He is, unquestionably, the rising star of Rising Sun.
Wesley Snipes knows it, and doesn't mind if his confidence shines through his words or fashion. On this muggy morning at the Mark hotel, Snipes strides into an interview suite with a natty gold kerchief on his scalp, gold loops in his ears and self-promotion on his mind.
Rising Sun is Snipes' first attempt to cross over to mainstream (read: multi-ethnic) audiences, after his attention-grabbing performances as the psychopathic kingpin of New Jack City, a convention-flauting romantic in Jungle Fever and a jive-talking hustler in White Men Can't Jump.
The 31-year-old actor, formerly of Orlando, tried the cop-hero route a couple of times, in Passenger 57 and Boiling Point, two low-budget yarns that barely made a blip at the box office. Rising Sun has everything an actor aimed at the top needs: major studio backing and instant recognition, compliments of the Michael Crichton bestseller and Sean Connery, a bankable star with whom to match line readings.
What Rising Sun almost lacked was Wesley Snipes.
His character, Los Angeles detective Web Smith, was Caucasian in Crichton's mystery about murder among Japanese industrialists in America. Smith took a back seat to John Connor (Connery,) a retired cop who spends much of the book lecturing about Sino-American relations and economics lessons as they sink deeper into a world Smith doesn't understand.
"That was the thing that I didn't like about the character," said Snipes. "I don't like being that guy who has everything done to him, you know, the pawn. For eight weeks (of filming,) it's pretty uncomfortable. I like to be the guy that, if somebody hits me, I get to hit 'em back.
"I felt that the character was rather boring in the book. I was reluctant to do the role. Once we got to rehearsals, I saw some areas where I could add some humor and use my own cultural orientation to play a fish out of water, then turn the tables and make Sean's character the fish out of water."
That led to the addition of a scene where Smith takes Connor to South Central Los Angeles and a gang confrontation. Snipes also worked closely with director/screenwriter Philip Kaufman to give Web Smith more pride than a sidekick.
"Whenever there was a scene where the character could have come off as subservient, I changed it," Snipes said. "Phil knew I would do that."
It was Connery's idea, as executive producer of Rising Sun, to make Web Smith an African-American, especially after he viewed Snipes' performance in White Men Can't Jump. After some trepidation, Snipes accepted.
"This was a good opportunity to work in a movie that's not labeled a quote-unquote black movie," Snipes said. "It had immediate crossover appeal . . . and the money was right."
Snipes won't talk about his salary, but the chance to work with Connery was priceless.
"He's James Bond, you know?" Snipes said, certain that that was enough explanation. "He certainly embodies a degree of regalness and royalty when it comes to acting. He's that aristocrat type. I could definitely glean a little bit from him."
The only topic that raises a more excitable response from Snipes is when he speaks about his own future. Another star-pairing with Sylvester Stallone in the futuristic thriller Demolition Man is next. After that movie is completed, Snipes plans to take a break for the first time since 1987, but not for long. He would love to establish a working relationship with Spike Lee, akin to the relationship between Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. "Then we could create things that are mind-boggling," Snipes promised.
His pet movie project, however, is an adaptation of the comic book hero the Black Panther.
"We have a wide-open field for comic book characters on the big screen and we've yet to have a major black comic book hero on the screen," Snipes said. "Especially the Black Panther, which is such a rich, interesting life. It's a dream come true to originate something that nobody's ever seen before."
Snipes gleefully accepts the possibility that he could be locked into Black Panther sequels. He longs for the chance to use his nearly unknown singing and dancing skills in a throwback to 1940s musicals. What Wesley Snipes will not do is a role that turns the clock back on the African-American image.
"You'll never get me in a movie where somebody tells me: "Hey, boy, go get the car,' and I say "Okay, suh.' It'll never happen. You won't find me in a Civil War movie."
Snipes chuckled at the thought. "Now that check's got to be big, big, big."