Wesley Snipes dishes about his tax woes, new movie

A glimpse of the many roles portrayed by the veteran actor, now making a return to the big screen with "Brooklyn's Finest."
By Jen Chaney
Sunday, February 28, 2010

For a man out on bail, Wesley Snipes is in a happy, comfortable place right now.

The veteran actor is nestled at a table in the back corner of Fahrenheit, the serene, surprisingly quiet restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown. He's eagerly diving into a bowl of pumpkin soup with a squiggly dollop of cream in the center ("One of my favorites," he says) and talking about the state of Hollywood cinema, of which he takes a dim view: "People are looking at American films like, it's all commerce and commercial. Where's the substance?"

Snipes is here to engage in a Washington celebrity ritual: the film-promotion interview. This one's in service of the cop drama "Brooklyn's Finest," a comeback project that takes him out of the straight-to-DVD purgatory he's inhabited for the past several years and puts him back on the big screen, in the high-caliber company of actors such as Don Cheadle and Richard Gere. (In the film, which opens March 5, Snipes plays a drug dealer attempting to get out of the game for good, an echo of his notable turn in "New Jack City" 19 years ago.)

But Snipes can't avoid the fact that he's been more notorious of late for his role as a federal income tax avoider. Given the promotional fervor swirling around him -- the handlers rushing him off to his next media roundtable, the upcoming trips to New York and Los Angeles to continue beating the "Brooklyn's Finest" drum -- it would perhaps be easy for him to forget that soon he might have to leave behind the press junkets and pumpkin soup to serve time in prison.

In a widely publicized case, Snipes was sentenced in 2008 to three years in prison, the maximum penalty requested by federal prosecutors, for failing to file several years' worth of tax returns. (The government says Snipes owed $2.7 million in back taxes on an income of $13.8 million for the period in question.) The actor was released on $1 million bond while his attorneys appeal the conviction and sentence; they've been waiting since November for a ruling.

The appellate court's decision could be issued at any moment, says Peter Goldberger, one of Snipes's attorneys. Snipes, 47, who lives in suburban New Jersey, is permitted to travel as he pleases.

Although he won't discuss the specifics of the case ("I'm not a lawyer," he says unnecessarily and with a laugh), he maintains that he was given bad financial advice and did not intend to withhold money from the government. Regarding his attitude toward the IRS, he is more direct. "I don't have an issue with the tax people," he says. "Taxes are -- look, if you owe, you should pay. And if you feel like you're owed, you should pay. Simple as that."

Still, living in legal limbo has to be itchy and uncomfortable, even for a man who once controlled the Cash Money Brothers ("New Jack City"), hustled for cash on the basketball court ("White Men Can't Jump"), and sliced and diced his way through his share of vampires ("Blade"). Doesn't the possibility of serving jail time weigh on him?

"Yeah, but that's life, you know?" Snipes says, leaning back in his seat. "You walk out in the street, you don't know if you're going to get hit by a car. So you're just keeping moving, you're keeping moving. And if mind can control matter, then you project how you want things to become . . . as opposed to concentrating on using that same energy to create your demise or work against you. So I just project that everything is going great."

In the past, though, he sometimes has been portrayed as arrogant or difficult -- a reputation earned, perhaps, when he sued New Line Cinema in 2005 for allegedly withholding a portion of his salary and shutting him out of the creative process on "Blade: Trinity" (a case that later settled). But Snipes seems to be on an even keel these days. From the moment he ambles into the Fahrenheit dining room, dressed in a midnight blue turtleneck, perfectly pressed gray pants, a slick, black leather jacket and black wool cap, Snipes is all smooth, placid waters.

Of course, there's still a little fire inside, especially when he talks about the films he's done since the "Blade: Trinity" debacle, all those action titles ("The Marksman," "The Detonator") that would end up on DVD shelves instead of multiplex marquees. In part, his involvement in those films was the result of what, again, Snipes characterizes as misleading advice given to him by agents, advisers and producers who were "looking at the commissions more than the quality of the work and the protection of the brand."

"They were selling toasters, you know, and they just needed Wesley as the piece of bread," he says.

For the most part, though, the husband and father of five is focused on his future as an actor. He and his longtime friend Spike Lee, who directed Snipes in "Mo' Better Blues" and "Jungle Fever," are discussing the possibility of a James Brown biopic starring Snipes, who trained as a dancer during his high school and college days. He's even entertaining the possibility of starring in "Blade 4." According to Snipes, people at New Line, now a subsidiary of Warner Bros., have reached out to gauge the actor's interest. "I'm open to doing another one, with the right kind of people involved who will make it easier," he says.

As for whether "Brooklyn's Finest" will get him closer to regaining his spot on Hollywood's A-list, all Snipes can do is what he's so used to doing: Wait, and hope for the best.

"Brooklyn's Finest" opens nationwide Friday, March 5.

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