In the Netflix action movie “Project Power,” the potential for chaos or creation is all in one pill. Take one of those shiny capsules, and you’ll be given super powers for five minutes, whether it involves fire, camouflage, flexibility, or being bulletproof. Within the timeframe of this thriller directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the drug has become a hot commodity, tested on the underserved people in New Orleans, and sought after by the rich.
You can easily imagine the world of “Project Power” expanding to different lives and powers, but it starts here with Robin (Dominique Fishback, a breakout from the 2018 Sundance film “Night Comes On“). A student with a gift for freestyling, she sells the pill on the street to help pay for her mother’s medical bills, and sometimes receives the support of a cop named Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wants to use the pill for good. The two get entangled with a rogue by the name of Art, played by Jamie Foxx, who wants to get to the person at the top of the power-dealing chain for more personal reasons.
Among its blockbuster spectacle—a Netflix Original with cinematography best seen on the biggest screen possible—the movie has an open fondness for human powers that aren’t pill related. Gordon-Levitt runs around the movie in a jersey for New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason, the subject of a powerful documentary (“Gleason“) about the NFL player living with Lou Gehrig’s disease; Gordon-Levitt wears the jersey like a casual Superman outfit. And the words that Foxx’s character imparts to Fishback, about leaving your mark, are unmistakable, especially when being told to a young actor who deserves all of the versatility she wants to fill her career with.
RogerEbert.com got on a Zoom call with Fishback and Gordon-Levitt to talk about “Project Power,” Fishback’s idolization of Meryl Streep, Gordon-Levitt’s thoughts on his ever relevant directorial debut “Don Jon,” and more.
Dominique, as the greenest member in the trio, what did you learn from your co-stars?
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK: I learned that the power was in me. But, I’ll be honest, I’m very analytical in my own emotions, like, Dom, why do you say this? And reflecting a lot. But I tend to do that for my characters. I did that a lot in “Night Comes On” because a lot of her stuff is all in her mind, and just in the eyes. She was really tough in her feelings, so you just have to assume and feel. And with this, it was moving so fast that I didn’t get a chance to be as analytical as I always had been, and so it really just thrust me into trusting my own instrument. At one point, I asked Joseph, ‘How do you know if you’re coasting?’ Because I felt like, I’m not doing the hard writing work that I’ve been doing. And he said something along the lines of, ‘Well, I think if you were coasting, you wouldn’t ask that question. I don’t think a person who was coasting would ask that question.’
And I asked Jamie if it should be easy, if acting at any point became easy for him. And he said, ‘Do you watch basketball?’ And I said, ‘Sometimes.’ And he said, ‘Well, when Steph Curry runs down the court, he shoots a three, and it goes in. He doesn’t question himself as to why it went in, because he’s been doing it for so long.’ It’s the same kind of goals for me that I’ve been doing it for so long, and that I really had it in me. Which is really a gift.
Joseph, I see the drum set and guitars behind you, and have been following HitRECord for years. How do genre movies like this excite you as a creative person?
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: This movie just seemed like it would be a lot of fun, to be honest. I took a couple of years off acting when I became a dad, and I was lucky to get to spend some time with my babies. My first time back as an actor was this really intense, heavy drama called “7500,” but after something so serious I just wanted to do something fun. I read this script for “Project Power,” and I was like, ‘These action scenes, and Jamie Foxx, and we’re going to New Orleans, this is going to be a blast.’ And it really was.
Dominique, there’s a big scene in the movie in which Jamie Foxx asks your character, “How are you going to leave your mark?” Again I was thinking about you and your career, and I was wondering how you’d to leave your mark as an actor.
DM: I want to be known as very versatile, somebody who transforms in everything she does. I really admire Meryl Streep, I feel like she transforms in everything she does. And I remember being in school, and, rightfully so, my classmates are the people who were really looking for agents. I kind of took a step back to say, You know what, I’m just going to focus on the craft. When I do get in a room, I want to always be able to deliver. I want to have fun and show all the different ways that black girls can be, excel, and create.
Joseph, though it’s been seven years since its release, there’s still a lot that your own directorial debut “Don Jon” is dead-on about concerning the power of certain technology, and how we let it control of us. Looking back on that movie, what do you think about?
JGL: I love that movie; I’m really proud of it. It’s a movie sort of about addictive technology, and focuses on a guy who is addicted to online pornography. Addictive technology has just become increasingly prominent in part of our world, and I think it’s going to become more that way, especially as technology gets more and more powerful. We’re really, I think, going to be facing a choice as a generation. Like, do I just hook up to this bliss machine and let the algorithms take me away? Or am I going to be in charge more of who I am, and how I spend my time? I think “Don Jon” was sort of talking about that in an earlier part of the decade, before the algorithms had become as advanced as they now have. Things are just growing so fast, technology is advancing so quickly now, it’s really sort of in many ways the story of our time.
It’s interesting that you talk about algorithms etc., because your creative company HitRECord is so prominent on social media. The feed is constantly trying to engage people, which seems like a big part of art now, to hold their attention.
JGL: Yeah, engagement is a funny word, right? Because one of my thinkers about this, Jaron Lanier, says that ‘engagement is just a euphemism for addiction.’ On HitRECord, we’re not just trying to engage, or get people to hit a button or scroll through more and more content to see more ads, we’re always trying to get people to be creative, and be creative together with other people. To me, that’s the optimistic view of what I hope the internet I think really can be, and really should be—a place for people who can accomplish things together that they may not have been able to on their own.
Dominique, you were talking about future projects—I was curious if you had a dream project, or a dream character? You can put it out there in the universe now.
DM: I used to really want to play Assata Shakur, but I think I’ve been in the ‘70s a bit long [laughs]. I did “The Deuce” and I did that Jay-Z video (“Smile“). And now I’m doing “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the Fred Hampton story. I think I would only want to do [the Shakur story] if she was involved, and I’d have to think about if I was being versatile. Not that they’re the same, but it kind of lends itself to a similar thing.
I’m a true romantic, I love “Romeo & Juliet.” I would love to play Juliet one day. On stage, and on film. That would be great.
Joseph, was it your idea for your character to wear the Steve Gleason jersey throughout the movie? What’s the story behind that?
It was not my idea, it was the filmmakers’ idea, Henry and Rel. But I really loved it, and I learned who Steve Gleason was. For those who don’t know, he was a football player for the New Orleans Saints, and is really a hero in that city. He’s paralyzed [due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease] but managed to overcome that adversity and help a lot of people. He came to our set. He can’t talk like you and I can, he has this machine that uses his eyes to select which words he wants to have the machine speak for him, and it really helps you not take things for granted. It’s a miracle to be able to talk, and how often do we give thanks for our ability to speak, you know? He’s a real reminder of that, and I admire him a great deal. I feel proud to bear his jersey throughout the film.
Available on Netflix on 8/14.