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Shortly after graduating from NYU Tisch, Marchánt Davis found himself auditioning for a mysterious and secrecy-shrouded film he knew absolutely nothing about. That film would eventually become The Day Shall Come, the new comedy from the genius mind of relentlessly envelope-pushing British satirist Chris Morris.
Having its world premiere at SXSW in Austin, The Day Shall Come marks Morris’ follow-up to 2010’s acclaimed Four Lions — about a group of hapless English Jihadists (a film in which martyrdom was likened to jumping to the front of the line at theme parks) — and walks a no-less precarious comical path, only this time in the U.S. and taking aim at Homeland Security.
North Philadelphia-born Davis had something “right from the off,” says Morris about his first meeting with the actor. “He’s just a great guy with a huge range of skills and a mission to make stuff work. And he has a fantastic feel that comes off him on camera.”
And so Morris cast him as his lead, Moses, an impoverished yet charismatic preacher with a ramshackle mission in the Miami projects who dreams of one day overthrowing the government with his army of four.
Despite posing little threat to anyone (he’s banned guns, preferring martial arts instead), Moses is seen as a potential anti-terror target by the local FBI head in need of a good case to improve his reputation ahead of retirement. And so a devious — although not that uncommon, according to Morris — plan is concocted by operative Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) to secretly sponsor Moses’ would-be revolution with the help of a couple of dodgy informants, one that escalates in typical Morris lunacy and ends in fake nukes, SWAT teams and a showdown at a donut shack.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter in his first-ever interview ahead of The Day Shall Come‘s world premiere Monday, Davis — now prepping for the satirical stage show Ain’t No’ Mo’ at New York’s the Public Theater, which starts previews just a day later — discusses collaborating with the “wonderfully exciting mad scientist” that is Morris, discovering the director’s early work after accepting the job (and thinking “oh shit”), the advantages of working under the veil of secrecy, and becoming one of Morris’ newest assassins, ready to stop anyone (especially curious British journalists) looking to discover what he might be up to next.
How did The Day Shall Come come your way?
Well, I auditioned. And after a few months of auditioning, Chris hired me. But it was a wacky, weird process. Chris is a wonderfully strange exciting mad scientist, and any ride you’re going to go on with him is going to be a roller coaster. It’s not a straight line from here to there. When my agent sent me to the audition, there was no script.
Did you know anything about the film at all?
Nope, not a thing! Someone asked me the other day what I thought of the script when I first read it. The first time I saw the script I had the job! Which is, I think, kind of a relief. It was a really unique exciting alive experience!
How aware were you of Chris Morris? Here in the U.K. he’s something of a living legend. But outside, with the exception of Four Lions, he’s not that well known.
All I knew was that he was this strange man who was obsessed with black folk! He had just met with all these people. And I was like, you went there, to meet with them? Really? And so, the only thing I knew about him was what I saw. Maybe the second time I auditioned I looked up Four Lions. And after I got the job I saw Brass Eye. And then I was like, oh shit!
What did you think when you saw them?
Well, he has a lot to say!
He’s a pretty fearless guy who runs toward topics that most people would run a mile from…
Oh yeah! I guess that’s what I was attracted to in general. I think I’m attracted to work and people who push the envelope. So when I saw it at first I think my first reaction was, “Aaah, I can’t invite my church!”
But then I was like, no, actually Chris is great about honoring the people he puts up on screen. He was very diligent in researching and interviewing people who experienced some of these things. And asking permission.
He seems to constantly work under a veil of secrecy. This film was kept under wraps until very recently. Did that make it different or difficult for you? This is your first lead role, yet something you weren’t able to shout about…
I know. It’s kind of weird to have something like this just six months out of acting school.
You know, Chris has a bunch of assassins out there!
You’re not the first person to tell me this.
Am I not? Ha! He has a bunch of assassins. I don’t know who they are, but they’re out there.
But actually, for me it was a really beautiful process because of that. I was so grateful to not be under a lens. We just got to focus on the work. So often nowadays I go to a rehearsal room and everyone’s Instagramming or tweeting. It’s just nice to go on set and there not be phones and people have to be there with each other and deal with each other.
I actually am so grateful for Chris for being so private and keeping it to himself. Would I have liked more information? At times! Maybe! But do I think it would have served me? Probably not?
What was the shoot like? Morris has said the script morphed as it went on…
Oh, when we first got the script it was little baby sperm, then it was an embryo, then we had a toddler and now we got a teenager. And soon we’ll have an adult. I’ve literally seen this script go so many changes, and it’s alive, it’s a living being, it’s an organism that’s changing and morphing. And even when people see it together as an audience, what they take away will be slightly different.
In Four Lions, the actors said Morris would regularly throw new words or lines he’d thought up just then on set while they were shooting. Did this happen at all?
Absolutely. He did that constantly. He would also keep asking us questions. There was a moment in the beginning where I fire a crossbow at a face on the wall, and I think it’s either George Washington or Ronald Reagan. While we were shooting he was trying to figure out who would be the most polarizing figure to the African-American community, and I was like, oh, Reagan, Reaganomics baby, put him up there, I want to fire at him! And then I said, put George Washington up there, because he had the most slaves. And he went with it. There were so many things.
Morris actually said you helped develop the story through some of your own experiences, one being the scene in which the kids are painting a Santa black.
Yeah, I forget where we were, but they were trying to figure out what to have the kids do in that moment. And I was like, growing up, whenever we got a Santa Claus or angel from the thrift store for Christmas, my mum would always have us paint them black before she put them up on the Christmas tree. So I said, Chris, how about they just paint white Santa black? And he said: that’s brilliant! I was shocked that he used it.
Any other ideas you brought to the film?
When we first sat down, Chris turned to me and said: I have this idea of him riding in on a horse. And I said, that’s great Chris, and I told him about the concrete horsemen in North Philly, these guys I would see growing up. So the first day I met him after I got hired we had lunch and he literally turned to me and said, How do you feel about riding horses? And I was like, thankfully for you, I rode horses for about seven years at white people summer camp! So he added that in there.
Did you struggle with corpsing at all? You manage to keep a straight face throughout the film, but were there any moments where you struggled to not laugh…
Oh my god yes! There was one entire sequence with Kayvan Novak. Every moment for him, there’s always a possibility for fun and funny, it always exists, even in the darkest of moments. I think that’s why him and Chris get along so well. There were a lot of times when he would be doing something and it would be so hard.
How did you research Moses, who is quite a complicated character, someone charismatic and inspiring yet also a little deluded and innocent?
I actually consider him more of a visionary than deluded. Chris said something to me, which was that I don’t think Moses knows failure.
I drew on a bunch of folk. I drew on John Africa from the Move organization in Philadelphia. And there was a guy who was this informant in this documentary called (T)error. And then there was a book Chris gave me called How White Folk Got to Be So Rich. The struggle for me at first was that I was like, I don’t know if I could buy this, and then I had to switch that really quickly to realize that he just does not know how to fail. And who in history didn’t know how to fail…Jesus! So be like Jesus.
Do you have any more films coming up?
In the words of Moses, I believe something is coming. The day is coming man!
And as someone who has worked so closely with Morris, do you have any idea what he might be cooking up next?
You’re talking to one of his newest assassins! Good try, but not good enough. I don’t know. I don’t have a clue. And if I knew, I wouldn’t tell anybody…. I’m scared.
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Sterling K. Brown