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Seeing Redbelt

Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Mamet, and Emily Mortmer discuss their new martial arts film Redbelt. logo
Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt
(© Sony Pictures)
In recent months, David Mamet has been exceedingly well represented on the world's stages, including his Broadway comedy, November, the San Francisco and London revivals of Speed the Plow (which is also due on Broadway this fall in a different revival starring Jeremy Piven and directed by Neil Pepe), and his new one-act Keep Your Pantheon -- also directed by Pepe -- which debuts later this month at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theater, paired with his tried-and-true Duck Variations.

But since moving to the West Coast five years ago, the 60-year-old Mamet has devoted considerable energy to film and television -- including his popular CBS show The Unit. He has also managed to discover Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a South American variation of the ancient martial arts training. That sport provides the setting for his newest movie, Redbelt, which premiered at last month's Tribeca Film Festival and goes into commercial release this month.

"Redbelt is not a pure martial arts movie," Mamet hastens to explain. "It's a combination of a fight film within a film noir with a strong nod to the ways of the samurai. I'm particularly interested in the concept of physical perfectability, which is something that came up a lot with the military on The Unit, as well as among fighters I know. Training for both involves cleansing lesser sentiments from those involved."

To prove his point, he actually cast numerous martial arts stars, including his own Jiu Jitsu teacher, Renato Magno, along with former boxer Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini and retired Mixed Martial Arts champ Randy Couture in Redbelt. "This is my most eclectic casting so far, because I wanted my fights to be authentic," he says. "Forget acting training; for anyone who can do what fighters do under pressure, acting's easy."

The film's star, however, is Chiwetel Ejiofor -- the winner of this year's Olivier Award for his work in the title role of Othello -- as instructor Mike Terry. "I didn't get to see his Othello there; I didn't even get over to see my own Speed the Plow at the National," says Mamet, in discussing the casting. "But I saw Chiwetel in two films, Dirty Pretty Things and Kinky Boots [in which he played a drag queen], and I knew this guy could do anything!"

The handsome, British-born Ejiofor, whose recent film credits also include the straight-laced Dewey Hughes opposite Don Cheadle in Talk to Me and as Denzel Washington's brother in American Gangster, once again plays an American. "We were raised on American television and film growing up," he says. "Plus, I've worked with a dialect coach from time to time when there's a specific American accent needed. But I didn't use one for Redbelt. David seemed to like what I came up with on my own."

He did train, however, to become proficient in Jiu Jitsu. "I did one month in London and then more when I got to Los Angeles," he says. "But David is more interested in the ways Jiu Jitsu can teach you how to deal with your life. My character believes in the philosophy of honor that's basic to the Martial Arts and doesn't want to fight professionally because it goes against that philosophy. And then his life goes wrong and he has to fight. That's when the film becomes about how he deals with both his own internal and external conflicts."

The cast also includes Mamet's wife Rebecca Pidgeon -- they co-wrote much of the film's score -- Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna, Tim Allen (in a rare dramatic role), David Paymer, Brazilian actress Alice Braga, and British actress Emily Mortimer, who just starred Off-Broadway in Jez Butterworth's Parlour Song, produced by The Atlantic Theater, which was co-founded by Mamet.

"If you're a British actress, everyone assumes you've spent your whole life onstage reciting Shakespeare. But I got my start in soap operas and mini-series," Mortimer notes. "Parlour Song was only my second real stage appearance and I was petrified. When I did The Merchant of Venice, I didn't know my lines or my character." And how did she feel about being one of the few females in Redbelt? "It's such a high testosterone film, that the guys were really pleased to see us chicks," she says with a grin.

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