Actor-director team create unparalleled body of work


Roger Guenveur Smith
Roger Guenveur Smith

Roger Guenveur Smith, over the course of his three-decades-plus acting career, has appeared in many Spike Lee works. But in a MSR phone interview last month, he let it be known that his successful collaboration with the famed director got its beginning in Minneapolis’ Uptown area.

Once while in town to perform in a play at the Guthrie, Smith took a break and watched a movie at the Uptown Theater. “The first full-time gig that I did as an actor, that all I had to do was wake up in the morning and act, was at the Guthrie Theatre,” recalled Smith. “I went to the Uptown Theatre and I saw this movie called, She’s Gotta Have It. I sat through it twice,” he admitted.

During the screening, Smith then asked himself, “Who is this cat, Spike Lee and what is he doing next?’ I saw a guy with a wacky sense of humor and extraordinary eye and an extraordinary social conscience. I found out what he was doing next and I was able to wrangle a cattle call audition. The rest is history.”

He played the mentally-challenged Smiley in Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), the first of eight film roles over the years. “I have been working with him ever since,” said Smith proudly. “Spike and I have grown together. I’m thankful that he and I are [of] the same generation.”

Next month Lee is scheduled to receive an honorary Oscar. Smith, among others, said recognizing Lee and his body of work has been long overdue.

“You love Spike’s films, you hate Spike’s films,” continued the actor. “The exemplary legacy of Felton Jackson Lee will be that he changed the complexion of American filmmaking. He has brought a couple of generations of filmmakers into the fold.” Along with filmmakers, Lee has brought in many actors and behind-the-scenes folk: “He also has been a devoted acting teacher and he takes his responsibilities seriously.”

The next Lee-Smith collaboration is Chi-raq, a film about crime in Chicago, Smith pointed out. “It’s been an extraordinary [working relationship] with Spike and we have a lot more work to do,” said Smith, who won an Obie Award, and has appeared in movies, television shows and on stage. Smith’s acting range is wide in scope, and he is also a successful playwright. But his work with Lee is perhaps his proudest, said Smith.

“What Spike and I have achieved is unparalleled in cinema. I’m not just bragging on this. An actor and a director who have a great variety of work that Spike and I have achieved” is something worthy of being noted, he said.

Smith is also proud of his time spent in the Twin Cities over the years, including acting in productions at the Guthrie, the Old Southern Theatre and the Penumbra, and teaching and performing at Macalester College. He also played an attorney in Justice (2004) that was filmed in the area, and recently did Rodney King, an 11-show run at the Penumbra early October.

“I’ve improvised characters [like] Smiley… I’ve been blessed with a very elective range of challenges throughout my career,” concluded Smith.

Related content: Roger Guenveur Smith gives his all in stirring ‘Rodney King’

Related content: Roger Guenveur Smith on Viola Davis’ speech

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to