Story by Kenya M. Yarbrough & Todd Williams
Images by Hiltron Bailey for Steed Media Service
The entire world loves a clown, but what happens when someone you’re accustomed to laughing at asks to be taken seriously? That’s a tricky question in Hollywood, where pigeonholing and typecasting run rampant. But nothing is impossible, especially for the remarkably talented. Actress Aisha Tyler made a name for herself as the hilariously silly host of E! Television’s “Talk Soup,” and turned heads weekly during the ninth season of “Friends,” as the love interest of Ross, David Schwimmer’s lovelorn neurotic. But, beginning with 2004’s intense Never Die Alone, Tyler began shifting away from her comedic roots and stretching her dramatic muscle. After memorable stints on ABC-TV’s hit drama “24,” audiences should now be more accustomed to Tyler’s more straight-faced fare. Her latest flick, Death Sentence, pairs the mahogany beauty with box-office vet Kevin Bacon in a gripping thriller about loss and revenge. In the film, Tyler plays homicide detective Wallis to Bacon’s Nick Hume, a father who is consumed by vengeance and finds himself tangled in a web of revenge. The film, based on the novel by “Death Wish” author Brian Garfield, reshapes the revenge genre theme while Tyler and Bacon reshape their film careers.
“It’s an opportunity to show people that I have a diverse skill set,” she says. “It’s great for me to show my ability and to stretch myself [because it’s] important not to get typecast.”
A wise man once said, “Tragedy equals comedy minus timing,” so admittedly, the film came easy to Tyler.
“I love doing dramatic work,” she says. “It’s easier than comedy. There is a math to comedy. Drama is much more organic and interior.”
Tyler isn’t the first former comedian to make the leap to hard-hitting drama, two-time Oscar® winner Tom Hanks cut his teeth on the silly sitcom “Bosom Buddies” in the early ’80s; and before he won his own Little Gold Man as the legendary Ray Charles, actor Jamie Foxx was a standup comedian and a cast member of the sketch comedy show “In Living Color.”
“That’s the kind of progress that I’d like to follow,” continues Tyler. “The best model for your career is to stretch and not to get comfortable, but to push yourself to grow.”
Her co-star Bacon knows a thing or two about growth. The ’80s classic Footloose made him a hit with the “Tiger Beat” set, but he progressed as an actor, starring in A Few Good Men alongside Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson, and Sleepers with Brad Pitt and Robert De Niro. The star’s recent work has been even heavier, including such work as Mystic River and The Woodsman. Still searching for new experiences after a 30-year career, Bacon was anxious to try his hand at action.
I’d been doing a lot of cerebral stuff and I felt like it would be nice to do something more physical,” he says. “I told my agent, ‘I want to kick a little ass,’ and this script came to me.” But Bacon did have certain apprehensions about tackling a ‘butt-kicking’ role. “The thing about wanting to do a thriller or action kind of movie is a lot of times you sacrifice a real depth of character. They kind of just have a guy who’s not all that complex. They throw something in like he has a drinking problem or his wife died, and then for the rest of the movie it’s just [gunfights]. When I read Death Sentence I thought, ‘Wow, this is a real emotional movie. There’s a lot there for me to play.”
The film examines vengeance by challenging the often-tempting idea of taking revenge into your hands without worry of consequence. Instead of walking away triumphantly, an ordinary man finds himself in dire circumstances after choosing to avenge the death of his son. That decision creates a dangerous cycle and examines the lengths a man will go to protect his family. While Bacon himself subscribes to Ghandi’s “an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind” school of conflict-resolution, he is a father himself, and admits he’s not certain what his reaction might be if faced with something as harrowing as a threat to a loved one. “I would like to believe that I wouldn’t answer violence with violence. I really don’t think that’s the answer,” he says. “At the same time — as the character says, ‘you don’t really know what you’d do.’ That’s exactly what I’d say. You don’t know how you’re going to react until it happens. Fatherhood is one of the most important aspects of my life. It truly, deeply, and forever changed my life. It’s the first time in your life where you’re ready to throw yourself in front of a bus for somebody else and that’s the story here.”
Tyler agrees with Bacon in assessing the reality of the character’s predicament. “Nothing he can do will bring his son back, and that’s kind of the sad reality,” Tyler says of Nick Hume. “Someone likened it to a Greek tragedy, which I think is appropriate.”
Tackling a film with grim subject matter gives Tyler the chance to show off her chops as an actress, but it’s also much more. For Tyler, it is not only important to break any mold that casting directors may have set for her as an actor; it’s equally important to crush Hollywood’s notions of what a black woman is capable of onscreen. Her “Friends” character quietly broke one Hollywood barrier — casually melding into the all-white cast with no issue, which Tyler believes is progress in the ongoing struggle for black actors to gain ground in Hollywood. But she’s very realistic about the situation. “I think things are changing incrementally,” she says. “Has there been a 180 in terms of the number of roles available to African American actresses or the quality? No. But incrementally, things are getting better. There are more films being made and more television outlets so there are just more roles, period. But I think it is a constant struggle to find intelligent, sophisticated and complex roles — where you’re not the best friend or the sidekick or the comic relief.”
Detective Wallis is just that type of intelligent role she’s referring to. During her tenure on “CSI: Miami,” Death Sentence director James Wan caught Tyler on an episode and was thoroughly impressed. He then made the decision to change the character as it was originally conceived — a stoic, older white male detective — and offered Tyler the role.
Wan and Tyler were careful in ensuring that though the character now clearly had a more feminine slant, that she didn’t lose her edge. Tyler, in preparing for both her stint on “CSI” and for this film, spent time with real detectives and even went on a few ride-alongs with officers while filming in South Carolina. “[Wallis] needed to be strong,” Tyler explains. “[Police] women have to be in great shape. They are in life and death situations every day. Those women are badasses. So you had to believe [Wallis] had been a cop for a long time; you had to believe that she had that hardness in her — that she would walk into a situation and not be intimidated. I wanted her to be taken seriously.”
Bacon had nothing but praise for Tyler’s performance. “She’s great. She’s so strong and kind of a stoic as that character. She’s very believable as this cop,” he says. “Oftentimes, you see that a film can be undone by weak performances in the smaller roles … and Aisha’s strength and rock-like presence — I really think it was very much a team effort.”
While Tyler’s turn as a tough-as-nails detective adds to her repertoire as an actress, she assures that she has no plans to abandon standup for the draw of the big screen. “I just haven’t had the time,” admits the San Francisco native. “You have to commit [so] far out and my schedule changes so much with films. But I’ll definitely keep doing it — I’d love to do as much as I can. When I was a standup comedian, I was writing, and performing and directing my own material. To me, they’re all a part of a piece. To me, actors are always at the mercy of other people. You’re always kind of waiting for somebody to give you a job and I really don’t like to be in that position. I’d rather create work for myself. Especially being a woman, and especially being an African American woman, I’d rather just create them for myself.”
Now, she is creating work for herself. She has a comedy soon to be released called Balls of Fury, alongside Christopher Walken; and she’s also written and is directing a girl-buddy flick in the vein of Lethal Weapon. “I really want to do interesting, unusual stories about strong, unusual women,” she says. “I really want to play strong women and I really want to play intelligent women. As a result, that limits the work that I do, but for me, it’s about creating great roles and creating projects and opportunities for other actors, writers and directors. I’m not only creating a role that I’d like to play that’s going to be an interesting and complex African American character, but also creating more opportunities for people like me. Hopefully, [I can] build a business where I’m able to support other actors and actresses, filmmakers and other writers down the road, creating a market and a niche where we can expand.”