Depicted as “Young, Black and didn’t give a … America’s nightmare,” the Menace II Society character O-Dog, portrayed by a then 17 year-old Larenz Tate, still maintains its venerated place in American gangster cinema appreciated for it’s on-screen authenticity some twenty years later.
“ ‘Til this day! Menace is one of those movies and O-Dog, that character; I can go nooo-where,” revealed Tate, still impressed by how the film “still resonates” and impacts people, jokingly added, “it don’t matter if I‘m in the airport, if I’m at a nightclub, if I’m at church, anywhere! No matter what city, what neighborhood,” the actor is instantly recognized and respected for the character by fans both familiar and foreign to the precarious culture of gang life.
Written and directed by The Hughes Brothers, Tate explains the fraternal film making duo, “we’re not making this movie Menace for the community … this was for those who heard about it outside of the community, outside of the inner city struggle and the inner city life … and it really made an impact because it was a true slice of life in a real way.”
Chicago born and Los Angles raised, a 17 year-old Tate at the time of filming in 1992 was well in tune with the real life nature of the O-Dog character stating, “I had known guys like that coming from Chicago and also living in Los Angeles and raised in both cities seeing young brothers who really just didn’t have a worry about anything that they did in repercussions and the loss of life … they were just misguided and misled.”
And “going from inner city to the next,” being, “one step away from all of that stuff,” crediting himself the fortunate product of a two parent household, “that made sure [he and his brothers] stayed on the straight and narrow,” today the 37 year-old actor considers himself, “blessed not to have to do those things and [able] to put it on screen as opposed to actually having to live that life.” But aware of the dire consequences existing today for at-risk youth absent an authoritative parental guidance or mentoring artistic/scholastic outlet, Tate is heavily involved in the B.L.O.O.M initiative which aims to Build a Lifetime of Options and Opportunities for Men.
“I thought it would be great for somebody that they look up to in terms of a character like O-Dog, or they’re infatuated by that character to see me what into a room and say, ‘That’s who I played, but this is who I am’ and there’s so much more behind that,” detailed Tate of his responsible societal contribution stressing, “it is how you are able to use what you have and maximize that on a positive level.”
So where the actor’s ground-breaking effort from two decades prior finds and commands an unexpected attention today, Tate coloring O-Dog as, “one of those characters that was just stand out, every time he came on the scene you never knew what to expect,” reveals one of the film’s most famous lines was unexpected!
"That was not written,” said Tate of the Korean liquor store owner’s (Toshi Toda) line, “I feel sorry for your mother,” admitting, “the person Larenz Tate took offense to that … it was a response in the moment that they were able to keep as well as the rant that O-Dog was on in the car as they were going to retaliate going in on Caine, a lot of that stuff was just some ad-libs,” further crediting his proximity to the life as allowing him, “to be able to pull from some of those things.”
With the groundbreaking Menace II Society having delivered the previously never before presented on screen harsh reality of a faction of inner city culture with such authenticity, Tate again reunited with The Hughes Brothers three years later to deliver arguably his best performance as returning home Vietnam soldier Anthony Curtis in 1995 film Dead Presidents.
After “putting their lives on the line” for their country and “not welcomed with warm arms” upon returning home, Tate’s character Curtis resorts to planning an armored car, bank heist as a desperate means to and end of the accrued adversity complicated by joblessness and the social unpopularity of the war.
“Shooting that scene, the bank robbery, outside in New York … bleeding cold,” recalled Tate of the two-day shoot that himself and co-star N’Bushe Wright, outfitted in time period all black leather jackets with skeletal face paint and knitted hats heavily equipped with firearms and explosives, preparing for the heist.
“When N’Bushe Wright was inside of that dumpster she was shaking,” from the intense frigid cold weather revealed Tate further explaining, “you see the intensity when she pops up out of that dumpster and she’s blazin’ … she’s really in the moment … and we were just so focused,” recollected Tate with strong emotions for the “hostile takeover” scene labeling it an “incredible experience,” lending to producing yet another, “film that became a classic.”
Also joining Tate in both Hughes Brothers dramatic classic was actor Clifton Powell, who portrayed Bossman Cutty, a pimp who ‘befriended’ Tate’s love interest Juanita (Rose Jackson) in the film while he was on his tour of duty serving in Vietnam. “Cutty got his get back; Clifton Powell did his thing,” laughed Tate adding of Powell’s performance, “He was beast; He was incredible in that!”
Tate further laughs at the notion when asked if Powell, who also portrayed Chauncey in Menace II Society and was the recipient of a beat down from Caine (Tyrin Turner), O-Dog’s partner, may have a extracted a little bit of ‘acting revenge’ when pistol whipping Tate’s character down a flight of stairs.
And to that point, in some footage that was left on the cutting room floor of the classic film, Tate informs that they filmed, “a retaliation with my character Anthony to get some ’get-back’ with Cutty (Clifton Powell),” that was omitted from the final version of the film after what Tate and the directors concluded “did not test well,” as it created a sense of invincibility with did not jive with his character’s reality.
And to accurately and believably reflect and portray the realities of his character which included brutal, fire-fight war sequences, Tate details, “I had family who were in Vietnam so I got a chance to interview them, to sit down and talk to them and war ain’t fun ... it’s tough and Dead Presidents, they wanted to really show some truth that was going on.”
And the truth is Tate, as an actor, has amassed an extensive body of film credits ranging in realities from a lover to a lawman, a fighter to fireman with such films and television series such as Love Jones, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, A Man Apart, Crash, Rescue Me and now beginning in January 2013 with season two of Showtime’s House of Lies.
“I play Malcolm Kaan, Marty Kaan’s (Don Cheadle) brother, once again, first we played brother in Crash, now we played brother’s here,” revealed Tate who is a also reunited with his Inkwell cast mate, veteran actor Glynn Turman who plays his father Jeremiah Kaan as well Nia Long who Tate famously shared the screen with in Love Jones.
“Nia is going to be dealing with a lot [Marty Kaan’s] professional life,” says Tate as opposed to his role which will be involved with the personal, family life of Cheadle’s character.
Tate describes his character to be “the polar opposite of his brother … with a long history of sibling rivalry,” but today is standing up “for the people who have been exploited for major companies who are predators in exploiting the everyday hard working individual for monetary gains.” Those familiar with season one will understand how this stands in stark opposition to Cheadle’s character whose consulting agency works incessantly without morals to insure and veil the corporate interests thus building a ‘house of lies’ concealing the truth from the public eye preserving the client’s desired status quo prompting Tate to liken his character to be the, “conscience for the people … and I’m going to occupy Wall Street, my character’s lived in tents for three years, I traveled all over the country doing protests and out there speaking.”
Tate further explains that Malcolm moves in and “crashes Marty’s spot,” causing a great deal of discomfort for Marty who speculates, “the only reason [Malcolm] is there is for money,” but it is discovered there is a different reason for Malcolm’s return home, “to give him some information … and in that [they] still are bumping heads … and it takes [them] back to when they were kids,” explaining the interaction to showcase, for the first time, “Marty, Don’s character [getting] so flustered about his personal life, because he’s so close to the vest," adding that his character, being of a very very outspoken nature will, "call him on the carpet.”
Having just filmed one particular, incredible scene with Turman and Cheadle, that Tate describes as, “magical,” explains that the “battle of the wits,” dialogue is delivered, ”full throttle .. at each other, but it’s really smart and gives you a real look into how family operates,” adding, “you could be so close, but yet so far away from each other.”
And in that space, bringing audiences to the threshold of a relate-able reality, is where Tate has operated his entire career demonstrating a successful versatility he attributes to, “always looking for good challenges … I just wanted to show my range and never be pigeon holed in any way … I wanted people to see in one moment I could play a character who is your worst nightmare and then I could go to a movie like Love Jones and be the lover of your dreams.” Explaining himself to be absent, “of a specialty,” Tate considers his success to be, “a blessing and a curse.”
“Certain actors do one thing and that’s what they do … whereas myself, I’ve always tried to do a bit of it all, … comedy … dramatic ... romance,” further explained Tate admitting, “when it comes to Hollywood, especially for Black actors, sometimes, all those roles aren’t there; they don’t write them as much, there’s fewer of those roles today, [but] you get them on television far more now.”
In an industry where change is prevalent and things are cyclical, Tate astutely assesses, “that audiences just don’t want to see me do anything,” explaining he, “built [his] career on just as trying to be very selective as much as [he] possibly can and still give people what they want and continue to work my craft and do what I love to do.”
Delving into Tate’s selection process, the actor explains his approach to the Ashanti video Rain On Me, which highlighted domestic violence and required Tate to display the volatile shift in emotional range from love to jealous rage encapsulated in a four minute music video, “would have to be a girl that guys would like, not because he’s some ferocious animal by no means, but there’s a different side of him … and I wanted to show why some of the women are into guys like that who happen to handle relationships in a way that they shouldn’t unfortunately.”
Finally, taking a step back and appreciating the landscape of Tate’s entire body of work from a panoramic view which burst on the scene with a gangster lean as O-Dog in 1993, the case can be made that his career, in a sense ,parallels Al Pachino who equally rose to a revered popularity for his portrayal of Tony Montana in the 1983 Oliver Stone written, Brain DePalma directed film Scarface depicting the rise of a Cuban immigrant to a drug overlord in Miami, FL.
“I totally understand the Al Pachino thing,” said Tate offering, “What Al Pachino was able to do with the Tony Montana character … was just so incredible and monumental.”
Furthermore of the parallel to his Menace II Society O-Dog character which debuted ten years after Pachino’s Tony Montana, Tate concludes, “People now have taken the ‘O-Dog’ and given that same sort of value … and I’m just honored that people still dig the role and what I was able to do and how I was able to interpret it and I just wanted to be as authentic and I wanted to be the universal guy; I wanted to be the dude that no matter what neighborhood you were from, be it the inner city or outside the inner city, there was something about that dude that was intriguing because he was likeable .. but at the flip of switch, he’ll change on you and that’s what makes the character so dynamic so when people compare the two, that’s like a huge honor.”