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What Vernon Davis Learned While Shooting His New Movie 


On the club level of FedExField Tuesday, supporting a new Charitable Foundation partnership, tight end Vernon Davis was his usual dapper self, dressed in an all-burgundy suit. Just a few weeks prior, he'd traded his signature style for a cowboy hat and a tan-hide vest, shooting a movie in Birmingham, Ala.

As has been the case for a few years, the veteran tight end takes the first month of the offseason to explore ventures outside of football, most notably pursuing a fledgling acting career that's been growing steadily – he starred in Baywatch in 2017 – since he began making cameos in hit TV shows such as The League and Inside Amy Schumer.

That includes his latest project, Hell on the Border, a biopic about Bass Reeves, the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Davis plays a former slave, Columbus Johnson, who helps other slaves find refuge, and spent four days at the end of January filming his scenes.

The movie stars Frank Grillo, Ron Perlman, Zahn McClarnon and David Gyasi, and will be released after this summer, Davis said.

"It was a great experience," Davis said. "I've been filming before, but this one right here was probably my biggest one. Just being out there from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day it was a lot of work, a lot of patience, but if you love it, if you're into it, then you'll do it, just like anything else. You'll do it for free. It was just a great experience."

Davis, who will now get back to football training full-time, is peppering in some acting classes in March, and shared some of the valuable lessons he learned while on set.

It's About Reacting

One of the dollops of wisdom that Perlman gave Davis during shooting centered on his acting technique. He explained that acting is primarily a job of listening and reacting.

"Yeah, it's not being an actor, its reacting, meaning when you're out there, you're living in the moment, you're all about the moment just like football," Davis said. "You live in the moment, and you're just reacting to the individual you're dealing with. If someone starts shooting or you hear a loud noise, you have to react to it, so that's what pretty much happened. It's just reacting, and being real in an imaginary circumstance."

Hurry Up And Wait

The reality of a movie set is not always as glamorous as it sounds. Davis often got to set at the crack of dawn, but had hours until everyone was ready for "action." While crew members fidget with lighting and camera angles, Davis mostly stayed in his trailer going over his lines.

"I learned that you have to hurry up and wait," Davis said. "Meaning like, you're there at 5:00 a.m., but you probably won't go on until noon."

You Can Tweak Lines

Davis said he'd received the script a month before shooting and didn't have any issue memorizing his lines before he arrived on set.

"I just had to continue to go over them," he said. "You can tweak them a little bit, you can kind of use your own words as long as they're the same concept."

Should anything not sound right, the director, Wes Miller, would try to clarify for Davis his interpretation.

"You learn what he wants," Davis said. "He walks up and explains, and you know what's going on, but he's still explaining like, 'Hey, this is the deal. Such and such did this, you did that, and you have to act it out, like give me something', you know? It's pretty cool."

His Character Helped Inform His Delivery

The man Davis plays, Columbus Johnson, was born in Maryland, served in the Civil War and organized the Tennessee Real Estate Homestead Association in 1869.

"I learned he was a former slave and he was someone who's all about the people," Davis said. "He was into helping people, that's why in the movie they had a place where they were taking people, and you could tell that Columbus Johnson was really into the mission, which was taking [slaves] somewhere else. That was his role, that was his job, to get from point A to point B, you had to know what was going on so that's how I was able to deliver my lines."

The Meisner Technique

One of the things Davis has learned in other acting classes was this classic training exercise, which forces two actors to repeat the same lines to each other and gradually build so that they're interacting "out of their head."

"You're playing off each other, whatever you do I do it, but it has to be in context," Davis said. "When we warm up we'll be like, 'You look happy', and I'll be like 'You look happy', and everything has to be gradual, you can't just go from 'You look happy' [laughing], 'You look happy', you can't do that. You got to work your way up to it."

Maybe this could be a good technique for Davis to use when he's lined up 1-on-1 with a defender.

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