New Jack City Revisited: Cop Talk with Judd Nelson

Featured interview by Reg Seeton, contributing editor



In the eighties, actor Judd Nelson was better known to most movie fans as a member of the famous Brat Pack, appearing in such coming of age classics as Making the Grade, The Breakfast Club, and St. Elmo's Fire. One cool thing fans may not know is that in 1986, Nelson also provided the voice of Rodimus Prime in the eighties favorite Transformers: The Movie..

After departing from the nice guy roles by the mid-eighties, Nelson's acting career took a grittier turn with the acclaimed television movie Billionaire Boys Club, as an ingenious corporate murderer, and Relentless, as an L.A. cop gone bad.

In 1991, Nelson found himself on the right side of the law in the controversial drug war, gangster film New Jack City. Now, almost fifteen years later, Warner Bros. is releasing the New Jack City Special Edition DVD, and we caught up with Judd Nelson to talk eighties cop shop talk on his role and the legacy of New Jack City.

UGO: Back in the eighties, Billionaire Boys Club really set you apart from your earlier roles, and Relentless gave us a different side of Judd Nelson, then New Jack City. How did you get involved in the project?

JUDD NELSON: Well, Mario (Van Peebles) and I went to acting school together and we were having dinner one night. I was living in New York from pretty much 1980 to 1994, so it must have been 1990 and he said that he was going to direct a movie and asked if I wanted to be in it. I said, "Sure." He said, "Well, I don't know what the role is yet because we haven't really written one for you, but I want you to be in it to play the cop's partner, another cop. Ice-T might play the cop. He's reasonably inexperienced and, you know. You can show him some things." That's when I replied, "I don't know really what I can show him, aside from be on time, know your lines and hit your mark." Mario said that's what he wanted me to do, so I said I'd be glad to do it. It was really sight unseen just to work with a friend, a guy that I knew would do a good job. So, it didn't really even matter to me what the role was, the size of the role, or anything about it. It was just that he wanted me to do it and I said, "Fine."

UGO: Your character Peretti was a wild man who battled his own demons. What type of research did you do?

JUDD: I had an acquaintance who worked for the NYPD and he put me in touch with a guy that did some undercover work. I basically got to hang out with him for a little while. I wanted to see how close he would get to crossing the line, and he got pretty close. He was the kind of cop, like Peretti, that the other cops don't really like. You know that great Hunter S. Thompson line, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro?" That's more like a Peretti character trait. Mario said he wanted me to come up with what the character wears. He said, "You figure out what you want him to wear. I don't want wardrobe do it. You see what you can find out." I was living in Manhattan and the motorcycle you see for just a second in the film is mine. What I would do is take little elements of behavior that I learned from the cop, and then find clothing that I thought would be very un-cop like. I'd ditch the bike and spend time up in Harlem, in the areas where the story takes place. I slowly started to come up with an attitude and an appearance that, when I was up there day or night, I was given a wide berth. No one bothered me, no one even spoke to me and I was avoided. I started to think that this was probably close to what I wanted it to be like. So that the people in these neighborhoods looked at me as if I was either a lunatic with a gun or a cop with a gun. I felt that I was ready when filming started and Ice (T) was just a pleasure to work with. He was a smart gentleman and was a blast; I really enjoyed working on the film.

UGO: You've played a number of wild men, especially early on. Looking back, were there any wild aspects of Bender (The Breakfast Club) in Peretti?

JUDD: Well, I think there's a line from The Breakfast Club where Bender says to one of the other characters, "Being bad feels pretty good." That's certainly an aspect of Peretti's mindset. I think that Bender and Peretti share the thought that the end justifies the means. I'm not sure how I feel on that personally. I guess it depends on the day. Certainly, Peretti will cross a certain line to achieve the results he wants. There's a moment at the very end of New Jack City, when the old man shoots Nino Brown. When we were filming that, Mario and I were talking and he goes, "You know what I want. You're concerned about all this." I said, "You know, I think I should smile." Mario wasn't sure so I said, "Look Mario, I'll do it any way you want, but I'm going to give you a smile and I bet you the smile's going to be in it." It worked out. Really, why not take pleasure in a piece of crap going down. I think that that's a Bender-like quality that Peretti shares.

UGO: New Jack City was hugely controversial at the time. In what ways do you think the film helped the war on drugs, given the climate at the time?

JUDD: Well, I'll say this: Take Ice-T, a guy with one hundred percent legitimate street cred. You have him play the cop, that's very impressive. Ice did such a good job. Usually, you'd think that because Wesley (Snipes) was so damn good as the bad guy, Nino Brown, every kid that sees the movie is going to say, "Oh, I want to be Nino Brown." Ice is so legit that kids see the movie and they know Nino Brown dies young. He got a little bit of flash, but that's about it. Ice is just so cool, and also the backstory is so great in the fact that his mother was murdered. That's a legitimate reason to want to do good, one that everyone can understand. I think without Ice, without someone of that ilk, then it does nothing to promote the idea that maybe crack's not a good thing to do. Ice brings this gangsta rap vibe, street cred, real life guy playing a character who does the right thing. That's how you give a positive message.

UGO: Dramatically, the film fires on a number of raw emotional levels, especially with Pookie (Chris Rock) trying to stay clean. Acting-wise, what did you take away from those emotional layers?

JUDD: Well, I think that Mario was really sensitive to the truth of moments. There is a truth that everyone knows is authentic and everyone knows when it's forced or fake. Mario just waited for those things to happen and captured them. It's like when you're ice-skating and someone's head hits the ice. You know that sound, it doesn't have to be something that permanently hurts someone but the weird crack, that's the truth. Chris Rock is so good at showing us the grips of an addiction, Mario just waited for those true moments to happen and then strung them together. Mario was involved in every aspect of this thing, he's a really talented guy. It was all guided to this notion of making a gangster film like White Heat and putting it in a contemporary non-white setting, and the truth comes out in the circumstance.

UGO: You're from Portland, Maine, the exact opposite of the streets of New York. How did your own upbringing in Maine challenge you in terms of playing Peretti?

JUDD: I'll tell you this: I don't know if it matters what country you're from, size of the city you're from, urban or rural, there are people that are hurting each other everywhere. There are people that are unconsciously hurting themselves everywhere. It's a question of being sensitive to your surroundings. Every city has got a good side of the tracks and a wrong side of the tracks, even Greenwich, Connecticut. I'm sure there's a wrong side of the tracks there, so I think it's about the "haves" and the "have nots," and what the have nots will do to become the haves. You can use your own experience.

UGO: How are you different today because of New Jack City. What did the film give you?

JUDD: One thing that I learned, I always thought that the badge a cop has was more like the shield that Captain America has. It's an obvious sign of good and something you'll protect other people with, but it will also protect you. I remember we were shooting a sequence where we had to wear necklace badges. You know, when you're undercover and you have to wear them around your neck? We just broke for lunch and I was walking off the set and one of the technical advisor cops said, "Hey, let me have the badge!" I told him I'd hang onto it and that I wouldn't lose it. He told me I couldn't go out with it on. I told him I wasn't going to be impersonating an officer and that's when he told me I wouldn't be safe, I was a target. I was shocked. I never even thought that being a cop meant that you were more in danger from a bad guy. That has always stuck with me. I think it changed my attitude toward cops in general, certainly in any moments I might have with them, I definitely see them as more human, more nervous and more threatened. I just enjoyed the experience of working with a friend, because I had known Mario before. It's such a great thing when you work with someone you already like, that level of trust. I just believed that he would do a great job, and boy, he did. That's something I'm always looking for, it seldom happens. It's great to work with people that you like, any job, no matter what you do. 

thanks CL :-)