It all started with An Inconvenient Truth. Mario Van Peebles, actor, director and father of five, took his family to see the climate change documentary, and it made a big impression. So did something his son said afterward: “You tell us to clean up our rooms and the living room, but you guys haven’t left us a clean planet.”
That got Van Peebles thinking about what his family could do and how to possibly educate others about recycling, saving water and reducing waste. With his clan outgrowing their home in Baldwin Hills, a predominately African-American upper-middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles, Van Peebles got the idea to do a green remodel, and approached TV One about making a series about it. “The idea was to make going green fun. It was sort of like getting paid to do your own home movies,” he says. The result is the eight-episode Mario’s Green House, which premieres Sept. 27.
“The first show sets up why we go green and the following episodes break it down into social justice or water or organic, locally grown food,” notes Van Peebles.
As part of the project, the actor traded his Lincoln Navigator for a hybrid, installed solar panels on the new part of the house and added solar tubes to the old section. He added gray water recycling “where the sink and shower water gets filtered and then goes to the garden so you save on your water bill. We have composting and we’re going to try wind power next,” he says. “We’re not the full Ed Begley-green. We’re olive.”
Van Peebles notes that to his “Mother Earth, hippie mom,” he’s never been green enough. “She has always compared me to Ed,” he confides. And at mom’s behest, Begley shows up in the premiere with a team to do an energy audit on the house. Green jobs guru Van Jones also makes appearances.
Heard in the series calling her son with green tips, Van Peebles’ mother always reminded him to care for the Earth. His director father, Melvin, an amusing presence in the episodes, “was the social justice guy: ‘Do something you care about.’ I had those two voices,” he explains.
He believes both traits have rubbed off on his children, who “grew a lot” from the Green House experience. Although “there were days they didn’t want a film crew in the yard, it was a kick for the kids. They got to know their granddad and me in a different way, and got an understanding of how we need to co-exist with nature,” he says.
“The western man says we inherit the earth from our grandfathers, the Native American says we borrow it from our children,” he reminds. “We all have to live on this planet together and breathe the same air. What is the legacy we leave our kids? You realize that indigenous people lived in harmony with nature, and now we have all this technology on our side, so maybe we can combine ancient wisdom and modern technology and figure the game out.”
Van Peebles, who has roles in the upcoming movies Spring in Her Step, Multiple Sarcasms, and Kerosene Cowboys, a not-yet-finished action flick he also directed, has added several credits to his directing resumé of late. The tentatively titled Bailey is “about two guys who go on a spiritual journey” and A-Game is a documentary aimed at keeping young black men in school. He’s also booked to direct an episode of Lost.
The work-for-hire gigs allow him “to do other things I care about and leave something of nutritional value behind. The two areas I’m working in are education and environment,” he adds, mentioning a green-themed idea, sans details. “I’m trying to get it funded now.”
Toward that end, Van Peebles, a big believer in education, life experience and “giving forward,” encouraged his eldest daughter Maya to study in France and volunteer at an African orphanage and sent his son Makaylo to mentor kids in the Bronx this summer. If middle son Mandela had his way, the family would do a Green House sequel where they would spend a summer living green on a deserted island, “like the Swiss Family Robinson,” an idea his dad hasn’t ruled out.
Van Peebles thinks entertainment is the best medium for the message. “If we can make going green fun and sexy and attractive, not granola-y and nerdy, we have a better chance of people taking it on,” he says.
“They say that there are loves in your life — love what you do, love who you’re working with, and love what you say with it. Leave something good behind. I’m getting to do a lot of that.”