It's the sort of story for which a bushel of cliches seems to apply: Young black man as statistic. Fate's cruel twist. Wrong place, right time. Life imitates art. . . . In this instance, the life-imitating-art part is real, real real, and that is why the prisoner who was once an actor is conducting press interviews -- via telephone -- from California's Ironwood State Prison. Because there is a movie to push, and in Hollywood, the publicity beast must be fed, even when one of its young stars is, to steal the title from his most recent flick, on lockdown.
Most likely, the prisoner's name, De'Aundre Bonds, will not ring a bell. Perhaps you've seen him in Spike Lee's "Get on the Bus," where he played Smooth, a juvenile delinquent who traveled to the Million Man March -- handcuffed to his father. Or perhaps you glimpsed him in "The Wood," or as J.J. in the comedy "3 Strikes," where his character was shot in the buttocks. Now you can see him in "Lockdown" -- where he co-stars with Richard T. Jones, Gabriel Casseus and Master P -- and plays a young man who, while wrongly imprisoned for murder, stabs his cellmate to death.
With Bonds, life has a way of mimicking his movie roles. Like Smooth in "Get on the Bus," he's spent time in handcuffs. Like J.J. in "3 Strikes" he once was shot in the buttocks by gangbangers. And, like his character in "Lockdown," he stabbed a man to death. He is now serving 11 years on a manslaughter conviction.
"It's kind of creepy, you know?" says Bonds, 26. "I do a movie and then it happens to me in real life."
Right now, real life comes with considerable constrictions. Authorities allow Bonds to speak to reporters, but to do so takes some finagling.
First he calls his mother, Dorothy Edmonson, and then she calls the reporter. He can only speak in 15-minute increments. A security guard interrupts to tell him that a group is coming through and will most likely make things noisy. He thanks her, calls her "ma'am." As the minutes tick by, a recorded voice announces that Bonds has 120 seconds left to talk. He hangs up. Calls his mother back -- collect -- who then patches him through to the reporter. He repeats this process three or four times. His mother interrupts now and again.
"I tried to tell De'Aundre," says Edmonson, the woman who he says in court records abandoned him for a crack pipe, "but you live and learn. . . . Kids nowadays don't like to listen to what parents tell them that is right."
Bonds has a talent for acting. And a talent for finding trouble. Sept. 5, 2001, South Central L.A.: It was an extended day of celebrating, the kind that began the night before and lasted until the next morning.
"I was elated," Bonds recalls. "My career was going in the right direction."
Denzel Washington had reportedly just cast him in a supporting role in the movie "Antwone Fisher." As Bonds saw it, it didn't get any better than that. So, after dropping his fiancee off at work (they have since married), he grabbed a buddy and headed over to South Central, to his "auntie's" house, to share the good news. He hadn't slept a bit.
In parking the car, he knocked over a trash can. He got into a fight with Anthony Lamar Matthews over the trash can. He's got his version of what happened; the police have theirs.
As Bonds recounts his story, there are touches of the actor, in the pacing, the dramatic pausing for effect.
"He approached me with hostility, with the m-f word," Bonds says of Matthews. "He said, 'Man, I'll knock your ass out.' I'm thinking, 'You're not knocking anybody out.' I came out of my shirt, we're fighting in the street. . . ."
Bonds gets knocked down a few times. He grabs a knife from his aunt's house, he says, to protect himself.
"I'm nervous, I'm scared," Bonds recalls. "My first reaction is to grab something to protect myself. As he approached me again, I just stuck the knife out. He ran into it.
"I was defending my life. He was trying to hurt me."
Matthews staggers, then falls. Bonds says he tries to revive him.
"I'm looking at this man and I'm crying, 'Please hold on.' I'm praying, 'Please, God, don't let this man die. This can't be true. It's got to be a nightmare.'
"But it wasn't. He basically passed away in my arms."
According to L.A. Police Detective Blair McCormack, Bonds was drunk, and mad, and grabbed the knife, not with the intent of protecting himself, but of killing Matthews.
"He stabs the victim in the chest, so hard it breaks the handle of the knife off," McCormack says.
The knife pierced Matthews's sternum, his heart, lung and backbone, according to court records.
Bonds was arrested on the spot, and has spent every day since under lock and key.
"It broke my heart," Bonds says. "I cried so hard I passed out in the interrogation room. When I woke up, they were trying to tell me that I was being charged with murder in the first degree."
At the police station, McCormack says, Bonds told everyone there that he was an actor, told them that "Denzel" had just cast him in a movie. This being Los Angeles, McCormack says, he's arrested his share of actors. Usually, he says, their "acting" careers consist of working as extras and putting in a lot of time at the local diner. But he'd actually seen Bonds in a couple of movies.
"It's a shame, because he's a really talented actor," McCormack says. "Sometimes I think these guys tend to believe they are as bad an actor in life as they are in the movies. And they find out they're not."
As Bonds's colleagues see it, it is his seeming inability to separate life from theater that makes him so compelling as an actor.
"When you see him act, and you know what he's pulling from, which is his real life, the acting is so brilliant," says Casseus, who co-stars as Cashmere in "Lockdown," "but I wouldn't want to go through what he goes through to do what he does. It's not acting, it's channeling. And I'd rather be a mediocre actor than have his reference point."
Those reference points are not pretty ones. In a statement to the judge presiding in his case, handwritten in pencil on lined paper, Bonds described growing up in a home with an absentee father and a cocaine-addicted mother.
"My mother stayed out for weeks at a time, leaving me in the care of strangers," Bonds wrote. "I use [sic] to cry myself to sleep wishing she was there, only to wake up and not have her next to me." At a very early age, as the oldest of six, he learned to "be a man," pumping gas and carrying groceries, anything to make sure that his brothers and sisters had a "real meal."
One day, when he was 12, he writes, his father brought him to live with him. He didn't know the man, he says. Over the next four years, he said, his father tied him up and beat him, so hard sometimes that he would bleed. He ran away when he was 16. At 17, he started acting, almost by a fluke.
Bonds likes to talk about the way he discovered acting. He was hustling candy, going from office building to office building. He stopped in an agent's office, and asked her what it was that she did. He pestered her to let him do an impromptu audition. She liked what she saw, then told him that she would consider representing him if he could get together $300 for head shots.
"I sold candy all day," Bonds recalls. "She sent me to a photographer for pictures."
He started going out for auditions on commercials. "The first audition I had, I booked it," he says.
He worked steadily, acting in eight movies and 20 television shows, including a guest-starring spot in "Touched by an Angel." In it, he played a prison inmate who counsels a young kid headed for trouble not to be like him.
That scene is what prompted film director John Luessenhop to hire Bonds for "Lockdown."
"That episode had us all crying when we saw it," Luessenhop says. "He's extremely resilient and tough and has a great, great heart. As an actor, he can be anything if you tell him which emotion to go to. It's incredible. . . . I think De'Aundre was going to be a young star."
But Bonds couldn't stay out of trouble. In his written statement to the court, he admits that he has a problem with alcohol and now attends AA meetings.
Court records show that in 1996, he was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, inflicting corporal punishment on a spouse, terrorist threat and battery. The case later was dismissed. The following year, he was charged with rape by force or fear, inflicting corporal punishment on a spouse. The rape charge was dismissed, and Bonds pleaded guilty to battery of a spouse. He received three years' probation, serving 78 days in Los Angeles County jail. His probation was revoked when he was charged with manslaughter in Matthews's death. (Director Luessenhop, a McLean native who is also a lawyer, served as a legal consultant in Bonds's murder trial.)
These are details that Bonds neglects to mention when he talks to The Washington Post. Instead, he talks about how he's found God. How prison life is stressful, and lonely. He talks about his love for acting, and how he's working on writing his life story. He wants others to learn from him.
More than anything, he wants to return to work. He loved doing "Lockdown," which was shot in a New Mexico prison, loved playing the doomed and tormented Dre.
"It was a chance to prove that I can act," he says, "that I wasn't just a 'thuggish' role player."
Now, he says, other prisoners point him out and say, "There's that dude who was in 'Tales From the Hood.' "
When Bonds discusses his past and his future, he doesn't mention much about 29-year-old Anthony Lamar Matthews, who is, of course, without any options. Maybe, Bonds says, he should appeal the verdict. With a different lawyer. His lawyer, Curtis Shaw, recently was arrested and charged with insurance fraud.
Bonds has a completely different outlook now, he says. God's got a hand in his life. (After all, he could be serving 25 years to life, could be in a prison like the hard-core one depicted in "Lockdown.") Life's not a game, you know? One wrong choice, and like, you can end up locked down. He's got to make some changes.
He'll be a relatively young man -- 37 -- when he gets out of prison, he says. Time, still, perhaps to revive an acting career. Charles S. Dutton did it, stabbed a man to death, did his time, found his way to the Yale School of Drama and an acclaimed acting career. Perhaps Bonds will, too. He'd like that.
"I know I'll be a better and stronger man," Bonds says, "a wiser man. God willing, I can get up out of here."
Special correspondent Kimberly Edds in Los Angeles contributed to this report.