During a sweltering summer in New York City, 13-year-old Mister’s (Brooks) hard-living mother (Hudson) is apprehended by the police, leaving the boy and nine-year-old Pete (Dizon) alone to forage for food while dodging Child Protective Services and the destructive scenarios of the Brooklyn projects. Faced with more than any child can be expected to bear, the resourceful Mister nevertheless feels he is an unstoppable force against seemingly unmovable obstacles. But what really keeps the pair in the survival game is much more Mister’s vulnerability than his larger-than-life attitude.
“The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” in selected theaters October 11th via Codeblack Films and Lionsgate, is a beautifully observed and tremendously moving film about salvation through friendship and the way transformation sometimes can happen just by holding on long enough. Director George Tillman, Jr draws indelible performances from a fantastic cast, which includes Jordin Sparks, Golden Globe® and Primetime Emmy® Award winner Jeffrey Wright, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Anthony Mackie, and Golden Globe® and Academy Award® winner Jennifer Hudson (Supporting Actress, Dreamgirls, 2006), all led by Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon in stunning breakout performances as Mister and Pete. The film also features new music (listen above) by Alicia Keys who is also executive producer of the film.
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is easily one of the best films released this year. The entire cast does an incredible job with a great story. Danielle from UrbanBridgez.com was given the opportunity to participate in the L.A. Press Day with the cast. We speak with the films two young stars Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon, who discuss their roles in the film, how they got into acting, lessons learned while filming, advice for other young actors and much more. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson speaks on her research for her role, if she’ll ever get a tattoo like her character, her worst audition, what makes a good mom and more. And last American Idol winner Jordin Sparks speaks on her favorite scene in the film, her deleted scenes and why she’s glad they were, working with alum AI contestant Jennifer Hudson, her next role on CSI and she breaks new album news!
Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon
UrbanBridgez.com: There were a lot of heavy moments in the movie. What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
Skylan Brooks: I speak [in] a lot of scenes. I would have more than one emotional scene and then the next scene wouldn’t be as emotional…it would be like a “rocking” out scene. I’d be happy or mad and then I’d have to go to the sad, emotional place. I speak for everything, actually. If I had to pick the hardest [scene to do]…there was a few scenes that didn’t make it because they had to cut the movie a little bit short. One of those scenes was where I’m in a library and Alice [played by Jordin Sparks], she actually dies. They revised it. I’m in a library and I’m crying. I’m bawling tears. I’m just, Wow! Why did she have to go that route. That was one of my hardest scenes [to do.]
Ethan Dixon: For me, I think it was when I see my mom [getting yelled at by a drug dealer on the street]. That was one of the hardest scenes for me. That was kind of intense.
UrbanBridgez.com: Skylan, do you think your character really wanted to pursue acting or was it more about him wanting to escape his harsh reality?
Skylan Brooks: I think it’s at the same level of both. At first, it’s that wanting to escape because his mom is doing so much [drugs] now and it’s spiraling out of control and now that she’s actually gone, now he just wants to focus on acting and maybe that will be his escape. It’s a formula of both. He’s just figuring out a way to work it out in his head.
UrbanBridgez.com: Do you think Mister continues to pursue acting even after things turn around for him?
Skylan Brooks: Yea, he’ll definitely continue.
UrbanBridgez.com: Skylan, what was it like working with Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson? Did she give you any advice about your career?
Skylan Brooks: We talked quite a bit. It was more off set than on set because she was in her character, [who was] very strong. Jennifer was the powerhouse on set and she always had this demeanor and she was always in that character. I was afraid of her, at first. She kept a straight face and she was staring at me [during filming] and I was like, Umm, next line? In wanted me to become definitely on top of things—more on top than I already was. She was just setting the bar.
UrbanBridgez.com: How many takes were there for the big kiss between you and Jordin?
Skylan Brooks: [laughs]
Ethan Dizon: First of all, I can say that even when they got the right take, George was like, “Want to do that again?”
Skylan Brooks: You he made me! I think it was around 10 or 12 [takes]. I tried to make it perfect. I think I did pretty good.
UrbanBridgez.com: How difficult was it for you to act and pretend that you had a crush on Jordin Sparks?
Skylan Brooks: It wasn’t hard! [laughs] After a while, it got easier. When I first met her, George had us go to the apartment where we were shooting our home scenes—Ethan was sitting out in the living room—and he brought me and Jordin into the room and we had to do the whole chemistry thing to get closer. That was quite scary. I was nervous then! Then, I got way nervous when we actually had to do the scene weeks later and it’s getting close to the end of the movie—almost done!—and I freak out!
Ethan Dizon: I quote him when I say, “I gotta take a minute before I do this scene.”
…On how they got into acting?
Ethan Dizon: I started when I was 2 years old in commercials. Then, I got a recurring role on How I Met Your Mother when I was 6. And then I started doing other TV shows, like Sullivan & Son and Awkward and Grey’s Anatomy. Now, I’ve done three movies: this movie [Mister & Pete], and a movie called Bad Words with Jason Bateman, and Get a Job with Anna Kendrick Bryan Cranston.
Sylan Brooks: I started [acting] when I was about 5, and I really got into it when I was 8. My mom took me to all kinds of different workshops, and my dad decided—because [my mom] had to do something else—to further it with me. I started doing a whole bunch of commercials, you know, [for] Target. I’ve done certain movies…Our Family Wedding, General Education, you know, student films. That’s how it really started for me.
…On what about their characters they liked?
Skylan Brooks: For me, it was…I liked everything about [the character]. Me and Mister had acting in common. That just started off really well. I think that wanting to become an actor and his perseverance just really started to resonate. There’s a lot of cursing for my character—more than my mom would want. My mom and me had a conversation with my dad about the cursing. They decided that only for this [project] was it OK [to curse].
Ethan Dizon: For me, when I read the script, [I thought that] Pete was kind of like me. He’s kind of shy. He asks a lot of questions. But he really just wants someone he can love and trust and he finds that in Mister.
…On how much time they had prior to filming to get to know each other & did they become friends during the movie?
Skylan Brooks: We were friends just from the start in chemistry reads.
Ethan Dizon: We had too much fun with each other over the [course of] filming.
…On meeting kids whose lives are similar to their characters’ in the movie?
Skylan Brooks: Yea, we did. We got a chance to meet kids that actually went through the same things, like the drug addiction. Before we went to New York, we got a chance to go to another facility out here [in Los Angeles] called Homeboy Industries.
Ethan Dizon: We met Fabian who is the drug counselor at Homeboy Industries and he shared his story about how his dad did drugs and how that affected his whole family.
Skylan Brooks: And he showed us how he connected to art to get away from the struggle and addiction.
…On lessons they learned from the kids?
Ethan Dizon: I learned that I need to be more grateful for what I have because not as many kids are as fortunate as us.
Skylan Brooks: That’s the big thing that came out of it for me to—to be grateful for what I have now and for when I do get bigger things, I’m just thankful for when I get it.
…On the scene with the “hamster bowling” and many takes that scene took to film?
Ethan Dizon: It was so much fun! That one scene where it looks like the [hamster ball] is going straight, it was actually a combination of six or seven scenes where the hamster is going boom into the wall, and we’re just acting like it’s going straight.
…On what was one of the things that they learned from the director of Mister & Pete, George Tillman, Jr?
Skylan Brooks: Well, for me, it was just…wow, so many of the things he told us, we still follow right now. I don’t know what to pick.
Ethan Dizon: George told us that this was our movie, and he said, “If there’s any a time where you feel like that take wasn’t good enough and you wanted to do it again, just tell us.” And then he would reset the whole thing. Also, when I grow up, I kinda want to be a director someday, so I kinda learned from him. I make my own movies sometimes with my brothers. I cast my brothers in [my movies.] I’m just working hard to follow my dreams. Don’t give up!
…On if Ethan, would cast Skylan in one of his films?
Ethan Dizon: Definitely! He wouldn’t even have to audition!
Skylan Brooks: Thank you, man!
…On how he memorized the intense monologues in the film.
Skylan Brooks: I ask myself the same thing! How did I do that? [laughs] It was a lot of practice. It was just me sitting all day doing scripts. Between homework and scripts, I would have to balance out the time. Me and Ethan went through boot camp for the film. Our coach would help us with everything except homework! It was like the connection with the words and Mister just helped me further my progression with learning lines. I think really just me sticking to it. It was just all day, really going over them and feeling the words and what they meant to him.
…On which actors would they love to work with?
Ethan Dizon: I’d like to work with Harrison Ford. I like all of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies.
Skylan Brooks: I’ve always like Tom Cruise. There are so many others I’d like to work with. Eddie Murphy is the bomb! Will Smith…so many more.
…On if he actually watched Fargo, being his character does a monologue from the film?
Skylan Brooks: No, I didn’t get a chance to watch it. George was telling me yesterday that Steve Buscemi actually watched the [Mister & Pete] at the New York screening, so he saw my impersonation of him. [George told me that] he said, “He had so much passion!” I was like, For real? He said that? Wow I actually did pretty good! I thought [the impersonation] I did terrible, personally. I did the best I could on that. It was challenging, but it was fun.
…On their favorite part of filming?
Skylan Brooks: Everything, to me, personally!
Ethan Dizon: My favorite part was just…probably being off set when we were just chatting with each other after all the scenes.
Skylan Brooks: We were with each other all the time—every day.
…On what types of films they want to do in the future?
Skylan Brooks: I like comedy. I like making people laugh.
Ethan Dizon: I like—not physical comedy—but maybe like expressive comedy like with your facial expressions. I want to do action movies someday.
Skylan Brooks: I want to do action movies, too!
…On what advice they have for girls and boys who want to get into acting?
Ethan Dizon: Don’t give up even when you’re not booking [jobs]. Just try your hardest. Always try to get better. Maybe study some of your favorite actors to see how they do it.
Skylan Brooks: I definitely agree on that. Definitely [have] perseverance. There’s always a job for you. There’s tons of rejection—don’t eve think about it. There’s always one job for you and that job will lead to something else and something else. If it’s meant for you, it’s meant for you.
UrbanBridgez.com: Did your physical transformation satisfy an old urge to want to get a tattoo?
Jennifer Hudson: Unfortunately, no. I would never get a tattoo—EVER in my life. I don’t mind those that have them, but I would never do that. It was interesting to experience [to morph into Gloria] because I literally had to walk around [for] days with it on because it obviously takes a while to put on. Even when my son saw me, he’s like, “What is that on your neck, mommy?”
UrbanBridgez.com: So what did Lisa say that helped make that foreign lifestyle click for you?
Jennifer Hudson: I wanted someone that I could attach myself to or care about because I had nothing to draw from. So, the next best thing is to find someone you can attach yourself to, and tell their story. Of all the stories that I heard, I thought, This one right here. I loved [Lisa]. She’s a character. Her story was interesting and she was so open and so honest. It just came flowing. I was like, She’s definitely the one. So she literally shadowed me and walked me through everything. I actually took her with me to the screening in New York.
…On what she enjoyed about having to physically transform herself for Mister & Pete?
Jennifer Hudson: Creating what’s real, and I love that because that was important for me to do. You can’t pretty up something like that. That’s part of the story, which is to make it real and to create this character. Even reading the script, [Gloria] was coming to me as I was reading it. I’m like, OK! I know what my Gloria looks like. Then, I talked to the director on the phone. He was a little afraid. He was like, “I don’t know if I can tell Jennifer [how I want the character to look like] or not.” As he was telling me his ideas for the character, he’s like, “And I see her with tattoos.” I’m like, Yea! Yea! I see her with tattoos, too!” It just seems like [the transformation] was necessary for [Gloria]. Her look is a huge part of the story.
…On how did her relationship with her son impact her approach to her character?
Jennifer Hudson: That was funny because, for him, he could tell the difference in me. When I would be rehearsing for the role, he’s like, “Mommy, don’t act like that. You’re scaring me.” It was the furthest thing from his mother. I think it was helpful, too, because, although Gloria wasn’t necessarily a good mom, she was still a mom and I’m a mom. I feel like that was the only thing that was similar about us: we’re both moms and we have sons.
…On how she tapped into the intense emotions for her performance?
Jennifer Hudson: I always say, I don’t act. I react. Being in that moment, what would you do? There were [scenes] when it was a little difficult, especially the scene when I had to smack [Mister]. I’m like, This is somebody’s child! And his mother is sitting up there. I’m so sorry that I smacked your son! I did apologize because, at the end of the day, it’s still a child. At times, it kinda got a little difficult because I am a mother, too, and I don’t want to smack nobody’s child. [laughs]
…On if there were certain things about her junkie character that she didn’t want to do?
Jennifer Hudson: Yes! I mean, it was all terrifying. I was dreading it down to the day of filming. It was like, Ooo! I gotta film this character like…y’all sure you want to do this? Again, it’s like taking a leap and that was part of my reason for [taking the role] because I want to expand myself into other things.
…On research she did for the role?
Jennifer Hudson: I went to a rehabilitation center several times and sat and listened to I don’t know how many stories, but I thought the ladies were so brave to tell a complete stranger their story. It was there that I found the lady who actually coached me through the role, Lisa, because I had nothing to pull from. I’ve been sober my entire life. I’ve never had a drink or any of that, so normally as an actor you have something to pull from, from within, but in this case, literally, I’m sitting there thinking, I have nothing to connect to! The women were telling their stories like, “You know what it’s like when you’re drunk or your high.” And I’m like, No…
…On how much time she had to do the role of Gloria justice?
Jennifer Hudson: We didn’t have much time because it was a very busy time, at the time. But the majority of the time that we had to prepare, was sitting with Lisa, who was the ex-heroine addict, and learning every detail—George would be there—and also having her on the set. That’s what I love about [George’s] style of directing. He would just roll the camera and say, “Give me this” or “Give it to me again.” I love that approach because there was not a lot of time. It’s like, “OK! We’re rolling. Let’s make every reel count.”
..On what’s her worst audition? How did she overcome it?
Jennifer Hudson: It was probably for Dreamgirls. It was my first audition for the role. They sent the sheet music for “And I Am Telling You,” but they didn’t send all of the music. There are different versions of the song, but at the time, I didn’t know that. When I got to the audition, I’m prepared to sing my music, so I thought! I hear another young lady in the room and she’s singing a different version of the song. I’m like, Wait a minute! We’re here for the same thing. Why is she singing something else? It turns out, they missed some of the sheet music and didn’t send me all of the music. I almost completely blew my chances of getting the role and it wasn’t even my fault. But I was like, No, I’m going to be professional and I’m not going to complain about it. I’m going to go in there and use what I have. It didn’t work out great at all. But, fortunately, somehow they found out that I didn’t get all the sheet music. And they called me back again to give a whole other audition for the role. That could’ve been a really big disaster.
…On what kinds of scripts she has been getting since winning her Oscar?
Jennifer Hudson: You get a bit of everything, but [it’s important] not to get caught up in that. As soon as I walk on set, it’s like, Look! Yes, I won an Oscar for my first role, but that does not mean I know everything. I am here to learn. It comes with a certain expectancy. I don’t really like to have that on my shoulders. I pick my roles by what I’m passionate more so than if I can win an award off of it. It’s not about that, it’s about the art and the love for it, and I’m just grateful to be able to do what I love.
…On what she learned from the set of Mister & Pete?
Jennifer Hudson: Being able to trust myself more as far as acting. With singing, I don’t even think about it. It’s like, OK, Was I singing? I didn’t know I was singing. It just happens. Whereas in acting, I might second-guess myself three or four times over. The director from Winnie taught me that your instincts are always dead on. Never second-guess them. Always trust them. I’m finding my way to trust my instincts more and not be so pressed about it, or second-guess myself.
…On playing a not-so-good mom in this film. For her, what’s the key to being a good mom?
Jennifer Hudson: Be the complete opposite of Gloria. That’s what [the role] taught me. It made me appreciate my reality and my son and our relationship that much more. It makes you want to step your game up as a parent—to be a better parent.
UrbanBridgez.com: What’s your favorite scene in the movie?
Jordin Sparks: Well, I do think the scene where [Mister] kisses me…it’s definitely…nobody expects it. In the movie, with everything [the boys] go through, you don’t expect it. It’s definitely a light spot in the movie. You’re laughing and think, “Yay!” And then it goes back to this reality they have to deal with.
…On the kiss between her and Mister.
Jordin Sparks: All I remember is that Skylan [Brooks] was really nervous and I was really nervous. I’ve never kissed a 13-year-old boy before. But in the context of the film, it is very sweet and very adorable. But I just remember both of us kind of avoiding the subject. We didn’t want to talk about it. We did all the film and we did everything we had to do that day and then we kind of just were like, “OK, here it comes!” But it was really sweet and I think it really comes across as [Mister] having a crush on Alice. Throughout the movie, the boys go through so much and you just are rooting for them to have something good come into their life, so it’s a bright spot in the film.
…On how many takes there were?
Jordin Sparks: That I don’t remember, but it was [at least] a couple takes. [laughs] We had to get the right amount of like what it had to be. It couldn’t really be a full-on smooshed faced kiss. And it really couldn’t just be a peck and leave. It had to be perfect, so it was a couple of takes. But I must say, I think Skylan is my favorite leading man so far!
…On what she liked about the script when she first read it?
Jordin Sparks: I really loved the grittiness of the film. I loved that the writer [Michael Starrbury] wasn’t scared to put certain things in the film and wasn’t scared to have these characters experience these certain things. And especially them being kids—some adults couldn’t handle some of the stuff they have to go through. It was different to read it like that. I was on a plane when I was reading it. I could not even hold the tears back. I was bawling on my Southwest flight. [laughs] Flight attendants were looking at me like I was crazy. I was like, Just forget about me over here! But I really loved it. It was just a beautiful story. It really grabbed at my heartstrings and I really loved just everything that happened. They’re fighting and fighting and they’re really going through all of this stuff and you really want it to be like movies that it’s like OK you have characters; they going through something tragic; everything is OK in the end. The movie’s not like that. It’s different. It’s very much real life because not everybody has a happy ending and not everybody gets the resolve or the resolution of characters coming back together and forgiving each other, or actually making it through things. I thought that was really great because it’s definitely real life and kids go through that.
…On bringing her and fellow American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson together.
Jordin Sparks: Here’s a story people don’t know: when I was 14, I actually went to the third season of American Idol. I watched Jennifer Hudson live on stage. I watched the whole thing…George Huff…Jasmine Trias…everybody! I was obsessed. I don’t know where it is, but I do have a picture with Jennifer [when I was 14.] Backstage at Idol, sometimes there are a few audience members who can wait outside and get autographs on your ticket. I still have the ticket. I’m a scrapbooker, so I keep little things like that and I put them in books. It has everyone’s signature on it, and I have a picture with Randy [Jackson] and I have a picture George [Huff] and I have a picture with Jennifer. And I’m just this bare-faced [girl] with a humongous smile. I didn’t know how to control my smile then, so it’s just completely taking up my whole face. I was so excited.
…On her thoughts on Jennifer’s incredible journey post-Idol?
Jordin Sparks: Jennifer is just so talented. It’s amazing to see what she’s done and the path’s she taken. We’ve done a couple of events together and I’ve seen her, and she’s always been so kind to me. She’s very sweet and I’m really happy for everything that’s going on for her, too.
…On what it was like working with Jennifer on Mister & Pete?
Jordin Sparks: To be able to work with her, was a lot of fun. I didn’t actually have any scenes with her because Alice’s character is more involved with the boys and Jennifer’s character is taken away by the time you get introduced to me, really. So, I filmed all my stuff and I left, and the next day she came in and I didn’t even get to see her. I don’t even know if she remembers meeting me when I was 14 years old. I should probably ask her next time.
…On what she thinks of Jennifer’s performance?
Jordin Sparks: Jennifer…you’ve never seen her like [how she is in the movie] before. I saw it last night and I was just like, Whoa! [Her performance] was very in your face, very real, very gritty. Also, the dynamic between Mister and Jennifer’s character, it gets a little uncomfortable sometimes because it is her child and at the same time, he can’t help but love his mom even though he’s a screw-up. And she can’t help but love him even though she gets annoyed that he keeps bothering her about getting a job. There are a lot of real-life situations like that. And little Ethan, too, he is just so cute. He is really funny and cute without even trying to be.
…On how she feels about the talented young stars who play Mister and Pete?
Jordin Sparks: Skylan and Ethan—everyone has to remember their names because I am so honored I even got to be in a film with them because in the next few years, those boys are going to blow up! They’re going to be…oh my gosh! This is going to make me emotional because I’m so attached to them. I’m just so proud of them!
…On her character’s deleted scenes.
Jordin Sparks: It’s all about how you edit the film, and I love how they edited it. The scene in the beginning where you see me with the man comes out of the building—that’s the guy that’s paying for all my stuff and I’m his side piece, I guess [laughs], and he’s married and he has kids and he comes out and he pretty much—he’s very controlling. He’s a control freak. The scene where my phone buzzes [while] I’m giving Mister the bag [filled with DVDs], it’s the guy texting me like, “I’m on my way.” So, apparently I’m not allowed to have friends at the apartment and different things like that. There’s this whole controlling aspect of that character. And when I say that I’m going to tell him, “No” and “I’m leaving,” what happened in the original script is that I leave. I’m like, I’ll be back. I’ll be back. I promise. And [the boys] are like, “Is she coming back? Is she coming back?” So Mister goes to find me to ask for help, and he comes [to the library] and he asks for Alice. The lady hands him a newspaper and it says, “Young Girl Shot By Abusive Boyfriend.” So you wouldn’t really see me die anyway if it was still in the edit, but he goes through so much in the film…to have me die, it [would’ve been] too heavy. I’m absolutely good with the edit.
…On what kinds of scripts she’s been getting sent lately?
Jordin Sparks: I’ve actually been really lucky. As a singer, trying to break into the acting side and hone that side of my artistry, sometimes you can get pigeonholed. All you get is musical roles or something that has to do with either being in the church or trying to make it in Hollywood or something like that. But I’ve been really lucky, I’ve gotten anywhere from romantic comedies to Sci-Fi craziness to films that I just finished, which one is an indie film where I am a preacher’s daughter, but I don’t sing, and then the other one is called Left Behind with Nicolas Cage, which is about the Rapture. So, I’ve gotten a whole bunch of different opportunities and that’s been really fun to see the differences. I’m actually working on CSI. I’m super excited!
…On her role she plays on CSI?
Jordin Sparks: I play a teacher who is a suspect and also a victim. It’s only one episode. CSI has been one of my favorite shows since I can remember. Before Idol, I had all the box set DVDs and I would watch them all the time. I’ve always been interested in shows like that, that have to do with the psychology of people—why people do the things they do. I love Criminal Minds. I love Hoarders. I love Intervention. I love that stuff! The opportunity came up to audition [for CSI] and I was like, You just tell me when and where, and I will be there. I’m really excited that they liked me and I get to go and do it. I think it should air some time in November.
…On how much time she’s devoting to acting versus singing these days?
Jordin Sparks: Well, let me be just completely honest here. I have been pushing and pushing and pushing for music to happen. And, honestly, God has just been opening doors for me in the acting side. I’m like, But I really want to do music! And He’s like, “Haha! Here’s CSI. And haha, here’s everything else.” I’m very happy. I’m in a really good place in my life right now. I’m just so in awe of everything that I get to do. To be able to do this other side of my artistry, it’s totally different. It’s slightly outside of my comfort zone. Now that I’ve done it a couple of times, it’s a little bit easier. But I’m still like, Am I making the right call? Is this what the director wants? It’s been so fun to experience that and learn something new and really push myself. But music is definitely my lifeline. If I woke up tomorrow and I couldn’t sing, I don’t what I would do.
…On when we can we expect new music from her?
Jordin Sparks: I have the album finished. Although, now, it’s going to open to new songs [that] come up. I’m going to record them if they’re amazing, and if I think of something to write—that process never really ends. As a songwriter and musician, you’re always becoming inspired and new things happen all the time. . I’m hoping that—if I have time at the beginning of the year—to get a single out [then] because I have it done and I have it ready. I’m just ready to launch it. I just have to figure out the timing. Everything is all about timing.
…On why she thinks it’s important that films, like Mister & Pete, get made?
Jordin Sparks: I think it’s important to bring us back down to Earth and who we are and the bare essentials of what we humans do. When we need to survive, we do whatever it takes. I love going to romantic comedies and thinking that would never happen. But it’s great to have stories where you get caught up in the film and [think], “That can happen to anyone at anytime!” or “That’s happening now!” There are kids everywhere all over that are staying with friends for a little while until their moms get back. Maybe their friends don’t necessarily know. There are kids that are by themselves all the time. Granted, there are some kids that have run off by choice. But there are a lot of kids our there and a lot people out there who don’t have a choice.
…On what she wants people to walk away with after watching this film?
Jordin Spakrs: No matter how dark things seem, there’s always tomorrow. The sun is always going to rise again. There is always going to be a silver lining. And just to persevere. I think that to get those types of things engrained in people as they’re watching a movie is great. It may not be able to happen all the time because it is a heavy film. I couldn’t handle watching those types of films all the time, but it is important to have them made so that every once and a while, you sit down and [think]. “Yea, that’s life.”
About the Production
In late 2008, as the great recession began to sweep across the country claiming jobs, homes and retirement funds, screenwriter Michael Starrbury began to formulate the early ideas of a new script which honed in on the fact that some things never seem to change for certain classes of people. The poor remain poor regardless of economic and political shifts.
“I wanted to write a story about a kid who didn’t want to become the product of his environment,” said Starrbury. “I had this idea about a kid who wanted more and wasn’t content in his current circumstances.”
Starrbury began to examine all of the emotional and psychological factors, not to mention the social obstacles, that inevitably keep people stuck in a particular place in society. The result of Starrbury’s exploration became THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE, which follows two young boys in a Brooklyn housing project whose mothers have abandoned them. The character of “Mister” is older and more aware of the realities of their situation, and reluctantly takes the younger “Pete” under his wing as they struggle to make it through a long summer in Brooklyn without any food, income or air conditioning. The script was written with humor and pathos and strove to avoid clichés, pity and fairy tale endings.
The screenplay landed on a pile of scripts at the office of renowned director, George Tillman, Jr., who had explored a diverse array of contemporary African American characters and stories in films like Soul Food, Man of Honor and Notorious, but had never fully delved into the culture and psyche of life for individuals living in the projects. The script arrived on Tillman’s desk on a Friday and by Monday Tillman called Starrbury and began a conversation that would continue over the next three years. They shared similar reference points and both had spent a significant amount of time in the projects. Starrbury lived in the projects in Hillside Projects in Milwaukee, and Tillman spent a lot of time with his grandmother who lived in the Lapham Projects directly across the street from where Starrbury lived.
“Michael’s script came along at exactly the right time,” said Tillman. “After making a couple of big budget films, I was looking to get back to basics, have more creative control and was looking for a story that was heartwarming, emotional, but honest at the same time. With MISTER & PETE, I was fascinated that the story was told from a kid’s point of view and was drawn to the universal theme of friendship— how we all need other people in our lives to survive.”
All films come with their own set of unique challenges—this script had two major ones. One, this emotionally complex story hinges on two lead characters under the age of 13. And two, the film had to be shot over a summer in New York so the two young actors could work a consecutive eight hour day without interfering with their education. Tillman initially started trying to take MISTER & PETE through the traditional studio system, but did not want to compromise any of the integrity of Starrbury’s script. When Tillman reached out to iDeal Partners, an independent production company in New York City, they immediately fell in love with the material, optioned the screenplay and committed to making the film. After auditioning several hundred kids for the roles of Mister and Pete, Tillman knew that he had found the perfect complements in Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon. Producer Rachel Cohen discovered Skylan Brooks after he caught her attention in a short film he did in 2010. And Ethan Dizon came courtesy of LA Casting.
“After I cast Skylan and Ethan,” said Tillman, “I saw this film could be a real possibility and that kept the fire going to find the additional resources.” Tillman brought Skylan in three more times to audition for the demanding role, which required the actor to appear in 157 scenes.
“Skylan had the quality of being a leader, but was still very much a kid,” said Tillman. “He’s from South Central Los Angeles, which allowed him to see his share of tough things growing up.” Tillman needed to form a partnership with the young actor because the success of the movie rested on that performance.
“I needed to direct him like I would an adult,” said Tillman. However, the film would take two more years of development before it moved into production. Tillman worried that by the time cameras would roll (which finally occurred in 2012), Skylan and Ethan would appear too old for the roles. Fortunately the actors stayed proportionate to each other’s height and their looks did not change significantly.
Starrbury was inspired by Tillman’s determination to get the movie made. “It’s amazing to seewhat happens when he takes a project on,” said Starrbury. “No matter how long it takes, he’ll see it through. And that’s really admirable.”
Tillman cast the rest of the ensemble with “pros”, or as he describes, “well-known actors who could disappear into these roles from both an emotional and physical standpoint.” In the role of “Gloria,” Mister’s drug-addicted mother, Tillman was looking for an actress that you wouldn’t expect in the role … someone that would surprise you and bring something unexpected to the part. Tillman then sought out Academy Award®-winning actress Jennifer Hudson for the role. “Jennifer Hudson went full tilt for this role,” said Tillman. “Many parts like this are often cliché, but Jennifer brought a reality to it that was refreshing. She worked with many addiction specialists to help prepare for the performance and that helped create this interesting reality.” Beyond her on-screen commitment, Tillman was impressed by Hudson’s passion for the project as she was the first major star to sign on to the film and see it through its end.
“When I wrote the part of Gloria,” said Starrbury, “I didn’t want this kind of mother-son relationship where there was this gushing, ‘I-love-you-no-matter-what-you-do- kind of love.’ The characters have difficulty in expressing love to one another. It’s very clear Mister loves his mom, but he’s becoming more aware of her flaws. Instead of outwardly expressing that he loves her, he lays out a newspaper and circles the wanted ads.”
“A larger theme that plays throughout the film is the fear of abandonment,” said Tillman. “All of the characters wrestle with that. You see it with Jennifer Hudson’s character and Ethan’s character. Mister refuses to be abandoned and that’s why he stays in the apartment believing his mother is coming back.”
Tillman auditioned a number of actresses for the other female lead of “Alice.” Actress Jordin Sparks happened to audition with Skylan Brooks—and their chemistry was instant. “The whole movie is shot from his POV and when Jordin comes into his life, she brings a sense of hope for him,” said Tillman. “She also touches on the fatal flaw in his character—his pride.
Mister’s too proud to ask for help and he struggles to overcome that throughout the rest of the movie.” “Having lived in the projects but recently moved out of public housing, Jordin’s character is lonely and misses home,” said Starrbury. “She’s lost her innocence and Mister reminds her of that innocence. She finds comfort in him because he doesn’t judge her.”
The flavor of the neighborhood was brought out in a number of telling relationships Mister has with local characters. There’s the homeless veteran, “Henry,” played by award-winning actor Jeffrey Wright, who has an unexpectedly humanizing effect on Mister; the neighborhood pimp, “Kris,” who controls all the “business” in and around the projects, played by Anthony Mackie; a mysterious member of law enforcement named, “Pike,” played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje; a cantankerous Indian convenience store owner, played by Ken Maharaj; and “Dip Stick,” Mister’s tormenter and nemesis, played by Julito McCullum. “In my mind, the character of Mister is like the biblical character of Job,” said Starrbury. “As he encounters all of these people and circumstances, he’s being tested. Through all of these engagements, Mister is learning that the rules are the rules.”
“There’s a journey in all of this for Mister,” said Tillman. “You see it in his relationship with his teacher eight minutes into the movie where he very disrespectfully says, ‘fuck you’ to him, but by the end of the summer with all this experience under his belt, he is much more humble, admitting ‘I can’t do it alone.’”
Starrbury and Tillman felt compelled to break away from the stereotypes often associated with young African American men. They wanted Mister to have an ambition beyond hip-hop music and basketball.
“Mister doesn’t have hoop dreams,” said Starrbury. “I wanted his interest to be something quirky, something he would understand in his own way.”
In the film, Mister gravitates to the craft of acting and classic films like the Coen Brothers’ masterwork, Fargo, and the Eddie Murphy comedy, Trading Places. Starrbury recalled how these films resonated throughout his life as a young adult, and how television is often an escape for those kids who don’t have anything else. Fargo was chosen because it was one of Starrbury’s favorite films and it represented the distant lands kids from the projects often dream about as an escape.
“The character of ‘Mister’ probably didn’t understand all the intricacies of Fargo, but he got it in his own way,” said Starrbury.
These films lead to a key plot point in MISTER & PETE as Mister is an aspiring actor and sees an audition as his ticket out of the projects. The audition storyline yields important lessons for Mister as he learns things aren’t always what they seem. “Mister learns there’s no easy way out,” said Tillman. “You have to work for everything you get … even in Hollywood.”
The film was primarily shot in the Ingersoll Housing Project in Brooklyn, New York over 25 days. The production scouted about 50 housing projects in New York City before settling on Ingersoll. It was an extremely grueling shoot as Tillman and his cast and crew had to complete seven or eight scenes in each eight-hour day. To ensure his young actors were prepared for such a task, Tillman initiated a four week boot camp where Skylan and Ethan met and shadowed many of the kids living in the Ingersoll community. While there, they found a lot of common parallels between the community and the script. For example, the storyline about the Child Protective Services facility, Riverview, and Mister and Pete’s fear of being forced to live there, was something the kids in Ingersoll related to.
“These kids told us about a children’s home in the Bronx where they heard someone was killed,” said Tillman. “They heard it, but didn’t see it.”
“It’s a boogey man kind of thing,” said Starrbury. “Kids build these kinds of stories up. In our film, Riverview is built up to be the worst place that you can imagine because the kids in the neighborhood don’t actually understand what it is. In reality, it’s not that bad of a place, as Mister and Pete learn. They’re fed and well-cared for.”
“Rumors become larger than life in the projects,” said Tillman. “To the kids, Riverview is like Rikers Island. Rumors manifest themselves into much bigger things.”
For Starrbury and Tillman, the misconceptions about Riverview harken back to Mister’s fatal flaw of being too prideful to ask for help.
Another ace in Tillman’s hole enabling him to meet the demanding schedule was cinematographer, Reed Morano, who had had a great deal of experience shooting under incredibly tight deadlines. Morano, a mother herself, was deeply moved by the story and, like many of the crew, became emotional on set watching young Skylan’s performance.
GRAMMY® award-winning artist, Alicia Keys was brought on to the project in the early stages of development and became so intrigued by the story that she signed on as an executive producer
as well as the composer of the film’s score. Later, Mark Isham joined Keys and together crafted the emotionally-charged peaks and valleys of the score.
With a title like THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE, the audience assumes the characters will not prevail in the end. But for Starrbury and Tillman, there was deeper meaning in that concept. Although Mister and Pete are caught by Housing Authority, the boys are truly undefeated as they’ve learned from their experiences and discovered what it means to have a resilient spirit in life.
“I never wanted Skylan to feel defeated until he is,” said Starrbury. “Defeat doesn’t mean the end. Some of the best and brightest people in the world didn’t win in everything they did. Their defeats taught them something. The same is true with Mister and Pete.”
“What I liked about Michael’s script was he made sure there were light and humorous moments in a very dark story,” said Tillman. “No matter how tough it gets, kids often have more hope than adults. Despite the obstacles, kids keep going because they’re living in the moment, whereas adults can let their psyche bring them down.”
“I wanted audiences to be inspired by the idea of not giving up,” said Starrbury. “Defeat does not mean the end. You live to fight another day.”