Harry Lennix stars in “The Blacklist.”
Exposing The Blacklist and the Bard
by Jay S. Jacobs
Many actors wait around for years to land the perfect role.
Harry Lennix has more radical thinking when it comes to his career. He's not going to wait around for fickle producers to contact him. He'll create his own perfect roles, thank you very much.
In recent months, Lennix has seen the release of two independent productions that he starred in and also helped to produce. First there was Mr. Sophistication, the story of a self-destructive stand-up comedian, which received an acclaimed limited release in September.
Tomorrow, his latest film H4 will debut at the Chicago International Film Festival. H4 is a modernization of William Shakespeare's classic plays Henry IV, Parts I & II. The movie is set in modern Los Angeles and filmed with a mostly African-American cast. H4 is a particular labor of love for Lennix, who is a huge enthusiast of the bard and has been wanting to share Shakespeare's work with the world for years.
This is not to say that Lennix doesn't play the traditional Hollywood game, as well. He has had a long-running respected career that has included roles in films like Ray, Matrix Revolutions, State of Play, Across the Universe and Resurrecting the Champ and TV series like 24, Commander In Chief and ER. This summer Lennix was in the Superman blockbuster Man of Steel.
In recent weeks, Lennix has taken on the role of a FBI agent who butts heads with James Spader's super-thief Red Reddington in The Blacklist, one of the few TV series of the new season which appears to be an out of the box success.
The day before H4 was to have its premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, we spoke with Lennix about his film and his career.
Why do you feel that Henry IV translates into modern times?
It's common opinion that Shakespeare is universal and timeless. I think that's true. That's why. We have a lot of resonances with what's going on in the story of Henry IV. Shakespeare did a fantastic job of chronicling English history. It just so happens that there is a lot of resonance between that and black history, with regard to fathers giving their sons the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. If you look at Dr. King and his father. If you look at Adam Clayton Powell and his father. Jesse Jackson and Jesse Jackson, Jr., to a certain extent, in spite of recent events. But there was that relationship. I think there's many, many more examples. It seems to speak directly to our black experience.
The movie was interesting, because in certain scenes on the streets it was very modern looking. In other ones in the theater it was almost like those could have been done anytime from the Globe Theater to now. Was it important to give the movie a certain timelessness?
Absolutely. Theater has its own traditions. Stage combat, for example. In the theatrical condition, we didn't want to inject modern weaponry into the story. One, because it's expensive. Two, because man has found a lot of different ways to do the same thing, over and over through the years. I think you get the idea that certain conflicts, certain relationships between people are timeless. We wanted to be as faithful as we could and as innovative as we could at the same time. It's an interesting fact that there has never been, to my knowledge at least, a black Shakespearean film. Using Shakespeare's language. I don't know that there's been any except through a white experience. So, here we are.
Yes, that was kind of surprising to me that there haven't been any before. You'd think Othello would be a natural. Was it surprising to you to realize that?
It was. I'd never really thought about it. When I was a school boy and when I was in college, studying Shakespeare performance and theory, I just assumed that there must be something like that out there. [I] was shocked that there was not. We didn't do the movie just because we wanted to be the first this or that, we did the movie because we love Shakespeare. I was very lucky in finding Ayanna Thompson, who was able to draft out a story. To contextualize it in a modern setting in a way that I just think is very cool. Very different. Very innovative. We were lucky to find a bunch of other actors who loved the language. Who had studied Shakespeare. Who were looking for the opportunity to finally do something that was as refreshing and good and nourishing, so to speak, as Shakespeare is. Who else writes this well? Who else can put into language and dialogue and monologue the thoughts and feelings that every human being feels? Nobody does it better than Shakespeare. There are many people, of course, more modern playwrights who do a very good job of it. But this kind of classical language and this relationship between people, I don't think you'll find a better example of dramatizing the human experience than you find in these plays from Shakespeare.
How do you feel that modern audiences will react to the classic language? A lot of modern adaptations now tend to update and simplify the dialogue for the audiences. Why do you think the original language is important?
Well, one, because I don't believe you can improve on Shakespeare. (laughs) I really don't. I think if well delivered, there is nothing that will alienate the modern ear from the original language. I spent considerable time considering each thing. How to make it not seem vaulted and holy. Shakespeare wrote plays. He wasn't writing a sacred text. He was writing plays for people to perform and for people to enjoy, at every level of society. From any class. I have found, in my experience of doing Shakespeare all these decades, that if you do it well enough, that people do not have any trouble at all understanding it, at any age.
As an actor, I was thinking it must have been odd trying to act with an eye patch. It seems it would throw off your perception. Was that hard? Did it take some getting used to?
It did have an impact, particularly in stage combat. I have to fight in the movie. It makes it a little bit difficult. But, in the old axiomatic phrase, "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." That's what this is. Essentially we were saying this is the land of the blind, and I am the one-eyed man. In a sense, the theatrical experience is that. Yes, it did have a physical impact, but it's something that I got over. Something I had to deal with. I liked the idea of the eye patch. It was not my original idea. We had an actor named Michael Dorn who was meant to play Henry IV. But we had to do significant amounts of reshoots and Michael was not available. So I took over the role, so to say. I borrowed that from him. (chuckles) He had actually had an eye surgery, which was why he put the patch on. His eye is fine now. We carried it over and we found a way to make it work with him starting at the play, as you saw.
I was seeing you are also going to be making a film called Romeo and Juliet in Harlem. Is it going to be similar to H4, and are you thinking of doing a whole series of these adaptations?
I'm actually a just a gun for hire on Romeo and Juliet in Harlem. But my good friend, her name is Aleta Chappelle, she's the director and conceiver of that one. We had a great time doing it, but there is no real connection between that and my company. We do intend to do more of these. Not just black settings, any number of settings. The thing that we have on our plate and on our mind is that we want to make these plays American. What's the American through-line with these Shakespearean English plays? We all have to study Shakespeare when we are in school. We get to look at the movies that help us as a study guide. Primarily, we're looking at English people. I wonder why that is? I don't think we have enough versions of Shakespeare on film where it is made applicable to the American experience. Of course, part of the American experience is the black experience. So, we want to look at all of it. We want it to be representative of our experience, because it makes it more immediate to us. It makes us more empathetic to what Shakespeare is all about, which we think is universally important.
H4 was at least partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign. As a filmmaker, how do you feel things like Kickstarter have changed the way that movies get made?
I think things like Kickstarter, or IndieGoGo, funding places of all sorts, serve a couple of different purposes. One, it gets the general public on the same page. They become aware that it is out there. They also feel that they are participating. That they are included in the creative process. In some ways they are, in some ways they are not really. But when you have ownership, as it were, you have responsibility. It's kind of like being an employee/owner. They have employee ownership of places like Southwest Airlines. You feel responsible. You feel that you have a vested interest. In the quality of the film. The quality of the services that you are providing. It's the same kind of purpose of putting it out in the general public and it exists. Obviously, we needed the money. (laughs) But more than that, we needed the general support of the people who we hope will see the movie.
Speaking of self-funding, you also came out recently with Mr. Sophistication, which you also starred in and helped to produce. As an actor, are you enjoying being able to go out and create your own roles?
I absolutely do. It's something I've done since I was in high school, been a kind of impresario. Most of the things that I have produced I was not in. I had no intention of being in H4, but as I said, that's the way the cards were dealt on this one. Mr. Sophistication was a different thing. I knew that Danny Green, who wrote and directed it, wanted me to play the part. I wound up being the executive producer and the chief investor, just because you're right, I want to be involved. The only way I'm going to take on the kinds of roles that I think challenge me as an actor is to do my own work. Oh, I'll play supporting parts and that kind of thing. That's not a new idea. Lots of actors have produced and done their own films. Since the very beginning of the movies: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Burt Lancaster, Douglas Fairbanks. Some of those guys formed United Artists. United Artists was a bunch of actors that got together and decided they wanted to have more control over their careers. That's what I'm doing on a sort of individual basis. We see people like Tyler Perry doing it. And a bunch of other people. So, I think it's in a long tradition of actors trying to create work for themselves. And others.
I was reading that your character of Ron Waters in Mr. Sophistication was loosely based on Richard Pryor. How did you go about creating the character as an actor?
Danny Green really created it. (laughs) He based part of the character on me. We had an incident where he observed me going back to my South Side [of Chicago] roots. Not being the well-spoken black guy that a lot of people experience me as. He was fascinated by that. Then he based part of it also on Richard Pryor. Part of it on a guy who was one of our producers, a guy named Jon E. Edwards. This kind of bigger than life personality. He lives his life out loud in public. In real time. In a very honest way. It's a creation. It's not autobiographical to me. But it does have some allusions to people that I know. It was fun to come up with it with Danny. He mostly did a lot of creation of it.
Was it fun doing stand-up in the film? Had you done live performing like that before?
No. I had done improv live in front of groups of people. I did a little bit with Del Close (a famous comic who worked with Second City, The Committee and Saturday Night Live) when he was alive. Legendary improv guy. But I had never done stand-up. And I still haven't, except for in the film.
Waters was one of those men who was never really satisfied with what he had. He was always looking for the next better thing. Do you think that type of thing comes naturally to people of artistic temperament?
Absolutely. Absolutely. It's a kind of curse, but it's also the reason behind their creative drive. They are always looking for the next best thing or trying to find a way to create some great thing that is not reproducible. People talk about when you're a heroin addict, they say that your first high is the best high you'll ever have. You'll spend the rest of your career as an addict trying to recreate that. I think in a lot of ways an artist like Ron Waters, an artist like myself, without being a heroin addict (laughs) is always looking for a heightened experience.
What was it about The Blacklist that intrigued you to come on board?
The characters were very interesting. Ray "Red" Reddington is a very compelling character. Intelligent. He's dangerous. Lethal, in fact. I think his relationship with Elizabeth Keen is fascinating. I think his relationship with Harold Cooper, the character I play, we don't know a whole lot about it, but we do know that that is a long-standing relationship. These guys know each other. They don't seem to have too much love for each other. (laughs) But I think they realize that they are useful to each other in some ways. We're looking to catch criminals. He's looking to stop being on the run all the time. And to have this relationship with this woman. So, it's mutually beneficial and we agree to disagree. That kind of long-term dramatization is interesting. It's something that if the show is lucky enough to go on for more than a season, we'll be able to tease it out for people. That's what you look for. Obviously television work really is where a lot of the great work is being done now. Movies have contracted tremendously and I think you're finding most of the production value, most of the great creative input in serialized television.
James Spader is creating such an unique character. What is he like to act against?
Oh my God. It's like playing basketball with LeBron James. Or baseball with Joe DiMaggio. He's tremendous. He's a master. He elevates everybody that's around him. I think that this is a rare gem of an opportunity for all of us who are acting out with him. A terrific actor and a great guy.
Will there be an episode in which Harold Cooper and Elizabeth Keen get furloughed?
No, seriously, since you are playing such an important public servant and it's on everybody's mind, what are your feelings about the whole government shutdown? (The interview takes place two days after the US government reopened after being shut down for over two weeks in a congressional political battle.)
I thought it was really a huge distraction. I didn't believe for one second that we would default. I think it's a way to get people's minds off of what is really going on. What's really going on is that the United States has decreased in its international stature federally for several years. I think there was bad behavior on both sides. It's a bunch of spoiled brats who get to sit in their glass house and make wars that do not affect them, but that affect everyone around them. Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, is not something that the President is ever going to have to rely on. Or anybody in congress will have to rely on. Yet, they get to make these rules and then debate them and create a tempest in a teapot. Which is affecting people. Although they did a bunch of lip service to how concerned they are about the people who are government employees and the citizens that are affected because they can't go to the national parks and so forth, the bottom line is that these are a bunch of people who live in ivory towers. Who really have not proven that they have much at stake. Or much interest in resolving the problems that are affecting most of the Americans. I didn't pay too much attention to it, just because I knew it was all smoke and mirrors.
Now on a totally different level from your recent indie films, you were just in Man of Steel. How is working on such a huge production different?
Wow. Well, I'm a huge Superman fellow, since I was a boy. I never really got into the comic, just the idea of a man that could fly is something that has fascinated me since I was a little boy. Ever since I found out about Superman, this almost invincible person whose only weakness is kryptonite, and his love for humankind. If Superman decided to be a real jerk (laughs) he would probably rule the world. But he actually believes in truth, justice and the American way. That's his other flaw. Really, kryptonite is just a physical form of the human heart. So I loved to be able to be on that movie where we got good actors in it. That continues the legacy of Superman. To tie in, in some ways, to Richard Donner's versions. I thought Zac Snyder did a terrific job. To have that type of equipment and infrastructure where you're acting and not wondering how you're going to feed the crew the next day or cover the checks that you wrote is a great relief. (laughs) You get to just relax and have fun and play. That's really why we get into this business. I got into the business not to suffer for the art, but to celebrate in the art. To rejoice in the fact that I get to create things with other people who have an infinite playground. That's what it was like to be on Man of Steel.
When you were young, who were some of the actors who inspired you to take up show business?
Oh my God. I guess the first actor that made me want to be an actor was Marlon Brando. Just after that was [Sir Laurence] Olivier and Alec Guinness. Then I discovered the great Sidney Poitier and Ivan Dixon. They made it clear to me that you don't have to play subservient, insignificant, little secondary parts. You actually could be a leading man and do first-rate, world-class work and be a black guy. It was a lot of actors. I still look up to those actors and many more, but those were the guys who got me interested at first.
What was the first movie you remember seeing that really wowed you?
The French Connection. Yeah, just as a spectator. It didn't make me want to become an actor or movie-maker, but I was a young man when I saw it and it had a big impact. Then the one that I think that I felt the most empathy for was a movie called Cornbread, Earl and Me. Oh my God, that had a big impact, with my good friend Laurence Fishburne. Sounder was a very important film to me. That was big. Cooley High. Yeah, but The French Connection was the very first one that I was like: Oh, man, I'm in a different world. I'm in a different experience. This is real. I had the kind of organized intellectual thought with.
What kind of things make you nostalgic?
I try to stay away from nostalgia, because I think it's a kind of big, fat lie. It's a trap, really, for a sensitive person. So, I try to say away from it. However, there are things that are completely involuntary. Like I'll walk by a candy store, for example, when Brach's candy was here in Chicago. I remember one time I was taking a bus and I got off and I smelled the smell. It took me right back to where I was. Or I heard a Catholic chant called "Lux Aeterna (Eternal Light)" the other day and it took me right back to my days as a Catholic schoolboy and seminarian. I was like: Oh my God, that takes me back. (laughs) I sometimes find myself with goose bumps and sometimes even a tear in my eye.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I think they might be surprised to know that I'm a pretty good pool player. You'd have a tough time beating me on the pool table. (laughs) I'm an excellent bowler, too, if I have to say so myself.
You've played so many diverse characters throughout your career. How would you like for people to see your body of work?
I'd like for people to think of me as somebody who can go toe to toe with any actor in any genre of entertainment. I've done radio plays, Shakespeare. I like variety. I haven't specialized in any one particular venue, although I'm stronger in some things than others. But that I was fearless. That I would try anything, if it was worthy of the effort. I've done that. I've been lucky in a lot of ways. I continue to be. I don't know how long this career will go on, but it's gone on for about 30 years as a professional. That in itself is an achievement. It doesn't seem to be waning at this point. I hope it never does. I want to be doing this as long as I live. The great writer and actor Molière died on stage in a death scene, just as the curtain was falling, the legend has it. (laughs) That's how I want to go out.
Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 18, 2013.
Photo Credit: © 2013. Courtesy of Andrew E. Freedman PR. All rights reserved.
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