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
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.
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
Othello would be a natural. Was it surprising to you to realize
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
was it about
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
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?
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
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.
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?
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.
us Let us know what you