Voice Inside Your Head: Orlando Jones on Live Action Graphic Novel FilmmakingA tv interview article by: Morgan Davis
We recently had the opportunity to speak with veteran actor and comedian Orlando Jones about his new Machinima webseries Tainted Love, which just wrapped up its debut season. Jones has had a long and varied career, going all the way back to his days as a writer for A Different World, but Tainted Love is a passion project that he's been developing for some time that has its origins as a planned graphic novel. Jones talked to us about everything that went into getting the project off the ground from getting the series director to return his phonecalls to his lucky casting breaks to the plans he has to fill out the background of the characters in new and innovative ways.
CB: To start, I didn't realize you actually started your career as a comedy writer. I had thought that Tainted Love was something completely new and different for you. But you go all the way back to A Different World and I was interested in hearing a little bit more about what it has been like to go back to that aspect of your career with this series. Is Tainted Love something you had been planning for a long time or did you feel the urge to just get back into the writing world?
Orlando Jones: That's interesting, there's two questions there. Writing is a place I don't feel like I ever really left. It's just that in the feature world and the television world-- or, really, wherever you are-- when you're hired as an actor, you're still working as a writer, but you're not always credited in that space. That goes back to MadTV, because I was reading Mad Magazine when I was a kid, and then I was part of the television show. At the time, I was the only cast member who was on the writing staff. I would literally be in the writing room, listening to all the writers talk trash about the actors. And then I'd go and hear all the actors talk trash about the writers, but you couldn't really trade that information.
But Tainted Love has been floating in my head for a while. I originally wanted to do a graphic novel, that was the dream. But looking at all the available media, I thought "Why would you draw it in the dying print business?" Wouldn't it make more sense to make it live action and have it sort of come to life? And then I thought about how you would go and do that, and with Machinima, I was already a fan. Being a gamer myself, it was sort of a natural place I landed. But the journey I was on to get to this point, I feel like I've been writing really the entire time.
CB: You brought up the relationship you had with MadTV, and if I remember correctly, you were one of the only original cast members who did not come from a sketch comedy background. I imagine that must have made things very interesting and gave you a different perspective.
OJ: Yeah, they got me from writing. I knew Quincy Jones, who at the start of the show, just had me as a writer. But Quincy said "Hey, you look like you'd be funny, you should be in front of the camera." So literally, Quincy put me on MadTV, that's how I wound up on the show.
CB: Tainted Love seems like it combines all of the different interests you have. Like you said, you're a comic book geek, you've got the writing background, and the acting background. But you've also worked with some incredible directors throughout your career, with roles in Magnolia, and Mike Judge's Office Space, and Ivan Reitman's Evolution. Would you say Tainted Love has been an opportunity to show some of these talents of yours that otherwise might not have been well known to people who mostly see you as an actor?
OJ: I think so. I think I started in Hollywood when I was like 18, 19, and it's a crazy town, it's a crazy ride. But I kind of felt like when I got here, I started working on the number two television show on air. It was a little overwhelming to just get my bearings, and as I started working with a bunch of directors-- like Paul Thomas Anderson and everyone else you mentioned-- it's been really cool, but by the same token, I've done a lot of stuff that's plug and play, meaning this is all written, this is your character, step in, step out, do your job. So I really felt like I hadn't done anything that was for me, that was from my point of view. But I think you're right, Tainted Love is kind of my introduction, or re-introduction, in the sense that "Great, you guys have known me for however long as an actor, this is more of my sensibility." I don't begrudge Drum Line or The Replacements or any of those films, but they're not my sensibilities, I'm just playing a character and I don't think I really learned what that meant until I started going out on the road for stand-up and people were expecting a completely different person than who I am. And Tainted was an opportunity to be like "Just so we're clear, this is who I am." [laughs]
CB: Right, and being able to get the comic stuff in there, too, must have been a lot of fun. Because it's clear that you have a love for the material and that this story means a lot to you, personally. I'm interested in hearing what comic material you were influenced by with this, especially since you mentioned it started out as a graphic novel. Because it seems like there's some 100 Bullets in there, and Garth Ennis, and grittier stuff like Sin City. But what specifically influenced you?
OJ: I would say a lot of things. There's the obvious, like Robert Rodriguez's version of Sin City, I mean, how could you not love Frank Miller? But frankly, I think I like his more obscure stuff. But I'm also into things like Violent Cases, a comic that Neil Gaiman did, that's very bizarre and cool. And Judd Winick, who has done a lot of stuff, like Pedro & Me, which I thought was really cool. And then going all the way back to the original Tank Girl, by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett. There were just a bunch of those kinds of references floating around in the back of my mind, like even Scott Pilgrim, which we all really liked as well. I wanted to basically tell a story about how everyone has something they love, that they're not supposed to love.
I was watching various crazy political debates, because I'm not a very political animal, but there are people I know who have a lot of understandable criticisms of guns, and I thought that opening scene of Tainted Love [where one character nearly shoots the other in the leg by accident] would be an interesting way of casually addressing that. And that's something I've always thought comics do really well, which is quickly get down to the nitty gritty of a subject. Sometimes that can be darker, sometimes that can be lighter.
CB: You're working with Avi Youabian as your co-director and co-creator, how did that relationship come to be? How do you split the duties and how much of the voice would you say is his and how much is yours? What strengths do you each bring?
OJ: Well, Avi, I think he's a phenomenal storyteller. And like me, he's been working in the business in some really interesting capacities, very much as a storyteller, but doing so from an editing perspective. This is kind of a crazy story, but I was looking for a director for Tainted Love. I had the idea, and I had written the script, and it's by and large what it was. I had spoken to some friends, but none of them were available, and I had spoken to P.J. Pesce, who I had worked with on From Dusk Till Dawn 3: Hangman's Daughter, which Robert Rodriguez had produced, I always thought he was a really cool action director, but he wasn't available. And then through a friend I called McG and thought maybe I could somehow get him to come do this. But everyone kept recommending Avi Youabian. Everyone kept saying "You should talk to this kid, Avi Youabian." I thought "Who is Avi Youabian? I've never heard of this guy!"
So I called him, but he didn't call me back. I thought "Wow, that's weird." Later I met with Bryan Singer, as a friend, and he said he was doing this new series called H+ with two directors, and one of them was cutting film for the Justin Bieber movie and his name was Avi Youabian. I was like, "Whoa, whoa, say his name again?" And then that day, Avi called me back and said "Hey, I just had a kid, sorry I didn't call you back." That was literally how we met. I sent him the script and he told me the only time he had available to look at it was his vacation, which he was on right then. But he said "I love this, and as soon as I get back from my family vacation, let's do this." So his wife wanted to kill him, but we dove into it like two wild men. [laughs]
CB: That's awesome that it came together like that. This is a project that a lot of people probably wouldn't necessarily think of when they think of you, it has a real kineticism to it, which I was drawn to when I was first shown the episodes. It's very fluid, and it starts off making you think it's going to go in one direction, before it shifts gears. The action choreography in particular is something where I think a lot of people don't expect that level of detail from a webseries, so it's impressive what you were able to do. Is that something Avi brought to the table? Did you have a lot of veteran fight choreographers involved?
OJ: We worked with a guy named Danger Williams, who we met and thought could pull it off. For post, we were on a shoestring budget, we were trying to figure it out, because Avi and I were very particular about what we were looking for, how we wanted it to play out, and I think a lot of the things we were trying to figure out early on were things like how much space to leave in the frame if you're going to have the motion graphic words come up. We weren't framing traditionally. We felt like if we were going to make this free, and available, and we're going to launch the first digital graphic novel with Machinima, then it needs to be a film. It can't be B-level. It can't be like "Oh, well, they did the best they could." So we were very much thinking "How can we make this work on the web for free?"
One of the ways we made this work was I had done several animation projects, and in animation you do an animatic. And one of the things I learned through that process is that some directors use animatics to figure out what works and what doesn't before they get too deep in a project. So I started recording the actors doing readings, and from that we sort of dove in and made it. We were very aware of the graphic novel elements, which in other films can be more of an after-thought, just something you deal with in post. For us, it was "What's the look of the graphic novel? How do they integrate? When do you go into that world? When do the words come out of their mouths?" We felt like we needed to build a language, so that it's not just a cool factor, it's actually a part of our storytelling, so when things get heightened, when things get crazy, the words start to appear out of people's mouths. Or with the fight choreography, we're not doing action's just for action's sake, the action is delivered out of real motivation. We wanted to showcase that these are real people, with real feelings, and real hopes and dreams here, and for someone like you to dig it, then that's enough for me.
CB: The comic art actually functions as its own unique thing, too. A lot of films and shows awkwardly integrate that kind of style but in Tainted Love's case, you slide between those two worlds very fluidly. You make the stylistic diversions to make certain points. Was that always the intent? Were there certain scenes you always imagined being in that style? I know you've said a lot of Tainted Love came about organically, but were there specific moments you knew had to be done in that comic style?
OJ: Yeah, there were certain things. In fact, the fifth episode is almost entirely animated, it's a big fight sequence and we had talked about that fight sequence and we thought we could pull it off with live action, but we also thought it would just be more interesting to take a villain character and have those two worlds play out as animation. We literally didn't shoot it. We thought "Well, maybe we should shoot it, and use that choreography," but I made an executive decision and said "No, we're going to animate this, we're going to plot it as animation, and we're not going to use any live action in this chapter."
So yeah, there were some parts that we had in our mind from the beginning, and there were other places that we discovered along the way. Like the very first episode, where she smacks me, and I say "She actually smacked the black off of me," that was actually one of the last ones we did. That was something I wanted to do, and Avi was not sure about it, he didn't think it would work. I'm sort of a stickler for not wanting the viewer to be ahead of us too far; even if you know, I feel like part of the journey is discovering and not seeing it coming. For me, right out of the gate, I wanted to signal to the audience that none of these rules are relevant, I don't care about race, I don't care about any of these things, this is just a story about a guy and a girl. And guys and girls have fights, they get ugly with one another all the time. So that's the nature of their relationship, Jezebel is not just a hot chick, she's very much her own real life character, and really drags Barry along in many ways. He loves her, she loves him, I think they're very much in love together.
But I didn't know if that scene would work, but when we got the footage back, we were like "Oh, this is great, it's going to work out." There's always a bit of trial and error in filmmaking. If something doesn't work, you try something else, there's always a back and forth.
CB: It's interesting that you bring that scene up because one of the things that stood out to me was the way you use the voiceover to function as a way of expressing what Barry wants to say but doesn't. There's a definite change in style between Barry the character as we see him and Barry the character that's communicating to the audience, he even has a different inflection and voice. I was wondering if that was intentionally constructed as a way to give us a glimpse inside his head, because Barry is almost submissive when he's with Jezebel, in some sense. As you said, she often pulls him along, which is different than you normally see in this kind of story.
OJ: That was very much the intention. To be specific about it, I started off writing this as a feature, and one of points I wanted to make was that we all have our own idea of ourselves, and our own alter ego. Barry's alter ego is the voice inside his head. In comic books, as you well know, that's a bubble as opposed to an actual speech balloon. Because this is live action, we don't have that kind of language built into the world. I wanted Barry to have an alter ego, I wanted Barry to not sound like Barry.
Part of the reason Black Barry was Black Barry is because I had a friend whose nickname was Blackberry, because he wouldn't shut up. I thought it was hilarious because it's like the voice inside your head, you can't turn it off. And that became how we wanted to do the voice over. Originally, I was going to have somebody else to do it, Laurence Fishburne in fact. but as we looked at it, I thought "You know what? It needs to be lighter and funnier." In this incarnation of the work, I felt like there was a very specific voice in my head, and I wanted it to be a little higher and a little sillier, and I didn't want to ask Laurence to do that [laughs]. So I tried it out and we agreed, this was definitely the alter ego voice we wanted. And you nailed it, that was exactly the intention with what I was doing. It's the storytelling you'd see in a classic comic book, that we tried to apply as organically as possible to a "live action graphic novel."
CB: I was also drawn to the way we get this public image of Barry and Jezebel as a kind of confrontational couple. Everyone knows couples like that, who seem to always be fighting yet stay together and seem to be happy.
CB: But what I really enjoyed was this glimpse you gave us of how they are in the quieter moments, in episode two. They're laying in bed after the robbery has gone wrong, just having fun with each other. I found it interesting because you don't normally get to see that kind of couple interaction in the media a lot, you don't get those quiet moments.
OJ: I think you're right because for me, to say that they love each other just isn't enough. That idea for that scene really came from dating. You know when you're dating someone and you're going out and when you start to get serious, you meet their parents or they meet your parents? I'm a guy, so my mother is always looking at the girls I'm talking to, under scrutiny, you know? "What kind of girl is this with my son?" What she's really looking for is to see that moment, those interactions where it's like "Oh, wow, they really care for each other." I felt like I'd be robbing the audience if I didn't give them that. Those moments are parts of those stories and it shows the strength of their love.
I don't think they're robbing a convenience store because they're going to have a kid, they're robbing a convenience store because they like to rob people, the kid is just their excuse. But their feelings for each other, and their relationship with each other, is very real. And if I didn't have that, it'd be cheating the audience because for me, that's a big part of the series. When I'm reading great comics and graphic novels, those moments always resonate for me. The comics that are just fun don't fully resonate with me, not on that level, because I feel they lack those moments and so I don't really know those characters.
When Jezebel makes that bagel with her stomach, it genuinely makes me laugh, and I felt like that's something more endearing than just saying two people are in love. The alternative scene, which you might enjoy hearing about, is that she was all pissed off, about the robbery going wrong, and Barry was on her case about not checking the place out right. And she says "What do I have to do to get you to shut up? Do I have to give you a blowjob? Is that what you want?" And he goes "Well, sure!"
We thought it was funny, but I also felt it was too much, it looked like we were trying too hard. On the set, we wrote the scene we used, and it worked out, I think it resonates a lot more. The other scene has its moments, but it doesn't feel as real to me.
CB: It also works in my opinion because we just don't see that kind of scene that often. It almost feels like something we shouldn't be seeing.
OJ: That was all Avi. Avi felt that if we were going to do that scene, then it needed to be voyeuristic. The camera's almost not there, it's like you're right in their world. Frankly, I think the scene works predominantly because of how he shot it. He really applied an interesting POV and language to it. I credit Avi for that 100%.
CB: It also gives us more background on Barry because he is in a sense a mystery to the viewer. As the series progresses, we see him act more independently, and he becomes more of a badass. Are we eventually going to get more details on Barry? Because in the first episode we get a quick peek with his intro graphic, that says "Education: Marine Corps." But that's all there is to indicate where he's coming from. It's almost like we know more about Jezebel, because she seems to be easier to figure out.
OJ: I was saving a lot of that for the feature. Because I think his background is interesting and in a feature you can't hold back on that. But with the series, I want to show that in the next iteration, because the way the story is going, we're going to use social media to not only show some of that background info but also let the viewers tell their own versions of the story. With the feature, we're going to show more of where Barry came from, his backstory and how he arrived and where he is. You'll get a much better feel for how Jezebel and Barry met and how they came together, but also a clearer understanding of why they are bonded together so well, why it's so important to him that nothing happens to her.
CB: In the third episode you have that big, shocking moment where Barry takes out most of Fred Lucas' (Eric Roberts) character's crew. You build up this expectation of Barry as a fuck-up of a character, but then you see that when he puts his mind to it, he can really kick ass. I was impressed, too, with the way you put that scene together because that seemed like it must have been one of the hardest ones to coordinate for the show, because it works on so many levels, with the comic art and the CGI showing the bullets flying through the room and then the performances.
OJ: It was super, super difficult. That episode is literally about four minutes, and it plays really quickly. Eric Roberts is not a comedian, and I didn't want to play him as just a generic bad guy, so there had to be a mindset for why he's doing what he's doing. He's a businessman, he's smart, and in my mind, he's the smartest guy in the entire series. He just wants to run a business, but to run a business that's illegal, he can't rely on the cops to deal with things like theft. And distribution is tricky, because what he's doing is illegal. So it was really hard to figure all that out and put all that in. But by the same token, some of it was easy. Like, he likes Angry Birds because my dad likes Angry Birds [laughs]. But you laugh because you don't expect a person like that to like Angry Birds.
It was really hard to shoot, and really hard to frame. For something that's as quick as it is, it was very difficult to land. And if it didn't land, then, frankly, the other episodes wouldn't work. So this couldn't just be a character introduction. He couldn't just be a bad guy. I was really happy with the way it came out. I wish we were showing people the feature now, where you could see a lot of the backstory to that character. For me, Lucas is one of the most interesting characters in the series.
CB: Especially because the way you introduce him, where that whole episode is basically built around a monologue. We see Barry putting his own plan together, but we don't get many details, so you focus on Eric Roberts as he builds up this intensity, particularly as he deals with his nephew. That was actually my favorite of the first three episodes, I felt like you really pulled it off.
OJ: That's really cool, man. That makes me happy. The stuff with the nephew is my favorite moment, it just cracks me up. You always have those guys saying these evil things to these people, like they don't have this relationship with them. So for the nephew to be like "Yes, Uncle Frederick" to me is just "Yes!" Because what I was trying to convey, in my mind, was that the violence of the job, Lucas doesn't really want any part of it. I don't think Fred Lucas enjoys violence at all, in fact, I think he hates violence.
CB: Because it's bad for business, right?
CB: You also showed this relationship between them where even though Lucas is kind of humiliating his nephew, he's also trying to be paternal towards him, and explain why you don't do things a certain way, why it's bad for the business relationship there. I thought that was explored well.
OJ: He's grooming him, to me, that's grooming. He's preparing him to take over the business. That's how he teaches. That, to me, is the symbol of a master and an apprentice, where the rules of the game are explained, where I explain it to you as a directive and I'm not doing this to be cute or to be funny, I'm doing this to teach you what you're going to have to do, and how you're going to have to behave to one day sit in my seat. And I really thought Eric did an incredible job of keeping that thought very clear in his mind. And I think the scene works because Eric really nailed it, that has more to do with its success than anything I wrote.
CB: It leaves you wanting more, too, because as soon as we're introduced to the character, we're pulled away. The first three episodes focus mostly on Barry and Jezebel, but after the third you branch out more, yet we still only get glimpses at some of the characters that are seen in the title sequence. I'm curious to hear whether you had always planned to give each character an individual episode or whether that grew out of the transition to a web series. Did you always visualize the episodes as character profiles, in a sense?
OJ: Yeah, those were imported, because I always saw this as a graphic novel. Clearly the storytelling in comics and the digital world are different than the storytelling in traditional the film world. And to us, the rules in the digital world are that I can make a video on Tuesday and you can't stop me. [laughs] Part of why I love YouTube and Machinima is that sort of rebellious nature in terms of how filmmakers are approaching stuff, where they're making their own rules. So we were making our own rules, and because we saw this as a graphic novel, and as an introduction to these characters and this world, we felt we had to introduce these characters in a way that gave you a reason to come back to see what's happening with them and to learn more about them. They needed to be thought of in a different way than how you would traditionally think about a character where you're telling us things about them rather than letting them introduce themselves and give you a reason to want to know more. We wanted people to want to know more, rather than just telling them stuff. We didn't want to parcel out information like you would do with a procedural like Law & Order. Hopefully we maintained viewer interest and stayed true to the story and the world of Tainted Love.
CB: It helps that you got such an incredible cast together for it, too. Obviously we already talked about Eric Roberts, but there's also Deanna Russo who plays Jezebel, and has been on Heroes and the US version of Being Human. How did you manage to get this group of people together? Was this a case of just sending the scripts out for a while and building the cast over time, or did other connections help make this happen?
OJ: I was basically super lucky. I had a dream cast in my mind but I didn't know who Jezebel was going to be. We met with a lot of actresses and I think all of them could have pulled it off, all of them would have brought something different to the role, but when we met Deanna, we felt that not only was she a great fit, but that she grounded the character in a way. That was important to us.
Deanna literally came aboard I think 48 hours before we were shooting. Eric Roberts, same thing. I think he was maybe a week before we started shooting. He read it and liked it, he thought it was cool. He had worked with Avi before and he and I knew had done things in the past and he said "I dig this, I'll do it." Jim Jefferies took a role that was originally going to be played by Martin Landau.
CB: Wow, really?
OJ: Yeah, I'm a huge fan of Martin Landau, and we had worked together. But Martin wasn't available when we were doing it, and Jim is someone I'm a huge fan of as well, I particularly like all of his stand-up and his show on FX. And I thought "If there's anyone who can play a priest, that you'd never expect to play a priest, it's Jim Jefferies." [laughs]. We also talked about Bill Maher, but I felt Jim Jefferies was the less obvious, more interesting choice. We were really lucky with this cast. Everybody just jumped aboard and was like "Hey, let's do this."
I would love to tell you that we planned it all out, but we didn't. We got a great cast that jumped aboard, in some cases at the last minute, and worked their asses off to make it happen.
CB: It seems like a lot of great work happens that way. It's impressive, though, because you and Deanna have great chemistry together. You genuinely seem like two people who have been through a lot of shit together and understand each other in a way that people outside of that connection might not. So it's even more impressive to hear that it came together at the last minute.
OJ: It is very fortunate because Deanna is also a comic book nerd, so she knew the world, and Jim is too, and that's important because we wanted the cast to be full of people who really cared and understood that it's not exactly a comedy, it's not exactly a graphic novel, it's sort of both. We were just really lucky casting wise, and our casting directors were great with helping us sort through that.
CB: That's good to hear, and it looks like it's doing well, every time I check the view counts are on the up and up. The comments generally seem to be supportive, too. Is this the response you were expecting?
OJ: Oh, god, no. I've long since given up trying to figure out what to expect. I'm really happy with the responses. I'm really happy with the love and respect we've gotten from Machinima. I'm really happy with it but I can't say I expected it. I'm very grateful. We did this blind and we didn't know what the response would be. As you probably know, I'm doing Sleepy Hollow in the fall with [Alex] Kurtzman and [Roberto] Orci and those are the guys who have done things like Star Trek and the new Spider-Man and I've looked at comments on their stuff and, I mean, these are guys who literally rewritten the genre and people are still just crapping all over them. So you never know. If guys like that are catching hell from fanboys, I don't think I can predict how people will respond.
CB: I totally hear you on that. Some people have legit criticisms, but usually it's just people wanting their voices to be heard. But it has to be tough when it's a labor of love and it's meant so much to you. I know you mentioned you're going to flesh out the background more soon with other material, so I was wondering if you had plans to do work in more of the comics aspect? Especially since so many series today use comics to expand the background. I mean, The Guild even has its own comic series now...
OJ: Yeah, yeah, that's really cool what they did. But yes, you'll definitely see things coming out soon. The soundtrack will be coming out, and there will be a lot of things popping up as we build up for the feature, where you'll get to eventually see a full blown version of the story. The soundtrack I think is cool because we're essentially telling another audio story.
CB: Other than Sleepy Hollow, what else do you have on the horizon for yourself?
OJ: Well, Sleepy Hollow is in the fall, and then I also shot this super gritty action film with Peter Hyams, the director of Timecop, called Enemies Closer. The whole thing takes place at night and it's basically about two guys and my character is the criminal element, who has this younger brother who was a good kid who joined the military and gets killed and I basically go after his commanding officer. We find ourselves ultimately having to join forces, we get caught in the middle of a drug war going on. That will be out this year.
CB: And you're also working on the Black Dynamite tv show, right?
OJ: Oh yeah, season two of that starts soon in terms of recording our dialogue and everything. Michael [Jai White] is a good friend that I've known forever.
CB: Looks like you've got a pretty packed schedule.
OJ: It's stupid, dude. And the funny thing is that what I'm champing at the bit the most for is Comic-Con [laughs].