During my second year here at the U of C I was—I guess the word is persuaded—into watching Stomp the Yard with some female friends whose love for Chris Brown, Neyo, and star Columbus Short far surpasses their love for choice cinema. I don’t begrudge them their taste in the dance movie genre. I myself own Save the Last Dance and Bring It On. And Stomp the Yard was actually far more rewarding and entertaining than I expected. Despite a minimalist story serving only to introduce the dance number spectacles, I found the message it was trying to send inspiring and appreciated the film’s energy and the dance talent on display.
27-year-old Columbus Short, who got his break starring as DJ in Stomp the Yard, is a backup dancer, choreographer, and actor on the rise. With the surprise success of Stomp the Yard, Short worked his way through supporting parts in films like This Christmas, Quarantine, Whiteout, and Cadillac Records before receiving his second starring role in this December’s Armored, a high-concept film about a ragtag team of veteran armored truck drivers who convince Short’s rookie to join them in a $42 million heist. Of course, the plan goes to hell and greater moral dilemmas ensue. Columbus Short sat down with the Chicago Maroon and journalists from Northwestern University and a Chicago Tribune high school journalism program to discuss choreographing Britney Spears’s In the Zone tour, his best friend Zoe Saldana (who makes a phone call cameo), and introduces three girls to a new vocabulary word: fluffer.
Chicago Maroon: I guess I’m gonna go chronologically. I know you started off with Stomp and I’m just curious how you got that?
Columbus Short: Do you mean Stomp the Yard or Stomp?
CM: Sorry. Not Stomp the Yard. Stomp, like the Broadway tour.
CS: Oh. Well I was 17, and I left high school. It was February of my senior year in 2000. No, it was ’99. Drove from San Francisco to LA. It was like an open call audition. There were 2,000 people auditioning, and I got it, surprisingly. And I left a month later. So I left high school March of my senior year and went on tour. Went to San Francisco for eight weeks and trained. Went on tour.
CM: How was the experience of it? The touring at that age?
CS: Oh, it was very—I hadn’t really been a lot of places, especially outside of the country. So to travel the world that young and doing the show and getting paid was a very exciting, exciting time for a young man.
CM: So it wasn’t just a national tour? You went international?
CS: Internationally. Everywhere.
CM: Where was your favorite place?
CS: Rome. I love Rome. Australia was beautiful. Korea was great. Everything was new, so it was all fascinating in its own right.
CM: So I guess also keeping with the musical theme, you were Britney Spears’ choreographer for her In the Zone tour. So how did you get that?
CS: Um, I was gonna say something very witty, but I didn’t know if the joke would play.
CM: Oh, it’s fine, go ahead.
Northwestern University: Go for it. Try it out.
CS: No, it’s too late. Moment has passed. [Laughs] I was her dancer at first and I was submitting my choreography tapes to the choreographer, the creative director that was hiring at the time. So I was already going to choreograph numbers on the tour. But after the first performance they fired everybody. The label fired all the creative directors, and she said “I want Columbus and his partner to take over,” and we did.
CM: So how long were you her backup dancer?
CS: I’d been her backup dancer for like two weeks. But choreographer and creative director for like a year.
Chicago Tribune High School Program: What’s the difference for you between acting on Broadway and acting in a film like Armored?
CS: Hmm. Good question. On stage it’s very unforgiving because you have to be present and on the moment. There’s no cuts, no take twos. Every night is new. Every night is a take instead of take by take by the minute. So it’s different. And it’s a bigger type of acting. When the camera is right here [raises hand in front of face] you do less or try to do less. Broadway it’s a lot bigger and broad. Broad-way. Broad-way.
NU: You’ve worked with a lot of big celebrities, and I just want to know which cast do you think you had the most chemistry with?
CS: Hmm. I think I had the most chemistry with the cast I just finished working with, The Losers. Chris Evans, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. We had a blast in Puerto Rico. We were there for three months filming, and we just had the most amazing chemistry. Us—the guys—just wonderful, wonderful chemistry.
NU: What kinds of things did you do for fun while you were there?
CS: Party. Drink. A lot. Got down to the bottom of shit. [Laughs] No, I’m just playing. Um, we did a lot of things, and we mainly partied. When we weren’t working we were definitely completely inebriated. Yes indeed.
NU: So when you were younger, I read that you basically knew that you wanted to be in the entertainment industry since you were, like, three years old. But as you were growing up, what kinds of things really motivated you more to make your dream come true?
CS: Um, I went to a performing arts school, which that education was part of my development as an artist. But my first motivation was all my friends were really rich and I wasn’t. When I was 13, 14, 15, I just wanted things. So I was really motivated to book jobs. I was like, “I gotta book a job. I gotta book this commercial. I gotta.” Because that was how I got things. When I was 16 I booked a really, really big national commercial and made a lot of money. I had a really cool car. A really cool car really young.
CM: What was it with?
CS: It was a Mountain Dew commercial. A Mountain Dew commercial with Busta Rhymes. And so that was a motivation: “I wanna have things.” And then as you get older and you mature, you realize the important—that you really do love the craft and the development. And the education you’re getting is very crucial, and I have it with me even now when I work. Things that my teachers would say to me that have hit me a lot now. That’s driven me. Money drove me early, and artistic quality drives me now.
CM: So going back to her question on casts, so how did the bonding with the actors on Armored work out? You had some veterans on there like Jean Reno and Laurence Fishburne, Matt Dillon.
CS: It went well. We were just like a ragtag group of guys. You know what I mean? Blue collar. But the bonding really happened from Laurence and Matt telling us, like, stories of Christmas past. Stories of yesteryear. It was really fascinating and thought-provoking just to see how the business has changed and where it’s come from and where it’s going.
CM: So it was an all-male cast, basically. How different was that to not have females around? Any sort of crazy stories?
CS: Mmm, yeah. No, there wasn’t. It was a testosterone-driven set. Very testosterone-driven. But it was kind of refreshing because working with actress they take a long time. Hair and makeup and people waiting and it’s ba ba baba ba. It’s the actress thing. So not having an actress on set, guys are like, “We’re done. We’re ready.” “We’re at work so shoot. Let’s make a movie.” So that was kind of the only difference.
CM: So it’s just more easygoing.
CS: Yeah. There was nobody to flirt with. Other than the females on the crew. Which was fun.
CM: Versus, say, working with Zoe Saldana? How did that work out? Because you’ve been in two movies with her now. There’s The Losers and Death at a Funeral.
CS: That’s like, that’s like one of my best friends. I’d love to call her right now. In the middle of this interview.
CM: I will tell her I love Star Trek.
CS: Let’s see. Let’s see if she picks up the phone. Let’s check it out. Guys, we’re gonna check it out. [Phone rings on speaker phone] We’ll see. She’s gonna laugh. Alright, the suspense. [More rings]
CM: Can we at least leave a voice mail?
NU: We shouldn’t definitely leave voice mail.
Zoe Saldana Voice Mail: Zoe Saldana is not available.
CS: She didn’t answer.
NU: That’s a shame.
CM: She’ll call back.
CS: Yeah. I’m going to BBM her and tell her to answer her phone.
NU: So what was your favorite part of filming Armored?
CS: Um, the fact that I was the lead and having such an amazing supporting cast to bounce off of. It was great. Everything about it was fantastic.
CTHSP: What was your main character’s role in the plot of the movie?
CS: I am a rookie armored truck driver who is coerced by the verteran drivers to steal $42 million from the Federal Reserve, and I get forced into the moral quandary. The moral dilemma of “Am I going to take a stand and do what’s right?” or, “Am I going to let wrong be done?” So it’s up to me to kind of--the story kind of takes a hard left in the middle of the heist and things get out of hand.
NU: What kind of things do you do to get into character?
CS: Always have a fluffer. Don’t write that down.
NU: I was just going to ask you what a fluffer is so I was writing it down.
CS: You don’t know what a fluffer is? [Laughs] You guys are all writing it down! Don’t write that down. I’ll tell you after the interview what a fluffer is.
CM: Do we have to Urban Dictionary this?
CS: Um. Um. [Laughs] A fluffer is a porn prep person.
NU: Alright. Cool.
CS: Gets you [whistles] ready to go.
[Laughter all around]
CS: That’s what a fluffer is. What are the things I do? I don’t know. I’m really organic. I’m really chill. I try to relax and chill. I kick back, and when they say “Action!” go to work. You know what I mean? That’s pretty much how it goes. There’s no like, deep philosophies. It’s more about being present and being there on the moment. And that’s when real moments happen. Real organic moments happen on screen when you’re there, present and accounted for, instead of completely calculated and “Okay, I’m gonna have this and I’m gonna look here and I’m gonna do this.” It’s too much. Too much. Gotta just want it to feel natural. Easy watching. It’s easy to watch somebody being natural than watch somebody be fake. Right?
CM: So did you have any special training for the role? Did you get to ride around in security trucks at all?
CS: Um, yeah, I did.
CM: They were very careful that you didn’t steal money, I’m sure.
CS: There wasn’t any money in there, unfortunately.
CM: So you didn’t get to do any sort of legitimate rides?
CS: No. I didn’t. I didn’t. But it was good to see how these guys take their jobs very seriously. They’re very, very serious because they’re a target. They’re carrying around loads of money every day. These men are targeted by criminals and those who plot to steal the goods that are within the truck. So it’s pretty daunting to be an armored truck driver.
CM: So did you ask them if they ever wanted to steal anything, though?
CS: They all laughed and said, “Oh, of course.” [Laughs] Think about it. You’re sitting in front of millions of dollars. Think about it, guys, like cops and drug DEA guys. They bust into rooms with millions of dollars. It’s like, “I’d probably take a couple stacks. Who’s gonna miss this money, guys? Honestly. Who’s gonna miss it?”
CM: It’s like American Gangster a little bit.
CS: Yeah. A little bit. A little bit.