Cinqué Breaks the Lee Mould
Spike's little brother takes a break in Jim Jarmusch's collection of shorts Coffee & Cigarettes
Tandem News, May 23, 2004
By Angela Baldasssarre
Cinqué Lee is cracking me up. It's so hard to get a straight answer about his latest film, Jim Jarmusch's Coffee & Cigarettes, in which he stars opposite sister Joie Lee.
The fifth of six children (that's not why he's named Cinqué), Lee comes from a long line of creative talent. His mother, Jacquelyn Shelton, was an educator whose teaching ranged from art to Black Literature. His father is a composer and writer. Cinqué attended Saint Ann's school for gifted children for nine years, then the School of Art and Design for three years where he studied film, writing, and literature. Older brother, of course, is filmmaker Spike.
"Our parents never encouraged competition among us," says Lee. "We were pretty much individuals on our own. It's not like our parents wanted to form a band together and this person was the leader. They all thought we should learn an instrument. Spike plays the violin, my sister plays the flute, David plays piano, I plays drums. But they encouraged us to do whatever we wanted to do, which was great because at that point at an early age we didn't know what we wanted to do with our lives."
Lee's talent for characterization has gained him a great deal of recognition on both the screen and paper. His short stories have appeared in magazines Pump, Crawl, and Hangover. His script, Floaters, was adapted for Dark Horse Comics. As an actor he's appeared in Spike's Sarah and Horn of Plenty, as a deranged mental patient in Eric McDaniels Occupational Hazard, and as a mad composer in Huggo Wolff (directed by David Nelson), but his most memorable role was as the bell hop in Jarmusch's Mystery Train.
As a filmmaker Lee has portrayed many roles on both sides of the camera, including features Window on Your Present and Nowhere Fast, which he wrote, produced and directed. He was also co-writer and co-producer on Spike's Crooklyn.
In Coffee & Cigarettes, a series of vignettes featuring famous actors sitting around talking, Lee appears in two segments: "Twins" centres on Evil Twin (Cinqué) and Good Twin (Joie) who meet up with a wacko waiter (Steve Buscemi) in Memphis; and in "Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil" he plays The Kitchen Guy who upsets the plans of Jack White and Meg White (from the White Stripes).
Tandem talked to Cinqué Lee from his home in Manhattan.
Tell a bit about how this came about?
"I was in Memphis, working on Jim's film, Mystery Train. Spike had introduced me to Jim, 'cause he and Jim were working in Japan. Spike took me along 'cause he knew I liked Japanese animation. So I met Jim, and a couple of months later Jim said 'I wrote a part for you in the film,' so I came down to Memphis, and my sister came down, too. And on the last day of filming, I guess Jim had some leftover film and he said, 'let's shoot a really short film with you guys, and Steve Buscemi.' That's all I remember."
You've been doing your own thing for so long. When I talked to you last time it was about a film you directed, Nowhere Fast. What's happened since?
"That's exactly what happened to it. I jinxed my film. The last one I called Sink Like a Stone."
Are you testing yourself?
"No. It just happened. I just finished one actually, called You Are Forgiven, which is trying to make up for the other one."
Is that a feature?
"Yeah. It's a mocumentary, but not a comedy. It's about a woman who's making a documentary about child abuse. She interviews victims of child abuse on camera, and then they go and try to track down the abuser, on camera. Like they confront a priest, or an old uncle, or an ex-boyfriend's father. It's just a confrontational film that goes down. And then the woman who's making the documentary, she's also a victim herself, so she has to face her own demons, so she goes back to her home town and walks around with a camera. She goes back to face the guy who abused her when she was a kid. She tries to find him in this small town in Vermont. I just finished it last week, actually."
You also did a Japanese mini-series called Banana Chips?
"I did. It was a Japanese television show. I acted in it."
How odd is that?
"It's not odd, cause I was doing a lot of work in Japan a million years ago when Mystery Train did come out. The film did really well there, so because of that, I did some modeling in Japan, and directed some commercials and music videos, and whatnot, and then I got offered a job acting in this Japanese TV show. It was shot here in New York, so it was no big deal."
So there was no sort of Lost in Translation culture shock thing happening for you?
"No, I had been there several times. I haven't been there in years, but I'm planning to go back soon. I have a couple kids I haven't seen... from about three different women... I'm kidding."
You also write for comic books.
"I did. And I would like to."
And you don't anymore because they didn't sell?
"Yeah, I guess. It was my fault. I picked the wrong artist."
So, this mocumentary sounds really interesting. Any idea when it's getting released, and if we'll see it here?
"This one probably has more of a chance of getting seen than anything I've done because of the subject matter. There've been a lot of really great documentaries, like Capturing the Friedmans, Stevie. Even though my film's fake, it still touches on what's going on right now."
What else is up?
"I'm doing a real documentary with my sister, Joie, on this woman, Susan Batson, she's amazing. She's an acting coach, and she coaches Tom Cruise. Nicole Kidman thanked her in her Oscar speech, J-Lo, Puffy. She's an amazing black woman that my sister was going to when she started out. I also took a class with her. So we've been working on this documentary with her. I've been working on this for a year and a half. Her method is very intense."
Will we see you again in front of the camera?
"Not unless you see me coming out of a court house, maybe."