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Team of One

Vivica A. Fox prides herself on playing strong characters with mass sex appeal—a beauty with brains, if you will. Her list of credits reflects this goal, undeniably. Of course, the strength came after the sex appeal.

"What I had to do is stray away from my looks," she said in a recent interview with Back Stage West. "That's why I've played mom roles; that's why in Why Do Fools Fall in Love? I was real ugly. It was to let people know that I can act. I wanted to have longevity. I want people to know they can hire me for something difficult and I am going to deliver on that."

Fox again flexes her acting muscles in her latest effort, Screen Gems' Two Can Play That Game, in theatres this week. Her compelling performance is most likely attributable to the extensive preparation she does before each role. "I always work with my acting coach on a role, so when I show up I know the script," she said. "We can do any scene any day, and I am totally prepared. I really get to know my characters. Therefore I'm open for anything else that someone may ad-lib or throw at me."

The film centers on Fox's character, Shante Smith, whom Fox describes as a sassy, confident woman "who thinks she's got love and men all figured out." Shante is so adept at navigating the waters of romance that her best friends (played by Mo'Nique, Wendy Raquel Robinson, and Tamala Jones) depend on her for advice whenever man troubles arise. But when Shante catches her boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) fraternizing with her archrival (Gabrielle Union), she institutes her "10-day plan" to put her man back in line.

The film marks the directorial debut of Mark Brown (co-writer of How To Be a Player), who wrote the script with Fox in mind. "I had been after Vivica for about a year in regard to this role," Brown said, "and when we got the script to Screen Gems, the studio took an active role in getting her to play this part."

Fox admits initially she had no interest in the project. "I turned down the film three times," she recalled. "I never knew the director had me in mind when he wrote the script. I do have a certain image because of the roles I've played in the past, with Independence Day and Soul Food. My image has become a little more conservative but still down-to-earth. The script used to be a little too graphic for me. There is nothing wrong with her being professional and having a little bit of 'sista' in her, because I have that. But you can't go so far that people go, 'Oh, no, here we go.' Thank God they wanted me so bad that they gave me a lot of creative input."

Input, indeed: Fox said she went beyond the call of her acting duties, helping out with casting, wardrobe, and makeup.

"I was involved with everything. I mean, I should have received a producer credit. But underneath it all, my management got a producer credit, which inevitably involves me. Plus, you don't want to see the name Vivica A. Fox so much that it turns you off. Hopefully you'll come away from it going, Vivica did a great job, instead of me shoving that down your throat. Sometimes there's nothing worse than seeing a film and it's, like, written by, directed by, produced by. Well, shit, what did everybody else do? By not doing everything, you have room to grow."

The next area she'd like to grow is at the box office: Fox hopes to prove that an African-American actress can open a film. "Why can't we have a black Julia Roberts or a black Sandra Bullock? I remember when we all had to compete against one another for that token role. Now that's gotten a lot better. It's a tough road ahead, but we're making strides. Will Smith, Chris Tucker, and all of those actors who are showing that African-American male actors can open internationally, they've shown there are box-office dollars in black films."

Angels Flight

Fox's foray into acting happened in typical Hollywood fashion, the former model explained: "I was having lunch with a friend who was visiting from New York, and this gentleman walked up to me—Trevor Walton, a producer. He asked, 'Are you an actress?' I said, 'No, but I have modeled.' Then he said, 'Here's my card, give me a call. I'm producing a project that I think you would be great for.' My girlfriend and I were like, 'Yeah, right!' "

Walton did turn out to be legit, and though Fox didn't get that job, she soon landed an agent as a result of his attention and got her first job—a Clearasil commercial—within months. Her first job "with actual words" was the role of April Sutton on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. She soon began landing numerous television appearances, including Out All Night, with singer Patti Labelle, and another daytime series, The Young and the Restless. Other television credits include The Tuskegee Airmen, Getting Personal, Walking After Midnight, and Hendrix. Between gigs, Fox supported herself by waiting tables and tending bar, among various other odd jobs.

"I used to live in Orange County, and I would drive to L.A. to go to work at the Beverly Center," she recalled. "I would always have my days free so I could audition."

It was her feature film debut breakthrough performance as the heroic stripper girlfriend of Will Smith in the blockbuster bonanza Independence Day that brought Fox to the attention of Hollywood heavyweights. Since then, Fox has appeared in Set It Off, Booty Call, Batman & Robin, Idle Hands, Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Double Take, and Kingdom Come. Just a year ago, Fox decided to return to television, appearing on CBS's Steven Bochco-produced medical drama City of Angels. The series was touted as having one of the few casts of color at a time when the networks faced intense criticism for failing to put minority characters in key roles. Unfortunately, the series never quite earned its wings against the tough Thursday night competition. Fox's experience on the series left a bitter taste in her mouth for TV, giving her an even greater affinity for films.

"It's literally like carrying a child for nine months. You give birth, you hope it's OK, and then they say, 'Nope. Done. Didn't work!' Not even giving it a chance. Unless someone offered me a show where I'm executive producer, I wouldn't do TV again. I just prefer movies. There's just a lot more respect. I mean, in television, until you're executive producer of the show, you really don't have any power. You're like a walking, talking robot. Movies you get to ad-lib. You're more creative. They just respect the talent that you're bringing."

Coming From Behind

Fox's perseverance in achieving her career goals has never faltered. She forged through numerous roadblocks this often unsympathetic industry has set in front of her.

"I got disappointed, of course, because I wasn't getting jobs I thought I should when I was auditioning," she said. "There was a lot of rejection. Some advice for those with aspirations to careers in performing is to know that you'll hear 'no' more than you'll hear 'yes.' Just believe in yourself and know that it takes time and nothing happens overnight. Like I said before, there were times when I got disappointed, but I have good family support. My mother was like, 'Honey, just get on your knees and pray about it. The Lord will work it out.' Through it all, I knew I had talent and my time would come. So I had to have patience, which is difficult for me."

Fox realizes that aging in Hollywood is difficult, especially for women, and she has set plans to take on a career behind the camera in the future.

"You can look good for only so long," said Fox, a smile spreading from ear to ear. "For women in Hollywood, it's really hard. [Casters] just don't get that a woman gets better-looking the older she gets. I would love to help make some young girl's dream come true. If I'm still in the same business, only behind the camera, I will use the knowledge I've learned to help her make a career in this business and give her opportunities just as I've had."

As for her own future career endeavors, she has two more movies scheduled for release this year: Morgan Creek's Juwanna Mann, co-starring Miguel Núñez, Kevin Pollak, Tommy Davidson, and Kim Wayans, and the tentatively titled Boat Trip, with Cuba Gooding Jr., Roger Moore, and Richard Roundtree. She continues to work tirelessly and said that the love of the art is what drives her to work so hard.

"I enjoy doing it," she said. "It's the art of acting that I love so much." It's all about balance, though: Fox gets the chance to practice her art largely because of her mastery of the business.

"I have responsibilities just like everyone else, and this is my job. This is what I do." BSW

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