'Jacob's Ladder' Star Michael Ealy Wants a Challenge

Michael Ealy talks about starring in the 2019 'Jacob's Ladder' remake alongside Jesse Williams and Nicole Beharie, as well as his desires as an actor.

Michael Ealy in a scene from 'Jacob’s Ladder' directed by David M. Rosenthal

Image via Vertical Entertainment

Michael Ealy in a scene from 'Jacob’s Ladder' directed by David M. Rosenthal

On August 23, two intriguing cinematic worlds collide. One is the career of Michael Ealy; fans have seen him blossom as the barber with the light eyes in Ice Cube's Barbershop film series to being featured in everything from box office blockbusters like 2 Fast, 2 Furious to deeper films like For Colored Girls to updated mindfucks like Jacob's Ladder, the early '90s cult classic that dealt with the mania soldiers have to deal with when returning home from war. A budding movie buff like myself always held the original in high regard, as it was unafraid to be disturbing while delivering powerful performances, and seeing it being remade—with a black cast that featured both Jesse Williams and Nicole Beharie—was an instant must-see for me.

Earlier this month, Complex hopped on the phone with Michael Ealy to talk about Jacob's Ladder, to discuss not only how he approached this role, but how he is approaching his career at this stage. Michael Ealy is walking a different path; he's really about his craft and is unafraid to take risks to better himself as an actor. Take a look inside the mind of Michael Ealy ahead of Jacob's Ladder theatrical release.  

What drew you to this project?
For me, it was a chance to take on a role that was extraordinarily immersive and trippy and a role that I've never done. It is a psychological mindfuck. These kinds of roles don't come around anymore. They don't typically make these kinds of movies anymore. And to be able to tap into something like this, it's like an actors dream to stretch yourself and immerse yourself in a role. I think I spend almost 90 percent of the movie almost in fear. That ain't easy to take on, day-in and day-out. It was a huge challenge, and I'm always interested in things I haven't done when it comes to my craft. I'm gonna always try to stretch myself.

This was a movie that was obviously based on something that was shot 30 years ago. The original, in my opinion, it still works in terms of storytelling but technically doesn't hold up because technology has changed and all these other things. To me, it was the perfect opportunity to say "well, wait a minute. We can't just remake, to this newer generation, what the original was to my generation." Because when Marvel does it everybody's cool. When Disney does it with Star Wars, everybody's cool. Everybody's excited. Everybody's lined up out front. You have to realize that some of these classics are cult classics because Jacob's Ladder was not the box office blockbuster but it was cult classic. And [if] you get to make a cult classic for a newer generation, why not take that chance? Marvel makes Spider-Man 18 million times. I work and I still go in to see Spider-Man. But [when you mention]Jacob's Ladder, [there] where some people were like "Why? Leave it alone it's a cult classic. Ahhhhh! Why are we doing this? Why are we doing with a black cast?" Wow. Okay.

Marvel gets that, too, but that it is sad that people can't think of the idea of a remake and adding a black cast. It's almost like these things that are works of fiction can't be turned into something different, something more reflective of the world we're living in today, which I think this film does a really good job of doing. What were some of the more challenging stuff in making this film?
Good question. For me, the hardest part was not breaking character. You got these special effects that need to be done and they're not there. So you're looking at a normal person. You don't know what the effects are gonna look like. We're an independent film, man. We didn't have mockups of where everything's gonna be. It was just hard to kind of stay in character. This is why I love Jesse and Nicole tremendously because they did a phenomenal job in terms of not making me feel like I was batshit crazy. Which is where I felt like I was almost every single day.

I'll give you an analogy. If you're in love with somebody. They cheat on you. Often times, what people don't understand is that throws off your emotional compass. Instantly, in every relationship that takes place after that, you don't know what's north or south anymore. Because the inherent trust that you had, for this one person, has now been taken away. And now you kind of project that onto everybody else, even if they've never done any wrong. So, this is Jacob's existence in this movie. His compass is off and he can't understand why. 

Now, to play that day-in and day-out was such a roller coaster and debilitating emotionally, physically. But it took its toll on me day-in and day-out. We had an incredible cast and crew. Everybody wanted to be a part of this because everybody was huge fans of the original and they wanted to tell this kind of updated version of the original. It was one of my top three shooting experiences. I always felt supported. I never felt that I couldn't push the limits. My director, David Rosenthal, I did The Perfect Guy with; he kept pushing me to go deeper and deeper and it was exactly what needed at that time in my life and in my career.

Jesse Williams and Michael E aly in a scene from 'Jacob’s Ladder' directed by David M. Rosenthal

I was actually surprised because I remember initially seeing you acting more in films. I remember seeing you in The Perfect Guy and then I feel like I hadn't seen you in films for a while, forgetting that you've been doing a lot on TV. With Jacob's Ladder and with The Intruder, and you're in the upcoming ABC series Stumptown—are you planning on doing more films in the near future? Where's your head at with that?
I've got a couple of movies in the can, actually. I've done another lead role in a film called Fatal with Hilary Swank and Mike Colter and that's coming out in 2020. And that was with the same director from The Intruder, Deon Taylor. I've done some smaller parts in some other movies that were smaller because, again, they provided me the opportunity to play a character I've never played. And so I've been kind of playing with that stuff a little bit in the last year or so. And like you said, Stumptown, comes out in September. I love film. I'll be honest with you—they don't make a lot of the kind of movies that I wanna make, because the business has changed.

Jacob's Ladder and The Intruder—they're more unique films than what we're seeing in Hollywood today. I was wondering if that was actually the reason why you were taking those. They're not the cookie-cutter things that we might be seeing reigning in the box office. That's good to hear that you're still actively seeking those types of roles.
I have to. I have this conversation with my wife all the time because she doesn't always understand. She thinks I'm real hard-headed. And I always tell her I got into this business—it's not the same business that I got into, this business.

I got into this business to make movies that would stretch me as an actor and challenge me. And to kind of provoke the audience into thinking. But those movies don't always get made by studios anymore and they don't always get picked up as independent films anymore. You have to kind of do one for them and then go do one for yourself. Do one for them and then go do one for yourself. I respect that Denzel Washington is able to do that. He'll go do something for the studio. Make them a bunch of money and then he'll say "You know what? I'm going to go tell this August Wilson story." That's why he has an advantage. He'll tell real stories.

For me, I'm going to keep fighting. It's hard. It's not the most profitable business plan, but I'm going to keep fighting. To try to make and tell stories that stretch me as an actor. I'll do The Intruder movies. That's a commercial movie. I don't love doing those; Jacob's Ladder is like, "this is my wheelhouse." This is [me] challenging myself. This was a no-brainer for me. I want to do this.

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