Is Chili Palmer your favorite role?
Oh, not particularly. I’ve loved all my parts. Chili’s one of my favorites, for sure. He’s just like a cool guy. He’s like the James Bond of the street.
He’s also a guy who’s like a little boy, full of enthusiasm for his passions.
I think that’s spot on. He has definitely got almost a childlike passion for movies and music in this movie, so that’s the one thing about him that I think makes him a character is not just how cool he is, but how almost naïve he is about his love for his passions.
Your director, F. Gary Gray, believes that the music business is more dangerous than the movie business. What’s your take on it?
Probably yes, because I think the Mafia influence in the music industry, there’s evidence of it. And I have a, well, probably early on, even before Grease, when I did records, even as a kid, I could sense the leveraging going on around me. So it definitely was a heavier vibe.
Is your portrayal of Chili based on any particular person?
Well, it’s not a mimicking of anything that I know. It’s kind of a compilation of many people that I saw growing up in the movie industry and in the street, and he’s an original guy too. I always thought of him as the Sean Connery of the street. And having the book helps a lot. When you read all of the details in the book about Chili, it guides you on how to play him.
Have you talked to Elmore Leonard about the character?
We’ve met. He almost does what Pinter does in his plays, where he gives you all of it in his writing, so your job is to ascertain exactly how much of it to use or not use or create because I met the real Chili Palmer and he’s nothing like what I play Chili like. He’s much more eccentric.
Well, I love Uma. We’re wonderful friends and I like us onscreen together. I think we have a natural chemistry and we trust each other onscreen, and that’s a wonderful thing as a professional to experience, just to trust that she knows what she’s doing and I know what I’m doing and to help each other if we need to. We’re a team acting together.
What made this the right project to reteam with Uma?
I wanted her right from the start on this and I didn’t know if we would get her. But she was my first choice for this, because when I read it, it just seemed like the people who wanted to do it, without mentioning them, were marvelous. They were high-end people too, but I just bought Uma in the music industry because she’s exotic and there’s an originality there.
In the book, Chili admits he’s more into Sinatra than Hip-Hop. What do you prefer?
I’m probably like Chili in that way in that I’m more of a Tony Bennett and Sinatra fan, but Chili is a dilettante in the way that he knows a little bit about everything and I think he knows a lot about movie trivia and I think he knows a lot about music trivia, and so I play him maybe being more fond of the classics but actually knowing a lot about music. Like Quentin Tarantino knows a lot about film, that’s how I play Chili, knowing a lot about film and music.
Have you been listening to any newer acts to prepare for the film?
Black Eyed Peas I’m going to dance to, and Andre of course. I’ve enjoyed experiencing that. I have a whole CD of tons of musicians to kind of get and basically I go with who I’m supposed to be familiar with, so I go with that.
Be Cool is currently scheduled for release by MGM Pictures on February 11, 2005.