Toronto–The world of cinema is one that is quite unpredictable yet, surprisingly fulfilling when things go your way. If you don’t believe it, just ask Markees Christmas. Christmas, a YouTube sensation who just recently made his feature film debut in Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America, a coming of age romance that blew the independent film world off its shoes earlier this year at Sundance, and continues to make it mark everywhere it goes, is surely on its way to gaining some momentum come award season.
Before Markees even arrived, I was fortunate enough to brush up on some earlier YouTube videos of the young star and his undeniable charming self. Ironically enough, before the interview, I was warned of Markees notorious shy demeanour and very quiet personality, which no one would ever guess based from his infamous YouTube content. Not that any of that helped, especially seeing that Markees was going to be my first ever child actor interview, the pressure and nerves of suiting the interview for a young adolescent did keep me up the night before. Yet, even after watching him in interviews with the other media outlets earlier in the day, Markees walked into the room. Rocking an Adidas jumper, the independent film star appeared slimmer than how he appeared in the film. Reacting from the apparent look on my face, and with a big smile on his, he confirmed “I slimmed down since the film premiere, must have gotten all the baby fat off”. It was at that exact moment that I knew, the newly crown indie star and I hit it off. We greeted one another and took some time to settle in. Markees, only seventeen at the time of the interview, was nothing short of warm and eager to answer all of my questions.
Being well aware of the interview and prepping for it days before, I made sure to show up to the interview, not as a stuck-up or prestigious interviewer, but as an equal. Choosing my attire quite wisely; rocking the plaid, some faded jeans, a vest and most important, my brand new, white Air Force One’s, I tried to make sure that Markees felt comfortable talking to someone who was easily going to be one of the youngest people to interview him that day and somebody that could connect with him and understand his journey thus far, better than anyone else. Almost instantly, my plan felt as if it worked perfectly; especially since the entire time, we spent time speaking, not only about the film, his experiences, but many personal aspects of Markees, including his musical taste, family and friends.
Shortly after, we got right into questions about the film, including his preparation for his role as Morris, or Mo, as his father Curtis, played by Craig Roberinson, calls him in film, and began by discussing his quick crash course in German. “I live to explore. I like to know things and tell the truth to show the authenticity of characters and the situations they are placed in. I really don’t know much German, but I learned what I could for Morris”, recited Markees. “I had a ball! Germany was a gas and being able to get out of my neighbourhood was cool. It is definitely a great place to raise kids.”
Getting into a little bit of Markees family history, I quickly learned that Markees was born and raised in a fairly rough neighbourhood in Los Angeles and his experiences back home were never ideal, yet, allowed him to realize a lot of the goals and dreams that he wishes to attain getting older and continuing his career in acting. Markees went on saying, “I feel like I’m making my way out [of his neighbourhood in Los Angeles]. Once I started acting professionally, I realized that this is something that I love and something that I want to do for the rest of my life. I just enjoyed being on set; I enjoyed working, being around other people who share this same passion of mine”.
In addition to just acting, Markees was also able to explore a lot more than cinema during his experiences in Germany. Morris From America also explores a very isolated and unique take on contemporary hip-hop and rap culture in Europe.
The film, which centres on a young thirteen year old Morris, who is forced to follow his father to Germany for a coaching job for a German soccer team after the tragic death of his mother, showcases, not only the strong relationship between father and son, but also, the inclusion of Morris’ passion for rapping and his aspirations of becoming a professional rapper. Throughout the film, Morris and his father Curtis bicker and argue over certain songs, specific rappers and most importantly, the true meaning and authenticity of gangster rap and the lyrics and themes that true rap depicts.
Sweet, tender and mostly heart wrenching, Morris From America tells a very heartwarming story of one young man’s decent into manhood, spearheaded by his growing crush with a young German girl and his early exploration of writing and performing his own raps in front of a crowd of peers. As the film continues, Morris performs two raps, explains Christmas, and when asked if he wrote the raps himself, he went on to say, “J. Hurt wrote the raps. Chad [the director] had to take parts out of Hurt’s raps because it didn’t relay the right message the film was trying to portray. Yet, throughout the film, Morris is stuck on this one rap that just speaks about girls and money. Curtis gets mad at Morris for writing complete garbage, which includes doing it with the females”. The perversion of rap lyrics as well as the misinterpretation of modern day rap is one of the many rectifying factors the film single-handedly approaches to touch on.
As our discussion about the character continued, we also were able to put our own two sense on the current state of music, specially, rap music and hip-hop, which, is a huge passion of mine currently. “When I first hear Hurt’s raps, I thought, wow, this is gas! He good! I already like listening to underground rappers because not everyone knows them, and some of them are really unexplored talents”, praises Markees. Ironically enough, one of the rappers featured by means of decor in Morris’ room, Los Angles based rapper Schoolboy Q, who was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, also shares a close connection to Markees. “He grew up right down the street from where I grew up, which was pretty cool. When we wrapped up with Morris’ room scenes, I kept all the posters; I’m not sure if I was able to or not, but I did anyways. I figured, I earned them”, laughs Markees.
Surprisingly enough, the film itself seemed like a big evolution for everyone involved, not only Markees, but, especially, one of the most common denominators of the film, its anchor, comedy actor Criag Robinson. When asked how it was working with Craig on the film and with him playing his father, Markees replied, “He’s just great at what he does. You can never go wrong with Craig. He’s a comedy actor, it’s his strong suit, and he came up big with this drama; he killed it, he just killed it”. Which is an understatement for Robinson, who walked out of Sundance with the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for an Individual Performance. Markees goes on to describe Craig’s role as “him starting a new branch in his career”. Robinson gave his best performance of his career, and is one of the many reasons to see the film.
Like so many movies that come out of Sundance, Morris From America and its premiere was a plethora of firsts for the young Los Angeles native. “Going to Sundance was a first and it was also my first time seeing snow! It was dope. I made a snowman, beat him up, then made another one” chuckles Markees. “In Sundance, every time I came close to snow and wasn’t on camera or dealing with something that had to do with the premiere of the film, I was being a little kid. I just wanted to do some regular snow rituals. It was crazy; I loved it!” Yet, when asked if he could do snow for the majority of the year, seeing that he was in Toronto and the day of the interview was a little bit on the chilly side, Markees answered “That’s a little too cold for my liking”.
Luckily for Markees, the experience of being in the film, reached far beyond just his adventures in new climates and environments. Morris, is a film that also tackles very real and raw relationships between father and son. One of the most intriguing elements of the film, hands down, was how authentic and natural the relationship between Curtis and Morris was, especially given that both father and son exchanged a variety of profane words when trying to get their messages across to each other. Markees, who has never sworn in front of his mother or grandmother in his life, shared how different it was playing a character who’s main mantra was being able to express yourself, using different coloured language; some very dark, and some very bright. “I know a lot of relationships where kids and parents curse at each other. I don’t know when that became acceptable because the way I was taught and grew up, there’s no way that that was going down” says Markees. Interestingly enough, when Markees was in Germany shooting, he decided to bring along his sweet grandmother for the ride. “My grandma came with me to shoot Morris. At the start of each day, I would look at the call sheet before I left the hotel, go to the scripts, see what I had to shoot that day, and if there were ANY scenes where there were curse words coming out of Morris’ mouth, grandma would have to stay at the hotel, or she had to hang with the caterer or something. I just couldn’t do it, it’s nothing about her, it was just that I was not going to have her hear one curse word coming out of my mouth” explained Markees.
Funny enough, sweet old grandma would never discourage Markees from his work and the seriousness of his job. Encouraging him that it was okay because it was part of the job description, Markees shared “I just couldn’t take the pressure of it. I’d feel like I let myself down if I cursed in front of grandma”. Which was funny, because when asked what grandma thought of the film, Markees grinned, “my grandma hasn’t seen the film. I have a copy of the film for her but I’m HESITATING. She came with me to shoot it and I feel like she has the right to see it, to see what she was there for but…ahhh. Maybe for Christmas or something”. Sharing some serious laughs about the whole grandma situation, and unable to contain my hysterical chuckles from this crazy reality, I asked what his mother reacted to the cursing. “I took her to the San Francisco International Film Festival to see it for the first time. On the first curse word that came out of Morris’ mouth, I looked over at her and she just gave me this death stare, like a look of, Boy, IMMA WHOOP…” cried Markees.
Laughing more than any professional should for an interview, I can easily say that Markees was one naturally funny and very natural dude. So when famous hamburgers from Dangerous Dan came through the door, and the smell of that Canadian bacon flooded the room, Markees, who was too much of a gentleman to ask me if he could eat, got my approval to dig in. I mean, when someone refers to our bacon as THE Canadian bacon, and calls it the best thing about this country, how can you deny them?
As the interview was winding down and my time with Markees was coming to an end, it became apparent that Dan’s dangerous burgers were taking a toll on the young film star, who was noticeably tired, and in the city for less than twenty-four hours, off to his next city to promote the film.
Meeting Markees in person and comparing him to the character he played within the film, it’s not hard to imagine Markees mother with every bring-worthy curse word came out of his mouth; I mean, the guy was an absolute stand out gentleman.
Morris From America is a hard film to imagine without the fine and unique presence of both its stars Christmas and Robinson, as well as its supporting cast, including the very talented and underrated Lina Keller, who plays Mo’s love interest Katrin in the film. Yet, when it comes to the themes of love and lust in Hartigan’s film, it really is much different than many other independent love stories told out of Sundance. Usually vying for controversy, shock and pushing the limits, one of the most tender aspect and elements of Hartigan’s Morris is its dedication to the fine depiction of real, unembellished teenage love. Never sharing a kiss on screen with his co-star, Markees weighed in on his thoughts about the story between Mo and Katrin. “Throughout the film, she toys with him. I mean, if I was being totally honest, if I was REALLY in Mo’s shoes, I would have drawn the line a long time ago. Yet, I loved playing Morris; I had the time of my life even though it was hard getting used to the size of the cameras on set. To be honest, the cameras were bigger than my apartment; I mean, I’ve been on set before, but I have never really been a part of one.”
Knowing that chances and opportunities like this don’t really happen for everyone who posts videos online, Markees’ humility is really what surprised me most for the duration of the interview. The truth of the matter is, I was shocked. Here was this little actor from a slummy part of Los Angeles, living out his dreams, touring the continent, promoting a film in which he stars and carries for ninety minutes. Yet, Markees’ essence, not only as an actor, but as an individual really shone through him when he was mostly himself; eating burgers, laughing about instances on set, and sharing his thoughts on music, life, love and the film industry in the most innocent and untainted way possible. Don’t get me wrong, Markees was still able to be a kid throughout the interview, sharing some juicy details about some scenes left on the cutting room floor, involving Morris trying to give Katrin a hickey. “I made a big deal of him having to shoot that scene [for obvious reasons]”, an embarrassed Markees admits.
For seventeen years-old, my first young actor interview was nothing as I had imagine. Markees, a very mature, pepper-souled actor, just trying to grow up among all craziness that is the film world, did share some very heavy and real thoughts about his experiences with the film, and the script as a whole. “Overall, I feel like Morris is a very accurate story, but it’s also very unusual, as a love story for me. But hey, that’s love I guess. To me, I don’t think there is ANY way that you can fall in love at fifteen years old”.
Funny enough, at a tender seventeen years old, as I made my way out of the interview, before snapping a picture with a very promising and almost guaranteed future movie star, I did realize Markees was wrong about one thing; it is very possible to fall in love at fifteen, it just may not be the love he was thinking about. Between the charm of his characters, the innuendoes of his acting and the freshness of deliverance, Markees Christmas is one actor in 2016 that you will absolutely fall in love with.
Now, all I’m waiting for, is a YouTube video of him recording his grandma watching the movie for the first time. NOW THAT is a Christmas family video I would love to check out.
Morris From America is now available on iTunes and select VOD providers everywhere!