Coming from the BET camp may be a hard stigma to wash off of your skin… and your resume. But Laz Alonso, the budding leading man who has a major role in Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, had to claw his way from the bottom to get some breathing room at the top. From Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood to Jarhead, Laz has profited from being a survivor. The burgeoning star sits down with The Urban Daily to talk about his role, salute the troops who live and die on the field of battle and gives some advice about HBCU’s.
The Urban Daily: So how do you feel about your work in Miracle at St. Anna?
Laz Alonzo: Man, I feel very happy, man… Very happy, bruh! I’m really proud of it. For me, it’s like a dream come true. I left my home seven years ago and I was like, “This [the movie] is why I started acting!” I was doing plays and anything else to get on. I had just started working with BET, you know, and my dream was to become an actor. My show got canceled at BET, but they had a new one and when they proposed it to me, I said, “Well, if I can do it from L.A., then I’ll do it,” ’cause nothin was gonna hold me back any longer! They let me do it and sure enough man, seven years later, I get to come back to New York in a Spike Lee joint! It’s like… a dream come true for me.
TUD: Tell the people a little bit about you character, Hector Negron.
LA: Hector Negron is a Puerto Rican who was the first American-born in his family. He’s very similar to me. My family immigrated from Cuba and his family came from Puerto Rico. His pops was an alcoholic which was very similar to mines. In the book, they go into details about his life. Hector grew up in a neighborhood and kind of was like a fish out of water. He was raised around Italians and I grew up around similar people who weren’t like me and my background, but together we were both caught between two worlds. Because he was black, of course, his race didn’t have the same social issues that the African-Americans were having within their own community at the time. You see that played out in the relationship between Derek Luke and Michael Ealy – kind of the lightskin/dark skin issue. And because it was during the ’40’s, it was really, really bad. Looking at a film like this, especially having the opportunity to act in it, you really realize that we’ve come a really long way in only 60 years. There are people that aren’t even that old that know what that time was really about. They saw the lynching and all the horrible, horrible, just horrible things that went on.
This was at a time where the N-word wasn’t a term of endearment and now, with some of these people still alive, they have a chance to see the country’s first black president and we have a lot to pat ourselves on the back for. Sometimes we tend to forget it because we get so caught up with where we’re not… which is cool, but we gotta keep our eyes on the prize. In the end, with being in Miracle at St. Anna, it made me thankful that I was born in these times and had the opportunity to see what the people who came before me had to fight for.
TUD: Did you know a lot about the 92nd before the movie? Or did you learn while filming?
LA: I really did learn a lot, man. Spike – even before I came to Italy – gave me about 11 movies to watch! He’s a film buff, a historian and when we got to Italy, he had a suite. The front part of it was basically set up like a library-slash-war room. We would do boot camp and all this training during the day, then, at night, he would have us watch films. We watched documentaries on the Buffalo Soldiers, on tank divisions, on the Tuskeegee Airmen. We’d watch back-in-the-day depictions of the war without the Buffalo Soldiers, we’d watch flicks that depicted black soliders in a different way, which was almost just straight coonin’. That’s how they showed us back in the day’s and we read tons of literature about the war. Binders full of research that Spike had done – we just had infinite resources to learn about these brothers that gave their lives for us. We studied military tactics. We had it broke down to how we pushed the Gothic Line back and how certain elements were excuted by the Buffalo Soldiers. We learned about Normandy and other things like that that – without the black soldiers on the field – wouldn’t have succeeded.
TUD: …I know that had to be a great experience…
LA: It was crazy man. Because, I’ve been through so many Black History Month’s my whole life. I can tell you about the Civil Rights movement, I can tell you about slavery, but I never knew about the black men fighting in World War II.
TUD: It took a lot for you to get into “character” for this role that demanded so much of your intellect, strength and time…?
LA: You know what it took the most of me was an emotional toll. When I had to play old Hector, I had to go to a place that, normally, we don’t really wanna go to… at least not me! I always try to be a positive cat and I try to think of what I have instead of what I don’t have. I tend to think of the friends that are in my life now, not the ones that I’ve lost. But with Hector, he’s in his 70’s and 80’s and he’s outlived most of his friends. He’s in a very lonely place and when you see an elderly person smile, you know that it takes so much strength for them to do so because more than half the people they knew are, more than likely, dead and gone. That was the mental space old Hector had and I had to focus on all the bad things that have happened to me in my life and all the losses that I’ve experienced and really hone in on that. To emotionally draw upon what he was going through in those scenes that made up the foundation of telling the 92nd’s story, you just had to go in to give it the real authentic thing.
TUD: You were also in Jarhead, too, so how would you say that those two films related to one another?
LA: Well, the one thing I learned back then is that those men in uniform when they’re in battle, they’re looking at each other one what you’re wearing. It doesn’t matter what the politicans say back home. It doesn’t matter whether we’re right or wrong with our military action. At this point, we’re here and I’ma do my best to save your life and vice versa, so that we can all go home to see our families and that’s all that matters to them. They’re the real heroes and the real celebrities. They’re the ones that should get the paparazzi and the autograph signings because they’re giving their lives for people that they don’t know and that’s an incredible sacrifice to make. I tip my hat to all the men and women in uniform and those that aren’t – your sacrifice is amazing!
TUD: How has Miracle at St. Anna changed your perception of what’s going on in Iraq, right now?
LA: It has… I’ve always viewed myself as a pretty tough perso, and the military was a very real alternative for me. It was something that I was very cool on because I was trying to see what happened with the S.A.T.’s and I wanted to make money to help my mom out – she was a single parent – and I wanted to get her out the hood. I always thought to myself that I was going to be rich one day, so I thought that the military would be an alternative for a little bit. But my uncle wasn’t having that. He had been in the military and he stressed that I was going to school. So, I did that route, but with doing these war movies, I realized that I’m not as tough as I thought I was. At the end of the day, I do something and go back to a warm hotel with a nice shower, some soap, facial moisturizer… you know what I’m sayin’…? They don’t have hot tubs in the desert of Iraq [laughs]! Those brothers and sisters are eating out of a tin can and rationing out their water – that’s serious business! They’re hardbody for real! You just learn that you can’t complain because there are people in far worst situations!
TUD: Spike has always been a hand’s-on director and he likes to mix it up a bit, but was there any time that he surprised you with his zealousness?
LA: That was day one. [Laughs] Day one on set we shot this 12-day battle in the river, the first opening battle of the movie. And after 20 years of making movies man, you’ve earned the right to sit back under a blanket, drink some hot chocolate, you know… stay warm and have a lil’ heater on your toes… Man… he was in the water, with us, man! He was in the cold, freezing water with us, for 15-hours. The whole time he could’ve been like, “I’m smarter than that,” and go back on dry land. But he didn’t. He was in there with us. If we got a break, he’d come out and once we went back in, he was there, too. That, for me, set the tone for the movie. You’d see the committment level that he has for the project and he set the bar above 100%. If he’s not giving anything less than that, then I knew I wasn’t going to give anything less than 100%.
TUD: What is the overall message that Miracle at St. Anna is trying to convey to the audience?
LA: I think the main thing is that this movie wants to shows you humanity. How when the stakes are high nothing can stand between us as a people. There are more similarities than there are differences, you know…? It doesn’t matter if your white, black, Italian, German – whatever. We’re more similar than we are different. We’re the ones who create these divisions and these separations. And I think there’s some mysticism and some riddles going on in the movie, but the main miracle in my opinion is the miracle of human interaction. When things get tight, people realize that they gotta band together and connect. And I think you see that, especially back in 1944. Back then, black people were viewed as very non-desirable people. But if you go to Italy, they viewed black people as liberators and freedom fighters. They thanked the Lord that black people existed. Because black people were the ones that gave them back their freedom. We’re heroes over there, to this day.”
TUD: So what do you have coming up in the near future?
LA: I’ll be in the next installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise with Vin Diesel. I had to bulk up for that one because Vin is a lot bigger in person than he seems to be in his movies. He truly was a New York bouncer because he has that swagger. He’ll knuckle up in a minute, you know…? That’s always fun. It was really good to work with him. He’s a class act all the way. In December 2009, I have Avatar with James Cameron and that’s going to blow your mind! The way I feel it’s going to be is that it’ll be this generation’s Star Wars. You ain’t never seen anything like this before and we’re all really excited!
TUD: How did you go from a Howard graduate to a marketing entrepreneur to following your dreams of wanting to be an actor?
LA: Man… It was a gradual transition. It was definitely not overnight [laughs]. I read this book called The Alchemist and I really suggest that book to anybody that’s at a crossroads in their life. I knew that I wasn’t doing what God put me here to do, but to change it was a gradual process. I had my day job and I would do acting on the weekends or at night. I’d just juggle a lot of things. But when you’re doing something that you love, you’ll make a way. You have to ask yourself are you willing to make sacrifices to go after your dream and that’s where standing on real faith comes into play. It was so hard to graduate from an HBCU and people don’t realize that it is. At HBCU’s, you have to fight. Just to get a class, it’s a fight. To get through financial aid is a battle. So, the good thing about that is that out of that, the strong survive and the cream rises to the top. You can make it in life after graduating from an HBCU. It’s kind of like boot camp and that turns people into steel once you get through that. Word.
Additional reporting by James Lane