ASHBURN, Va. — The producer knocked on the trailer door, needing Vernon Davis on the set. It was time for his scene, one rich with dialogue. Davis, though, needed another minute. He wasn’t done preparing.
There’s a reason Davis is entering his 14th season and remains the Washington Redskins‘ No. 2 tight end at age 35. There’s also a reason he is receiving praise for what he hopes will be his post-NFL career — acting. It’s preparation.
On the set of “Hell on the Border” this January day, it meant telling the film’s producer he needed to get into character.
“When I heard that, I was so excited, like, ‘Oh, my god, this guy really came to do this movie and is prepared,'” producer Henry Penzi said. “He had a big monologue. I read it and said, ‘Oh, god, I hope he can pull it off.’ I never told him that because I didn’t want to scare anyone.”
“It’s only a matter of time before that one [role] comes and you see him all the time. He’s on the verge of doing it. I’m cheering for him. I’m his biggest supporter.”
Washington CB Josh Norman on teammate Vernon Davis’ acting career
Penzi said only two other actors on other films had told him they needed a few more minutes: Edward Norton while filming “The Italian Job” and Taylor Kitsch on “Lone Survivor.” They turned out just fine. Davis, playing freed slave Columbus Johnson in a true story about the first black deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi River, eventually emerged for his scene.
It included two to three minutes of monologue.
“I backed off [his scene] 100 feet and walked away,” Penzi said. “Funny thing is, I walked away and was climbing a hill. Everyone was clapping and clapping for him because he killed it on the first take. The director was like, ‘That’s all I need.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was a great moment.”
Davis shrugged it off.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Davis said. “I knew I was prepared. I had rehearsed that monologue so many times to the point where it was innate for me.”
Davis isn’t done with the NFL — he’s under contract through 2020 and doesn’t have an end date in mind — and he saves his acting for the offseason. In fact, he doesn’t do interviews about acting during the season.
This offseason, Davis also ventured into other businesses, including founding a line of supplements. He wants to become an NFL analyst, too, but acting — and eventually producing — remains his passion. It’s why he plans on moving to Los Angeles at some point after retiring from the NFL.
Redskins tight end Vernon Davis has his sights set on Hollywood after football – and he plays a key role in the movie “Hell on the Border” coming out this fall. Davis, who is on the left side of the front wagon in this video, said of acting “I love connecting to those moments from the past, whether it was my mom not being around or that moment I got drafted.” Video by John Keim
“Hell on the Border,” which was directed by Wes Miller and also stars Frank Grillo and David Gyasi, will be released this fall. Davis filmed his scenes Jan. 27-30 in Birmingham, Alabama.
He said he will spend a couple of days in late June playing the role of a policeman in the movie “Asphalt.” Another NFL tight end is scheduled to work on the same movie: recently retired Rob Gronkowski.
Penzi, speaking by phone last month en route to Gronkowski’s retirement party in Las Vegas, said he has big plans for Davis.
“If you notice on different interviews, he is pretty funny, he could do some comedy,” said Penzi, who also has worked with Richard Sherman. “I might try to find something with him and Kevin Hart. I talked to him [recently] about doing something with Vernon.”
For Davis, who like Hart is represented by United Talent Agency, it’s simple.
“After football, I have to have something to do,” said Davis, who also attended the NFL’s Broadcast Boot Camp this offseason. “When I was a young kid, the first couple years in the league, I couldn’t find anything to do with my time except things I probably shouldn’t be doing: going to the clubs every night and chasing women. Things that young men do. There was so much time in my day, I tried to find stuff, but I couldn’t find enough.”
As a child, Davis said he was interested in painting and acting but didn’t pursue it because it went against the norm in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood — the potential teasing and name-calling wasn’t worth it to him. But his desire piqued again after getting an A in an arts class while attending the University of Maryland.
Davis took an improv acting class while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, and a flame was ignited.
“Next thing you know, people started bringing me things and ideas, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool. Let me indulge,'” said Davis, who called Denzel Washington his favorite actor.
Soon after, he started creating his own skits and scenes for fun using his iPhone. He dubbed one of them “Random Acts of Kindness” in which he would go to a gym dressed as an old man. Then he’d look for someone who needs help. Or he would ask someone to spot for him on the bench, before lifting, well, like a pro football player does. A football version of Uncle Drew.
One thing led to another, and suddenly he’s following in the footsteps of actor Terry Crews, who played for the Redskins in 1995. Davis has acted in three movies and made four appearances on TV shows, with his biggest role being in “Hell on the Border.” He had a cameo in “Baywatch” two years ago, and he appeared on “Inside Amy Schumer.”
“I enjoy the ability to express myself in ways that I like,” he said. “They’re asking you to involve all the moments from your life, things you went through that were negative and positive in relation to what you’re trying to get out of this film. I love connecting to those moments from the past, whether it was my mom not being around or my grandmother raising my six siblings and I or that moment I got drafted. I pulled from those moments.”
For one scene in “Hell on the Border,” he drew from a motivational talk he once gave his brother, Vontae. But he also went to a deeper place, saying that memories of his grandmother working late hours to give him and his siblings a better life also provided motivation.
“It comes out of his heart,” Penzi said. “I’m not sure, but I feel there was some pain before, and most brilliant actors come with pain. They’ve been through a bad situation. Their upbringing wasn’t good. When he acts, he’s very subtle and listens, and he brings it out.”
That preparation started in football. Davis said he never planned to spend this much time playing the game, accumulating 7,439 receiving yards and 62 touchdowns.
“Being consistent over time, like what Tom Brady has been able to do,” he said. “I tell a lot of young guys coming in that you can’t play catch-up; you can’t get to Year 5 or 6 and all of a sudden say, ‘I’m going to start stretching or seeing a chiropractor or seeing a massage therapist.’ It doesn’t work that way. I’ve been blessed to go as long as I’ve gone and not have any surgeries. A lot of that has to do with consistency: stretching, catching.”
Davis developed those habits early: He still catches 100 balls off a tennis ball machine every night during the season in his basement. That, after catching 200 passes from the Jugs machine after practice.
And he carried that level of devotion to acting. He continues to take classes in the offseason, in Washington and Los Angeles. Davis will Skype with one of those teachers, Rob Epstein, before various scenes to make sure he has nailed his part. Epstein said Davis has “great humility” and, true to football, likes to be coached.
Davis said he likes the entire experience, relating it to football. For “Hell on the Border,” Davis said he’d wake up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. And then wait. Sometimes his scene wouldn’t be shot until six or seven hours later. He equated that to being in the locker room before a game, waking up early at the hotel then getting to the stadium and warming up. Instead of stretching or seeing a trainer, he’s prepping for his shot. In football, it’s about taking a playbook and making it work. In a movie, it’s about learning 50 or so pages of a script and then, he said, “bring it to life.” He likes the synergy.
“You have to really give your best,” he said, “because those cameras are rolling and I know it. When I do my part, I’m anxious — there’s adrenaline. There’s a rush. It’s like a high. I know if I put bad [football] film out there, everyone will be watching and say, ‘This guy’s not good.’ It’s the same with acting.”
Said Epstein: “He’s got great impulses. Very free personality. … Acting is nice for him probably for the same reason I’m attracted to it: It puts you on your feet and is very active. A little bit like sports in the sense that you’re there in 3-D with your whole body and nervous system and reacting to things and doing things.”
Redskins cornerback Josh Norman, like Davis, has focused on post-NFL ventures, including film. He said they discuss acting “all the time” and have talked about working together on a film someday.
“He’s getting these roles, and the roles he’s getting are bigger and bigger,” Norman said. “It’s only a matter of time before that one comes and you see him all the time. He’s on the verge of doing it. I’m cheering for him. I’m his biggest supporter.
“He’s committed to it. You can’t just jump into acting; it won’t work. You won’t come off onscreen like the way you’re supposed to, and people can tell if you suck or not, like Ben Affleck playing Batman. I respect [Davis’] hustle and his grind, and that’s why he’s going to be a big guy in this arena when it’s all said and done.”