We sat down with the newest cast member of CSI: Miami and star of hit films including 8 Mile, The Express, and Shall We Dance. Omar Benson Miller talks to us about how his character Walter Simmons brings new life to the detective team that fights crime in the Florida tropics. Q: When did you first know you wanted to be an actor?
A: I actually didn’t know that I wanted to act until my junior year in college at San Jose State. I went to school to play baseball but the freedoms of college were distracting and I lost some of my discipline in training. Then I sort of fell into theater. While I was taking a general education class, one of my professors, Buddy Butler, approached me and felt that I had something quirky in my personality that could benefit me. He passed my information onto Amy Glazer, the head of the performing department and she truly found my talent. She had a way of getting through my hard head and helping me understand what it is that goes on in my acting. It’s a trip because the more I get into this industry and the deeper I get into my career, I find a lot of the skills I learned from my professors come into play. As an actor, sometimes you need to know which skills to use. In some circumstances you need to self-direct and take control and in others you need to be more malleable.
Q: You actually got your first break while you were still studying at San Jose. Tell me about booking your first project, Sorority Boys.
A: My character was Big Johnson and it was a wacky comedy with a well seasoned producer. Originally, I just had a small role. The producer of the film is also a talent manager and he saw something in me and decided to throw me some extra lines. What happened was there was a Canadian actor who couldn’t get into the country last minute, so he gave me his lines too. That producer gave me a shot and he is my manager to this day and has produced over fifteen movies, including the original and recent remake of Arthur (Russell Brand). One of the best things that has happened to me in my career is that people have been willing to help me and I’ve been willing to accept that help. My manger really streamlined what it is that I wanted to do with my career and helped make it happen.
Q: How did booking 8 Mile and the success of that film open doors for you in Hollywood and change your career?
A: It was craziness! 8 Mile changed everything, literally. Not just for me, but for everyone involved. It changed the world for us as performers. By and large most of us- Anthony Mackie, Evan Jones, Michael Shannon, Brittany Murphy, were all unknowns and become actors who worked after that. Everywhere I go, people still talk to me about that experience. Eminmen was just on the BET Awards rapping and a bunch of people I know called me up to say ‘hey your boy from 8 Mile is killing it’. It’s been more than ten years since that movie. It was a great platform because when you watch that movie now it still holds up.
Q: You’ve worked oppostite big stars like Richard Gere (Shall We Dance) and Halle Berry (Things We Lost in the Fire), are there actors you admired growing up? Who do you look up to now and who would you still love to work with?
A: There are lots of people I’d love to work with and it’s been crazy some of the people that I have already worked with. I booked 8 Mile when I first graduated college and I still remember the first time I heard Eminemem. I had to drive my car from San Jose and Eminem was the only CD in my car at the time and then I got to go to set and meet and work with him. I was watching Richard Gere films my whole life and then I work with him and Stanley Tucci and Susan Sarandon and even Jennifer Lopez. This industry is one of such vast impact. At the time I worked with Jennifer Lopez, she was one of the most popular people on the planet and so you wonder what she will be like and she was just so cool to work with. But of everyone, the one that stands out for me is Benicio Del Toro. He is a great actor, so generous and always interesting. Working with him is like getting a lesson, you are literally learning and working.
Q: Are there any directors that you’ve worked with that really helped you grow as an actor? Who do you hope to work with in the future?
A: Spike Lee is one of the greatest directors out there. He is a guy that getting the job, is the big, big, big, thing! If you get the job to work for Spike Lee, that is the big deal. If you book one of his films you know you did something right because his casting is always so dead on point. He always has the right guy or girl in the work. He also has lots of expectations. He expects you to ‘bring it’ on set and if you don’t he will change the set up right around you and focus on someone else if you are not ready to do the work. I got to shoot Miracle at St. Anna with Lee in Italy. This film was the first time I worked on another continent and for that amount of time, it was such an opportunity to show my range. Of all my experiences it is certainly my crown jewel. I got to be the ambassador of that film and travel Europe promoting it. My character, ‘The Chocolate Giant’ is this lovable guy in a bad position. For one, he’s at war and he’s at war abroad in Italy and he’s dually at war at home because of the racism that existed at that time. I got to show the humanity of the American soldier and of the American black soldier versus the other participants in the war. The interaction between my character and the young boy is universal; it showed the value of human life even if you don’t know the other person or don’t speak the same language. That film exemplified humanity for me. Going forward, I want to work with Steven Spielberg and Quentin Tarantino. There are also a lot of guys who make films that aren’t yet big names whose films I love so it would be great to work with some of them. I also would love to work with Clooney as a director. I like to work so i’d like to make as many films as I can. But right now my focus is on my opportunity in TV, but whenever it is I get back to movies, I look forward to really focusing on that work and doing the best that I can
Q: You recently wrote/produced/ and directed Gordan Glass. Tell me about this project and do you hope to do more of this type of work?
A: Gordan Glass was a family film about family and I made it with my family so it was an incredible experience. It was our first time trying to do something on our own, our first production, and I’m definitely interested in stretching my legs in this creative field. I think the more established you get in multiple avenues in this industry, the better off you are in the long run. It was a great experience to teach me how much I knew and how much I didn’t know and I didn’t know a whole lot. I want to get back up on the horse as soon as I can and direct again. I need to take my own advice that I give to people and sit down and just do the work. I have a lot in my head but need to get it out and I plan to.
Q: You recently joined the cast of CSI:Miami, tell me about your character and what you feel he adds to the show?
A: This is my first season on CSI:Miami and I am the newest character. I feel the writers have really woven my character into the fabric of the show very well. They brought me on to try and refresh the show and the audience seems to like it and that’s all I can ask for. I learn a lot working on this show because we do a lot of volume so I stay sharp as an actor. The exposure of the show is incredible because now I go all over the wolrd and people know my name and recognize me. More people will see a re-run of CSI:Miami then the life of some of the bigger films that I do. It’s a steady job and and I am happy with this opportunity and just going to ride it. I’m impressed with how the show has used my character and they always have something wild and wacky for Walter to do so I look forward to seeing where it goes.
Q: What’s the craziest place you’ve ever been recognized or gotten fan mail from?
A: I got something recently from Serbia. A fan of the show there. The exposure is just crazy.
Q: You recently shot your first animated film The Lion of Judah, playing a pig named Horace, how did you enjoy that and how was it different than being on-camera?
A: It was great, something really special. It was a Christian animation film and you very rarely in this industry get to mix your personal beliefs with the work and we were telling a story that is near and dear to me. When you record, the animation isn’t finished so you have to be very creative and inventive in filming. You work alone, not with other actors, and then you see the finished project. I was pleased with the way the film turned out and it was interesting to see what it looked like in the end. Being on film as an actor, you have to have faith in the people you work with because you only have so much control over the finished product. You can only control what you do and it was the same with this film. You have to trust in the talent of the people who you work with on a project to do the best at their job.
Q: Thanksgiving is right around the corner and I know your charity works with Homeless Services and has provided meals to over 3,000 hungry in the past. How is charity an important part of your life?
A: This year, I was the spokesperson for National Guide Dog Month for Natural Balance and Petco. It was a fundraising drive to raise money during the month of September to donate to train guide dogs because there is no national/federal money for this training. We raised over 1 million dollars for the visually impaired. People don’t realize that it takes between 40-70 thousand dollars to train one dog. So it’s important work. I also worked with Blessings In a Backpack to help feed children here in the U.S. that don’t have food to eat at home after school or over the weekend. The project has helped raised kids test scores and their confidence. I met this organization at the Kentucky Derby and been working with them ever since. I’ve been busy with these two charities this year and now am turning my attention back to my charity to continue the work we’ve done in the past on Thanksgiving.
Q: How can your fans keep in touch?
A: I do all of my own social media. It is actually me and I will definitely get back to you if you write me. My Twitter is @OmarMiller.
Q: Do you have any crazy moments in your career that stand out or any fun facts you want to share with your fans?
A: My funniest moment on set was filming a scene in 8 Mile when Mekhi Phifer’s wig fell off during the scene and we were all just trying to keep a straight face. As for fun fact, I am NOT related to Forest Whitaker contrary to popular belief! But he is a great actor.