With his newest movie A Clear Shot now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital, we spoke with Mandela Van Peebles about the new thriller along with the rising star’s other various projects. As the grandson of Melvin Van Peebles and the son of Mario Van Peebles, Mandela Van Peebles also revealed what it’s like to be a third-generation actor pursuing a career in the movie business.
I want to talk to you about your new movie, but first I want to take a step back for a minute. You first began appearing in movies at a very young age, often working with your father. Would you say that being an actor is just something that comes naturally to you?
Mandela Van Peebles: You know, I have a lot of siblings, we’re kind of like the Jackson Five, and not all of them got the bug. I’ve got to say, though, being creative – I’m left-handed – I never really knew what I wanted to do, sort of a jack of all trades kind of syndrome. But growing up, I was always around my dad working on set, and it was just natural to be there and seeing him work. It wasn’t weird. After a while, at a certain age, I came to realize that it was kind of amazing that Dad got to make a living playing make believe.
So at a certain point, I realized, man, this is actually awesome. If I can make my career and do that as well, and follow in his and my grandfather’s footsteps, that would be not only fun, but creative and kind of a fulfilling path to take. The more I contemplated it, I pushed — when there was something he was working on, to get the script.
Even if he thinks I’m too old for a role, I would submit myself anyway under a different name — that’s what I did for Roots — so if I did horrible, it wouldn’t fall back on him, and if I did well, I could tell them later we were actually related. It actually worked out that time on Roots. There’s a lot of fun little things that happen when you pursue a family business.
Jigsaw, even, was a film I did up in Toronto. My mom’s actually from Montreal, so I was able to work on Jigsaw, the last Saw film to come out. I was working in the studio there, and walking through the hallway, and there was a picture of my dad from when he shot the movie Gang in Blue years before in the ’90s. So, it’s kind of fun in that sense, and we took a picture on set, I was sitting on his lap, and then someone else tagged us in a picture where my dad is sitting on Melvin, my granddad’s lap. So it kind of comes full circle, and that’s really fun. Choosing this path, it’s a sense of gratification. Little achievements, not just the big ones.
For example, working on Jigsaw in Toronto. Throughout my childhood, my dad really made sure we got to visit him a lot, and spend time with him whether he was working or not. When he was working, we would be on set with him sometimes. He would always bring me to cool locations. We would go to Austria, I got to go once to Japan. All these trips I could thank him for bringing me along, so with this opportunity where I was filming somewhere, I was like, ‘Oh man, it’d be great to have that kind of wisdom here with me. Maybe I could fly him out for once.’ So, that was awesome to kind of pay it back.
To answer your question, I believe around when I was 15, I had done roles before, and we had a reality show called Mario’s Green House. We did family projects all the time, and I really enjoyed our acting exploits and filmmaking family fun. Around 15, I got my first lead role, and that was in a movie called We the Party, and since that was really when I decided I shouldn’t really — not put all my eggs into one basket, but at least put a couple into the acting basket, as it is something that I am passionate about.
So, I did pursue that, along with still graduating high school and then afterwards graduating from college. I was doing acting in between those years at school, and sometimes taking homework with me on the road. I remember doing schoolwork while filming USS Indianapolis with Nicolas Cage and Tom Sizemore. I was still in school then. It was fun, but it was challenging doing both at the same time. Once I graduated college in 2016, I was like, ‘Wow, okay, I’m done, I can really pursue acting.’ It hit me that I didn’t have that kind of academic structure anymore to my day.
So, it was a really challenging time, but an adjustment. And then I booked Jigsaw, and that was awesome, because that one, for me, is really special because I was the only Van Peebles to be a part of it, so I got to do it solo. My dad was filming out of town when I got the audition, so I kind of practiced, filmed it, shot the film tape, sent it out all by myself, and that was kind of a justification for me. It was, ‘Wow, you can actually do this. You have the talent to do it. You’re not just a jack of this trade. You can do it if you set your mind to it.’
Since then, it’s just been continuing to grind. We’re here today talking about A Clear Shot, which is a movie that was a lot of fun to film. Like I said, working with my dad and pursuing the family business — we get to work together sometimes, and we have multiple languages that we speak. We have the father-son language, we have director-actor, or actor-actor, or buddies, so we can kind of code switch on set very easily. It’s always a pleasure working with him. In this one, he’s acting in it and I’m acting in it, so we’re both just kind of having fun and going with the flow. It was a good time.
As a horror fan, I want to ask another question about Jigsaw. Was that a role that you sought as a horror fan, or was it an opportunity that just came along where you thought, ‘Well, this sounds like a neat opportunity, to be in a violent horror movie.’?
Mandela Van Peebles: Oh man, Jigsaw will always be fond memories, from the audition process to actually filming it, to the premiere. A lot of firsts for me. That one is a cool story how it came about. I had just gotten some new representation, and I was on the phone with my mom, and she loves to talk and chat your ear off. I told her, ‘Mom, I’ve gotta go, my new manager is calling me.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, awesome, well let him know you have Canadian citizenship.’ I tell my mom I really gotta go, and kind of blow it off.
I answer and ask what’s up, and a voice in my head said to just say it real quick, don’t wait until later. I said, ‘Before I forget, my mom said to mention I have Canadian citizenship.’ The conversation completely switched, and he asked, ‘Are you serious?’ I said I had my birth certificate, my citizenship card, my little baby passport. He told me, ‘I’ll call you right back, and check your email.’
He sends me these audition sides, and it’s real high-intensity stuff. I’m like, ‘What could this be?’ You know, when you get sides for an audition, you don’t get the whole script. You’re not always clued in as to what character you’re going to play, or you’ll read for one thing and the character is something different.
I remember doing auditions where they’ll have you reading scenes from a movie from the ’90s, and they want to see how you do that character, because that’s what the character in this movie they’re making is going to be similar to. So, I got this, and thought it was interesting. I call back and ask when they need it by. He says, ‘I need you to send it to me tonight.’
‘Look, this is for the movie Jigsaw. You’ve got to do this tonight.’
‘Wow, uh, let me call you right back.’
So, I’d round up all my friends, as many as I can, to kind of help me and give me just different voices to shoot this tape, as there are multiple people in the scene. As such an iconic franchise, I had the visual in my mind of what it should look like, based on that first Saw, how it’s kind of lit greenly in bathroom I guess you could say, where they have to cut of their foot. So, we’re going to do this in the bathroom, as it’s tiled and looks kind of dungeon-y. We shot it that night and I sent it off. I said, ‘Look, this is what I could accomplish tonight. I’ve got a couple people confirmed to help me tomorrow to help me do it again, but you can send this off, or we can wait and do it again tomorrow.’
He says, ‘I love it, I’m going to send it!’ I wish I had a little more time, but, okay. He called me first thing in the morning saying that I got the role, and I was like, ‘What?!’ Just the quickest turnaround I ever had, and everything just came together, as far as that conversation I had with my mom about having citizenship, and it was the last role that they had to cast. And like I said, no one was there to go to bat for me besides my friends, and I took each one of them to a dinner of their choice after that.
It was really fun. It was a great time to film. I always loved horror films growing up as a kid. Me and my brothers, that was kind of our thing, we would watch them and see who could watch them the longest. Being a part of the biggest horror franchise in the world is definitely fun. I am definitely grateful for that opportunity.
It sounds like it was a very fun set to be on, even though it was a dark movie. Sounds like it was a blast behind the scenes.
Mandela Van Peebles: It’s really awesome to be behind the camera on those sets. Even the stuff I got to do, I’d spend a lot of time in the air, upside-down, and even get blended — it was a lot of fun. There were a lot of firsts, like I said. Full body molds of myself being created by great, renowned artists and special effects people. It was really cool.
Getting back to A Clear Shot, this is a movie that’s actually inspired by true events, as it’s based on the largest-scale hostage rescue operation in the United States. What was it like working on a movie that’s based on a true story? Did you look into the history of what happened that day, and did the real story play into your performance?
Mandela Van Peebles: So, A Clear Shot was also another really fond experience, filming that. Just the process, and working with Nick Leisure. How it came about — he’s got a lot of projects, as he’s very deep into the filmmaking realm, so he’s always working on stuff. We were actually working on another potential project, and just wanted to use other ideas, also with my dad, who’s a part this movie as well. He’s also mentioning the Good Guys Electronics situation that happened in 1991. It sounded really intense, and it was the first time I’d heard of it. After hearing from him how that impacted him being there as a kid, as an Asian-American, and seeing that, and how that affected him, and how he has the power to make a movie about it, and have things come full circle — a trend you see a lot in the entertainment industry.
So, he’s mentioning it, and I’m finding myself leaning forward in my chair, and then he says, ‘Yeah, it’s a real thing, you can find it on YouTube.’ As soon as we were done, I went and watched the actual footage of this hostage situation on YouTube, and just the emotions you get from it, as such a high-intensity situation, it instantly makes that free-falling feeling in your stomach. I want to be a part of this, this sounds awesome. It seems like such a cool story to be able to recreate and to have our spin put on it. I was all ears for it, and my dad had the same reaction. As soon as we were ready for production, we went down to Mexico for a quick, high-intensity shoot. Everything felt like how it should feel, and like I said, a lot of fun.
You mention that there was a lot of fun on this set. Can you think of any particular anecdotes or amusing stories from shooting? Maybe something went wrong one day, or does anything else stand out from the experience?
Mandela Van Peebles: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. There’s a sense of camaraderie on the set, and it kind of feels like summer camp in a way. You go through experiences together, and you put yourself in these scenarios where your body is reacting to situations that your mind knows is not necessarily true. It’s kind of therapeutic in a way, and you get to know them as an actor as well as their personality and who they are in real life. It’s fun to see those polarities taking place.
I know you wanted a specific anecdote. I remember we were in deep, and intense, in the thick of it. Guns are drawn in one of the scenes where it’s very high stakes. I forget what kind of pyrotechnics were involved, but somehow, there’s a fire that takes place on the roof, and it basically gets out of control.
We see who can stay in character, and who went from just being an actor to being in their real body and is jumping out of scenes, screaming, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa!’ Seeing that switch is just so funny sometimes. We all laughed about it and joked around. It’s a tight-knit set, and we all pitched in to cleaning it up and fixing it, and getting it back to shooting as quickly as possible, because we know that time is money. We want this project to really stand out and look like we had millions of dollars to spend, when in reality, we may not have legitimately had that money.
It was plenty of fun times. Even going out to dinner with everybody, and hearing their personal stories talking about films they’ve shot in the past, or projects they’re a part of. Learning from a lot of different people. The people from A Clear Shot were great to work with.
You mentioned that there might be a project in the works with Nick Leisure in the future. On that note, can you tell me about any other roles or projects you’ve got in the pipeline that you can tell us about for fans to look forward to?
Mandela Van Peebles: Yeah, that’s a great question, thank you for asking! I filmed a project, it’s a Salt-N-Pepa biopic that was due to come out last month, and we’re figuring out the new release schedule. I play a really interesting character in that, very different from characters I’ve played in the past. More of a villainous type of guy. I’m really excited for fans to see that kind of approach, and that kind of acting from me.
A lot of firsts for me. I’m new to the game. I may have this last name and a history in the business, but me personally — Jigsaw was my first horror film, then came Karma after that, and now there’s this, and hopefully something will come after that. It’s going to be really cool to see the projects that come next.
In the Salt-N-Pepa biopic, I play one of their early managers, and it’s cool to play someone based on a real person. I’m in another thing that kind of got cut short, due to the corona thing, while we were filming in New York. Luckily, I got to film two days of it at least, so I’m committed to being in the project! I can’t really talk much about that one, because we’re not done with it yet. It has kind of a ’90s and hip hop theme, so it’s somewhat similar to the Salt-N-Pepa vibe. I can at least say that the project is Raising Kanan, which is one the spin-offs from Power, so it’s 50 Cent’s character’s upbringing. That one’s really cool, I have a little part in that. Hopefully, that comes out soon, and fans love it, and that they write me back in for more. You’ve always got to be optimistic in this industry. Consistency is the key, but that’s not always the case.
I always appreciate a good biopic, so I’ll be checking out that Salt-N-Pepa biopic when it comes out.
Mandela Van Peebles: Like I said, it’s based on their real story. It’s cool to watch. It’s a little bit before my time, but meeting them, and being on set with their kids, who are also in the movie, and doing scenes with their kids — who are also second generation, having my dad there, and their parents there — there we go again with the trend of going full circle in the industry. I took a picture and sent it to my mom, because she’s a huge fan.
It was a lot of fun. I know I say the word ‘fun’ a lot, but being in the industry, it’s like being able to support yourself doing what you love. It doesn’t feel like working. It’s fun. Oftentimes, I find myself wanting to do it, not because of the financial benefits from working, but just because it’s a good time. Even the challenges you learn from it, you take away all the positives from filming, which is great.*
You can catch Mandela Van Peebles in A Clear Shot, now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.