Wesley Snipes is ready to turn the page
Wesley Snipes is an angel. Or at least he currently looks like one, with rainbow wings sprouting from his back and a halo shining down on him.
No, the charismatic actor hasn't ascended to another level of being — at least not yet. Ironically, he's on a Zoom call from Sin City, where he's filming an upcoming comedy with Tiffany Haddish. "That's the Khepera," he says of the Egyptian sun god gracing his virtual background. "It's the ascension of consciousness in the soul. Once you come into knowledge of self, you open your chakras, and your consciousness and soul can rise and literally spread their wings, and then you can fly. You're free."
Freedom is something Snipes, 59, has long pursued: freedom from his tough upbringing; from typecasting; from narratives about him; from a perceived career decline; and, most importantly, freedom in the most literal sense. Now — 23 years after reaching a professional apex with Blade and eight years after being released from prison — the famously infamous '90s icon is set for his highest-profile new role in two decades, as Kevin Hart's co-lead in Netflix's thriller True Story (out Nov. 24). The limited series promises plenty of twists and turns, though it will take a lot to top those from Snipes' own life story.
"It's an interesting Wesley Snipes journey, I must say," the actor muses. "I enjoy me. I enjoy the discovery of my potential, my strengths, my weaknesses. And looking back on the things that I've accomplished, I've grown to appreciate assessing it from another perspective. Like, 'I guess it ain't so bad, boy!' It's been a kaleidoscope of experiences."
It has indeed. A native of the Bronx, Snipes says he grew up in a neighborhood that "looked like something out of Slumdog Millionaire." Continuing with the cinematic theme, he was briefly enrolled at the high school from Fame before studying theater in college with the likes of Ving Rhames and Stanley Tucci. Snipes' screen career kicked off at 23 with small credits including All My Children, Miami Vice, and the Goldie Hawn football comedy Wildcats. In 1987, he faced off against Michael Jackson in the Martin Scorsese-directed "Bad" music video, which led to his first string of major film roles. "If you were paying attention back then, you noticed Wesley instantly," says Eric Newman, the creator of True Story. "Even in supporting parts, like King of New York, you're like, 'Who's that?!' It was hard to believe there was a guy that handsome who was that good an actor."
Soon everyone was paying attention. The one-two punch of Spike Lee's romantic drama Jungle Fever and Mario Van Peebles' street classic New Jack City in 1991 began Snipes' almost decade long run as one of Hollywood's biggest attractions. As his friend and Dolemite Is My Name costar Eddie Murphy told EW in 2019, "Wesley would do everything: action, comedy, drama, drag."
That's no exaggeration. Before Snipes went through an extended action-hero phase, he was as versatile as they came, playing in a jazz band with Denzel Washington in Mo' Better Blues, hilariously hustling Woody Harrelson in White Men Can't Jump, gleefully going bad opposite Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man, and transforming into radiant drag queen Noxeema Jackson in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar ("The LGBTQ community loves Miss Noxeema," says Snipes).
His résumé speaks for itself, but Snipes paints himself as unaware of his work's impact back then. "If you become a champion, but you don't have a point of reference to other champions, you don't know you're a champion," he says, alluding to the era's scant number of Black A-listers. "I was always looking for the next opportunity to play with some skillset that I had, learn something I didn't know, and work with talent that I admired. I never looked at film as being a movie star. I wish I would have paid more attention to it."
The pinnacle came in 1998. Unable to bring Black Panther to the big screen, Snipes found his signature role in a different Marvel comic-book adaptation, as the titular vampire hunter in Blade. The dark and violent movie made $131 million at the box office worldwide and paved the way for our current era of superhero blockbusters. (Marvel would follow Blade with record-breaking X-Men and Spider-Man movies.) Snipes should have been hotter than ever, but — following the Blade sequels in 2002 and 2004 — his next seven projects were released straight to video in the U.S. "It's the David Hasselhoff school of business acting," Snipes jokes, arguing that his films were widely seen in foreign countries. "It's really trippy because I was making substantial money, so it made a lot of business sense to me."
Some of the actor's Stateside struggles can be traced to a reputation that Snipes believes was not well-earned: No matter who you listen to, the production of Blade: Trinity, the franchise's third and final installment, was troubled. After the film's underwhelming 2004 release, Snipes (also a producer) sued New Line Cinema and director David S. Goyer for failing to pay his full salary and cutting him out of the decision-making process. That drama paled in comparison to the tales from Trinity actor Patton Oswalt, who, in a 2012 A.V. Club interview, described Snipes' behavior as"f---ing crazy in a hilarious way." That allegedly included trying to strangle Goyer and communicating with the filmmaker only via Post-it notes signed "From Blade."(Snipes has flatly denied assaulting Goyer. The director hasn't confirmed or denied Oswalt's account, though he recently told The Hollywood Reporter, "I don't think anyone involved in that film had a good experience.")
"I hear the rumors where they say, 'Oh, he's difficult,'" says Snipes. "Difficult for what? Asking who? You could have asked Sean Connery, 'What was it like to work with Wesley Snipes?' Ask Robert De Niro. The list goes on. And they'll tell you the real deal. They don't talk to them. They talk to Canadian comedians!" (Oswalt, who is a comedian, was born and raised in Virginia, for what it's worth.)
Asked why he thinks it's so easy for people to believe what's said about him, Snipes doesn't blink. "Because I'm Black," he says matter-of-factly, letting the response breathe for a moment. "In America, Black guys are considered a threat. Dark-skinned Black guys are considered more of a threat. And you put the dark-skinned Black guy in action, people can't separate the two. A producer might say, 'What happens if Wesley gets upset? He's a martial artist, s---, he might snap and kick my ass!' " The fifth-degree black belt cracks that if it were George Clooney in the same situation, the producer would say, "Buy a couple cases of his tequila and he'll be fine."
But chatter about Snipes' on-set behavior quickly became the least of his problems. After a lengthy legal battle over unpaid taxes, a judge sentenced Snipes to three years in prison and fined him up to $5 million. Suddenly, Passenger 57 was Inmate 43355-018. The actor says 28 months in a northern Pennsylvania federal prison brought him clarity — and a common thread in the "many, many, many" acting opportunities that awaited him upon his release in 2013. "I've got a stack that stands probably six feet of scripts that have to do with some kind of prison theme," shares Snipes, sounding a bit bemused. "'He was a lawyer in prison.' 'They were a musical group who hit it big, but none of them ever got out of jail.' They even sent me a clown! The clown was a serial killer — but he used to be a lawyer! When they discover him, of course he's locked up. I said, 'What do they think, that I'm an expert on this?' "
Snipes has admitted he wasn't an "innocent bystander" in the crimes, but he's not fond of discussing the specifics and subsequent lost years. "I've been past it," he says. "Interviewers find interest in things that happened 10, 20 years ago. We're moving forward. We don't even think about that stuff anymore. The only ones who bring it up are journalists and people…what do they call them, trolls?"
The best way to change the conversation, then, is to give people something else to talk about. With those prison scripts collecting dust, Snipes started his return to the screen slowly — his own choice, he says — highlighted by a reunion with Spike Lee for the little-seen Chi-Raq, as well as a forgettable nine episodes on the short-lived NBC procedural The Player, and a meta appearance in the geezer action flick The Expendables 3. Enter Eddie Murphy — like Snipes, he was looking for a bounce-back after some lean years.
"Wesley is bananas," Murphy says with a laugh. "I thought it was inspired casting to put him in [Dolemite Is My Name], and we were lucky to get him. And he just cracked it out of the f---ing park." Snipes doesn't show up until halfway through the Rudy Ray Moore biopic, playing blaxploitation actor and director D'Urville Martin, but he owns the movie from the minute he arrives. "It's this performance where you remember, 'Oh yeah, Wesley used to be this guy that we would be entertained by outside of slicing zombies in half,'" Dolemite director Craig Brewer told EW in 2019. "Suddenly I was like, 'Oh yeah, Mo' Better Blues. Oh yeah, White Men Can't Jump. Oh yeah, Major League.'"
Brewer and Murphy were so impressed that they cast Snipes, who originally auditioned for 1988's Coming to America, in the long-awaited sequel, Coming 2 America, which broke streaming records for Amazon Prime Video earlier this year. Snipes once again delivered big laughs, this time as the eccentric African dictator General Izzi. The steady stream of celebrated work evokes a certain word, which Snipes prefers not to use. "Don't call it a comeback, I been here for years," he quips, quoting LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out." "To me, it's like the second chapter."
True Story is part of that next chapter. The seven-episode series stars Kevin Hart as Kid, a famous comedian who returns home to Philadelphia and reunites with his dependent older brother, Carlton (Snipes). The night goes horribly wrong and could cost both of them everything. "I thought, 'Who would be in the Scorsese version of this?'" says True Story's Eric Newman, who'd previously attempted to cast Snipes on his addictive Netflix crime drama Narcos. "Wesley brought a gravity to everything. He's a guy who carries with him a life lived."
He also arrived with dramatic bona fides that comedy rock star Hart aspires to. Snipes, who admits to initially thinking the series was going for a Curb Your Enthusiasm-like tone, recalls telling Hart, "I don't know if you can handle the drama. When I come, I come correct. We're not coming to pull punches. So if you want to go for it, then I want to give you my support." Hart feels like he got even more: "I can't put words to it," he told EW this summer. "I grew up emulating Wesley, and the fact that now that's my brother, my friend, my costar — it's everything."
Snipes sees it as "part of my charge and responsibility" to carry the torch for Black actors and continue to light the way for those who follow. But as he's learned, there's no clear playbook. "Some people say, 'When you became richer, more famous, you changed,'" he explains. "Hell yeah, you better change! If you don't change, you're going to have a problem, a lot of problems. Everybody else around you has to change too."
These days, those around Snipes include his wife, his five children, and his clique. The Daywalker Klique, to be specific. In what sounds like his version of the Illuminati, he's founded a movement that, contrary to its name, doesn't seem to exist out in the open. (Blade was considered a "daywalker" because, as a half-vampire, he wasn't affected by the sun.) "We define Daywalkers as multitalented, -hyphenated individuals," says Snipes, who used "Daywalker-WS" as his Zoom screen name for this interview. Without identifying any members, he hints that the Klique includes everyone from "the first people to walk in space" to citizens abroad who use "their incredible talents to better human life." The dream? The Daywalker Academy. "We build a school, train them, mine them, and maybe they'll work for us."
To hear Snipes tell it, he might be the Most Interesting Man in the World. A few of the fascinating — but not fully elaborated upon — details of his current life include 4 a.m. calls to Geneva, a Daywalker partnership with NASA, movie brainstorms with Harrelson and Jackie Chan, YouTube workouts with Manny Pacquiao, being "heavy in the technology space," and plans to redefine the action genre.
"If you look at social media, when they talk about martial arts actors, very rarely will they include me, which I find quite peculiar," says Snipes, suggesting it's because he got his start in theater. "People have never really seen what I can do as a martial artist. I look forward to demonstrating some of my body mastery with future films."
Is he putting Marvel on notice? It seems that way. While Snipes says he has no issue with the upcoming Blade reboot starring Mahershala Ali, he's preparing to "put some hurt on Blade" with what he's got in the works (again, not fully elaborated upon). "I don't need a job — I create jobs," he says. "I don't feel any loss in not working with [Marvel]. Blade was white-belt stuff. We're black belts now."