A very large opportunity for a very large actor; Michael Clarke Duncan's performance in 'The Green Mile' is generating early Oscar buzz.; FILM

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He's big -- 6-foot-5, 320 pounds big. But for once in his life, Michael Clarke Duncan wasn't big enough.

The role of John Coffey in the movie adaptation of Stephen King's "The Green Mile" called for someone huge -- 7 feet tall, around 350 pounds. Big just wasn't going to be good enough.

"They told me, 'You know, you're not actually big enough for this role,' " Duncan says with a hearty laugh, his booming voice filling up his Washington hotel room like a bass drum. "I said, 'Wait a minute, nobody in my life has ever told me that.' "

Duncan can afford to laugh now, because he got the role anyway. A little movie magic -- he politely declines to give away any of his "secrets" -- added the half-foot to his frame that enabled him to tower over co-stars Tom Hanks and David Morse. And a diet that would do Henry VIII proud took care of the additional poundage.

"I literally had so much food, I could not eat anymore," Duncan says. "My stomach got so big, it was way, way out here."

Director Frank Darabont loved his bulk, Duncan says, and doubtless loved Duncan's performance as a convicted killer with a miraculous secret that makes prison guard Paul Edgecomb (Hanks) consider some profound questions.

The film, which opened Friday, is generating plenty of Oscar buzz -- the cast and crew already have 19 Academy Award nominations and five wins between them -- and among the buzziest performances is Duncan's, an early bet for a supporting actor nod.

The Oscar talk delights Duncan. He knows this is probably the role of a lifetime -- outside off bouncers and security guards, Hollywood isn't brimming with job opportunities for massive, bald-headed black men -- and he is determined to enjoy every minute. "I love it, I'm soaking it all in," he says, arms raised in exultation.

"In reality, there's nothing I can do about it," he says, "but I'd love to get that call in February," when Oscar nominations are announced. "As an actor, man, that's the pinnacle. To say you've been rewarded for being one of the best of the year, it's like being on an all-star team. I would cherish that."

A native of Chicago, the 35-year-old Duncan spent his entire life in the Midwest, save for a stint at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. Six years ago, he decided to head west, settling in L.A. and landing -- what else? -- a job as a security guard.

But a guy who looks like Michael Clarke Duncan is going to get noticed, and it wasn't long before the guy doing the noticing was a casting agent. He persuaded Duncan to give acting a try, and after a series of predictable roles as bouncers and other types of muscle (in films including "Bulworth" and "The Player's Club"), the budding actor landed his first major role, as one of a band of would-be saviors out to keep an asteroid from crashing into the Earth in 1998's big-budget smash, "Armageddon."

It was while making that film that co-star Bruce Willis started Duncan on the road to "The Green Mile."

"He said, 'Michael, I got the role of a lifetime for you. This will totally change everything for you in Hollywood. Go get the novel right now; don't waste any more time.' "

So Duncan bought the 1,000-plus-page novel and started reading. (Fortunately, "The Green Mile" was available in a single volume by then, as opposed to the six separate volumes it originally comprised.)

"I'm reading about this John Coffey, and the two dead girls, and I'm like, Oh God, I'm starting to well up," Duncan explains. "I thought, something's happening here."

So pal Willis called Darabont, whose previous directing effort had been another Stephen King prison story, "The Shawshank Redemption." And Darabont called Michael Clarke Duncan, who less than four years into his acting career was only two auditions and a screen test away from the sort of career-defining role most actors never find.

"I told people not to call me," Duncan relates. "I laid with my script day and night, I slept with it. ... Everywhere I went, that script went, because I wanted this role so bad. And when I got to the screen test and saw Tom Hanks, I was like, 'Come on, this isn't happening.'

"I was thinking, 'Don't fumble, whatever you do. It's fourth and one, I'm going to be handed the ball and run right up the middle. Just don't fumble.' "

The first test didn't go so well; a nervous Duncan tore right through the script, apparently taking that football analogy too far and convincing himself some big-time tackles were bearing down on him. But then Hanks told him to take it easy, and Darabont told him to do it again.

"I wasn't getting into character," he says. "So I started saying to myself, 'I'm John Coffey, I can get into this.' And the next thing I knew, I'm here in Washington being interviewed by you."

Duncan laughs a lot when he talks about "The Green Mile," and makes no attempt to hide his astonishment at his good fortune.

"Everybody's falling in love with this film, and that's because I'm riding with Tom Hanks," he says. "Once somebody said to me, 'Would you like to co-star in a film with Tom Hanks?' I said, 'Well, I don't know, his last few movies haven't done so well ... give me five seconds to think about it.'

"I mean, who else can say, in their first two movies, they worked with Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis? That's pretty good company there."

Now comes the hard part. He's got one other film in the can -- "The Whole Nine Yards," a comedy with Willis, Matthew Perry, Kevin Pollak and Natasha Henstridge -- but beyond that, he is waiting to see if Hollywood will let an actor who looks like Michael Clarke Duncan stretch his acting muscles.

"There are roles out there," he says. "They will write a role that doesn't have a black actor or white actor attached to it, it will be whatever actor comes and does the best job in the audition. ... I don't think that it boils down to black or white in most instances. In my case, I would hope they would look at ability and say, 'Hey, this guy can do more than one thing.' "

One thing he does know: He won't be playing any more nameless bouncers.

"I think that with this film, I've climbed that wall and I've hopped over it," he says. "I'm out of this mold right here, and I'm into another mold, where there's a lot more room; where they can say, 'You want to play an ex-football player who got his law degree and now he's this big-time lawyer? You want to play a doctor or be somebody's father?' These are the things I'm starting to imagine.

"I'd love to be a leading man," he adds. "I'll try to break every barrier I can. I would love to hear, 'Starring Michael Clarke Duncan in his first leading role,' and everyone say, 'Man, that was a good movie.' "

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