia and in South Africa with apartheid, in America and Canada, this is something that takes place all over the world and all throughout history.

But I think in America, it’s not just that it’s racial divide. It’s that it’s so institutionalized because of slavery and because of Jim Crow laws that it’s become almost like a race war and I think that’s the sad thing about it. It’s the painful thing about it. Again, I don’t have all the answers, but I think a big part of it is having a voice, and I mean really having a voice, not just having a voice as long as it’s in line with everyone else’s voice, but being a full person and being allowed to speak freely to say what you think is best for you as a human being is key as we continue to try and navigate these times that we’re in and navigate terrible tragedies of George Floyd and all these types of things that are going on. I think it’s coming back to, “I’m a human being. I am an individual, and I have a right to live a life of dignity and freedom.” I think that’s the foundation of change. 

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