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Head of State

Genre: , ,

Cast: Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, Dylan Baker, Nick Searcy, Robin Givens & Lynn Whitfield

Director: Chris Rock

Rated: PG-13

Release Date: March 28th, 2003
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Head of State

The irreverent and irrepressible Chris Rock sets his sights on the highest office in the land in DreamWorks Pictures' comedy "Head of State."

Rock stars in the film, which also marks his directorial debut. Rock also co-wrote the screenplay with Emmy Award-winning writer Ali LeRoi, with whom he has had a long association. They most recently collaborated on the screenplay for "Down to Earth."

Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) is a Washington, D.C. neighborhood Alderman, who's about to be redlined out of his job. But after the untimely death of the party frontrunner, Gilliam is plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight as his party's nominee"”for President of the United States.

The film also stars popular comedian and television star Bernie Mac ("Ocean's 11," TV's "The Bernie Mac Show") as Gilliam's supportive older brother Mitch, a bail bondsman, who becomes his unlikely running mate. Rounding out the main cast are: Dylan Baker ("Road to Perdition") as Gilliam's campaign manager; Nick Searcy ("One Hour Photo") as Gilliam's much more politically savvy opponent; Lynn Whitfield ("Stepmom") as Gilliam's reluctant advisor, who is slowly won over by her unorthodox candidate; Robin Givens ("Book of Love") as the ex-girlfriend who dumped Gilliam, but who now sees his candidacy as her chance at becoming First Lady; Tamala Jones ("On the Line") as the new woman in Gilliam's life, who believes in him regardless of the election outcome; James Rebhorn ("Far From Heaven") as Senator Bill Arnot, the party leader who is more interested in his own future than in Gilliam's; and Stephanie March ("Law & Order: SVU") as a campaign worker with special talents. Rap artist Nate Dogg appears throughout the film as a musical narrator.

"Head of State" is produced by Ali LeRoi, Chris Rock and Michael Rotenberg ("Down to Earth"), with Ezra Swerdlow ("Wag the Dog") serving as executive producer.
The behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography Donald E. Thorin (2000's "Shaft"), production designer Steven Jordan ("Loser"), editor Stephen A. Rotter ("America's Sweethearts"), costume designer Amanda Sanders ("Pootie Tang"), and composers Marcus Miller and David "DJ Quik" Blake.

Chris Rock may never want to run for President, but the concept for a movie about an idealistic African-American who makes a run for the White House is something he's been thinking about for years. "I've been thinking about doing this movie for a long time; it's been kicking around in my head for years. We've all seen movies with a Black President or Vice President, and I've even received movie scripts where a Black guy is President, but the premise was always 'Black President.' I didn't want to make a Black President movie; I wanted to make a movie where a Black guy just happens to be running for President."

To write the screenplay, Rock once again teamed with his longtime collaborator Ali LeRoi, with whom he

most recently wrote the comedy "Down to Earth." Rock and LeRoi decided they needed the right ambiance to work on the screenplay, so they temporarily left their homes in New York in favor of the political climate of Washington, D.C. With the monuments to our founding fathers as their backdrop, and with the Washington Post at their door instead of the New York Times, they wrote "Head of State."

"Ali and I sat down and created a scenario where a young, Black guy would get to run for President," Rock says. "It's a film about the little man running for President"”just the lowest guy you could imagine getting a shot at the biggest title in the world. It's kind of like 'Rocky,' but in the political arena instead of the boxing arena."

Rock continues, "The opportunity comes because the party's first nominee unexpectedly dies, but the party knew they were going to lose anyway, so all the good candidates won't run. They end up choosing Mays Gilliam, an Alderman from D.C., as a patsy"¦to be their sacrificial lamb to set up the party for the next election. But Mays believes he has a shot because, you know, he's in the ring. He says, 'Why do I have to be the guy who takes a fall?' He knows the odds are against him, but as long as he's still standing, he's got a chance to win. At the same time, he's got nothing to lose because he's not a politician; he's not constricted in the way other politicians are. His campaign style is that he tells the truth, which I think is rare in politics today."

Ali LeRoi, who also produced "Head of State" with Michael Rotenberg, admits that it wasn't a stretch to find the right man to play Mays Gilliam. "It was pretty simple. Chris Rock would play a role where he gets to stand up and say irreverent things. That's his go-to move. We were really trying to take advantage of what his comedy is: He's not politically correct, he is irreverent"¦ He is all of those things. Why not craft a role that's tailored for him to go out and do what he's best at?"

In addition to co-writing and starring in the film, Chris Rock also chose "Head of State" as the film on which to make his directorial debut. He is quick to note that his first directing effort was helped enormously by those working with him on both sides of the camera. "You hire good people and just let them do their jobs, and if you see something going wrong, that's when you step in," Rock offers. "There's no need to constantly be saying, 'Do it this way, do it that way"¦'

Sometimes it's better to wait and see what they have in mind"”especially with the actors. I mean, most of them have been doing it a lot longer and are far more accomplished actors than me."

Every Presidential candidate needs to choose a running mate, but in a unique move, Mays Gilliam decides to keep it in the family and go with the one man he trusts most in the world, his brother Mitch. Likewise, to play the role of Mitch Gilliam, Rock turned to a trusted old friend, and one of today's biggest comedy stars, Bernie Mac. "Bernie was a guest on my show a while back, but this is the first time we've ever actually worked together," Rock says. "It was a dream come true. We're both from the old school; we love the same kind of comedy, so we really bonded. We had a great time."

"Chris and I have a tremendous amount of respect for each other," Mac echoes. "I think he is one of the true comedians, so working with him was a luxury for me."
Mac adds that working with Rock on his directorial debut was one of the main draws to do the movie, but he also appreciated that Rock and Ali LeRoi wrote the part of Mitch specifically for him. "They said that had I not done it, they would have had to rewrite the whole character, which was a great compliment to me."
The role of Mitch Gilliam may have been written for Bernie Mac, but it was created with Mac's real brother"”also named Mitch"”in mind. Mac notes, "I used to have a routine about my brother and they wrote my brother into the character. It was very inspirational to me because everything Mitch Gilliam is I've already lived with, eaten with"¦ I really relished playing Mays' big brother because the relationship was so close to me and my brother."

Mac says that he could also relate to the rather unusual"”not to mention painful"”way the Gilliam brothers expressed their affection. "Brothers knocking the crap out of each other is just a term of endearment. I think big brothers believe that's the way to teach their little brothers strength"¦to protect yourself at all times, stay on your toes. That's the relationship my brother and I had"”every time we saw each other, ba bam!," Mac laughs.

Ali LeRoi acknowledges that with virtually all screenplays, "writing is rewriting." However, there may never be more truth to that statement than when you have two of today's most inventive and quick-witted comedians working side by side. "Chris' brain is always working, always looking for what kind of spin he can put on a line to get that little extra ounce of humor out of it. It's the same with Bernie.

You give them a germ of an idea to operate with and Chris will take off and run with it in one direction, and Bernie in another. But you're dealing with Chris Rock and Bernie Mac"”there are no two funnier guys right now. They are at the top of their game, and I was just glad to be in the mix," LeRoi states.

The comedic skills of Chris Rock and Bernie Mac notwithstanding, the first-time director is quick to point out that even, or perhaps especially, in a comedy, "you can't just have a bunch of funny people running around riffing all day. You need actors to ground the movie, and we had some of the best. I was ecstatic with the cast. I don't think we could have gotten anyone better for any role."

Award-winning actress Lynn Whitfield was cast in the role of Debra Lassiter, the campaign consultant assigned to turn Mays Gilliam from an apolitical Alderman into a viable Presidential nominee. Rock admits that until the filmmakers actually saw Whitfield, they weren't sure she was right for the role. "I don't know why, but we weren't thinking of her at the time. But she came in and just knocked us out."
LeRoi adds, "She read a scene and our heads just spun, like 'Wow.' She really nailed the character. Then it became a question of who could top Lynn Whitfield, and the answer was nobody."
Whitfield laughs, "Honey, I just went in in those spike heels and said, 'Damn it. It's me.' I felt Debra Lassiter in me; I just knew who she was. She's a control freak. She wants to be in charge of everything, and it's very unsettling to her when things are out of her control. She's a power broker who thinks very little of Mays' ability. To her, helping him is part of a negotiation, a means to buying a good position for herself in the next election. She is very condescending to him at first, but she begins to see in this young man an honesty, an embracing of who he is, and a caring for the community she had gotten so far away from. He brings her back to the values with which she had started out, but had lost in the process of becoming a political player. She ends up actually wanting to make the world a better place, rather than wanting the world to accommodate her view of it."
Debra Lassiter is not the only one whose view of politics is transformed by Mays Gilliam's unique bid for the White House. Mays' campaign manager Martin Geller goes from fighting a losing battle to believing his candidate might actually beat the odds. Dylan Baker, who stars

as Martin Geller, notes, "At first we try to dress Mays up like every other politician and give him these sort of homogenized speeches. But after a while, he starts to ask, 'This is garbage. I'm not saying anything. When am I going to be able to say what I believe?' We keep trying to silence him, but, finally, when he starts using his own voice and saying what people want to hear, it gets exciting as his numbers start climbing. My character, Martin Geller, is a campaign manager, so no matter what the party is telling him to do, he wants to win. He really starts to get off on Mays' new attitude and begins to think, 'This could work. This guy is speaking to the people through his heart, through his mind. Let's go with it.'"

The party line is represented by its leader, Senator Bill Arnot, who only chose Gilliam to run to shore up his own chances of earning the minority vote and winning the White House in the next election. Senator Arnot is played by James Rebhorn, who expounds, "He's deeply committed to doing what's best for America, as long as it's what's best for Senator Bill Arnot. He sets up Mays Gilliam for a fall, but when Gilliam starts to build momentum and become a legitimate candidate, it terrifies Arnot because he feels it will jeopardize his chances for success in four years."

There is at least one person who is thinking more about the current election than the next: Gilliam's opponent, Vice President Brian Lewis, played by Nick Searcy. "He's been Vice President for eight long years, so he feels a certain sense of entitlement," Searcy comments. "I thought the character was hilarious, and for me to get a chance to do something like this was great because I've mostly done dramatic roles and haven't been in as many comedies. It was fun to play a character like this in his very dignified public persona, and then take the gloves off with this guy, wring him out and hang him up to dry by the end of the movie. He's very duplicitous, and, whether it's true or not, everybody imagines that public figures are very different in their private moments, and this role plays on that."

"Head of State" addresses the private lives of public figures by spoofing some much-publicized scandals through the introduction of Nikki, a campaign staffer whose job description requires some very specific talents. "She's a super-whore," states Stephanie March bluntly. In a radical departure from the conservative Assistant District Attorney she plays on television's "Law & Order: SVU," March takes on the role of Nikki, who, she relates, "was hired to satisfy the candidates in order to keep their sexual peccadilloes

in-house. I can't believe I'm saying it, but that's it. I don't think playing a super-whore was negative at all, because, of course, it's all done with a wink. It was obviously meant as a joke, so it was best to just have fun with the role and go with it."

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