[The following story contains spoilers for Stowaway.]
There is very little Shamier Anderson won’t do to prepare for a role. In Joe Penna’s new space drama Stowaway, co-starring Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick and Daniel Dae Kim, Anderson plays Michael Adams, the titular character who’s discovered during a mission to Mars. While Michael’s presence was unintended, he inadvertently sets off a chain of events that puts the spaceship’s four passengers in grave danger. To get himself in the headspace of his character, Anderson employed some rather practical measures.
“Every morning, a couple hours before my call time, I would sleep in that tiny compartment just to really understand what that claustrophobia felt like,” Anderson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I also blacked out all the windows in my dressing room. I’d then poke little pinhole dots in the blacked-out windows to emulate the solar system, and every single day before I’d go to set, I would play the Interstellar soundtrack on repeat to really activate all my sense memories.”
Nearly four years after wrapping production, the long-gestating City of Lies, starring Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker, was finally released last month. The film chronicles the murder investigations of Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace and Tupac Shakur, and Anderson is now opening up about the great lengths he went to in order to create his take on ex-LAPD officer David Mack, who was a central figure in Wallace’s case, as well as the Rampart corruption scandal.
“Leading up to the film, I spent a number of months in Compton. I immersed myself in the Fruit Town Piru gang, and I worked with a lot of guys from that community,” Anderson shares. “They really gave me the most authentic experience; it was life for them. I worked with a guy named Chico, who I love dearly, and he had done a lot of time, upwards of 16 years. I also shaved my head bald. … I also got tattoos and spent some time in prison. I really immersed myself because it ultimately came from a place of fear and not wanting to fuck this up.”
Anderson is also starring in Apple TV+’s upcoming mega-budgeted series Invasion, created by Simon Kinberg and David Weil. The globetrotting sci-fi show filmed in New York, London, Japan and Morocco, and Anderson once again used his environment to ready himself.
“I spent some time sleeping in the deserts of Morocco to really get into the mind,” Anderson reveals. “There was an insurance issue with Apple, so they didn’t want me going by myself. So I had to have a chaperone with me at those times. If my call time was 6 a.m., then I was playing in my arena at 4 a.m. and creating moments in my space.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Anderson also discusses his not-for-profit organization, B.L.A.C.K. which he co-founded with his brother Stephan James. He also details his collaboration with Halle Berry on the set of Bruised, Berry’s directorial debut.
Stowaway could’ve easily been a movie we’ve seen before where a stowaway is discovered and then things go very wrong in horror movie-type fashion. While things certainly go wrong, Stowaway illustrates the lengths people will go to in order to help each other survive. When you first saw the title and started to read the script, did you also think it would head in that genre movie direction?
I felt the exact same way you did. What I loved about the film is that there’s no real antagonist or villain. It was very much a piece based on human experience and a man going through a series of unfortunate events.
While watching Stowaway, I recognized a number of parallels to the last year that we’ve collectively had. When a wrench is thrown into the world, so to speak, certain people never waver in doing whatever is necessary to solve the problem, while other people doubt or undercut those efforts. Did the events of the last year recontextualize this movie for you as well?
The last year that we’ve had definitely recontextualized this movie. If this film actually took place with COVID as an element in the story, I do think the appreciation for human interaction and being in isolation would be far different. Just on a logistical standpoint — and based off of research — we realized after the fact that our set was very high up on the COVID-approved sets to be on. It was four people only, in a contained space. So we checked all those boxes.
Since it was a cast of four in a rather confined space, did you get to know each other a lot faster than most sets with huge ensembles?
100 percent. That’s actually a good point. It was an intimate process to say the least. It was a very small and intimate set in a studio. So you’re not dealing with a second unit and all the extra elements that come with other, bigger films. In between takes, we didn’t have the time to exit the spaceship and go back to our trailers or dressing rooms. When they called cut, there was a lot of conversation, but as a credit to my co-stars, who are such great people, we spent a lot of time off set as well. We went to dinners and really got acquainted. We filmed in Germany, pre-COVID, which was incredible. The intrinsic value of the relationships in this piece is the through-line, so we wanted to make sure we built that relationship authentically. So we were very close physically and creatively.
Did they actually squeeze you into a tiny overhead compartment?
(Laughs.) They didn’t actually do that, but I wanted to do that. Every morning, a couple hours before my call time, I would sleep in that tiny compartment just to really understand what that claustrophobia felt like. So I spent a lot of time in there. I also blacked out all the windows in my dressing room. I’d then poke little pinhole dots in the blacked-out windows to emulate the solar system, and every single day before I’d go to set, I would play the Interstellar soundtrack on repeat to really activate all my sense memories.
You’re really speaking my language. That’s an amazing soundtrack.
Yeah, it’s an incredible soundtrack.
There’s a powerful scene where Daniel Dae Kim’s character tells your character, Michael, that he’s the odd man out, which is putting it mildly. Take me through your approach to that entire sequence since it’s a really strong showcase for you.
I wanted to shoot a layer of emotions. So I had some takes where I was crying, and I had other takes where I was exploding. I also had some takes where I was more internal. I was really just finding what that scene could be, and there was no right or wrong answer. Funnily enough, the editor created a montage of so many emotions, which you saw in the final edit. Joe Penna made a choice to stick the camera on me, and I asked him why he did that as Michael was being informed of this horrific news. And he said, “It’s because the audience knows the truth already, and we want to see that through your eyes.” And I loved that choice because DDK [Daniel Dae Kim] and the audience already know this. Joe said, “We just want to see you melt into that moment of understanding that this is about to take a U-turn.” On set, we did coverage, but the final edit was on me. So we actually explored those emotions — the explosions, the crying, the sadness, the angst — and that was all mashed together as one sequence. Originally, it wasn’t written that way; it was just, “Michael has a moment and then cut.” So Penna and DDK were really gracious to play with me and to explore what that looked like and felt like.
Penna seemed to maintain that approach when Michael or the other characters would communicate with someone on Earth. Sometimes, we’d hear indistinct voices, but for the most part, we only heard each main character’s side of the conversation.
Yeah, it’s like a soliloquy or monologue. From an actor’s standpoint, it really opens up the opportunity for exploration. Even on set, there was actually no one on the other side; there was no prompt or anything like that. It was really just playing to yourself, to put it simply, but really imagining and playing those moments and those beats of what that conversation could’ve been. I love that as a performer because you can drive the car. Acting is mostly about reacting, but for this one, it was really about what was going on in your head. There’s another side of this story where you can ask, “Were they even talking to anybody to begin with?” Was Ava even a real person, or was that just somebody he had to create to pass the time? With films like Castaway, Tom Hanks created a character like Wilson just so he can ground himself in reality. So I love that element, and I love that you noticed that element as well.
Do you believe Michael’s story about how he ended up on that ship? Did you ever entertain the notion that it was intentional?
(Laughs.) I’ve been exploring that, and the truth is there’s a version of this movie where it could’ve been intentional. It’s something I explored in the process of building Michael out, but given the wounds and the severity of the situation, I do think it was by accident. But, hey, maybe Michael is a really good actor who really planned this out and there’s a world in which this was intentional. (Laughs.)
City of Lies really surprised me, and your character, David Mack, added a jolt of electricity to the story. How deep did you go to prepare for this role?
Getting this job was a tumultuous process. [Director] Brad Furman really put me through the wringer, and I enjoyed it. I am very competitive, and I wanted to show him that I was the guy for the job. To walk you back, I did a self-tape, and I did some pretty wacky things in there like having my back to the camera the entire time. The camera was playing the police officers, so not even acknowledging the camera was to show a sign of disrespect. I was also smoking and doing crazy things in that way. So Brad really gravitated towards that, and he flew me to Los Angeles where I met him and did my take. But at the time, he wasn’t sold. I know this because he asked me the question of, “If I give you this part, will you be able to deliver?” And I said, “If you hire me, you’ll thank me later. You’ll never forget this.” Leading up to the film, I spent a number of months in Compton. I immersed myself in the Fruit Town Piru gang, and I worked with a lot of guys from that community. They really gave me the most authentic experience; it was life for them. They weren’t trying or doing; it was just their life. I worked with a guy named Chico, who I love dearly, and he had done a lot of time, upwards of sixteen years. He had just come out, and was actually featured in the film a couple times. So I worked with him, and I got the blessing of the writer to not rewrite but add in the lingo that was appropriate to that time. I also shaved my head bald for Brad and the team, which was a surprise. I also got tattoos and spent some time in prison. I really immersed myself because it ultimately came from a place of fear and not wanting to fuck this up. These are real people that really experienced this. It was a blackout for me at the time, and watching it back, remembering those moments, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I actually did that.” It was a very different time in my life; that creative process was very immersive from top to bottom: the car I drove, where I stayed, how I slept, the music I listened to. I don’t smoke anything, but I smoked a lot during that film. (Laughs.) But it helped, man. And similar to your words, people felt like it was lighting in a bottle. They really seemed to love what I did with D-Mack, and some even questioned if that was the real person, which is ultimately the goal as a performer and an actor.
Given the dual narratives and Los Angeles locations, City of Lies and Destroyer are a fitting double feature. You and Toby Huss have cornered the L.A. crime drama market.
(Laughs.) Yes, I remember bumping into Toby on Destroyer. I was like, “Dude, we just did City of Lies!” So it was a special moment to see him again. But yeah, two great films with two great casts.
The odds of becoming a working actor in Hollywood are astronomical to say the least. How did your Canadian household manage to produce not one but two working actors?
Yeah, that’s my mom’s doing! We make jokes that she’s the executive producer of this enterprise. We love her dearly. It’s one of those things where certain things led to certain things, and we’re just blessed to be able to be doing what we’re doing. But yeah, man, my brother Stephan has done some incredible stuff. Funnily enough — and he’s said this publicly — he caught the acting bug from me because I actually went to theater school for four years. So he saw me in all my musicals from Grease, The Music Man, Urinetown, Fiddler on the Roof… He was like, “Man, I think I can do this.” So I helped him in that process, and funnily enough, he’s more decorated than I am at this point in time — as it should be. I love him dearly.
Can you tell me a bit about The Black Academy?
The Black Academy is a division of our existing not-for-profit, B.L.A.C.K., which stands for “building a legacy in acting, cinema and knowledge.” B.L.A.C.K. is an organization in Toronto, Canada, where we mentor, foster and create programs for Black talent in the arts. The Black Academy was recently launched, and we’re going to be producing a live telecast with a major broadcaster, honoring and celebrating Black individuals from Canada in film, television and other sectors. It’s very much like the NAACP awards meets the Oscars and the Grammys. It’s the first of its kind in Canada; it’s seminal. So Stephan and I co-founded this, and we’re really excited to be launching that in 2022.
Have you and Stephan written anything lately for the two of you to potentially be in together?
It’s funny you ask because we are currently doing that as we speak. We’ve worked together a lot in our earlier years, notably our work in Race, which happened by chance. I auditioned for the role; he auditioned for the role. And Stephen [Hopkins], our director, didn’t even know that we were brothers until two weeks in when our mom came to set. He had no idea we had the same mom because Stephan and I keep it really professional in those environments. I was also playing an opposing person, Eulace Peacock, and Stephan was playing Jesse Owens. So we actually didn’t dialogue much on set just to keep that tension alive. So no one knew we were actual siblings until our mom came to set. He was like, “Hey, that’s my mom,” and I was like, “No, that’s my mom, too!” (Laughs.) It blew everyone’s mind.
Bruised is another upcoming Netflix film of yours. What’s it like to be directed by Halle Berry?
Dude, oh my goodness. First and foremost, I’ve got to remain focused because it’s Halle Berry. She’s such a legend. She doesn’t look at herself like that; she really is the salt of the earth. She once said to me, “Shamier, I made a way from no way. It’s all about the work.” So that experience was so humbling. We have these ideas of these prolific figures who have trailblazed and done such iconic work, but when you’re in the arena and playing tennis, figuratively speaking, it’s just about the work. None of the accolades matter; none of the magazine covers matter. It’s about the work, and she gave me permission to do the work with her. So we played tennis at the highest level. To see her go from behind the camera to in front of the camera and playing the multi-hyphenate on that set was admirable. I also have to mention the physicality that came with being an MMA fighter in that movie. She did all her stuff, and she’s 50-plus years old. She could put me in a headlock no problem and I would definitely tap out. (Laughs.)
Did she use more acting jargon than most directors?
It was a bit of both. She’s an actor’s actor. It’s known that she’s Meisner-focused, so she definitely used actor jargon. I’m technically trained so a lot of my work is from the theater. So I brought a lot of techniques to the table, and she understood and vibed with them. We had a lot of creative conversations that would only help the plot, and when there were moments where things were cut out, I would say, “Why are we cutting this out? This is integral to the process and to my character.” And she would go back and forth with me. She would let me go wild, in a sense, and really push her buttons. She was right with me, keeping each other on our toes, and she was loving every minute of it.
I have to tell you that I was a big fan of Pitch, especially your episode, and that show certainly deserved a longer shelf life. To your knowledge, did the writers have more in mind for your character?
To be completely honest, I think I was going to be a recurring character or a series regular, but I had booked a movie. So I took the movie, and I think that’s what happened. I had to take a gamble. It was like, “Do I stay on Pitch, or do I take this leading role?” Fortunately, for me, the show had gotten cancelled so it wasn’t like I missed out on anything. But I agree; that show was so much fun. That was either the first or second major primetime series that I booked. I remember coming to L.A. and seeing the billboards all over Hollywood. I was like, “Maybe, I’ll get on that show one day.” And then I auditioned and got the job. But I loved that job. I got to go to San Diego and be in the Padres’ ballpark [Petco Park]. It was such a dope experience for me as an actor, and I also think it needed more life. I think that show was ahead of its time. If that show came out in today’s climate, where inclusivity is so topical, I think Pitch would’ve done the gambit.
Lastly, are you shooting Invasion for Apple TV+ right now?
I literally just wrapped a month ago. That was about a year and a half in the making. It was filmed in London, New York, Japan and Morocco. It’s a $200 million series; it’s an Avengers-budget show. I’m the star of it, and Simon Kinberg and David Weil are the co-creators of the show. It was a very tiring and physically demanding process. I can’t give away too much on the plot points, but you’re going to see a physical transformation. I really immersed myself into that piece, and even though I can’t say too much, I spent some time sleeping in the deserts of Morocco to really get into the mind. There was an insurance issue with Apple, so they didn’t want me going by myself. So I had to have a chaperone with me at those times. If my call time was 6 a.m., then I was playing in my arena at 4 a.m. and creating moments in my space. So I’m excited for the world to see how that comes together. It’s the biggest budget, bar none, that I’ve been a part of in my life.
Stowaway is now streaming on Netflix.