by Brianna Rae
Set to hit theaters on Dec. 4, Spike Lee’s latest film, Chi-raq, has garnered significant controversy throughout the entirety of its production, despite having only last week released the trailer. Though meant to be call-to-action against gun violence in Chicago and beyond, many Chicago residents and politicians have criticized and protested the name of the film as disparaging and negative, while Lee consistently defends his use of the title. The nickname ‘Chi-raq,’ a marriage of ‘Chicago’ and ‘Iraq,’ draws attention to the severity of Chicago’s gun violence, where shooting victims have outnumbered those in war-torn Iraq. The Madison Times recently had the opportunity to speak with the breakout star of the film, Anya Engel-Adams, about her perspective of the film, the complexity of the controversy, and her budding acting career. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
TMT: This seems like it’s going to be a pretty big movie, not only because of the controversy that it’s sparked with the name of the film, but because it’s another Spike Lee joint with a huge cast of stars – Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett, Nick Cannon, Sam Jackson, Jennifer Hudson, John Cusack, Teyonah Parris – just to name a few…
AEA: Yeah, the cast is super impressive. This was my first major theatrical release film and I’m in the company of people I idolize. Angela Bassett is getting her makeup done right next to me and Sam Jackson is on set – people who I grew up drooling over are now in a movie with me. The cast is just spectacular, it’s gonna definitely be a really important and explosive film.
TMT: What was your role in the film?
AEA: I played a girl named Rasheeda, supporting to the lead actress, whose name is Lysistrata. We play best friends who kinda start this girl gang, and we protest the violence that’s going on in Chicago. It’s actually kind of like a female empowerment film.
TMT: Oh, really? That’s cool, I had no idea…
AEA: Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t know, like they think it’ll be like a violent ‘Boyz n the Hood’ type of film. But it’s actually kind of a feminist film, and it’s based on a Greek comedy called Lysistrata, which is about the women of the town protesting the war that’s going on, so this is like an adapted version of that that takes place in modern-day Chicago. So Lysistrata is the lead, and I play her best friend, and together we kind of form this group of women and fight the powers that be and that’s basically the premise.
TMT: Even as much as I’ve been trying to find information on this film, I had no idea that it would be like that, that sounds great.
AEA: Yeah, because with the name, people think, “It’s gonna be violent, it’s gonna exploit the city of Chicago,” and it’s totally not. It’s a non-violent film that empowers women and forces us to look at a really huge issue going on in that city, and really a universal issue, but especially in Chicago. It’s something that we so desperately need to address that people are neglecting. But it’s not a violent or angry movie at all.
TMT: So I had heard that the film was loosely based off of the Greek comedy Lysistrata, as you said, but I’ve also heard that the movie is a musical too – is it?
AEA: It’s kind of a…I wouldn’t call it a musical but the way it’s versed and written is poetic, and then, actually, there is some music and some performance in it too. It’s a really interesting way of addressing a really dark issue. Spike made it really poetic and artistic in a way that people might not expect it to be. There’s a little bit of dance, too…I don’t know how much I can say [laughs]. So, it’s not a full-on musical, but there are elements of verse and rhyming and definitely something different that no one’s seen or is expecting, especially with the movie title Chi-raq.
TMT: It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of the controversy that the title caused, and I’m sure you’ve heard an earful about it. I was just reading one of Spike Lee’s comments to someone where he said – and I’m paraphrasing – ‘Everyone has all these opinions about this movie and its title, but no one knows anything about the movie. Wait until you see it to decide it you like it.’ He said that filming between June 1 and July 9 there were 331 people shot and wounded, and 69 people were murdered (https://www.thewrap.com/spike-lee-slams-misinformed-critics-of-chicago-crime-movie-chiraq/) The violence is really overwhelming.
AEA: Yeah, it’s a huge, huge issue that Spike is really passionate about. So when people question his intentions behind it, I mean, it’s ridiculous. He’s so passionate about really changing things and that’s the core motivation behind him doing the film. Everyday that we were filming, on the call sheet, he would have the body count of the people shot and killed over the last 24 hours. We were reminded everyday. He took us into the heart of Engelwood [where the film is based] and we saw it. It wasn’t just a movie, it was an experience that he wanted us all to be connected to, and he wanted to make sure we felt it and understood the urgency of what was going on every single day, and that we need to wake up and be aware.
TMT: Wow, so he’s really committed to this issue, both socially and artistically…
AEA: Right, and he’s not over the issue now that we’re done with the movie, he’s still very much in it. It’s a really important thing for him to be in people’s faces about, and he does that really well…[laughs] He’s an in-your-face kind of guy [laughs].
TMT: [laughs] So had you been to Chicago before this film, did you have any connections there, or was filming this the first experience you had with Chicago?
AEA: It was my first time! And like I said, I used to work with the Lakers, so I had pretty much been to every major city in the country, EXCEPT Chicago! I don’t know why I had never been there, I guess the Lakers didn’t play the Bulls very often [laughs]. But yeah, that was my first time being there, and even really knowing about that. I wasn’t that connected to the issue of violence. But once I got there, I instantly started to get into it and feel it. And it’s really heartbreaking stuff. It’s really sad. And then you meet the people there and they’re all really sweet and loving families, and these mothers who have these terrible tragic stories of losing their sons – who were like, 15, and on the honor roll, and a star football player, who was murdered on accident, or things like that. Once I got there, I started to realize the heartbreak and how much of an issue it was.
TMT: Yeah. There are so many different factors that go into gun violence too, like cyclical poverty, lack of quality education, food insecurity…
AEA: Yeah, exactly. And there’s no funding. The tragedy is that you travel like 30 minutes north and there’s all this money going into the downtown area. The politicians are putting money into the wrong places, and that’s one of the reasons there’s so much controversy about this film, because these guys are like, ‘Ok, we don’t want a movie about this and the fact that we might not be making the right decisions and that we’re neglecting this whole other part of our city.’ Which is why I think politically this has been a very controversial movie. There are ways to fix the issues, but there’s no money being brought to these areas, and there’s not enough education and not enough jobs, and people resort to crime, and all of that perpetuates this cycle of violence, and it’s not being addressed by the people who can fix it.
TMT: Right. And it seems like oftentimes when stuff like this IS addressed, it’s addressed within problematic frameworks of ‘black-on-black crime’ and whatever else, which are just insidious and purposeful distractions from the causes and humanity of these issues and injustices.
AEA: Right, it’s all disguised in something because nobody wants to take the blame for anything… It’s super heartbreaking. So I’m really happy and proud to be part of a project that’s whistleblowing this whole thing, and that I’m under the guidance of someone like Spike Lee, who’s fearless and bold, and he looks at all this controversy he just brushes it off his shoulder and is just like, ‘This is nothing new to me’ [laughs].
TMT: [laughs] All of his movies have been controversial, I think.
AEA: [Laughs] Right, right. I think that kind of lets him know that he’s doing something right, like it’s his life purpose to kind of stir things up. So I’m just excited to even be a part of something that will, or eventually will, be part of a positive change.
TMT: That’s excellent, congratulations. Off of that point, you mentioned that in filming you would go in and meet some of the families who lived there, and that they were all very sweet and welcoming and nice, which makes me wonder – what was the community’s response to you all coming into their space and filming this? What was the reaction?
AEA: From what we saw when we were filming, they were great, they were all very, very warm. If we were filming on location at a house or outside, there were always groups of people speculating or cheering us on, everybody was very supportive. And I think the people who live there who have their reservations about this, they’re just not sure yet what this is gonna look like. They think, ‘Is it going to be a violent film, or a Hollywood way of coming in and exploiting an issue and making money off of it?’ So I think those people who maybe aren’t as into it are kind of just not sure yet and they’re waiting to see what it’s going to look like. As far as the people that we interacted with, they were all very warm and supportive of it all. And, I think a lot of people were just excited that like, Sam Jackson and everyone else was in their neighborhood [laughs].
TMT: How did you end up starring alongside such veteran mega-stars? What’s your background like, how did you get into what you’re doing right now?
AEA: As far as getting that role specifically, I came into [acting] with no agent, no manager, or anything, and I was just kind of an aspiring actress and keeping my ear open for different auditions, and I literally stumbled upon an audition online which ended up being for Livin’ the Dream. I didn’t know what it was for – it was untitled, it was being casted by Kim Coleman, who I knew was a great casting director, but it didn’t say anything about Spike Lee. Knowing that [she’s] a really great casting person, I thought I’d just go in and give it my best. And I got called back for that twice, and the final call back was, “We would like you to come back to audition for the producers and the director Spike Lee,” and I was like what?!! I didn’t believe it, I was like there’s no way that Spike Lee’s gonna be at my audition. It was so surreal! So he casted me for Livin’ the Dream, that was the first thing I did. He was really pleased with the cast and how we did so he let all of us come back and audition for Chi-raq, which I think he does a lot of the time – he finds people he vibes with and likes and thinks is talented and brings them along for the next thing and rocks with them again. He was awesome enough to let me come back and believed in me enough to let me have a really cool role in Chi-raq. Spike mixed this collection of huge vet movie stars and new up-and-comers, and gave us all really good parts. There was a mutual respect. You didn’t really ever feel like you were lesser than anyone, even though you technically were [laughs]. There was always respect, it was all love.
TMT: What would you be doing if you weren’t an actress? Did you have something else that you were really passionate about that you’d be happy pursuing if your acting career didn’t take off?
AEA: As I was pursuing acting, I was doing a lot of healing stuff – like massage therapy and physical therapy stuff, so before this, I was actually traveling with the Los Angeles Lakers for like four seasons doing massage therapy. It was the coolest job ever, I traveled the country and saw the world. And I still do it, the healing arts and massage are a passion of mine, especially with athletes. I work with a lot of the Miami Heat players, which is kind of a coincidence, because then I ended up doing Livin’ the Dream, which was a basketball film, and it kind of all intertwined in that way which was really serendipitous and beautiful.
TMT: That sounds like a good balance.
AEA: Yeah, it is. One, it pays the bills, and two, it’s just a cool profession, because it’s like therapy for myself to do therapy on other people, so it always kept me grounded. Especially because pursuing acting is a really difficult, stressful thing that can really tear somebody down. It’s emotionally draining, physically draining, and in the meantime while I was doing that I had that to fall back on and keep me going and support me financially and mentally. So it’s definitely been a blessing to be able to do that.
TMT: Where are you from?
AEA: I’m from upstate New York originally but grew up in south Florida. I went to an arts middle school and high school.
TMT: Did you end up going to college too or did you just jump right into what you wanted to do?
AEA: Yeah, I didn’t go to college, I just ended up going to this program to learn massage because I knew I wanted to move to L.A. and support myself while I pursued the arts. I thought I’d just go work in a spa. So after high school I learned massage and moved out to LA and did that.
TMT: So you went to an arts middle and high school – did you study drama there? I’m about to be really impressed if this stuff is your very first experience with acting!
AEA: [laughs] Yeah, you know, I definitely put the work in… As much as it’s like an overnight success thing, it’s also like…I went to the middle school of the arts where I was a dancer. I started as a gymnast and then became a dancer, and then in high school I started in dance and then transferred to theatre. So I was doing both, and I was doing little plays as a kid and make little movies as a kid. Then when I moved to L.A. I was in and out of acting classes for five years. So I was always kind of around it and always practicing it, and I had done little short films with people before, so it wasn’t like a cold introduction to it, I had something to pull from. I just had never done anything on this level before…
TMT: So your first feature-length film is about to release, and you’ve said it was a great experience – what are you up to now?
AEA: Well, Livin’ the Dream just came out, so we’re waiting to see the response from that, and it’s good so far, people are super into that movie. So that’s been cool to see. Now, I’m putting everything together and getting prepped – I don’t really have any representation – so getting a good agent, a good manager, is top priority. I’m doing a lot of promotional stuff for Chi-raq and kind of getting ready for the next thing. I don’t have anything set up right now, but I have a lot of prepping to do and building up from these two films that I just did with Spike Lee, which is crazy to me [laughs].
TMT: [laughs] These films are pretty amazing things to just slap on your resume, especially with you just starting out! These are your first two acting experiences, right?
AEA: Yeah, totally! And like I said, I don’t have an agent or a manager and I didn’t really go about it the way that people usually do. I’m kind of going backwards, so it’s like now that I’ve done these two big movies, NOW I’m going back and getting the agent and manager, so I’m kind of doing my homework, dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s [laughs].
TMT: [Laughs] So you’re feeling good though?
AEA: Yeah! I’m really excited about what’s to come. I’m positive that Chi-raq is gonna be a huge movie that will not only be entertaining but will really be important and something that changes things for the better.
TMT: You’ve got me really excited to see this movie now, and I was already excited before!
AEA: Yeah, I’m excited too. It’s making me really come to terms with where I see myself as a person. It’s been weird, it’s made me confront a lot of things and made me more clear on my purpose and where I want to go, as a person and an actor, and as an activist and a woman. It’s really pushed me forward, not just in the acting world, but as a human being – it’s been a spiritual thing for me. And with doing interviews, I have to really come to terms with what I think and how I feel, and it’s a very new thing. Spike put me in this position where, you know…I had to grow up a little bit [laughs]. But I’m so happy, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the acting world. This movie is really going to be something special and momentous, and I’m so honored that he chose me and believed in me enough to carry that. So I’m just excited. I’m happy and honored to be here.