COOL RUNNINGS: Where Are They Now?

Rawle D. Lewis is an award winning Hi Alum.  His hilarious directorial debut, Poet Heads, won Best Mockumentary Feature at Harlem International Film Festival in 2007. The following article was originally published by Empire magazine.
Inspired by Jamaica’s bobsledding team making a welcome return to the Winter Olympics this year, Empire got in touch with all four of Cool Runnings’ stars to see what they’ve been up to in the two decades since the family favourite sports comedy first hit cinemas. The resulting interviews were so entertaining that they have leapt out of the 299th issue of Empire and now appear online in super-sized forms. Here is Junior Bevil himself, Rawle D. Lewis, and for the others, click the appropriate links at the end of the article.
How did you first get involved with the project?
Well, I thought I was just going to be the reader – I thought I was helping them cast the movie and that was it. I guess I can let it all out the bag now… I was doing a play, and I really didn’t have that much experience because I was very young, and back then there was no Google or anything like that. So I had lied on my resume. I was born in Trinidad, so I said I had done all this acting in Trinidad, ‘cos I figured, who the hell’s going to figure that out?   So what happened was that this casting director came to see the play, and she liked me, and read the little bio at the bottom of the play, and said, “Oh, you starred in all these movies in the Caribbean.” As a kid, like, as if I was this child actor. Later, she called me and said, “Hey, we’re working on this movie about the Jamaican bobsled team and we want to make sure these guys have a good Jamaican accent. Can you do a good Jamaican accent?” I said, “Yeah, I grew up around Jamaicans as well.” But in America they just know Caribbean, so they just go, “Ah, that’s close enough.”
And so I came into read with all the actors, just helping them out, and I was like, “Yeah, this guy sounds Jamaican, this guy, he probably needs a coach, this guy sounds Armenian,” like I was giving her the low-down, you know. But what happened was that as I kept reading, some of my friends who were actors would come in. And because the director and the producer are behind you, and you’re reading towards the guys doing the audition, I could wink at my friends and pretend like I didn’t know them. I’d give them more juice, you know. I really was acting in those ones, because I wanted to give them some fire so they can get the part. I guess the producer must have been thinking, “We were sitting behind you and like, ‘Hey, this guy’s really going for it!'” And then the writer in the other room was like, “Who was that other guy?” They go, “That’s the reader,” and he goes, “Why don’t they put him in the movie?”I didn’t know anything about this, by the way.
And anyway, as time went on and we were getting closer, we all had a big table reading with all the potential people that were supposed to be in the movie. And at the time it was like Jeffrey Wright and like this guy Eriq La Salle, who was in ER. And then they told me, “Ah, we couldn’t really find anyone for Junior Bevil, so can you just read it till we find someone?” And so we do this Disney reading, at a table with all these execs, and I just read the part. Then that’s when I started to get suspicious, because people, they came up to me and were like, “Hey, good job, good job.” And I’m so dumb and naïve, I was about to go, “Wait, I’m just the reader.” And then I stopped myself.
And it just went all the way… and finally they were doing the screen test, with all the actors, and they said, “Hey, why don’t you just come down and help us get sorted out.” And so I go down there with all the parts, just in case, to read everyone’s part. And that’s when the director came to me and was like, “What are you doing with all that?” And I go, “Oh, well I don’t have everyone’s parts memorised.” And he goes, “No! No! You’re screen testing!” That’s when I figured out that I was screen testing. Now I just could be an idiot, or they could just be slowly letting me know. (Laughs)
Was this when it was a dramatic film, or was it already in its comedic stages?
No, it was already in its comedic Cool Runnings stage. Because it was Blue Maaga at one stage, right? And they were thinking of people like Wesley Snipes. I think they tried to do it like a year and a half before, prior to the version that I was a part of. But it was very dramatic. It’s hard to picture now.
Did you think that Cool Runnings was going to be such a big hit?
I actually thought that from the beginning. I was excited to get to be the reader for it first. I said, “This is going to be a great movie, they just don’t get it.” But then again, I’m from the Caribbean, so I get the impact of that culture, that sort of laid back, devil-may-care culture – what it does to the rest of the world, especially in more uptight countries. That added to what these guys actually did made me think, “Do you not get it? This is just short of miraculous! There is no snow where we’re from!”
I personally was like, “These guys are nuts, but that’s brilliant.” It’s proof you can do whatever you want and follow your dreams. It goes beyond the Disney motto, you know. John Candy was the one that pulled us aside and said it was special. You know, John Candy took a pay cut to do this movie. He went after the role of the coach himself, and they were like, “Eh, I don’t think so. We were thinking of Kurt Russell.” And John Candy was like, “No, I really want to do this movie.” They had not imagined John Candy at all. And in hindsight they’ve taken a lot of credit for it, probably.
I remember we were in Calgary doing the training, and John Candy pulled us aside. He was just so excited about the movie. He said, “Listen. I’m from Canada. I was there. Disney have no idea of the power of this film. They just think they have a little movie on their hands, to make a little video cash for Disney and then move onto the next.” Dawn Steel, the producer who worked on Cool Runnings, had two stories. One was about someone who goes into witness protection and hides out as a nun, and this Cool Runnings story. They really liked the nun one, and because of that they were like, “Alright, we’ll let you do your Jamaican movie too.” The first idea ended up being Sister Act, and Cool Runnings was the movie that they kind of left her alone with a little bit.
And John Candy was certain this movie was going to make money, and I said, “I think it’ll make about $60-70 million in the US, but it’s going to do more overseas, it’s going to do about $100 million.” And I remember the guy that I said that to chuckled at me. “Oh, you’re confident!”, he said. And of course it’s made much more on video and all that stuff, but at the time, it had made almost identical to what I said.
And Disney thought it might be direct-to-video…
Yeah, and they were so worried about it, because I don’t think Disney had ever done a movie with that many black lead characters like that. And plus Jamaican people… they were getting really exotic. (Laughs) But they also were worried about the accent, so if you ask any island person about the movie, they’re like, “Well, those accents are a little bit off…” And I completely agree! I never ever defended it in that way, but I will say this: if it was up to Disney, there would be no accents at all. They actually were so worried about it selling to the Midwest and all that stuff they kept saying to us to tone it down. It was really difficult as an actor, because you’re trying to get it authentic, and you get down to Jamaica and you’re hearing nothing but Jamaican accents, and of course you’re incorporating it into the movie, because this is what it’s supposed to sound like. But every time you went too Jamaican, they were like, “Woah, woah! Back off!” One of the jokes was “You’ll be a big hit in Kingston!” The director would say that.
Was there a moment when you knew the movie had arrived once it was out in the cinemas?
You know what? No, not really. I think there wasn’t… The only time I felt the rush of recognition was at the premiere of the movie, but since then it’s been a slow thing. Like, there’s been more recognition, believe it or not, now than when the movie actually came out. I almost feel like almost everyone’s seen it on video, including my postman. My postman is delivering me something one day, and he’s like, “I don’t know how to say this to you: that movie changed my life!” Like, Jesus Christ… This guy knows where I live now! (Laughs)
What amazes me about this movie is that he said during the postal service training that they would show that movie to show teamwork. When the movie came out, it was just a lot of hip movie goers who recognised me. But since then, since video, it’s a lot of kids, people into sports, college students, and then anyone who’s into winter sports in particular. Any time I go skiing or anything like that, any time I’m around snow at all. Anyone who is into winter activities is very into that movie. And overseas, like London for instance, I think the British are very into that movie. It seems that way to me, because they love the underdog.
To read about the other Cool Runnings cast members go to the following link.
or click on the individual cast members names