Auditioning for his very first acting job five-and-a-half years ago, Mekhi Phifer found himself up dose and personal in a volatile scene with Mr. Intensity, Harvey Keitel. But Phifer-- 19 at the time--wasn't fazed.
"I said, 'Harvey Keitel? OK. No problem.' See, I didn't know who Harvey was." It was all part of one of those million-to-one success stories: armed only with headshots he'd snapped at the list minute in a Woolworth's photo booth, Phifer went to the open casting call where he proceeded to beat out a thousand other hopefuls for the lead role in Spike Lee's urban drama Clockers. Then, sparring not just with Keitel but also John Turturro and Delroy Lindo, Phifer gave his portrayal of a teen crack-dealer such a raw, street-smart authenticity it catapulted him directly into choice roles in films like Soul Food, HBO's A Lesson Before Dying and the TV series Homicide: Life on the Street."
"I don't want to do the same role twice," Phifer says, adding with a touch of rue, "at least not in a row." Truth is, when you've portrayed as many young black criminals as the talented Phifer already has by 25, you probably sense there's a shortage of diversity in the parts available for the young, gifted and black he turns down many projects, including "corny comedies, things with senseless violence or weak, sugarcoated dramas." Meaning, most of what Hollywood turns out. However, Phifer's next film is O, an update on Shakespeare's Othello, and this, he assures, is first-rate stuff. Phifer's the tragic hero, here named Odin, a star high school basketball player imported from New York to a rich, white Southern academy, where more than just cultures clash when he falls for Julia Stiles. "It's a totally heavy drama," he says. While he awaits the fate of O, Phifer's enjoying his new family life in Los Angeles. He recently married actress Malinda Williams and the two have at infant son. Breaking with the traditional attitude of New Yorkers transplanted to L.A., Phifer insists he actually prefers Hollywood: "Everyone out here is doing the same thing--it's all the Industry." And that's s good thing? "There are no distractions," he says, "It helps me focus."