By Mary Ought Six
Photos by Katy Winn
Best known for his role as Vincent Chase, the laidback heartthrob movie star at the center of HBO’s hit series Entourage, Adrian Grenier is also an active, multi-instrument-rocking musician, a part-time Brooklyn-based band promoter and an avid environmentalist. Additionally, he produces documentary movies – and his latest, How to Make Money Selling Drugs, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matthew Cooke, sounds like it just might be up HT’s alley, right?
The film is a wide-ranging romp through the ranks of drug-lording, covering the role that party suppliers, corner dealers, and middlemen play as well as the kingpins and cartels. It features advice from players who know the game perhaps a bit too well and includes a simple 10-step plan on how to grow your own illegal business from the ground up in a tough economy. The doc also features some familiar showbiz names, including 50 Cent (who opens up about slinging as a kid), Woody Harrelson, Eminem, and Susan Sarandon.
But Adrian’s not actually out to promote cannabis culture or drug use. Instead, he’s here to offer HIGH TIMES his perspective on the importance of “balance.”
The title of your film may mislead some people. What would you like audiences to take away from a movie called How to Make Money Selling Drugs?
At the end of the day, what we’re trying to bring attention to is how the War on Drugs has utterly failed, and how it’s being maintained for the wrong reasons. Its premise is to protect us from drug abuse and the violence associated with drug dealing, but the reality is that it does none of those things. So I don’t want to give it all away, but cut to the end of the movie and that’s pretty much the lesson that you learn.
The documentary offers a very balanced, even humorous window into what selling drugs truly entails.
Matthew [Cooke] and all of us behind the film are not bleeding hearts; we’re people who understand the language of other young people, and how much people in general have indulged in the sensational media around the Drug War, like the romanticization of drug dealers through film. I think on some level we’re highlighting that.
We’re demonstrating, we’re building upon, the sensationalism that we’ve grown accustomed to: on the one hand, the romanticization of dealing drugs – Tony Montana [from Scarface], or drug use generally – juxtaposed with this War on Drugs and the distinctive assumption of drugs being bad or evil that has been fed to us through the War on Drugs propaganda machine. And that takes us to the film: It provides a nice balance – it reflects a collective feeling on the issue.
Were you involved with the film from the ground up?
Yeah, even before that. I remember, the first time I met Matthew – the first time we ever hung out – I was at his house, and he had an idea board. On the idea board, there was one card with the title “How to Make Money Selling Drugs.” Of all the things he had up there, that was the one that caught my eye.
I asked him about it, and he told me he wanted to make a film about how costly the War on Drugs is, and the irony of how you never actually make any money on the War on Drugs, how you lose out entirely instead. I said, “That’s an amazing story to tell – and that’s an amazing title, because it’s going to catch people’s attention.”
You have legalization advocates like Woody Harrelson and 50 Cent on board. You also have some surprising names, like Susan Sarandon, who made very poignant points.
This is definitely a fun film, but it has also serious information and some very poignant lessons. I think we can have the best of both worlds: We can sit for two hours and not be preached to; we can enjoy a film that isn’t just finger-wagging and learn about the perils of the Drug War, as well as have some lighthearted moments to keep it paced right.
In the past, you’ve said that documentaries are the most vital and important form of filmmaking.
I think films are supposed to reflect something of the human condition; they’re supposed to inspire and give us an opportunity to look at who we are, an opportunity to engage more fully with life and community – and also, on some level, to give us a bit of leadership and purpose. So while film can do that because there’s that fictional element, I think maybe there’s too much of a division between the audience and the storytelling. I think that, often, people just miss it.
With documentaries, because they’re based in reality and have real people with real stories telling them firsthand and in the first person, it sort of breaks down that wall – it gives important information that can be very helpful for an audience paying attention. The only problem is that a lot of documentaries don’t get the attention they deserve, because I think people perceive them as being homework or as being a chore to watch. So our job as filmmakers is to find a way to break that illusion and provide films that can work on all different levels – not just an entertainment level, but also on an important educational level.
After having made this film and educated yourself more about the War on Drugs, do you think that the legalization of marijuana would have an impact on it?
There is no War on Drugs if they’re legal. If you have to demonize drugs and their users in order to justify a war against them, it’s just .... If you talk to people, they fear talking honestly about the subject. Public figures fear speaking about the injustices of the War on Drugs. It just goes to show the wholehearted brainwashing that’s occurred because of the War on Drugs propaganda machine.
Did you run into these problems while making the film?
I had a lot of work to do in order to get people to talk about it. I had to do some soul-searching myself, being in the public eye, and figure out how I was able, in good conscience, to speak out or speak up honestly about the real conversation behind all of this. It’s so easy to protect yourself behind the status quo and not go up against what everybody has come to believe as being so absolutely factual – which is that “drugs” equals “evil” or “bad.” When you scratch just slightly below the surface and start to have that other conversation, you realize it’s a lot more complicated than that. But the only way to protect people from the pitfalls of drug abuse and the violence of the drug industry is by having that other conversation – the difficult conversation about what’s really the most effective way of protecting people from drug abuse and drug addiction.
Your mother and father met in a commune. Does that equate to being raised in a more drug-friendly environment, and therefore having a more open dialogue about drug use?
Don’t believe all the propaganda – including Wikipedia! It wasn’t a commune; it was called the Pumpkin Hollow Farm. It was a theosophical society. It was like a camp, I guess, for the exploration of mysticism, the occult, spiritual practices and philosophies. So it wasn’t a commune per se. I can’t say there wasn’t commune-like activity taking place – but I wasn’t there, so I don’t know.
Right. Still, spiritual exploration could certainly translate into psychedelic use – or marijuana use.
Look, it was the 1960s. I think in the ’60s, there was maybe a very naïve opinion of drugs, a sense that you could do them indefinitely all day long and everything’s free and there are no limitations to life, sexually, or otherwise. And we all know what happened there: People had a cold blast of reality and realized that life doesn’t work that way. Life is a balance, and you can’t just be indiscriminate or go totally off the deep end.
So your home life must have been pretty balanced, then.
I know that when my mom talks to me about drugs now, she says, “Look, we all explored and experimented, and it’s not entirely bad – but it’s also not entirely good.” There is such a thing as addiction and drug abuse, and a lot of times, deaths are associated with those abuses; families are broken up. I have family members who are alcoholics and drug addicts, and I’ll tell you, it’s not a pretty story. It’s a scary story, an unfortunate story.
So it’s very important to have an honest and realistic conversation about drugs, and that doesn’t just include railing against the violence created by the War on Drugs and perpetrated by our government. We have to have that really heartfelt conversation about the violence that drug addiction can bring to a person, their family and their community. We have to have a holistic, meaningful exploration collectively, on a national level, about how we’re going to make sure that we can, first, overcome the War on Drugs, which is distracting from the real issues at hand, and second, put in the effort of addressing those real issues, which are still there regardless of the War on Drugs.
How do you view drugs?
I think that drugs certainly have their place, and they can be very useful – not only medically but socially, on some level. And they certainly can play an important role in one’s growth as a human being. Of course, balance is the key to everything in life – and that includes psychotropic drugs, mind-altering drugs, but also drugs that don’t provide that same effect.
Like over-the-counter meds?
I think we need to look at the entire spectrum of how we use and utilize drugs in this country. Everyone is different, so everything needs to be dealt with in its own way – and that includes individual human beings. Not every drug addict is built the same way, just as not everybody who smokes a joint is smoking for the same reasons. So I think that as we become more sophisticated in how we deal with the issue of drugs, we can become more nuanced in how we address the individual case by case. Because a broad, violent approach called the War on Drugs is like trying to kill a mosquito with an atom bomb.
Do you smoke marijuana?
I honestly have ... on occasion, I have enjoyed a little marijuana.
Listen, I don’t want to advocate or become a poster boy for smoking pot – although one might argue that I already am by my role on Entourage. I certainly want to be very, very clear that I’m not advocating the use of marijuana.
How about “condoning”?
Like alcohol, it has to be used responsibly – and, again like alcohol, one needs to make sure that young people develop their minds fully before utilizing drugs. I’m sure that you guys at HIGH TIMES are very conscientious about the responsibility that you have – not just as in asking “Why are we advocating?” but also as in having a balanced approach to responsibility.
Eminem and a couple of other people in the film spoke about prescription drugs and their addiction to them. Do you see cartel-like behavior from some of these pharmaceutical companies?
It’s a problem, and it’s been totally condoned and advocated by the legal drug industry. That’s why I don’t think out-and-out legalization is an answer; drugs have to be respected and appreciated. Blind promotion and usage is a problem – particularly with prescription pills, because they don’t have that stigma. And because doctors condone their use, it’s easy to hide. So yeah, it’s a huge problem – especially when you get young kids addicted early. It’s a very scary problem.
Do you have any personal experience with the problem?
I’m very lucky that, as open-minded as my mother was, when the doctor wanted to prescribe me ADHD medicine – I guess I was at that age when I was moody and thirteen, going through puberty, whatever – my mother rejected it. And I’m so thankful she did, because who knows what would have happened had she gone along with that program? I’m happy to say that I’ve never done any prescription pills – not even recreationally, not even just to try them. I’ve never been into doing pills generally. I think they scare me in a lot of ways because they’re synthetic, because they’re man-made. I guess I look upon them with a little caution.
As an Obama supporter, do you think that his administration has taken positive steps to put a dent in the War on Drugs?
Well, he admitted he inhaled – that’s a step. Seriously, I think it’s ridiculous that people can’t even admit that much.
The movie covers the unfair and disproportionate prison sentences for blacks and Latinos. How do we change that?
It’s going to take public outrage, and I think we’re closer to a reasonable solution than we think. We’ve seen a lot of positive changes – there are a lot of groups and organizations; there’s a lot of positive will. I think we’re going to see a movement among the citizens to demand a more reasonable approach than the War on Drugs – especially in this economy, at a time when we can’t even afford to pay for school.
Health care, mental health care, is now on the public radar. We’re not really addressing mental health in America; we’re not spending the money to take care of our citizens on a real level. We’re spending money to have the police violently break into their houses and put them in jail. We’re spending money to keep them in jail for nonviolent, peaceful, and personal activities. I think the outrage will grow into an outcry ... because all that wasted money could have been spent on more important things.
Like on treatment rather than on incarceration?