The early 90s were Black urban dramas like New Jack City (1991) Boyz n the Hood (1991) Juice (1992) and Menace II Society (1993). Every Hollywood studio wanted one, but 21-year-old director Matty Rich took a chance when he directed The Inkwell (1994), a coming-of-age romance story that didn’t have any violence, and was drug-free.
Set in the summer of 1976 on Martha’s Vineyard, the film followed 16-year-old Drew Tate (played by Larenz Tate) as he made the transition from boyhood to manhood. The film also starred Jada Pinkett Smith, Duane Martin, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Morris Chestnut to a name a few.
For its 20th anniversary this week, ESSENCE.com spoke with cast members Larenz Tate, Adrienne-Joi Johnson, who played Heather Lee in the film, and director Matty Rich to reminisce about unforgettable moments on set, the awkwardness of love scenes, and how a 21-year-old from Brooklyn could have possibly directed the cult classic.
How did you think The Inkwell would fare against popular films of the day, like Menace II Society or Boyz n the Hood?
Larenz Tate: The Inkwell wasn’t well received when it first came out because the studios didn’t know how to market a movie about Black families that were not going through turmoil or death; a film where no one was getting shot. They weren’t used to that and felt like there were no audiences for feel-good Black films, so they didn’t promote it. But had that been a Gwyneth Paltrow or Leonardo Dicaprio, they would’ve pushed that movie.
Matty Rich: People thought that this film would be a bomb. Remember, in the 90s it was all different energy. We had Tupac and Biggie, and all this hardcore energy. I’m from Brooklyn so folks were expecting the same from me. But I came with this soft narrative; I went with love and family. I chose to show us in a different light. I always knew that this movie would catch on. The movie found another life with another generation since it plays on television and has become a classic. I’m so proud of all the great actors and crewmembers. I was only 21 when I directed this film.
How does a 21-year-old direct a movie?
Rich: Fear is a good thing; I look that in the eye. We all have challenges but the whole idea is to prepare for everything, yet not take yourself seriously. I respected the actors and they respected me. They didn’t see me as some young kid. I always got to the set extra early to prepare and rehearse, not over rehearsing because I worked with talented and strong actors who you shouldn’t over rehearse.
What was the craziest thing that happened on set?
Tate: I remember Will Smith came down to visit us in 1993. He and Jada were not even on the same radar as far as dating! He wanted Jada to be on his show (The Fresh of Prince of Bel-Air) but this was back in the day when actors were either doing movies or TV shows. And Jada was lik, ‘I’m not doing TV; I’m doing my movie thing.’ She thought about it and weighed her options but she turned him down. It’s funny to look back at that now. The fact that he came down and tried to pursue her from a different angle, where it was all business and now fast-forward years later they are one of Hollywood’s power couples. So incredible.
A.J. Johnson: It was the beginning of relationships. For example, Tisha Campell-Martin was actually visiting me on set when she really connected with my cast mate Duane Martin, who later became her husband. And Will Smith was visiting the set. It was the beginning of a lot of different things. We were young Black Hollywood, hanging out, not knowing what the future held. And to be a part of Hollywood history like that makes it special for me.
Larenz, were love scenes awkward for you, kissing on friends like Jada or A.J., especially since you were what, 17?
Tate: [laughs] I was 17 turning 18 that summer. I mean, it can be but you got to do it. I’ve been fortunate enough to be opposite some beautiful women that any man would find attractive. I think the professionalism kicks in for us. It’s easy to do it with the kind of woman I’ve been opposite because not only are they so talented but also they are f**king sexy. They’re hot [laughs]. Jada is fly, A.J Johnson is bad and she’s fly, so it’s not that difficult.
What’s a fun behind-the-scenes fact you think our readers would be surprised to know?
Tate: Ha! That my braids were wig pieces; we had them made by a woman who did everyone’s hair wigs at the time. She did Angela Bassett’s wig in What’s Love Got to Do With It. In Menace II Society I had braids, that was my hair but I had extensions added which ended up being a cultural fad called “the O-Dawg hairstyle!”
Do you remember the audition process?
Tate: Yes, Matty Rich was holding auditions in LA. Jada was already cast in the role and I remember her calling me, saying, ‘You got to do this movie!’ In fact, she was saying, ‘Listen, let’s meet up and rehearse because they are going to want me to read with you, so let’s rehearse, so you totally land it!’ I told her, ‘I’m going to rip that role! No need to rehearse, you just keep up with me and we just play off each other.’ She says. ‘I got you, let’s do it!’ I go in the audition and we really just lit up the room, then I had to audition solo. They didn’t know what to expect considering I just did Menace II Society playing O-Dawg, a completely street person. So that impressed them and they offered me the part.
Rich: I couldn’t believe how many talented actresses and actors wanted to work with me because, remember, I was only 21. I was so impressed to work with A.J., Jada Pinkett Smith, Suzanne Douglas, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Duane Martin, all these legends. Larenz had just come off Menace II Society and he just loved the fact that I believed in him and I knew that he could make the transition from playing O-Dawg to someone like Drew who was so innocent. He was turning 18 and when I same the transformation, I was blown away.
Johnson: That was probably the first role where I got to play a more mature woman. It wasn’t about age, it was about subject matter. Before that I did a lot of teenage stuff like House Party. So, when I was auditioning, it was one of the concerns that Matty had. Me, Larenz and Jada weren’t that far apart in age but in terms of subject matter I had to create the difference in maturity level for my character. There was a lot I had to bring to the character. Matty wasn’t sure if I could really pull that off, being cast really gave me the opportunity to stretch as an actress.
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