A role in a hit movie is the Holy Grail for any actor; so imagine appearing in two of the country’s top films at the same time. That’s the case for Nicoye Banks, who stars alongside Wesley Snipes, Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawk in Brooklyn’s Finest, and co-stars with Matt Damon in Green Zone.
Banks has put in the hours and dedication to reach this point. He grew up in New Orleans, where he began his love affair with the stage in sixth grade. He won a poetry contest in which he performed James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation, performed in A Raisin in the Sun, and progressed to winning city, state and national top honors in speech and debate forensic competitions. He also landed his first movie role in Heart of Stone with Clifton Davis.
As a student at Southern University at New Orleans, Banks’ performance in The Colored Museum led him to relocate to New York, where he studied theater under Gene Frankel. The stage remains his first love; his 2009 performance in the critically acclaimed The High Priestess of Dark Alley led to a nomination for New York Innovative Theater Outstanding Actor.
In 2005, Banks joined Blair Underwood and Richard T. Jones in G. A year later, he was cast alongside Mark Wahlberg in the Disney blockbuster Invincible. He continued his theater work in classics such as Death of a Salesman and King Lear, had a recurring role in ABC’s daytime drama One Life To Live, and has appeared in NBC’s Law & Order.
Nicoye Banks spoke with Planet ILL about how he remains grounded, the importance of education in shaping his career, and his professional and personal goals.
Planet Ill: In 2006 you were quoted as saying, “You elevate, but you never really arrive.” You’re in two of the top movies in the country, which opened within two weeks of each other. Are you arriving or still elevating?
Nicoye Banks: Still elevating. I don’t say that lightly. I’m truly blessed and happy to have these experiences come about. I have benefited greatly as a man. I’ve shot in Spain, London and Morocco. I would never have chosen to spend my own money and go to Morocco. That’s a part of Africa I’m not that curious about! Now I’m working internationally and I can bring those experiences to my work, which adds to my versatility and knowledge of life and myself. I have not arrived. I’m not being requested; I’m not “offers only,” meaning no auditions necessary. It’s still happening for me and it’s a great ride.
Planet Ill: Does that statement keep you grounded?
Nicoye Banks: Absolutely. My mother would not have it any other way, or my manager or my best friends. My mom would say, “You are an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.” I want to provide for my family, raise my son and do some good on this Earth in His will. Television and stage are extraordinary things, living another life that’s magnified with millions of people watching. You could get caught up in it. Me? At the end of the day, I’m just a man.
Planet Ill: Let’s talk about these two films. When did you shoot? Did you have any down time between them?
Nicoye Banks: Two weeks. It was fantastic. It was very interesting, because I left London after Green Zone to come back to the U.S. and audition for Brooklyn’s Finest. I was in the airport parking lot, I called my manager and she told me, “They cast that role yesterday.” I said, “One, I want to work, and two, I want to work with [director] Antoine Fuqua. There were two or three other roles still not cast. I went in the next day and Anton was there. He had me read for Slim and he said, “See you on set.” Two weeks later I was shooting. It was great to walk out of one movie, get another and start immediately. To have them coming out back-to-back is shocking.
Nicoye Banks: With theater, you really get involved with the text. You get underneath the words. You take that type of analysis to movie scripts, where the dialog is a lot sharper and quicker, so the subtext is quite important. I bring knowing how to chew on a lot of dialogue to a medium that needs it now and fast. I attribute my ability to do that to theater. There is a lot of down time in movies, and you’ve got to be hot “right now” when they need you. In theater, the curtain goes up and you have to be hot for two hours. In the film world, you do it in 30 seconds. They need you to hit it right now and remember what you did.
Planet Ill: Is theater still your first love?
Nicoye Banks: Yes, definitely. You never forget or renounce your first love. The life and style of movies and television enable me to keep my love of theater alive.
Planet Ill: There is a thread running through your work: dramatic, intense, serious, at times violent. Some of the characters are very dark. Is any of this a reflection of you?
Nicoye Banks: Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head. But brighter colors exist and I’ve had the pleasure of letting out within that. It’s the quiet, subtle thing I try to add to every character. A smile goes a long way, even in the darkness, the heaviness, and the violence. There are moments when an easy smile makes a difference. Not the “I have great teeth” smile, although I put a lot of money into this grill! The smile that says that all is not as heavy as we think it is. Somewhere there is a beacon of light.
There was tragedy in G, but there were times when he [character B. Mo Smoov] could crack a smile and be light. In Invincible, it was “I don’t like this dude walking into the team.” A smile could mean sarcasm and cockiness or “I do respect the fact that this is happening and raising the level of competition, even if we don’t want you here.”
Planet Ill: Can you leave these characters onstage and on location at the end of the workday?
Nicoye Banks: Yes, but you spend a lot of time building these characters, especially onstage. You spend time crafting the character, and when it’s show time, you live the life of the character; you’re feeling their life and where they are. I love to work, and when the show is over, after building it up and letting the character live, the last show is their death. I should celebrate the opportunity to live them, but it doesn’t take away from the sorrow that’s a part of it as well.
Planet Ill: How old is your son, and has he seen any of your work?
Nicoye Banks: He’s 9. I flew him to New York for the opening of Invincible. That was a Disney movie, so he saw that one. He has seen a couple of clips of G. He is real cool and he processes things. He’s proud, but he doesn’t like the noise and attention. We are so close and connected that we can share a look and know how each other feels
Planet Ill: You credit your sixth-grade teacher as your inspiration. Education clearly has played a big part in your success.
Nicoye Banks: I went to a Catholic school; sixth grade was my best school year. Mrs. Laurent put it out there. She gave me discipline and pushed me to the outer limits, out of my comfort zone, making me rehearse the poem, making every word and movement count. She was the best teacher I ever had. You were held accountable in her class. Penmanship — she would rip the paper up in your face and say, “Bring me another paper tomorrow with no scratch-outs and no Liquid Paper!” “Get the dictionary” was her favorite phrase. Education is where the tools are.
Anything and everything you want to know and explore is in school. You go out into the world with ideas and principals. School helps you learn how to think and how to have parameters. Then you can apply them. Teachers aren’t trying to make you into androids or robots. They’re teaching you ideologies and theories in a comfortable space. Getting out into the world is not comfortable. There are no borders. In the world, you do a lot of moving. In school, you do a lot of thinking. Thought process is important when you’re forced to move and make decisions. Without concrete thoughts, nothing happens and you fall for all sorts of stuff.
Planet Ill: Tell us about the community work you’re doing.
Nicoye Banks: We’re in the process of pushing forward a new program I created, The Art of the Craft. There is an art to the craft of living, to whatever your craft is. We’re not reinventing the wheel; we’re just exposing light and easy exercises and thought processes to approach your craft. If not for speech and debate, what would I sound like? I learned how to adapt to a different room and tailor to each judge’s criteria. Doing drama, speech and debate allowed me to be confident in presenting myself in any situation, knowing how to articulate, to be clear and concise about what I present. Art is my serious motivation — getting it into the community, keeping it alive, creating programs for kids who are interested in theater. We began this program a month ago. I used a trial period in a high school, and I want to take it to other high schools and colleges. My vision was really shaped in college when I saw professional actors. I was blown away and wanted to do that.
Planet Ill: What’s ahead for you?
Nicoye Banks: More community work. Professionally, a Law and Order Criminal Intent at the end of this month or early April, an indie film in Philadelphia, and in fall I will wear the producer’s hat with the play The High Priestess of Dark Alley. I’ve teamed up with a gentleman in Atlanta to produce a tour of that play. Also my work with The Standard, an artist collective that I started two years ago; following the lineage of the NEC with a new-school way. We do readings, workshops and outreach for actors to keep inspiring and supporting each other and keep the energy going.
Elianne Halbersberg is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in Mix, Premier Guitar, Electronic Musician, Audio Media, Ink 19 and many other magazines and websites.
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