That deep baritone voice is unmistakable, even if it is at the end of a telephone. While so many of Hollywood’s finest shun the media spotlight, Clarke Duncan, the 46-year old Oscar nominee for The Green Mile, loves talking to the press. “I recognise if it wasn’t for guys like you, I wouldn’t even be here”, says the actor.
This week, Duncan gets to change his nice-guy image as he portrays bad guy the Kingpin opposite flawed hero Daredevil in the Ben Affleck comic strip actioner. The actor was immediately attracted to this project for one simple reason: “I just loved the idea of being an evil person, of being the kind of guy that strikes fear into everyone. I really haven’t had the chance to do something like this.” And the actor admits that he relishes exploring the dark side of himself. “When you’re playing an evil person you can go over the top with it and have fun with it by being mean, so hopefully I did a good job.”
Clarke Duncan, who always wanted to play the villainous Kingpin from his adolescent days when he first read the comic, says that to tap into a guy like this, he uses his large imagination. “My fantasy mind is really out there sometimes. Once I got on the set and into that wardrobe I was the Kingpin and I acted that way”, he confesses. He did so, he recalls, by “Demanding that kind of respect, getting in the moment and going from there.”
Talking to Clarke Duncan, one has the distinct impression that he genuinely craves respect and admiration from his peers and has no qualms in saying so. He says that he works hard on even something as cartoonish as Daredevil, because “I take what I do as a passion,” he explains. “This is my job and I want everyone to love what I do. Now I know that’s not necessarily going to happen but if the majority of people out there like it then I know I’m doing something right.”
Duncan says that he could always relate to the Kingpin because “he was a big guy, was picked on as a child and was always misunderstood.” The actor felt that his life mirrored that of the comic book. “This was a guy with real ambition. He was a real estate mogul and ran everything. It was like being in a fantasy with all this money and power and I loved that.”
It is Duncan who now lives a life of fantasy, Hollywood style, which is a far cry from the Chicago he left behind to chase a dream. Not so many years ago, he was digging ditches in the windy city, recalling that “The other guys on my crew called me Hollywood Mike because all I talked about was how I was going to be an actor one day. When they’d start making fun of me, I’d tell them I’d have the last laugh because one day it would cost them $7.50 to see my mug.” Soon his former crew was doing just that. Rapper Ice Cube shot his movie Friday in Chicago and cast Duncan in a small role. “I played a gambler in one scene. I didn’t have any lines and I knew nothing about being on camera. I actually grinned and waved. It’s so embarrassing.”
Duncan had a few more walk-on roles before he was cast in the daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful. Next came small roles in Bulworth, The Players Club and A Night at the Roxbury, but it was with his role in Armageddon that Duncan finally felt he’d lived up to the promise of his nickname Hollywood Mike. “It was my first real role. I wasn’t just playing a bouncer or a thug in one little scene. I was so proud.”
But it was his role of John Coffey, the enigmatic, magical Death Row inmate in The Green Mile that changed Duncan’s life. The working class guy from Chicago with dreams in his heart was about to emerge as a bona fide Hollywood star. Even now the actor remains surprised at how rapidly success has come his way. “I had no idea that I would be at this level, today. I was going to be satisfied with maybe doing a couple of commercials every year and working a steady job. I had no idea that nominations would come out of The Green Mile, so that changed my whole life. When you think about, it’s like a fantasy. You may dream about stuff like this happening but you never think for a moment that the dream will ever become a reality.”
Perhaps that is why Duncan refuses to forget where he came from. “I remind myself of that every day and realise that nothing is ever promised, that you have just a short time on this earth and that you should make the best of it. This did happen to me and I’m going to enjoy it and make those fans happy as long as I can.” He says it’s this “positive mindset and talking to my mother every other day” that keeps him in focus. His one ambition, he adds with a child-like enthusiasm, is to win an Oscar. “It’s like the Superbowl of awards and it validates your work. It says that you’ve accomplished something and your peers agree that you’re one of the best at your craft. So holding onto that would really be a great accomplishment. Like Duncan’s journey to Hollywood, this dream, too, could come true.