Zubin Cooper Chats About The Last Face and Working With Sean Penn
Monrovia – What a week it has been for Zubin Cooper, the budding Liberian actor returned from the Cannes film Festival at the weekend where The Last Face, a film produced and directed by two-time Academy Award Winner Sean Penn made its debut and showcased the Liberian in his first feature role.
“I hope that it can put my name out there, put my ability out there and let others look and say ok, he’s done this, let’s give him a chance, let’s see what he can do and even if that doesn’t occur I will do my best and make the most of the advantages and opportunities to help carry myself out there but yes, the ambition, the drive, the desire.
I want to succeed, I believe I will; but I am grateful for the opportunity that I have and I hope that it can accomplish for me what it did for the likes of Lupita Nyongo, Hounsou and the Nigerian actor, Adewale Akinnuouye – Zubin Cooper, Actor, The Last Face
Until the film’s debut at Cannes, not many Liberians had the slightest idea that one of their own was about to put the post-war nation, not known for producing acting talents, on the Hollywood big screen, much less, hanging heads with some of the biggest names in the business. Thanks to Zubin who mostly kept his cool and a low, humble profile.
The Last Face which stars South-African born, Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem, Adèle Exarchopoulos, and Jean Reno was filmed in South Africa and tells the story of a love affair between dedicated doctor Miguel, played by Bardem and international aid organiser Wren, played by Theron.
Zubin plays the role of Moussa, a widower NGO worker with his three kids trying to survive. Zubin spoke to FrontPageAfrica Tuesday about how he got his break, meeting and working with Penn and an A-List of Hollywood actors. He also offers his take on some of the bad press and reviews the film received at Cannes and how he hopes to use the experience to help the industry in Liberia and enhance his acting credentials.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Zubin, Congratulations, first of all on the achievement. How and when did you get involved with the project and Sean Penn?
ZUBIN COOPER: Basically, what happen is, during the pre-production, they were scouting, Sean(Penn) came to Liberia to scout; like look at locations to see where they could get in South Africa to match and whether there was a possibility of filming some scenes here in Liberia. It was one of the original ideas that they would film some scenes here. So we drove around, went to Clay Ashland, Brewerville, up to the old Ducor Hotel and other places around and we just looked around and that was it.
So, originally I was on the production team as an advisor and production consultant and so we started from there and after that he went to Sierra Leone also to scout for location over there and he returned to the U.S. That was early 2014 and we were slated to begin production in May 2014. So just around the time Ebola was here.
So I left to go to South Africa right after the first few cases of Ebola happened. To complete the pre-production; we had to look at costumes and what fits within the time period we were looking at which is the year 2000 toward the end of the 90s up to like when President Taylor went into self-imposed exile. And at that point I was still a member of the production side. Just before I left, the director called me and asked if I thought I would be interested in acting a role in the film, I was like Okay; I don’t mind and there were like two different roles he wanted me to look at.
One was Moussa and the other was another Liberian doctor cast in the film; but he gets killed earlier. And so when I went to South Africa we were looking at casting Liberian fighters, getting the costumes, the locations ready and reviewing the script for linguistic errors, time-line errors and that kind of thing to make sure that it will be as authentic as possible and the director asked me to go to the casting agent, the person who was available for casting for auditions. So I auditioned for the role of Moussa.
The director said that he had wanted a taller person and a darker person to play the other doctor. So I contacted some other actors like Magnus Brooks and sent some feeders out to even people here like Alex Wiapiah and Barkue Tubman to help find local Liberian actors because in the film there is a role for a female rebel commander by the name of The Bride.
So, we were hoping to get some other Liberians on board and I auditioned and later on the casting agent said OK, you can act and they reviewed vis-à-vis comparison the other actors who had auditioned for the part of Moussa and the director decided that I think you have the accent; you have the knowledge, and maybe you haven’t had much experience as these other guys, but the talent is comparable. So I would prefer for you to be Moussa and I accepted. Then I entered a contract negotiation with the production team and it was agreed upon and the contract was added. I had to have two contracts. I had one for production and I had to have another for the talent, for acting. That’s basically how I became Moussa- the character I play in the film.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How did the meeting with Sean Penn come about?
COOPER: Basically, he had asked somebody who he could talk to that was knowledgeable about Liberia and who had like a background in media and film and I didn’t know that someone had recommended me. So I got a phone call, somebody wants to meet you, so I drove to the hotel and I met him, we had a lengthy discussion and the rest is history.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Now, tell me about this character, what do you thing drives you to this character?
COOPER: For me, Moussa – when I first read the script, he’s a very intelligent person but he’s seen it all; for example, he has three young children; his wife had died, so he’s raising them himself, he’s an NGO worker but he carries his children everywhere with him and he carries them with him to work every day because he knew how the situation in the war is fluid; you could be separated from anybody, anytime and I could relate to that because I love kids; I have a young daughter – at the time she was the same age as my daughters in the film.
I could relate to that, I could relate to him, I could relate to the fact that he could have left Liberia but he chose to stay and just the fact that in spite of it all he was always trying to contribute to his country; work, take care of his family; he was basically trying to hold it all together in spite of the circumstances. So I really related to the character on that level, that this is a person, he could have gone to Sierra Leone but continued working in a refugee camp or anything else, but he stayed. In the film he’s evacuated out of Monrovia but he stayed and I really related to that. I felt that I could put myself into that character and feel what he felt, I felt like I could become him, to become a part of him.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: The movie was shot in South Africa right?
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Did you see any scenery similarities; did the shooting location stay true to the Liberia setting?
COOPER: Yes, for example, most of the Liberian scenes were filmed in KwaZulu-Natal and the weather there is comparable, especially the rain – when it’s ready. But the refugee scenes were filmed on a nature reserve in KwaZulu-Natal and the heat and humidity and the areas where it wasn’t an exact replica, but it’s Hollywood, they dressed it up. They bring in plants and you see one area there is no vegetation one day and tomorrow you come back there is water running, and they pumping water; they bring a bunch of palm trees and tropical plants and just make vegetation out of it and everywhere. It was amazing like that and the scenarios were outstanding.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: How did you manage to hold it together and stay humble with all the new attention coming your way?
COOPER: You know that is the good thing that I was able to work with people who are at the unarguably some of the best practitioners and some of the best – I mean the whole crew there assemble, production staff, talent was world class – no matter where they’re from. And everybody was very professional, very I would say courteous to each other and it was basically, this is a team effort. So from the beginning you understood that it was not about you – unless you want to make it about you. So I was able to buy into that and just see that. Look, everybody had their role. If this person looked so much better than the other person in a part of the film, you would tell and it degenerates with the overall – how would you say, effect, overall story of the film. So that basically allow me to remain true to who I am and to how I was raised to be rather than “Infant Terrible” or something like that.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: So, what’s next for you after this movie?
COOPER: After this, continue work. I’m in pre-production on a documentary and actively seeking other roles – outside of Liberia and inside of Liberia – it doesn’t matter. The idea is to keep it moving. I’ve also been talking with other Liberian players in the entertainment industry here to see what we can do together as a whole to inject some progress; into the industry here because it’s not about Zubin Cooper, it’s not about Artus Frank, it’s not about FA, it’s about how each one, teach one; each one help the other. You get to a certain level, help your friend. Artus has been doing it a lot, magnificently I must say, so it’s up to each one of us to put together and the help each other up and I think that would be my concentration. It’s not just about me but what other opportunities and relationship we can forge so no matter what I do I can just help out another and put in something that can help then we all move forward together and that is the thing. In Liberia we say in union strong, success is sure so that is what I am looking forward to.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What do you think is holding the movie industry in Liberia back?
COOPER: I can put it down to say technical qualification. We’re much better off than where we were ten years ago because there’s not a lot of money in it still; technical qualification and two, the customer; everyone has to understand one thing: Hollywood and all those people they spend millions of dollars on a movie because they know they will make their money back and that is why they’re able to pay people more and that’s why they’re able to let people go out and say I can spend $200,000 dollars on education in film making and I know I will be able to sustain myself and my family. You see, the majority of our filmmakers and people in media and film industries and entertainment industries they labor under conditions of low salaries and I wouldn’t say unfair but compensation that will only get them by. It’s not the fault of their bosses or whoever. The fact of the matter is it is a business. If the customers are not buying, there’s no reason why whoever putting extra funds unless they’re going to get a return. So me, right now, everyone who is involved in the entertainment industry in Liberia, is basically a work of passion and that passion has to stay and it will stay but we have to look at helping each other so we can become more technically efficient and as we get more technically efficient we have to ask ourselves as Liberians and customers out there: if the house don’t sell you, the street won’t buy you.
We need your support and once we get that support from Liberians which is growing rapidly and much more than ever before; you will see that there will be greater progress and there is progress. We’re seeing movies that were made five, ten years ago, there is always the after effect and everything improves with time. We will make greater and greater progress and will do bigger and bigger projects and hopefully soon and very soon, we will see a Liberian financed, acted, produced film going to Cannes, going to Panafest, Film Fest all over the world and even doing theatrical runs in cinemas in West Africa and US, Europe and Asia wherever and you will see not just Zubin Cooper or Johnnymaddog.com, at film festivals as a supporting actor but you’ll see them as directors and producers on the Red Carpet that we can not only make our country proud, but we can also contribute positively to the economy of the country.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Do you think the critics lost the movie’s message; it did get a lot of negative reviews at Cannes?
COOPER: You know I’ve seen the film and I will say this. The script had been in development before 2014 and years upon years and it has evolved. What I can honestly say is I can understand some of the criticisms about people wanting to see more African faces and this and that but come on! Let’s be real, when the NGOs and humanitarians come to a crisis situation how many African faces do you see? We are the drivers; we are the aides. Yeah, we are there but who’s in charge? When you’re evacuating, who’s in charge? It’s not the Liberians? Who’s being evacuated? Not the Africans, it’s not the Syrians, it’s the westerners, the Europeans, the Americans. They who are in the forefront of everything. In a crisis situation, right now if you turn on CNN, the first five people who they will interview will be Caucasians. So I understand their point but film is a reflection of reality and if you want to look deeply into it, they’re not saying they want more black faces, they want more African faces.
Charlize Theron is from South Africa so because she’s not black she’s not African now? I’m just looking at it that way. For me that’s just the basic criticism. They’re not saying that the plot is a terrible plot, it’s showing the great white hero. In film if you look at it so many times over and over again, you will see it. In the Last Air bender, one of the antagonist he is sort of a hero-villain, was supposed to be an Indian-type person.
So. it is a bit hypocritical if you ask me. If they talk of the film on its merits and demerits and say the plot is too contrived or the pacing or whatever they want to say, I can understand, that is the film on its merit. But if you want to look at it from a socio-politico point of view that Africans are in the background, we’re in the background already and we’re already there. So come on! And the director, the film is a reflection of reality. So it depends on which prism you’re looking at it. So we’re there, we’re trying to step up but to step up, the story, the mainstream media that is pushed, that narrative has to change.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: What was it like working with all of those celebrities?
COOPER: Those celebrities are also people, they’re humans just like you and I; they like to joke, they have their families, they have their loved ones. Yes, they have this adulation, they have this incredible talent but they themselves are also human and we can relate to each other as friends. And there is a hierarchy of pecking order but we’re all basically equal, we eat at the same place and you see it. For example at some point, Jarvier Bardem was there with his wife and two kids and you see him playing with his kids and he introduces his kids to everybody; Charlize Theron’s son was on set with her mom so you saw the human side.
It’s not like for example people see you all on the red carpet and say oh yeah, this person or that person. We were able to have this person tell jokes and have conversations that were able to establish bonds so that we weren’t as uncomfortable and we were filming for four or five months. So we were like family. Every day we saw each other; we filmed in the rain, shot scenes crossing rivers where the water is reaching you out to your neck, and the director is a perfectionist so we do like one scene we were carrying a woman on a stretcher we did like 30, 40 takes; carrying a human being on a stretcher and like four of us and the takes walking on a river bed and water over your knees and after you drop the person in the water two or three times, they curse you – so it became like an extended family.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: We have seen in recent years, a select group of Africans get their breaks in Hollywood from ground-breaking films: Lupita Nyong, Djimon Gaston Hounsou, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Are you hoping that this role does for you what it did for them?
COOPER: Definitely, I hope that it can put my name out there, put my ability out there and let others look and say ok, he’s done this, let’s give him a chance, let’s see what he can do and even if that doesn’t occur I will do my best and make the most of the advantages and opportunities to help carry myself out there but yes, the ambition, the drive, the desire, I want to succeed, I believe I will but I am grateful for the opportunity that I have and I hope that it can accomplish for me what the likes of Lupita, Hounsou and the Nigerian actor, Adewale Akinnuouye.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Social media has been talking about the shirt. You made to Cannes and everyone expects you were a suit but you went home. What is the secret behind that decision?
COOPER: Firstly, the film, we were hoping for it to be at Cannes last year, that’s when I had the shirt made. I asked Archel Bernard to fix me a shirt and so she made the blue one I wore at the photo-call. My idea and the thinking behind it was of all the African actors that participated in the film, I’m going to have the opportunity to go to Cannes and I would represent my nation, Liberia, the West African region and the continent of Africa; so I’m not going to wear a suit; I’m not going to wear what’s acceptable to a European or American, I’m going to wear what is acceptable to Africans.
I asked specifically what am I allow to wear at the photo-call, can I wear an African shirt, they said yeah, fine and they sent me an email and said you do know for the premiere it’s a black tie. So I said can I wear the African equivalent and they said sure. And that’s how I wore the country cloth shirt and so it was planned. I was going to represent my people and I’m going to represent them well, showcasing our pride and our way of life.
FRONTPAGEAFRICA: Any final message for aspiring Liberian actors and actresses out there who are perhaps looking to get an opportunity like this but are finding it difficult to?
COOPER: I can tell you that it takes ambition, it takes, it takes talent, it takes desire, it takes a sense of professionalism, it takes God’s blessing but you have to have that ambition. Sit down and read that script at two o clock in the morning, get your lines right, get your timing right and then at the end of it, again. So if you go to bed at two o clock, you have to be up at three o clock to sit up in the makeup chair just to get it right.
That sense of professionalism that, it’s not amateur hour. It can make or it can break you. The same way you see some of our brothers and sisters getting up early in the morning kicking football like you saw with George Weah, people were laughing at him and you see where it carried him, you see where it is carrying other Liberians. You see other Liberians.
There is an older woman in the Red Light, she sells palm oil, her name is Sis Kebbeh, I met her and she told me she started selling about half a snap bottle and people used to laugh at her. Now she’s selling containers of oil. Now she has built her dream house. So it is that professionalism, that desire. You can have the most talent in the world, if you’re not professional and lack the desire to make it, you won’t make it.
All I can say is keep on trying, keep on plugging and it will happen, somehow, it will happen. Not everybody will make it but somebody will and that one person when they make it, let them help somebody else because that’s what I intend to do.
Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected]