Karl Campbell: Renaissance Man
Conversations on challenging stereotypes, lessons learned from Jamie Foxx and acting in TIFF-featured Hyena Road
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) always brings with it the promise of a grand spectacle. The red carpets, flashing lights and readied grins from those imprinted upon the pop culture lexicon.
With all that shine directed at the stars, it can be easy to gloss over all the other professionals involved, who may not have the name recognition that comes from that one big break. For the most part, though, they share the exact same degree of love for the craft, if not more.
Karl Campbell is one such notable – having come from a number of small acting roles in television and film, including a distinctly physical role in a scene opposite Jamie Foxx in Redemption and a part in Saw VI.
Now, the Jamaican born, Canadian living actor is hitting TIFF for his part in Hyena Road, which is pegged as a film that showcases the different perspectives of war, set in Afghanistan and directed by Canadian born Paul Gross.
TELL ME ABOUT THE MOMENT YOU KNEW YOU WANTED TO BECOME AN ACTOR. I was approached by an agent in a restaurant who said, ‘hey, they’re casting for an athletics movie and you have a great look, do you know how to play baseball?’ I just recently left university (on a baseball scholarship) and I was very good at the sport, so I went to an open audition where they were shooting other guys who could play, for the movie about Joe Torre, the then manager of the New York Yankees. So I went down, auditioned and I got a part as one of the players. A glorified extra. While on set, I saw the magic behind cinema.
ELABORATE A BIT MORE ABOUT THAT MAGIC YOU NOTICED. Watching TV, it looked very natural and looked like anyone could really do it, but then actually being on set and seeing some of the actors do their own personal rehearsals and getting into the zone before they actually get the scenes, while they were actually going through the emotions, doing it take after take after take, it made me realize that they have to have a lot of skill, a lot of knowledge and a lot of emotional stamina to do it over and over again, and it was very challenging. I saw the challenge in it, but I also saw the beauty of it, in seeing how the director was able to mold, shape and create the dynamics of the scene. Then looking at the screen after and seeing the result of the take – it was magical.
SO WHEN IT COMES TO THIS STORY. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE THE SIGNIFICANCE OF HYENA ROAD AND ITS APPROACH TOWARDS DEPICTING WAR? One of the things that I realized about this particular story and the whole significance of the conflict that’s going on in the Middle East is that there are smaller conflicts within a bigger conflict. In this particular story there’s three different stories going on all at the same time. So before I actually got involved in the project, paying attention to politics and watching the news, it gave me a certain perspective of what the conflict was about. Sometimes we kind of look at it from a good and evil sort of perspective, but I knew it was more than that … I was born in Jamaica so I always have a third world mentality of things, so I knew there was more to the picture … There was a really important message in the story. It had smaller conflicts and internal conflicts between some of the local characters and the bigger occupying power; they really had to understand the smaller conflicts in order to put their bigger conflict into perspective.
SO YOU PLAY A CHARACTER CALLED TANK. WITHOUT ASSUMING THAT HE’S SOME BADASS BASED ON THE NAME, DESCRIBE HIM AS A CHARACTER. Tank, he’s the mule. The big guy, the heavy lifter of the crew. It was great getting a chance to play that kind of character. It was fun because I was so absorbed in the whole process, the soldiering, that I completely forgot that we had to shoot a movie. We made it so real that it was just in our bones, right down to the core. Paul gave us a chance to really live the way the soldiers did. We spent a week out there on a base before we actually started filming … I have an utmost respect for what the soldiers do, honestly.
If I could be in a position of power to choose, I would definitely choose more of those roles rather than just being a big brute.
YOU SEEM TO PLAY INTIMIDATING CHARACTERS, WHILE IN EFFECT, YOU SEEM HUMBLE AND SOFT SPOKEN, ARE THESE THE ROLES THAT YOU INTENTIONALLY CHOOSE? A lot of it does have to do with the way I look and my body type. Some roles have the stereotype aspect to it, but I looked at it as a positive and embraced it in a positive manner … As I move forward and get bigger and better opportunities, I’ll be able to show more of what I can do and use my physicality and size to my advantage. This is what I was born with. I really can’t hide. I’m of course looking for the opportunity to play a character that has both because I do have both sides to me. But if I could be in a position of power to choose, I would definitely choose more of those roles rather than just being a big brute.
SO WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH DIRECTOR PAUL GROSS IN HYENA ROAD? It was an amazing experience to move up the ladder and get a chance to work with Canada’s elite of film. Paul, he’s been blazing a trail here in Canada for a long time … I’m very grateful and thankful that he gave me that opportunity. He was a very hands-on director. He got right in there. He wasn’t just on the camera; he’s acting in the film as well. He, in fact, went to Afghanistan and shot some of the footage, so as a director he was very involved. He lived and braved the whole experience as much as we did as an actor.
Getting a chance to travel the world extensively with Nelly Furtado has just taught me to be very open and to communicate.
I KNOW THAT YOU DO SOME WORK AS A BODYGUARD TO CELEBRITIES AND RAN A SECURITY COMPANY IN TORONTO. IN WHAT WAY DID YOU APPLY WHAT YOU EXPERIENCED THROUGH THAT TO SOME OF THE ROLES YOU PLAYED AS AN ACTOR? I’m still currently Nelly Furtado’s bodyguard. I’ve been working with Nelly for the past 15 years for pretty much her whole career. I characterize myself as the actor who is also the bodyguard as I have a lot of different skills … Getting a chance to travel the world extensively with Nelly has just taught me to be very open and to communicate. A lot of times in countries there are people that you’re working with that are speaking in a completely different language, but you still have to communicate your message to them. There’s no second chances when it comes to safety and security. You have to be on point; you have to deliver your message. So that’s something that I’ve learned to do throughout my career. It applies to acting, because when you’re working with a new actor and you’re recreating a scene, you really have to find ways to communicate. You’re communicating on all different levels, you got the verbal speech, but you also have the emotional and spiritual connection that you have to create to make the full dynamics of the scene.
NOW NOT A WHOLE LOT OF PEOPLE CAN SAY THAT THEY GOT MOCK PUNCHED BY JAMIE FOXX IN REDEMPTION. WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE WORKING IN A FILM LIKE THAT AND BEING ALONGSIDE HIM? He actually taught me a really valuable lesson. I did the audition for Vondie Curtis-Hall who directed the film and he liked my audition. I was very rough and loud, boisterous and when I got to the scene with Jamie, I delivered the line very loud since my character was meant to intimidate his and Jamie stopped for a second. He analyzed what I did and said, ‘hey, just between you and I, you’re a very big guy, your look and size already sends the message out, so we don’t have to do this as big, you’re actually taking your power away, go a little smaller,’ so I said okay. That’s Jamie Foxx; I’m not going to challenge him. I went with that, he loved it and he went with the emotion that he felt in that moment, and it just created a really nice dynamic. He needed that energy from me to work off of. He kicked me a little hard though (laughs).
You can’t just basically cater to the stereotypes that are imposed to find you. You have to be bigger and better than that. Be an open book, and that’s what I’m trying to do as an actor.
IT’S AN UNDERSTANDING THAT ACTING AND MAKING IT BIG IS A MARATHON FOR MOST PEOPLE RATHER THAN A SPRINT. WHAT KEEPS YOU MOTIVATED AS A PROFESSIONAL? It’s the true love of the craft. A painter who paints does so for the love of the craft. One day someone says to them, hey, you have a great painting; maybe we can put this painting in an art gallery. He’s going to love that opportunity, but the painter is not going to stop painting if his stuff doesn’t get into a gallery, he just paints. That’s the same thing for acting. I love it, and I love doing it.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO ADD? I love the fact that so many young people are getting involved in film. Being a Black artist, I believe that there are so many different stories and perspectives that we can paint, and that’s my goal. I really want to make a difference. If I sit back and just do nothing, then things will always be the same. We’ll have the same people in power who are going to dictate and decide … There are a lot of negative stereotypes about Black men that are out there, and sometimes unfortunately we do have to play those roles in film. But I think that all Black men have to have a mindset that they are renaissance men, and are worldly, and have to have an open perspective on things. You can’t just basically cater to the stereotypes that are imposed to find you. You have to be bigger and better than that. Be an open book, and that’s what I’m trying to do as an actor.