Like many of his teenage peers, Mekhi Phifer was stuck in minimum-wage jobs during high school. "I wanted to be able to get a beautiful girl and be able to take her to the movies," he says. So to earn some spare cash, Phifer found himself on a Harlem street corner at age 16, selling marijuana and crack cocaine. Luckily his life as a drug dealer lasted exactly one day. "I stepped out of myself," he recalls, "and I looked at myself on the corner, looking out for undercover cops and looking for rival drug dealers, and I was like, 'What am I doing out here? My mom raised me better than this.' "
Smart move. Since making his film debut as Strike, the lead character in Spike Lee's 1995 drama Clockers, Phifer has clocked in on two HBO movies and three feature films, including 1997's hit comedy Soul Food. In the new I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, he plays Tyrell Martin, a college student trying to romance Brandy during Fourth of July weekend—while fending off a hook-handed killer. "I always wanted to do a horror film," says Phifer, 23. "I wanted to see myself scared in a movie."
But filming—at a resort in Mexico—was anything but a horror show. During downtime the actors swam and sunbathed at the beach. And playing Brandy's beau? "She's a good friend of mine," he says. "In a way it was weird kissing her. But she's a pretty girl, so it wasn't that hard. Not that hard at all."
Even under less auspicious circumstances, Phifer tends to look on the bright side. Growing up in Harlem, he insists, was not so rough. "I want to knock away those stereotypes a little bit," he says. "We played sports, we went to the park, played tag, catch and kiss with the girls—all that kind of stuff."
Not that there weren't challenges. He and his half-brother Fernando Cameron, now 11, were raised by single mom Rhoda Phifer, an elementary-school teacher. Phifer never met his father. "He didn't want to have a baby," the actor says. "And my mom was just like, 'This is my body, this is my baby, and I'm gonna have it with or without you.' He never came back." Mother and son, Phifer adds, were better off without him. "We didn't have a lot of money or anything, but she always provided everything I needed," he says. "She laid a strong foundation for me."
With lots of homework. "I made sure he stuck with the books," says Rhoda. When he graduated from Lincoln Square Auxiliary Services high school in 1994, Phifer planned to go to college. But one day on a whim, the outgoing teen—always "the center of his group," says his mother—showed up at an open casting call for Clockers, about a New Jersey drug dealer caught in a murder cover-up. "I didn't take the audition that seriously," Phifer says; he took his own head shot in a Woolworth's photo booth for $4. His laid-back approach paid off: Spike Lee "said he liked my realism," says Phifer.
Soon, offers came pouring in. "I saw Mekhi in Clockers, and I knew I wanted to work with him," says Soul Food writer and director George Tillman Jr. "He brings a natural aura to all the characters he plays. You can identify with him so much." Four months ago, Phifer moved to Los Angeles, where he shares a five-bedroom home with actress-girlfriend Malinda Williams, his costar in 1996's High School High. She is "definitely" the woman he intends to marry, he says. Though he won't say when, he certainly isn't taking things slowly. "I look forward to being a father," he says. "I want to have kids fairly young."
In the meantime he's living the rest of his life at an equally frenetic pace. Phifer recently finished shooting four more movies, including the suspense drama An Uninvited Guest, with Williams. ("I like working with her," he says. "It's lovely—no bumps at all.") In his rare moments off, he skis, plays paintball and works out. But he won't spend any spare time studying his craft. In acting classes, he says, "they'll say, 'Okay, sizzle! Act like bacon! Pretend you're a fish!' I just want to study life."
Deanna Kizis in Los Angeles
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