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'Ladder 49' actor enjoys his relative anonymity for now

Morris Chestnut didn't pursue acting for its elusive promise of fame and glory.

Though recently, a steady flow of roles in mainstream films has kept Chestnut's resume growing, the thought of becoming a household name doesn't charm him at all. Right now, he's content with landing medium-sized characters such as Tommy Drake in Ladder 49 (which opens tomorrow)and keeping his career rolling.

"A lot of people get into the industry because they want to be famous," Chestnut said. "I just want to have the lifestyle of being able to be flexible. I didn't want to work a regular 9-to-5 job. I wanted to be able to have a nice income where I can be able to provide for my family."

Chestnut knows how easily Hollywood forgets about its children who aren't constantly working on new films. Stars rise and fall in a heartbeat, and you've got to keep grinding away on movie after movie to stay on people's minds and in their Rolodexes.

"So many people come to Hollywood and New York to [become stars]," Chestnut said. "If you're not on the 'hot list' or the 'new faces list,' you can be forgotten very easily."

John Travolta, who plays one of the lead roles in Ladder 49, is a prime example. After a stint of hit films in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Travolta fell into a hole for almost a decade. But Travolta's been going strong since 1994's Pulp Fiction put him back on the map, and Chestnut looked forward to working with him on Ladder 49.

"I wanted to see how he approached his job - how he dealt with people," Chestnut said. "I knew I was gonna be able to learn from him, and I did that."

But veterans such as Travolta aren't the only people Chestnut looks to for inspiration. Sometimes it's good to be around newcomers to the industry who are hungry for their first string of roles.

"To me as an actor, I feel like I'm always learning," he said. "I can learn from a person who has only been acting for a year. You sometimes forget the journey that you traveled, or some of the things you've gone through."

Chestnut got his start alongside Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Laurence Fishburne in 1991's Boyz N the Hood. After Boyz, Chestnut appeared on a few TV series and in a couple of made-for-TV movies but didn't really land consistent silver-screen roles until 1999's The Best Man. Since then, he's acted in two to three films a year.

Chestnut's next project is the science fiction thriller Cave, which finished filming and is set for release early next year. After that, it's up in the air. Chestnut said it really doesn't matter what genre his next piece falls into, as long as it's good work.

But while steady acting jobs keep Chestnut afloat, given the chance he said he'd much rather spend some time producing a film than starring in it. The power a mainstream producer holds is much more appealing to Chestnut than playing the lead role in a mainstream film.

"There's more pressure as the star of a movie, with less control," he said. Starring in one or two major flicks might have immediate rewards, but Chestnut knows it's also hard for an actor to sustain high levels of success.

"At some point, you're gonna have to do something else," he said. "Unless your name is Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey or Denzel Washington, most people have to find something else to do."

Most moviegoers have no idea how little creative control actors have in movies. An actor could give a great performance in a horrible film and take the brunt of the responsibility for the film's failure - even if it's not his or her fault.

Another plus of producing is the anonymity. Few people recognize producers when they go out in public. If Chestnut landed a gig behind the camera, he'd keep the level of privacy he enjoys today.

"I can walk the streets without being mobbed," he said. "People will still come up to me, but I can walk the streets. I appreciate being able to do that."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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