Flying High: Interview with Red Tails' Marcus Paulk

By , Contributor

Scott Hebert

Actor Marcus Paulk

From futuristic outer space to Earth’s not-too-distant past, Star Wars creator/executive producer George Lucas’s latest project is the World War II drama Red Tails. Inspired by true events, the feature film (scheduled to be released on January 20) is based on the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American United States service members who served during World War II.

Having faced segregation and kept mostly on the ground during the war, these brave young pilots are eventually called into duty and take to the air under the guidance of Colonel A.J. Bullard. Actor Marcus Paulk, who plays David “Deke” Watkins, had his sights set on landing a role right from the start.

“A friend of mine, Jeff Johnson, who works for me as an assistant/co-manager along with my mom, is actually friends with the movie’s director, Anthony Hemingway,” says Paulk. “Jeff first heard about Red Tails when Anthony was being considered to direct it. He told me, ‘Wow, this is bound to be a huge film, especially with George Lucas producing it.’ So Jeff called Anthony and said, ‘Marcus would love to be a part of this movie. Once you lock everything down, can you make sure he at least gets an audition.’ When the time came, my agent arranged things and I had the opportunity to read for Anthony. Fortunately he liked what I did with the role and that was that.”

For Paulk and his fellow cast mates, the “action” surrounding Red Tails began, in fact, before the cameras ever started rolling. “There was a cumulative experience that built up prior to the actual first day of filming, and all these pivotal points came together that reinforced to me that this was going to be a big deal,” explains the actor.

“First off, we visited the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino, California where they have all these old aircraft. They took us up in a P-51, so we actually got to feel what it was like to fly in one of those planes. Talk about amazing. It was better than any roller coaster I’ve ever been on, and I love roller coasters,” he says with a chuckle. “It was mind-blowing for me to see the world from that view and do loop-de-loops in the sky in an historical war plane.

“So that was great and something I’ll always remember. I’ll also never forget going to Skywalker Ranch and meeting George Lucas for the first time. While we were there we had the privilege of meeting a couple of the surviving [Tuskegee] airmen and talked with them as well as picked their brains and listened to them tell their stories. Some of the airmen’s wives had come as well and we got to hear about things from their perspective of being back at home and supporting their husbands from far away. Just seeing that whole picture come to life in my head and watching how they interacted with one another took the study of these events and the entire back story to a whole other level for me.

“We shot some of the film in Europe, too, which was my first time working overseas. I’ve worked in Canada and a few other places, but going to the Czech Republic was a huge step for me as far as my career goes. Once we got there, the first month consisted of intense training, and the first week-and-a-half was really intense boot camp. We lived in this tent-like bunker and did things like nine-mile hikes through the mud, we marched, did problem solving, built tents while blindfolded - we were really living like these pilots, you know? It was great, though, because it created a real camaraderie amongst all us guys and, again, brought this story to life all the more.”

Did Paulk face any specific acting challenges with his role of Deke Watkins? “I didn’t find too many challenges,” he says. “It came to me very smoothly, and a lot of that had to do with the incredibly talented people I was working with like Terrence Howard [Col. A.J. Ballard], Cuba Gooding, Jr. [Major Emanuel Stance], Nate Parker [Martin “Easy” Julian] and David Oyelowo [Joe “Lightning” Little]. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any scenes with Bryan Cranston [Col. William Mortamus], but he is, of course, another fantastic actor and was part of the incredible energy on set where everyone was just trying to do their best work possible.

“My character is a very religious, spiritual leader of the team. He leads them in a big prayer before they go out on their missions and is the one who believes that there’s a higher source who’s making sure they get through these missions alive. That was a pretty cool thing for me, because I’m very much in tune with and believe in good energy and that there are ‘beings’ that are taking care of us while we’re floating around down here in this crazy world.”

When it comes to the shooting of Red Tails there were one or two technical hurdles that the actor initially found a bit daunting. “This was my first time doing a large amount of green screen work,” notes Paulk. “So I was a bit nervous and kept wondering how it would turn out, especially all the stuff where our characters were in the planes and we were filming on a gimbal. Those scenes took the most effort and time in order to make sure they looked good. Everyone asked questions and we all worked with one another as well as watched each other’s back to see what needed to be done and point out little things that might need to be adjusted.

“I definitely feel like this film took my abilities as an actor to the next level and allowed me see what I’m capable of achieving and accomplishing. You had to totally dive into the work. With the boot camp that we did and the simulated flying, it’s like our brains were snapped into this entirely new zone because in a way we were ‘living’ it. I’ve watched some of the footage of me in the plane's cockpit and I look so intense and serious. That’s because at the time I was visualizing being in the sky for real and what it would feel like to be in a war. No matter how confident you are in what you’re doing, I’m sure there are still going to be those butterflies in a person’s stomach and just plain old fear that they might not make it back in one piece. Those are the types of emotions that, if you can bring them to the forefront on-camera, will make your performance all the more convincing to an audience.”

At the young age of 25, Paulk is already an accomplished actor, rapper, and dancer. Describing himself as “a ball of glowing energy,” he began entertaining crowds from a young age. “I used to dance on Venice Beach when I was four years old,” recalls the actor. “Venice Beach is a popular boardwalk, and back in the '90s it was very popular with street performers. When I was little my mom would take me down there and one day I must have seen someone dancing because I told her, ‘I can do that.’ My Mom said to me, ‘If you want to try it you can.’ So I did and loved it.

“Entertaining has always been in my blood. I used to watch M.C. Hammer and Michael Jackson, and those are the people I’d say inspired me to be an entertainer. They were musicians, but to me they were huge performers, too. They didn’t just sing and dance, they put on a show and on a large scale.”

Coincidentally, one of Paulk’s first jobs as a child actor was voicing a character for M.C. Hammer’s 1991 Saturday morning cartoon show Hammerrman. He went on to appear in other such popular '90s TV series as Grace Under Fire, Thea, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Martin, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and The Parkers. The actor also spent six seasons playing Myles Mitchell in the UPN sitcom Moesha starring actress/singer/dancer Brandy.

“Oh, man, that was terrific,” enthuses Paulk. “That was like having a second family when I worked on that set. I was a fan of Brandy; I’d met her when I worked on Thea and I also worked with her brother Ray J on The Sinbad Show. So that was a cool connection with this part coming up. When I booked that job I never imagined that Moesha would end up going for as long as it did. We passed the 100-episode mark and the show made it into the TV Hall of Fame. To this day people will call me Myles instead of Marcus, and that’s okay. It’s flattering to know that people were such fans of the show and that they connected with my character. It was a program that crossed many generations. I love being a part of projects that are for kids as well as adults.”

Along with his TV work, the actor’s movie credits include Roll Bounce, Taking 5, Extreme Movie, The Adventures of Umbweki, and The Rig. While some people in the same position might only be interested in grabbing the proverbial brass ring and attaining fame and fortune as fast as possible, Paulk is more than happy with how his career has gone and continues to grow.

“It’s been slow and steady,” he says. “I think I’ve gotten to appreciate everything in the business, from the smallest to the biggest thing, which is important, and I also haven’t lost myself in the business. I’m still me, I know who I am I and I appreciate the people who’ve been around me and worked with me for a long time. I have to give big kudos to my mom, who really made sure that I stayed focused and learned what I needed to know.

“I think the greatest thing about being in the business for this long is that I’ve earned a certain respect with people. They still want to see me in new projects and working. I’m not overworked or burnt out, though, which allows me to have time to stretch and grow. I’ve gone from a child actor to being in teen movies and now with Red Tails I’m being seen as more of an adult action star. So I’m very excited about and grateful for where my career is headed.”

Please note, all Red Tails photos above copyright of Lucasfilm.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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