'It: Chapter Two' Star Isaiah Mustafa on the Scene That Broke His Hand
[This story contains spoilers for It: Chapter Two.]
Isaiah Mustafa wouldn’t change a thing on the long and difficult road to his first lead role in a blockbuster film. Despite finding success as a professional football player and commercial pitchman, Mustafa, 45, has fought for the chance to show the industry and audience alike that he’s capable of more than just a few zany commercials. However, though he was the face and voice of one of the most memorable TV ad campaigns to date, Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” Mustafa’s film career struggled to lift off.
Heat Vision breakdown
Mustafa once auditioned for a director (who shall remain nameless) whom he believed was genuinely interested in him for the role. Why else would he have him audition?
“I went in and read for the part with the director, and…as soon as I finished reading, he didn’t say, ‘Oh, great. Can you do it again?’ He said, ‘Hey, can I get a picture with you? My son is a big fan,'" Mustafa tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It crushed me, because I realized that this was going to be an uphill battle.”
Everything changed in June 2018 when Mustafa finally earned his first lead role in a blockbuster studio film: It: Chapter Two. In the concluding chapter to 2017’s critical and box office juggernaut, It, Mustafa plays adult Mike Hanlon, the lone member of the Losers’ Club who remains in Derry, Maine, and remembers the wrath of Pennywise 27 years earlier. Hanlon, now the town librarian, has become consumed by Derry’s mythology in order to defeat the looming Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) once and for all.
In Chapter Two’s Chinese restaurant scene, which was the adult cast’s first time filming together, Mustafa’s character had to repeatedly slam a chair into a table, as Pennywise was already haunting his old familiar foes. Unfortunately, the scene had an unintended consequence.
“I think I broke a small bone in my hand; I didn’t realize it at the time,” Mustafa explains. “I did that [chair-slamming] so many times, and they kept bringing chairs…I don’t know what I did, but it kicked back on me or something. So, my right hand — in between my right index finger and thumb — was numb for the rest of filming.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Mustafa discusses the ups and downs of commercial fame, his friendship with Michael Bay and working with David Fincher on a Nike commercial.
From your perspective, why is Mike the only "loser" who stayed in Derry and became obsessed with Pennywise's mythology?
I’m a huge book fan, so I read the book or listened to it seven-plus times. So I know the book mythology so much better than I know our movie mythology. But I can tell you from the film — if we’re going back to the first film — my understanding is that Mike felt as though he was an outsider. I think he wanted to be a part of something, and staying in Derry and carrying on his grandfather’s legacy was something he held close to him. So there was that, and once he started to dig into the mythology and started to understand Pennywise’s 27-year cycle, I think he saw that it was his duty to stay. There’s something about Derry that doesn’t allow you to forget the past, but once you leave, it kind of filters out.
Actors often say they have to agree with their characters no matter what. Do you agree with the lengths Mike went to in order to get everybody back to Derry, whether it was lying to them about the mythology or drugging Bill [James McAvoy] so he'd better understand the life-or-death stakes?
I would never endorse drugging somebody without their knowledge. (Laughs) That’s not something I would agree with, but I understand the lengths that he went to. Like you said, it’s a life-or-death situation, and when you’re dealing with the supernatural, you have to take measures that are a little more extreme than normal.
Even though production is usually nonlinear, was the Chinese restaurant scene the first scene where the cast really got to know each other and build rapport?
Yes, that was the first scene that we all shot together. That scene was so much fun to film, because we were all getting to know each other, and [Bill] Hader is so good at breaking the ice and making everyone else feel comfortable. So it was very easy for all of us to get to know each other and laugh. It was a good three and a half or four days of filming that scene, and it was so much fun to play with those guys. Once we finished that, then it was like, “Alright, what’s next?” (Laughs)
Is slamming a chair into a table at a Chinese restaurant as therapeutic as it looks?
No! (Laughs) And I say that with all seriousness. I think I broke a small bone in my hand; I didn’t realize it at the time. I did that so many times, and they kept bringing chairs…. One time, I don’t know what I did, but it kicked back on me or something. So my right hand — in between my right index finger and thumb — was numb for the rest of filming. I didn’t understand it at first, and I was like, “What’s going on? Oh, I think I broke something when I was throwing that chair down there.”
How many times did you have to record the "It's Mike Hanlon...from Derry" line?
Andy [Muschietti, the director] is pretty good. You have to do a lot of takes when you’re working with Andy, but when it’s the telephone calls, we went through it one time, and I was on the phone for mostly everyone. When Jessica filmed her scene where she leaves Tom, I went to set that day, and I just went in another room and called her. She and I were on the phone during that scene, so it was very easy. I was working with Jessica, so she made it simple. (Laughs) I was able to do that with a few other people, but it only took two or three times to do it. But with Jessica, it was a breeze, because she was so fun to just play with. All the ones that you heard, for the most part, were just me and them talking on the phone.
Chapter Two really puts you and your cast mates through the wringer. Does it pay to have a Bill Hader on set, since he can lighten the mood with as little as a facial expression?
He’s such a gem and such a wealth of knowledge. Between him and James Ransone, I learned so much about music, television, movies and pop culture. The three of us really got along great, and aside from acting, I learned so much about life in general from just hanging out with them. So, yes, to have Bill on set…I don’t want to say “ace in the hole,” but it definitely made things a lot more fun.
When you were trying to put the lid on the artifact, was that balloon practical at first, or was it always CG?
No, it was practical. It became an issue, actually. (Laughs) It wouldn’t behave right. So when you see it moving around and being hard to deal with, that was real. We had to figure that out.
What was the process for developing the character of adult Mike Hanlon? Did you mostly lean on Chosen Jacobs’ performance in the first movie? Did you get together with Chosen? Or did you trust Gary Dauberman’s script above all?
I didn’t get together with him, but I did lean on his performance. I watched his performance, and my first audition piece was part of his speech from the first movie. So I was able to go back, watch what he was doing and just see if I could re-create that as an older version of Mike. As I told you, I listened to the book so many times, and the Derry interludes in the book provide so much rich history and so much information on Mike Hanlon. So I took those interludes and added them to what I already had from watching Chosen. Of course, I also talked to Andy at length. There were nights where we stayed up and talked about character and stuff. Andy, P.J. [James Ransone], Bill and I would go next door to this A&W Root Beer that was in Toronto, and then we’d all come back to the lobby and shoot the shit for hours, even though we’d have to be up early the next morning.
You’ve mentioned the It audiobook a couple times and how you listened to it several times. Did you ever worry that Steven Weber’s audiobook performance would influence your own performance too much?
Let me just say right now: Steven Weber is a fucking boss. That audiobook is fucking amazing. I shit you not, I would play it my car and my wife would literally say, “Turn that shit off.” And I would say, “But wait, listen to how he does this part.” It’s so funny at times, and it’s just so good. So, I wasn’t worried about it, but I did enjoy it. I really loved listening to it.
In total, you listened to 14 Stephen King audiobooks while on set in Toronto. What was the reasoning behind this, as opposed to just focusing on the material you were covering?
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know why I started down that path, but once I started, I’d say, “Oh, what’s the next one?” and then I’d listen to another one. I just kept going. I don’t know what my thought was; I didn’t know if I was just trying to really get into the world of Stephen King and see where he’s coming from on many of his books. But I dove in, and I just kept going. At one point, it became a thing with Andy’s assistant, Tim [Visentin], because he was also listening. I’d go, “Tim, I just finished Cell. Did you listen to that one?” and we’d discuss it before moving on to the next one. You name it, I’ve listened to it…Doctor Sleep. There’s a few that I haven’t listened to, but most of them I’ve heard.
According to the internet, you grew up in a large family as you're the youngest of seven children.
(Laughs) I like that.
Do you think your upbringing helped prepare you in some way, shape or form when it came to coexisting among this large ensemble cast, both on-screen or off?
That’s a great question. More so than my family, I would say that playing sports is actually what helped me most. My family helps me understand people’s moods and how to navigate when someone may not be having a good day; you tend to give them space. If someone’s having a great day, you feed off it. Thankfully, there weren’t too many bad days. For whatever reason, there were more crew members that may have been having a bad day on second unit than we were. (Laughs) Playing football and being in a team-oriented situation…it’s all about the team; it’s all about the whole. When a director asks me to do something, I just do it. I don’t argue with it; I just get that done. If I have a question, comment or aversion, I have a conversation. That’s kind of how it’s done. You don’t have that luxury when you play football. You can’t tell your quarterback, “Well, no, I think I should go deep” when he’s like, “Go across the middle.” You don’t have the luxury of doing that, but in film, you do. If I had a question, I would do whatever Andy asked me to do, and then I’d say, “What do you think about this?” And then he’d let me try it.
Do you ever get genuinely creeped out on set, or does the presence of a looming boom operator remind you that it's just make believe?
The set pieces were so huge and elaborate that it was very easy to get into the mood or tone that Andy was looking for. Man, it was so much fun. I always think it would be cool to be in a Marvel movie and do superhero stuff, but sometimes they work on green screen, which is still cool because you're still a superhero. But the cool thing about Andy’s set is they were all actual set pieces. When you’re running from Pennywise, you’re actually running away from him in this huge cavern. When you’re in the sewers, you’re actually in these sewers that they built at Pinewood in Toronto. You were in this labyrinth of sewers in waist-deep water. It made it so real.
You portrayed one of the most famous TV commercial characters of all time: "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.” While I fully expect Mike Hanlon to be the next turning point in your career, did that commercial character make things more challenging for you, since you were likely recognized as soon as you walked into any audition?
Yeah, I think I carried that with me for a while. I think it was tough for people to see me as anything other than that because it had an impact in such a fun way.... I’ll tell you a story that happened to me as I auditioned for a film early on. I don’t want to say who and what, but it was a director’s session. I went in and read for the part with the director, and I was very excited since it was a director’s session. It was just me, him and a couple of executives. As soon as I finished reading, he didn’t say, “Oh, great. Can you do it again?” He said, “Hey, can I get a picture with you? My son is a big fan.” (Laughs) At that point, I realized I’m not getting this role; there’s no way I’m gonna get this role. It crushed me, because I realized that this was going to be an uphill battle and that I really needed to figure something out. It’s just eye-opening sometimes. It makes you realize that you really have to prove to people that you can do other things...just so they can see you as something else.
Furthermore, you used to be a professional football player. Were you constantly asked to play "Football Player #1" on this show or that movie?
I would have welcomed that at the time. (Laughs) The things that I was going up for were all tongue-in-cheek pitchman things — not even sketch comedy…it was more like a pitchman, just that. So that was tough. To be pigeonholed as an athlete, I would’ve been like, “Oh, you want me in an action thing? Great!” I would’ve loved to have done that. It just made it more of a challenge, and sometimes you don’t appreciate something unless you really work for it. At this point in my career, because I’ve had to really work to show people that I can do other things, I’m enjoying the process; I love where I’m at right now because I’ve worked hard to get here. I can see that now, and I wouldn’t trade the trajectory for anything. Anybody would be grateful to have what Old Spice has provided, so I’m really appreciative of that, and I do recognize that because of that, I was able to get this. I love the fact that it’s taking me some time to prove myself. It’s better when you prove yourself than when somebody just gives it to you.
I’m still shocked that you don’t have a quintessential football movie on your resume. Did you have any close calls?
No, but I got a lot of Nike commercials where I was the stunt performer for the football player. There was a black-and-white Adrian Peterson commercial that David Fincher directed — and I’m Adrian Peterson. (Laughs) I did everything where he was getting hit and jumping over things, and he did everything where he was just walking and being him. NFL players can’t be hit during preseason, in a commercial especially. I’ll never forget this: there was one particular hit that Fincher had us do 20 times. In a football game, it’s much easier because you’re not getting hit in one spot over and over again; it’s random. This was one particular spot where I was getting nailed. We got the shot, but I was like, “Wow, so that’s what it’s like to work with David Fincher.” (Laughs)
I appreciate the fact that he’s just as meticulous with his commercial work as he is with his films or TV episodes.
Yeah, it was like 20 takes of that particular hit, but I mean, are you going to tell David Fincher no? At that point in my career — no, you’re not. You’re just gonna do what he asks you to do, and hopefully he likes what you did. I was happy to do all 20 takes, and the coolest thing about that was after that shoot was over, somebody had brought beers to set. And he actually cracked a beer and just sat back with all the football players and drank beers after that shoot. That lifted him up in our eyes. We were like, “This dude is fucking awesome.” He put us through it, but he realized, “Yeah, you guys worked hard. Let’s have a beer.” It was awesome. I actually have a picture of us that I’ll send you. It’s me, David Fincher and my buddy LaMonica Garrett, who plays the Monitor on Arrow. It’s pretty cool.
You’re a big comic book fan, and you’re interested in playing a Doctor Strange character named Brother Voodoo, right?
Oh, man — that would be awesome. In my opinion, whenever you say you want to play something, it’s very rare that you get that opportunity…. Don’t get me wrong, it worked in the casting of It: Chapter Two with Jessica and Bill. It would be fun to play, and it would be awesome to be in contention, but I don’t look at that as something that may be in the near future.
There are rumors that Brother Voodoo might be in 2021’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. So let’s just say that I put this out into the universe for you. That way, you don’t have to tempt fate.
(Laughs) Again, that would be awesome. I would not say no, but I’m not going to go campaign unless someone says, “Hey, you have an audition for Doctor Strange.” I tried that before one time, and it didn’t pan out the way I liked.
Before this interview, I scanned through Michael Bay’s The Island in order to find your appearance as "Injured Football Player." Do you happen to have any Michael Bay stories you can share?
(Laughs) I’ve got several Michael Bay stories. So, in 2003, there was a good friend of Michael Bay’s; his name is Mike Fisher. He does a lot of second unit stuff for sports movies. That’s how I got the Nike commercials all the time. We call him “Fish,” and he would call us — guys that he knew who played pro — and go, “Hey, I need you to do this hit for me.” So he’d pull us in. He was on a softball team with Michael Bay in 2003, and they needed some ringers. So they called a couple guys that they knew played professional sports to be on his team, and I was one of those guys. So I played softball with Michael Bay; I was right field and he was first base. So I was staring at his ass for almost 13 years. (Laughs) I played on the same team with him, and every Thursday, we’d go to San Francisco [Saloon]…in West L.A. and have drinks afterwards.
On The Island, he needed a football player to be an injured football player in a wall photo, and he basically said, “Do you wanna come down?” Again, you’re not going to tell Michael Bay no. So, you go down and do whatever. And then I auditioned for Pain & Gain, and I got really, really close. It was literally down to me and Anthony Mackie, and I had a director’s session with him. Even though I didn’t get the role, it was a win because I had played softball with him but I never asked him, “Hey, man, I want to be in this movie.” I did it the hard way and just auditioned. I made it to where it came down to me and another guy. Rightfully so, it went to Anthony Mackie because at the time, and still, he’s a big star. I was still not known for much more than the Old Spice commercials. At the time, it hurt to lose the job, but I understood why it happened.
Out of curiosity, is your garage or guest bedroom filled with Old Spice products and swag?
I’ve been their global ambassador for like ten years now, and they send me new product whenever it comes out. Or if I need new product, they’ll send it to me. I used to put it in this one closet, and I literally used to make people take it. If friends came over, I’m like, “Here, take this. Enjoy!” I would just give them product. I had more than enough.
by Abid Rahman