He’s played the hero. He’s played the heavy. Whether we’re talking about the tough joker from the wrong side of the tracks in Michael Jackson’s Bad video, or the Blade trilogy’s half-vamp vamp slayer, Wesley Snipes has always exuded a specific brand of cool.
Snipes’s swagger and formidable martial arts skills have granted him a long career as an action star. But his latest role in NBC’s new series The Player, premiering September 24 at 10 pm, requires fewer roundhouse kicks and many more steely glares and icy one-liners.
In The Player, Snipes portrays the enigmatic Mr. Johnson, the pit boss in a secret high-stakes game in which a group of the world’s wealthiest gamble on the ability of former military operative Alex Kane (Strike Back’s Philip Winchester) to stop horrible crimes from playing through to the end.
Only a few years ago Snipes might have been in Kane’s shoes, but to hear him talk about it, it sounds like the debonair Mr. Johnson’s suits fit him perfectly.
“He’s morally ambiguous,” Snipes says. “He’s tasked with getting the job done. He’s a facilitator. And … if everybody can win great. If somebody has to lose, it’s unlikely that it’s going to be him. Or the house. That moral ambiguity is going to open the door for a lot of surprises coming up.”
In an interview conducted at a recent NBC event in Hollywood, Snipes revealed more details about The Player’s Pit Boss, what made him decide to join a TV series, and whether we might see more adventures with a certain Daywalker.
Mr. Johnson has the kind of sinister quality about him that’s reminiscent of a villain in a classic British conspiracy drama, like The Prisoner.
Yes! I tell people that this is the kind of character Terence Stamp might have liked. He would have been a good Mr. Johnson. I look at what he does as an actor, his intonations, and I see some flavor in that — a very cool dynamic, reserved, contained flavor that can explode, you know? You always get the sense that he has a lot boiling underneath.
At the same time, this character was obviously written to bring your specific flavor to the screen.
Well, funny enough, the character was actually written with the initial idea that this character was a gentleman in his 60s, with a British accent. So the tone that I’m going to bring to it, hopefully it’s a combination of being sophisticated but, at the same time, he can be real hood when it’s necessary. I think that’ll be something you don’t often see: A guy who’s classy, educated, well-read and international, but also can move through the hood and talk with the boys, you know?
Very much a chameleon, then.
Yeah. Yeah. I like that, because we don’t know where they’re going to go.
Are we going to find out anything about Mr. Johnson’s background any time soon?
Over time we’ll come to understand how he came to do what he does, how he came to be the guy that he is, and all of these other little intriguing, parallel stories that make up the world of Mr. Johnson. It’s a dangerous world that he’s in, and he didn’t get there very easily.
What else did the producers tell you about him when you first read the script?
Well, the first thing is that Mr. Johnson used to be a Player. So that was a big deal, the fact that he was a Player and somehow or another, he rose through the ranks. And as you’ll see with the show, it’s quite challenging just to survive, let alone elevate your status in the ranks. The fact that he was able to do that suggests that there are some very interesting and unique things about him. Plus, I get the chance to perform some martial arts in this.
And you get to wear some amazing suits every week.
Oh yes, definitely. Style and fashion! Aspirational style and fashion! Yes! I’m telling you, Mr. Johnson is going to able to do the high-class, the $5,000, $10,000 suits, down the street, ghetto stuff. Like high-top Chucks. It’s going to be kind of funny.
What is it about this role that made you choose to come over to network television?
The flexibility. The idea that it’s an action drama, but it’s also set with great plot structure. There are unpredictable plot twists. And the chance to work with a lot of great actors, you know? I was watching The Blacklist. I’m a fan of that, and there are a lot of the same producers [executive producers John Davis and John Fox] on our show. And I look at the roster of talent that has flowed through some of the series. These are some of the people who I would love to work with in film, Broadway, whatever. So this show gives me an opportunity to do that.
It’s also great to see you with Philip Winchester, who’s coming to network from Strike Back [on Cinemax] — a very action-oriented show, but still not very well-known to the wider audience. Meanwhile, people know you as a movie star. Do the two of you ever exchange notes?
I may have more experience in film, but he has more experience in television, so I ask him questions about the pacing, about how they did what they do. You can always learn from those who do something well, and have done it before you. Vice versa, he gets a sense in how to pace himself in what we’re considering to be a high-action, dynamic type of action show.
Are we going to see any Pit Boss versus Player scenes anytime soon?
Oh, there’s always that. There has to be. I think you’ll see the Pit Boss and Player as adversaries, but you might even see them become allies. Who knows? But this particular Player might be such a unique Player that he ends up saving the Pit Boss. Maybe!
The Expendables. Is there another one in the works?
I don’t know. They would like to. I think they would like to. But everybody’s off doing their own thing. I don’t know, they may have gotten a little gun-shy after the last one. It made money, but the whole bootlegging thing bothered them. And it was very difficult to bring all of that talent together at the same time.
There was also talking about making it into a TV series for Fox.
I think that’s more likely. Even so, the challenge would be…who do you put in the show?
Terry Crews is already on TV. And now so are you. You could moonlight.
Part of the premise, or the whole concept of it was, these were branded or recognizable action heroes. I guess those guys were over the hill. I wasn’t in that group. But where do you find that for the TV show? It’s very challenging.
And given that we’re in the middle of a comic-book movie surge — that you are in no small part responsible for — is there a chance that there could be another Blade project in the future?
There’s always a chance! I mean, it hasn’t been completely erased. Marvel and I have had some really positive conversations about it. We’re also talking about other things, and bringing me into the Marvel family, so we’ll see.
Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based writer who serves on the board of the Television Critics Association. Her work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, Variety and Salon, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision.