In my deeply humble opinion, Set It Off is the best, most affecting heist film ever made. You can keep your Oceans and your Jobs (Italian, Bank), your endlessly adapted Bonnies and Clydes. I’ll be over here with the most charismatic and deeply human thieves ever to grace the silver screen: Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith), Cleo (Queen Latifah), T.T. (Kimberly Elise), and Frankie (Vivica A. Fox). We meet these four best friends just as they’ve all had enough of the structural racism, sexism, and classism inherent in living as a black woman in 1990s Los Angeles: Frankie’s been fired from her banking job because she happens to live in the same neighborhood as the man who robs her place of employment; strong-willed Stony watches her innocent brother, whom she’s raised, get gunned down by the police; sweet T.T.’s child is taken away by the state because she can’t afford childcare; Cleo, a mischievous lesbian, is mistreated by her boss at her cleaning gig. All four are furious and powerless, aware of the systemic roadblocks that will always stand in their way. So they do the only thing that they can do: They decide to rob a bank.
Written by Takashi Bufford and directed by a then-27-year-old F. Gary Gray, fresh off of Friday, Set It Off is marked by a constant stream of tonal and plot shifts (sometimes jarringly so); it’s witty and slick, and eminently quotable, but also lightly bonkers. The story is adrenaline-inducing at one point and completely heart-wrenching at another, asking difficult questions its characters aren’t compelled to smooth over in the interest of giving an audience easy answers. Gray addresses very real social issues in a way that feels prescient, but not pandering, and still leaves room for a raucous sense of fun that drives every one of its 120 minutes.
Each of the film’s four leads seem born for their specific roles within the chaos, but Vivica A. Fox is particularly wonderful to watch as the headstrong Frankie, who pivots quickly and confidently from her 9-to-5 to “The only way we’re gonna see cash is if we take a bank.” Fox plays Frankie as a realist, but one who’s warm and empathetic, determined to wrench herself and her friends out of the muck at any cost. And she’s funny as hell: One of the best scenes in the film features Frankie imitating The Godfather, cheeks stuffed and Italian accent on point, instructing on the logistics of the crime she’s about to commit. I hopped on the phone with Fox, who’s currently starring in the movie Arkansas opposite Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke, to talk about her memories of Set It Off, how she was almost cast as T.T. opposite Rosie Perez as Frankie, and how Will Smith helped her prepare for her audition.
How are you holding up?
I’m doing really good, despite all of the craziness going on in the world. I love Set It Off. Cult classic, honey!
Do you remember when you first heard about it?
Set It Off came my way — I auditioned for that bad boy, okay?! F. Gary Gray came by the set of Independence Day, which I was shooting at the time. And actually, here’s a fun pearl: My acting coach for Set It Off was Will Smith. Jada, of course, was dating him at the time. They weren’t married. Or were they? No, they were dating at the time. And he was like, “Vivica. I want you to get this role.” And I was like, “Will, they’re making me audition for two roles!” And he was like, “Which roles?” And I was like, “For Frankie, and for T.T.” And he was like, “You ain’t T.T. You Frankie. So when you go in there, I want you to kill it.” So I was like, “Okay, I’m ready, I’m gonna kill it.” He coached me!
So how did the audition go?
I went in and I auditioned with F. Gary Gray, and I did T.T. first, and I saw F. Gary Gray kind of [skeptical]. But the thing was, they’d already cast Rosie Perez as Frankie. I found this out after my audition. But then he was like, “Do Frankie!” So I did. And he went, “That’s it. That is it.” Sometimes if the director likes you, they always have notes. Just to kind of throw you. But he says, “Listen. I’m gonna be really honest with you. Right now, they want Rosie Perez, but I want you. If she falls out, you’re gonna be Frankie.” So I’m walking out of that audition on cloud nine, like, Even if I’m not gonna be Frankie, I’m gonna be T.T. I’m gonna be in the movie. Then they gave me a call less than a week later, and he was like, “You’re Frankie!” I was thrilled.
So what happened to Rosie?
She dropped out! I don’t know if she had another project. I don’t know why, but she fell out. And I’m grateful for her fall-out.
What do you think it was about you that made him say, “That’s Frankie”?
Well, Set It Off gave me my street cred. Before Set It Off, I was the hot chick. I was out all night, I’d modeled before, and I think people saw me a little bit bougie. Like, the uppity pretty girl. Not knowing that I grew up two streets from the projects, and I was, especially back then, as ghetto as the game [laughs]. So I got my street cred. People were like, “Whoa! Wow, I never knew you could get like that.”
Was that what made you want to do the movie so badly?
First of all, I wanted to do it because Jada was doing it, and Queen Latifah. I was like, “I must be in this film.” And then — four girls, robbing a bank? It was like, “I want to do this!” Before then, I’d done Soul Food, and my image was different. And I really thought this would show me as an actress in a different light. It was just so meaty. It was action, and I’m an athlete, so I love being physical. I just knew it’d be a good project.
What do you remember about first meeting all of your co-stars?
Jada and Queen Latifah I knew from just being an up-and-coming actress at the time. I’d worked on Living Single; Jada I knew from just all of us being young, up-and-comers. I’d actually saw Kimberly on the way out of my audition. I remembered her, over in the corner, practicing her lines. And when we first started rehearsing, I asked her, “What have you done?” And she said, “I’m from the theater.” And I was like, “Ooh, okay, she’s gonna be…” Because theater actors come with a whole other format than TV and movie actors do. And she nailed T.T. — when F. Gary Gray was casting these girls, every actress really fit their part.
How early on did you guys start developing chemistry as a friend group? Did it take awhile or was it instantaneous?
We developed it right away, to be honest with you. Because we mostly knew each other. And then Latifah was doing so many jobs, so we really had to be there for her. She was doing Living Single, she was almost working around the clock. So a lot of times Latifah would come in, get in the makeup chair, and fall asleep. Thank God she didn’t have to have a lot of hair and makeup as Cleo. She’d just be out of it, and we’d help her. And we’d have rehearsals a lot, so that’d help, too. [We’d bond] in rehearsals, going to lunch, and things like that, and then we’d film at night. Crazy hours. I introduced Queen Latifah to sushi. She’s like, “Girl, I’m from New York. I’m not eating no raw fish.” But by the end, she loved it. The chemistry for us came so easy.
Did you find yourselves falling into the dynamics of your characters? Or did your real-life friendships fall along different lines?
We fell into the dynamics of our characters, for sure. That’s why we were able to ad-lib so easily. Jada ad-libbed that, “Frankie wanna blow up the bank, uh. Frankie wanna rob the bank, uh.” People will walk up to me and say, “Frankie wanna blow up the bank!” And I’m like, “Isn’t that crazy, they don’t even know that wasn’t written.”
Can you give me an example of a situation where you guys mimicked your characters’ dynamics?
There’s one scene where Frankie gets fired from her job and starts working with [her friends]. And I’m such a priss about my nails. So the one scene where I’m getting the garbage and it stinks and it messes up my nails is so me. And they were just rolling. They were like, “Oh my God. Vivica is so Frankie.”
What I loved about Frankie is that, when [her friends] were all chillin’, she was the girl from the hood trying to work her way out of the hood with a 9-to-5 job that probably had benefits. And because of her association with the hood, she felt like, “Damn!” So the whole thing with her was like, “Revenge will be mine.” Because she knew the bank, she thought, “I’m gonna get back at them. I’m gonna take from them what they took from me.”
Would you say that, like Frankie, you were the ringleader of the group?
Hmm. That couldn’t have been Latifah, because she was doing so much. I’d say that the ringleader for us was our director. He was really all about making sure that the chemistry and everything was real. He said, “Listen, the one thing that I don’t want to happen with this film is that people think this is gonna be a damn comedy. I want everyone to understand why these girls — I want all the story lines to make sense. I want you to tug at people’s heartstrings, for them to understand that these four girls’ backs were against the wall, that they’d been cheated and robbed by life. Jada lost her brother, you got fired from your job, Cleo, you just need something to do, and T.T., they took your son.” And I love that he created that backstory.
Did those backstories resonate with you guys? Did they feel real?
Absolutely. Originally, with the script, we were throwing out pages daily. Like, “No.” But that’s what you do when you have a good director who knows what he has to turn in. We were given the freedom with him to create things, and dialogue that would make sense. Everyone, once it started making sense, we came up with little moments and it really was a team effort, to make that movie so successful.
What rang false about the original script?
Jada was a crackhead. There were so many stereotypes of black people. F. Gary Gray was like, “Nope! Nope!” Her brother was a crack dealer. It just didn’t make sense. He was like, “No, Jada’s gonna be working hard to get him to go to school.” And her motivation was him saying, “I don’t want to go to school!” And [Gray came up with] what she had to do to get him the money to go to school.
Any little moments you remember ad-libbing or lines you changed?
The scene on the roof was so much ad-libbing. I remember our butts hurt. I don’t know what the hell that roof was made out of, but wow, did it hurt. A lot of that scene was ad-libbing, like Jada’s telling Cleo, “You look like Sugar Bear.” That scene is so memorable to me. And then also the scene where I’m being interrogated. F. Gary Gray gave me the moment to walk up to Ella Joyce, who was the only female black cop there, and she’s sitting there drinking water. As an actor, I said, “She’s gonna sit there and drink a sip of water, and she’s not gonna offer me anything, as a black woman? And I’m covered in blood?” And I asked him, “Please let me say something to her.” And so he let me say, “You weren’t even gonna ask me if I was thirsty, sister.” And everyone was like, “Yo, Viv, that was tight!” That was mine!
What were the biggest differences you noticed when working with this young, fresh director versus, say, Roland Emmerich or Quentin Tarantino?
Believe it or not, those three names that you mentioned, especially Gray and Tarantino, remind me so much of one another. Quentin makes sure that everything is very detail-oriented. They were all very much in control of their films. Roland, too, but because it was sci-fi, it’s a different type of thing: big, green screen, and all of that. But Gray and Tarantino really wanted to make sure that for women, it made sense. That we were true kick-ass chicks, and that the audience would believe it.
In an older interview with Takashi Bufford, he said, “When we took Set It Off to New Line Cinema, they rejected it three times and the reason they rejected it is that they thought black males would not support a film with gunslinging black females.” Were you aware of that rejection?
See there? That would explain why, when we filmed, Gray was so on our ass. I remember one day, he was like, “You have to be on time. You can’t do Colored People Time, coming in 15 minutes late like you don’t care.” I remember one day we were out to lunch, and we came back like, 15 minutes late, and when we walked back in, woo boy. We were in trouble. He was like, “Let me tell y’all something. I’m not gonna take this disrespect!” That explains why he was a stickler for being on time and being serious and taking this seriously. I love that about him.
Was there an awareness among the four of you that what you were making was groundbreaking?
[Because of] F. Gary Gray, we definitely did understand that. I remember the premiere, and the pre-buzz, and the marketing that they did. Everybody was like, “This looks like this is gonna be bangin’.” And then the soundtrack was off the chain. And those box-office numbers definitely let you know that it was a sleeper surprise hit.
That premiere for me, it was so fun. Everybody was there. Dominique Wilkins, a basketball player … I knew him, being a basketball fan over the years. And I remember he came up to me like, “Vivica!” And I was like, “What?! Hey, Dominique! What’s going on?” And he was like, “Let me tell you something about Set It Off. Yo, that’s my movie, that’s my shit.” And I was like, “Okay … ” He was so passionate. He said, “Yo, I was going to the movies, and I was like, let me check this out for my girl Viv. And I was in there crying. And I went back the next day. I thought, Maybe I just felt that way because I know Vivica? But I went back the next day, and I was like, That was good, man.” So the fact that there’s this 6-foot-8 Adonis of a man coming over and telling me that we did it, it was like, “We did our job.”
I did notice rewatching it how ahead of its time it was in doing so many things at once, being so socially conscious but also wildly entertaining, dark and tragic but also funny. How did you guys nail such a tricky tone?
Once again — F. Gary Gray. He was so detailed about, let’s say for example, our masks. The way the first bank robbery happened is, we’re wearing janky wigs and the guns were amateurish. Each robbery, the level stepped up: By the end, we had machine guns and clear masks. And we executed the bank robbery within a certain amount of time, and each time, the level went up. It was very stylized.
What sticks out in your mind as a particularly memorable scene to film?
For me, it was when I had to do the imitation of The Godfather with the cotton balls in my mouth. Originally, I did not get that. I was like, “I’m gonna be Marlon Brando?” And a girlfriend of mine by the name of Virginia Watson gave me the perfect note. She goes, “You gotta go look at that scene, and put the cotton balls in your mouth, and commit. You can do this, Vivica.” And I was like, “Okay!” So I went and I watched The Godfather, and I was like, [gasps] “I got it!” We filmed that scene at like, 3 o’clock in the morning. And Latifah would sleep. She’d do her take and [fake snores]. And I went over to F. Gary Gray and I got kinda pissed! I was like, “I’m awake for their takes!” But Latifah would sleep, Jada was getting sleepy, and I was like, “Ain’t this a bitch? They’re sleeping on my takes.” And F. Gary Gray was like, “Kill it. Kill it. You know what you’re doing.” And I did that take and I almost did it in one take. And he was like, “That’s what I’m talking about.”
That’s my favorite scene by far.
“Next up, Balboa Savings and Loan.” See? I remember it!
This movie is also very emotional. What do you remember as the most fraught scene for you to film?
When T.T. died. And I was driving the car, and she got shot, and then we realized that she’d died. Wooow. That scene. We filmed it in downtown Los Angeles. Just, man. Jada was so superb, when she did the whole thing about the ice cream. Even now, it chokes me up a little bit. She was just so good.
And what was it like to film your own very dramatic death scene?
Oh, wow. Well first of all, it was about 5 o’clock in the morning, and it was real cold. If you see the scene, you see that there’s a ton of condensation. Thank God for me, I was so into that that I didn’t even feel how cold it was. They had to wet the ground, because for some reason, when you shoot they have to make the ground look black. So I was laying on cold, wet pavement. And I remember that when I got shot, they shot it in slow-motion. F. Gary Gray was like, “Are you gonna be okay with the blood pellets and everything?” And I was like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” And I did it, and I got shot, and he goes, “Jeez, you got shot good.” I fell down, my feet flipped up into the air. He loved it. I was an athlete, so I’m very physical, like I said.
What was going through your mind in terms of her motivation in those final moments? Why does she sort of sacrifice herself?
That’s another line I got to ad-lib. Originally, she turned around and walked away. And I was like, “No! She’s gotta [say something].” So I say, “It’s over.” She knows she’s gonna die. And in that scene beforehand, with her and Jada, I’m like, “I’ll catch up with you!” And I hugged her really tight. And then it was like, boom, I got caught. And Frankie knew: This is it.
At one point Jada’s character asks a question that sums up one of the movie’s themes: “What do you think about friends and money?” What’s your answer to that question?
For me, you gotta make sure your friends making their own money [laughs.] I hate that: “We workin’!” No, I’m workin’. This is my money that I earned. That’s how I feel about friends and money. Make your own money, my sister!
Arkansas is now available to watch on Apple, Amazon, On Demand platforms, Blu-ray and DVD.
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