When Vernon Davis played football, he’d stay after practice to catch hundreds of extra passes off the JUGS machine. He’d go home at night and catch more passes from a machine shooting tennis balls. The consistency and repetition led to a long career as a tight end, with the San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos and Washington Commanders.
It’s the same approach he’s taking with acting. And it’s why he finds himself starring in a movie alongside Morgan Freeman.
Davis plays a serial killer in “The Ritual Killer,” which opens Friday. Freeman, in a supporting role, plays a professor of African studies who pairs with a detective (Cole Hauser) to stop Davis.
“It’s a huge role,” Davis said. “It’s one of those roles you dream of having; the amount of work I’ve been able to put in after I retired is starting to pay off.”
Davis, who retired after the 2019 season, has indeed stayed busy. Since he stopped playing football, Davis has appeared in six movies and four TV series, has four other movies in post-production and two more in pre-production.
Davis has appeared in movies with Bruce Willis, Luke Wilson and John Malkovich. But there was something different about Freeman, with whom he’ll start work on another movie later this month. Davis said he and his grandfather used to watch Freeman all the time.
“It was definitely a little intimidating working with Morgan,” Davis said. “When you hear Morgan’s voice, you know who that is. He’s iconic and legendary. To be able to stand up and be in scenes with this guy and go head-to-head with him is crazy.”
In one scene, Davis approached Freeman with a knife and then was supposed to toss it to the side before approaching him. But after doing it once, Freeman suggested an adjustment: Davis should hold the knife more parallel to the ground, then just drop it in place and then step toward Freeman.
“He’s a coach on the set,” Davis said. He also called Freeman “inspirational” and said he was the first to arrive on set and the last to leave.
Freeman also joked around, sometimes tapping Davis on one shoulder, forcing him to turn that way while Freeman was actually over the other shoulder. It’s why Davis called him a “big kid.” Mostly, though, playing opposite Freeman forced Davis to be sharp.
“I knew I had to bring my ‘A’ game,” Davis said. “I didn’t want to be in a situation where Morgan says, ‘No, this isn’t right we’ve got to stop this.'”
Playing a serial killer was mentally challenging.
“[The role] was draining, but at the same time it’s a fun journey.”
It also led to him visiting his therapist in New York.
“I had to get with my therapist and get rid of some anxiety that I had because I [brought] some real-life situations to this character,” he said.
Davis spent 14 seasons in the NFL, catching 583 passes — 441 of them in 10 years with the 49ers. He began acting a decade before he retired, focusing on small projects in the offseason while also taking acting classes.
When he stopped playing, Davis just wanted to see where acting would take him. He worked on his craft — now, he’s being rewarded.
“I didn’t envision anything like this,” Davis said. “The only thing I envisioned was doing something I love to do. I never envisioned working with legends like Morgan. It just sort of happened.”