Anyone who doubts the power of Hollywood to create bigger than life images that have little basis in reality should take note of actor Michael Clarke Duncan’s film career. On the big screen Duncan has been portrayed as an 8-foot giant—in real life he’s just under 6-foot-5. Onscreen, Duncan often portrays that guy most likely to rip your head off with his bare hands—in real life he’s a gentleman with a heart of gold.
Though Duncan himself recognizes that his physical stature is what helped him get his foot in the door in Hollywood, he is ready to be appreciated for all that he has to offer as an actor—not just his physical presence, but his emotional and intellectual gifts as well.
“So much emphasis in this industry is put on the visual,” Duncan laments. “Who gets to be a leading lady or leading man is based on how people view you. I’m looking forward to finding a role that maybe plays off of my size, but not so much. Maybe a dramatic lead or a romantic comedy where I’m not portraying a 7-foot tall, 350-pound giant.”
Fans who remember Duncan from his breakout performance as death row inmate John Coffey in The Green Mile are always stunned when they meet the actor in person and realize he’s no Goliath. “I was standing on an apple crate during the filming of The Green Mile,” reveals Duncan, who recently shed 80 pounds from his taller-than-average frame through a regimen of healthy eating and daily exercise. “I’ll tell you this; if I was over 7-feet tall, I’d be an NBA player. If I really was that size, I’d be battling Shaq tonight at 7:30,” he jokes.
All jokes aside, Duncan is more than just a big muscular guy. He’s a multifaceted man whose interests range from learning to speak a foreign language (he’s currently taking Spanish classes) to swimming with dolphins. “I recently traveled to the British Virgin Islands to swim with the dolphins,” Duncan shares. “I can’t swim, so it was a huge deal for me.” Though folks who know him find it hard to fathom that Duncan is afraid of anything, he admits he had to overcome a fear of water to achieve his dream of joining his aquatic friends in their home environment. “I’m terrified of water, and this wasn’t in any swimming pool—I was in the actual ocean,” he explains. The experience left him both fulfilled and inspired. “This year, I’m signing up to take swimming classes,” says Duncan.
Ironically, Duncan’s latest film project is a big-budget Dreamworks movie titled The Island, but his swimming lessons won’t be needed for his role in the film. In the futuristic action adventure, starring Ewan McGregor, Scarlett Johansson and Djimon Hounsou, Duncan plays an inhabitant of a bland future world where lucky lottery winners get a chance to leave the sterile utopia they call home to live out the rest of their days on an island paradise—but, of course, there’s a deadly catch.
Duncan’s role in the film is one he found both emotionally and physically challenging. “I cry in the movie,” he reveals. “It’s always challenging to have to go to that emotional place.” Also challenging to Duncan were the physical stunts required of his character. “Working with [director] Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II), you never know what to expect. Throw the script out the window, ‘cause you never know what’s really going to happen when you get to the set.”
Without giving away too many details about the shocking turn of events that lead to his character enduring a horrifying surgery while fully conscious, Duncan reveals, “I can tell you I lost some skin being dragged down hallways in this film.”
Now that Duncan has nearly three dozen films to his credit, he is looking to the future and setting his sights on an offscreen role he has yet to play—that of film producer. As his career continues to flourish onscreen (and he waits patiently for that elusive script that offers him the chance to play a romantic lead), he is planning to play an active part in the decision-making process that determines which scripts make it to production.
“Producing my own films is an avenue I intend to head down. I want to be behind the scenes where I can make things happen for actors like myself who’ve struggled to find roles with integrity,” reveals Duncan, who says he appreciates every opportunity he’s been afforded to work in an industry where roles for black men are relatively scarce. “I have some projects I intend to produce that feature all-black casts,” he adds. “I intend to help put more black actors to work.”