Released on Tuesday, Emperor is inspired on the harrowing journey of outlaw slave Shields ‘Emperor’ Green. Variety’s Peter Debruge describes the film as “’Black Panther’ meets ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in this rousing account of Shields Green, who escaped the shackles of slavery to fight alongside abolitionist John Brown.” In addition to having a 93% Rotten Tomato score, Emperor happens to have one of Auburn’s own in its cast.
Auburn High School Alumni (class of 1990) Patrick Roper plays slave overseer Hank Beaumont in Emperor and is prominently featured in the film’s trailer. Roper is no stranger to being in front of the camera, having been a series regular on PopTv’s Florida Girls.
Though Roper is on the big screen now, he credits his start in acting to his former Auburn High School drama teacher, Paul Fouhy. “Paul was an excellent teacher who trained us to play to the size of the stage we were given. It was actually one of the most valuable lessons for transitioning to film work and one the I took to heart,” said Roper.
Roper explained that “film and TV generally require more internal, smaller performances and require a more internal focus. It’s more about “being” and less about projecting.” For his role in Emperor Roper had to get into the mindset to play the role of a brutal monster.
“As an actor, you can’t judge the character. I can only build his circumstance and imagine how it would be to live this guy’s life,” explained Roper. He described the background he imagined for Hank. “This character, [grew] up in the rural South, in extreme poverty, with hateful parents who were certainly raised to think of African Americans as subhuman. I imagine that this man, at one point, was a horribly abused little boy, who grew hateful by his circumstances. His feeling of inferiority has welled up inside him and now that he has power, he can inflict that helpless feeling of contempt on others.”
What is important to Roper is remembering that though they would be doing and saying horrible things all day, they all liked and respected each other. “You have to remind yourself that, although it’s very serious and has to be respected as such, that you are with human beings that you like and that have your back,” said Roper. “We’re all working for the same goal to tell this story.”
Emperor stars Dayo Okeniyi (Shades of Blue) as Shields Green. Oscar nominee James Cromwell (The Green Mile) co-stars along with Kat Graham (The Vampire Diaries), Naturi Naughton (Power), Mykelti Williamson (Fences), Ben Robson (The Boy) and Oscar nominee Bruce Dern (Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood). Universal Pictures Home Entertainment picked up the U.S. rights to Emperor after the film’s March release was prevented due to COVID-19. It is now available on digital, DVD and on-demand.
Learn More About Patrick Roper
Auburn native, actor, and two-time cancer survivor, we asked Patrick questions about his time at Auburn High School, on the set of Emperor, and how cancer impacted him.
Are there any techniques you still use that you learned from your drama teacher, Paul Fouhy?
I actually use a lot from those days. I think I learned more than I realized, in some ways. Paul was very interested in forming a Conservatory style of training. So we started learning theatre history and classical theatre. He also brought us into modern theatre. When I tell people about my high school theatre program, most people I know who went to college programs often say that they didn’t cover half of what we did.
Paul was good because he didn’t treat us like kids. He taught kids to be professionals and treated us with that sort of respect. I got a lot of my professional ethics from that experience.
You began your acting career on the stage of Auburn High School and have since worked in television and film. What are some of the notable differences between stage, television, and film acting?
Stage is generally bigger performance-wise. Especially in the PAC. It’s a huge theatre and requires one to project. Film and TV generally require more internal, smaller performances and require a more internal focus. It’s more about “being” and less about projecting. There’s usually not a lot of prep time or rehearsal in film and TV. Television is generally faster-paced than film. You have to be good at getting dialogue down fast. It’s often why the first season of TV shows are often a little rough and the second or third seasons are more polished.
What advice would you give to current drama students who want to be a professional actor?
It can depend on what you ultimately want to focus on. Theatre requires serious training. Film skills can be learned both in classes and on the job. You learn more by doing than studying with film acting.
All that said, my big pieces of advice are:
(1) Study the business of acting as much as the craft. This is a business and requires a very business approach.
(2) Find a good mentor. Mentorship is important in this industry.
(3) Have a life outside of this profession. You are portraying humanity. That means you have to experience life yourself. Be an interesting person, and you will be an interesting actor.
(4) If you are getting into this to become rich and famous, there are far easier ways to do that. Don’t become an actor for that.
Hollywood’s produced several films in recent years portraying different stories of slavery. In your opinion, how does Emperor differ from films like Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, and Birth of a Nation?
12 Years a Slave and Birth of a Nation were based on true stories. I’m not saying they followed every detail perfectly because drama requires a certain level of leeway to make the narrative watchable for an audience. Django Unchained was a fantasy, pulp narrative, and a callback to the Spaghetti Western era. Emperor sits kind of firmly in between. As it says on the poster, it’s “Inspired by a true legend”.
The thing is, historians only know a small amount about Shields Green. He was a man, born in around 1835, who escaped bondage in South Carolina, and traveled North to freedom. Once he was there, he met up with John Brown and fought at Harpers Ferry which was the precursor to the Civil War. The film takes what is known and blends it with some of the legends of the man. So, what you get is a blend of history, with a great action-adventure yarn.
What was it like on the set of Emperor?
It was great. My stuff was shot first on the production. I shot for about a week. Veteran character actor M.C. Gainey was an amazing gentleman. Later, towards the end of day one, he and I were rocking in chairs (as you do down here) and he reached over and touched my arm and said “ya know, I don’t like watching my work. But I love watching other actors perform, and I have to tell you, brother, watching you today has been such a joy for me. You do such great work.” It felt like a passing of the torch kind of moment from one screen villain to the next. He didn’t have to say it, so it meant a lot to me.
Dayo Okeniyi is fantastic. An absolutely generous actor and professional, which is good when you are playing opposite characters like we were. We would often check on each other to make sure that we had whatever we needed from one another to get to the places we needed to be emotionally. You need that.
Emperor covers a heavy and powerful subject. How did being a part of this film effect you?
I’m the kind of actor who doesn’t like to bring the work home, so I try to avoid that as much as possible. That said, it’s pretty hard not to have bits of darkness seep into you when you are portraying this kind of person. It costs you a little something every time, so I look for things to do to shake it off. It took a bit of time to shake that one completely. Luckily, I filmed Florida Girls (a comedy) for POP TV a couple of months after this, so it was nice to have had the opportunity to have that release valve and just be silly on the next one.
Did being a part of Emperor (and A Birth of a Nation) teach you or change your perspective on anything?
It’s made me listen a great deal closer. Being an actor, I’m naturally drawn to people’s stories. It’s hard on these sets when you are playing the kind of guys that I’ve played and you’re torturing people and saying horrible things. You’re looking people in the eye who in many cases have ancestors who went through what you are portraying on this film. If you are even remotely sensitive, that’s going to be pretty sobering both ways. So, it’s helped to listen very closely to how the people around you are feeling and be very respectful of that.
The same goes the other way. I’ve had my moments where I’m feeling terrible about something I’m saying or doing in a scene and people have been gracious and told me that it’s okay. The story is important and we have to get it right.
Emperor is being released during a time when the country is going through what some consider a reckoning on racial injustices. How do you feel this may impact the film’s reception?
That’s ultimately going to come down to the individual. I have chatted with many African Americans who have said that they are really tired of these slave narratives in film. I can respect that. It’s absolutely not my place to tell anyone how to feel about this subject matter. I’m a something of a historian, so I come at it from the idea that humans have a nasty tendency to forget, reinterpret, and try to bury our pasts and we really need reminding of the things we do to each other so we know what to look for when it crops up again (and it always does).
But there’s a balance with that which I can totally understand. It’s not always healthy to pick at scabs and replay trauma. People will say, “Well, nobody in modern times had to deal with slavery.” For starters, it still exists all over the world, so you’re wrong. But in terms of what we are talking about here with the historic slavery in America, you’d have to be pretty blind not to see the ripple effect of our treatment and disenfranchisement of the people we brought to this country in bondage. We’ve done a right terrible job in this country of confronting this past and it’s not about one side of politics or the other. It’s all of us.
Do you believe Emperor will have an impact on the current conversations about systematic racism and racial injustices in our country?
God, I wish it were that easy. I wish a film could do that. I do think that the power of film and theatre though is to open discussions and we need a lot of that right now. Everyone needs to get really honest about themselves and try to see where everyone else is hurting. We are all hurting somewhere. We need to get out of our own heads and reach out to find the common places where we all exist.
You began filming shortly after you finished treatment with cancer. What sort of precautions, or adjustments, did you need to make to safely film?
Everyone was very attentive to my condition. They were taking a bit of a chance on me, so I appreciate the efforts they took. I had surgery on my abdomen, so my torso was still pretty tender. That said, I have a fight scene in the film with Dayo. They gave me a stunt double and he planned the fight out and showed me what the steps were. I did it a couple of times slowly and felt pretty comfortable with it, so I did it myself. That’s me doing my own stunts in the film, 6 weeks out of major surgery. I’m kind of proud of that. My stunt double was great though. After each take of that scene, he would run in and check up on me to make sure I was okay.
You’re a two-time cancer survivor. What did you learn from having, and surviving, cancer?
[You’ve] got to live your life now and to the fullest. Cancer derailed my acting career for almost two years when I was 19. Once I was done with chemo, I got right back up on stage as fast as I could. I got myself an agent as soon as I could. I did other things for a while and came back to acting when I moved here to Georgia. When it hit me again, I didn’t stay down. I confronted it head-on. I’m not the kind of guy to let a silly little thing like cancer keep me down. Now, one thing I’ve tried to do as an advocate for cancer survivors and patients is to express to people that body awareness and self-awareness are key to catching this stuff early and early detention is what saves your life. I’m living proof of that.
As a two-time cancer survivor, it is easy to find hope and inspiration in your story. The first time you beat cancer you were a teenager. What was it like when you received your second diagnosis in 2018?
I was gutted. Here I was starting to get some traction in my career and once again, this thing was here to try to beat me down. But this ain’t my first rodeo. I felt sorry for myself for an afternoon, because it’s good to let yourself feel that catharsis, and then I pulled up my big boy pants, contacted my agent, told her, and told her to keep me working until I can’t.
Luckily, the prognosis was good. Stage 1 Renal Cell Carcinoma is generally curable with only surgery. I was also really lucky that I caught it. Kidney cancer has a reputation as a silent killer, because it rarely shows symptoms until it’s has spread and become much worse. I took that as a sign that I shouldn’t let my opportunities be derailed by this, It just drove me harder ultimately. I did my callback for Emperor, with staples and a drain still in my side. I don’t got time sit on my laurels and worry about cancer. I got things to do.
How did you feel when you beat cancer a second time?
Cancer is weird in that even when you do beat it, it’s always sort of lingering in your life. You basically get checkups for the foreseeable future. You likely have scars that will always remind you. I call them my badges of honor. They are a part of me. A roadmap of my life. But people start looking at you as a good luck charm, so I’m okay with that.
As a cancer survivor, you have a potentially higher risk of contracting COVID-19. How has it been for you during the pandemic?
I’ve been taking it very seriously. I still have a life. I get out and take the dog for a walk away from people. I wear a mask when I’m around people running errands because I want to be as safe as possible. I also have asthma, so it’s a double whammy. But I do my research and keep up with the current science, which changes frequently, because that’s what science is supposed to do. Thank goodness for doctors and scientists and everyone out there on the front lines of this thing. You’re doing good and much-needed work in a hostile cultural environment.
How do you feel overall COVID-19 has impacted and will impact the movie industry?
I recently worked on a TV show that restarted and was filmed with the new protocols. It’s a process. It also adds a lot of expense to production that wasn’t there before. On one hand, the way that indies are made with smaller, more intimate crews, works great in the COVID production world. On the other hand, the protocols are hard financially to deal with for a small production. It’s going to take time to find the balance.
On my end as far as auditioning goes, much of the SE has been oriented towards self-taping (at home) auditions anyway. As opposed to live auditions like LA and NY are used to. So, in many ways, we have an advantage down here because we are familiar with that style of auditioning. Also, the studios seem more inclined to find actors on the local level as opposed to flying them in. That’s good for boosting local talent. But there is also believed to be a trend starting of maybe filming more out of the country since we are a hot spot now with COVID-19.
Also, there’s going to be a bit of a lag in content, so it’s a good opportunity for people who have finish projects or can produce a small project during this time to get it seen. There’s opportunities if you know where to look or how to look at them. People with vision and drive do well in these environments.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the arts. Beyond streaming released movies, like Emperor, what can people do to best support the arts and art programs?
I’ll say this for the people who have those budding artists in the family. Yes, I know it can be a bit scary when your child or loved one comes out and says, “I want to be an actor!” It’s a life of challenges they are entering. Those challenges can be mitigated by your support. Those challenges also build a lot of character. So many people’s dreams die because they just can’t get people to believe in them. So be supportive of that decision and recognize that a person who is supported can do anything they put their mind to.