Chicago native / Actor/Writer/Director Harry Lennix talks with TV STORE ONLINE about Little Britain, Fox's 24, The Matrix films, Zack Snyder's Man Of Steel, The Five Heartbeats, his new film Mr. Sophistication hitting Netflix on September 6th and his new NBC series The Blacklist which premieres on September 23rd at 10pm/9pm Central.
TV STORE ONLINE: Hey Harry! Thanks for your time today. I'm a huge admirer of your work in what I think is truly one of the most under-appreciated films of all time THE FIVE HEARTBEATS (1991). How did that whole thing come about for you?
LENNIX: Thanks. I started acting more of less professionally when I was in college. After I graduated I decided to stay in Chicago and to make ends meet I was teaching in public school. I had heard that there was this open casting call so I took a half day off from teaching and went down and auditioned for the casting director for THE FIVE HEARTBEATS. Afterward I had decided to go out to Los Angeles for pilot season in an attempt to get some work and while I was there I got a call that I had gotten the part of "Dresser" In THE FIVE HEARTBEATS.
TV STORE ONLINE: So how did you find the character of Dresser in HEARTBEATS?
LENNIX: Well, I didn't have to put too much spin on the ball for him. Dresser was a decent man that had just gotten himself into a common situation with his girlfriend. To that end, he really was an archetype and I really liked him as a guy because he was really trying to do the best that he could once he found himself in the family way.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you and any of the other actors go back and research music groups like The Four Tops or The Temptations?
LENNIX: Of course. We watched on our own and collectively. We were all very familiar with those groups because we had grown up with them. I'm from Chicago and the Jackson 5 were from Gary, Indiana which was just a few miles away.
TV STORE ONLINE: I love that great sequence in the film where you're asked to dance for that hot shot choreographer...Did you endure any dance training for the film?
LENNIX: Sure. We all trained for two months prior to filming with Michael Peters. Michael Peters did the choreography for the music video for Michael Jackson's Thriller.
TV STORE ONLINE: You've got this new film coming out called MR. SOPHISTICATION (2012) that just looks incredible...
LENNIX: Right it's coming out on September 6th. We're releasing it via a bunch of different platforms. The film is about a completely fictional comedian named "Ron Waters" and he's based on many of my favorite comedians like Richard Pryor and Bernie Mac. Those were guys that weren't giving you punchlines but they were giving you social commentaries and that's who Ron Waters is.
TV STORE ONLINE: I love how the poster art for MR. SOPHISTICATION is an homage to the poster art for the 1972 James Earl Jones film THE MAN.
LENNIX: Right, yeah.
TV STORE ONLINE: So for this Ron Waters character.... What do you think that you took from a comic like Pryor for example that you applied to the physical manifestation of the Ron Waters character in the film?
LENNIX: Just how physical he was. I think every comedian has tremendous physical control. A comedian has to be a dancer in a way. So I really looked at Pryor and other comics that I admire and how they moved across the stage and their timing too. Stand up is really difficult because it's just you and an audience and there isn't any character to hide behind up on that stage.
TV STORE ONLINE: Does the Ron Waters character have similar demons as say someone like Richard Pryor?
LENNIX: Very much so. He's dealing with his own character flaws. The character finds himself out in Los Angeles and he gets involved with a woman but he's married. His wife comes out after him in an attempt to salvage their relationship. That's the backdrop for the story and it's filled with great drama and comedy as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: Where does this title for MR. SOPHISTICATION come from?
LENNIX: It comes from Danny Green the writer. We played with a lot of different titles but we liked MR. SOPHISTICATION because it encompasses many ideas about the character. It's a title that can mean many things too.
WATCH THE TRAILER FOR MR. SOPHISTICATION HERE:
TV STORE ONLINE: So what's your process for finding a character in general for any project that you become involved in?
LENNIX: For me, it just depends on the medium in which I'm working. My process for theater may be different than for a film or role for television. When I was doing a lot of theater...The first thing I would do would be to figure out the look. Then I would figure out how he walked. Then it would be important for me to be able to draw the character out in free hand so I could really see him. All of that sounds superficial really because there is no substitute for the work that needs to be put into reading the script and learning your lines. Then it's important just to live in the skin of the character for a while too with that dialogue. I spend a lot of time doing "text work" because if you can really learn that script and it's dialogue then you can really figure out the character because you can see how many different ways a line of dialogue can come to life in your hands.
TV STORE ONLINE: Does that process relate to MR. SOPHISTICATION? Richard Pryor wasn't one for staying verbatim to the dialogue in a screenplay. Do you like improvisation or do you like to stick strictly to the written page?
LENNIX: I like to stick to the script. I like to go by the book! I like improvisation comedy and it's important to work on all aspects of your art. But I prefer to stick to the script. You can't leave it when you're doing Shakespeare or on a three camera television series.
TV STORE ONLINE: Tell me about H4? I saw that your all African-American Henry IV just got it's funding on Kickstarter. What was your inspiration for the project?
LENNIX: Well since everyone has to study Shakespeare at some point in the English speaking world it would be nice to have something to relate to when they're studying it. So I wanted to contribute to that and I wanted to give black people in America something to look to when they study these Shakespearean parts. The reason why we study Shakespeare is that it's universal. It applies to every experience possible.
TV STORE ONLINE: But why Henry The IV?
LENNIX: As black people in America we too have nobility and royalty that we pass down from generation and generation and that's very similar to what happens in Henry The IV. We're looking to release H4 in early 2014.
TV STORE ONLINE: Then what about your experiences working with one of my favorite filmmakers Spike Lee on CLOCKERS (1995) and GET ON THE BUS (1996)?
LENNIX: I only worked a day on CLOCKERS. They cut my scene so I'm not actually in the finished film. Spike is such a great director to work with because he really gives his actors a lot of room to work in. I got to be in a scene with Harvey Keitel. I got to work with him much more on GET ON THE BUS. I saw him take a modest budget, some talented actors, a great script and re-create a significant event. It was great. We spent three weeks traveling around the country. Spike was great. He was like a great football coach. I really enjoyed working with him.
TV STORE ONLINE: For some insane reason, Lee has taken a great many media attacks because of his attempt to finance his next film via the crowd-funding site Kickstarter. What are your thoughts on that?
LENNIX: I think that Spike Lee single-handedly revamped and reinvigorated the independent film movement of the United States when he came along. We all owe him a debt of gratitude. He did that because he was talented and tenacious. If he wants to raise money on Kickstarter to make a film that he believes in he has my full support.
TV STORE ONLINE: I just went back and took a look at your work on the British comedy series Little Britain (2008). You play a United States President and that character talks and looks very similar to Barack Obama...
LENNIX: I was asked to do that by David Schwimmer. I went to college with David. He directed those episodes. I was happy to do it. We shot all of that stuff in I think two days. Matt Lucas and Dave Walliams are just insane. I really enjoyed working with them. What's funny about it is that Obama wasn't even President when we shot those. Any similarities are completely coincidental and I think I was doing an impression of Bill Clinton...laughing
TV STORE ONLINE: That United Nations sketch with you is just hilarious...Your assistant is passing you those flirtatious notes...
LENNIX: Right, yeah. That was really funny.
TV STORE ONLINE: In doing research in preparation to talk with you I stumbled across several articles on the internet about something to do with some comments you made about filmmaker Lee Daniels...
LENNIX: Right. I made some comments about a year ago to a journalist friend of mine in Chicago when we were having a much broader discussion on the state of the African American image in the media. I find the whole thing very troubling. I just wrote an article that was published on the website The Rap about the idea of re-claiming the idea of black images. I don't want to be associated in a film with characters that are slaves or butlers or rapists. I don't want to play a character that kills his own children. There's a parade of misery and nonsense and trivialities that are representing the majority of black images now. I'm tired of it, and I can't take it anymore. Enough already. I think this imagery has created a manifest consequence. There is no regard for black life in the black community even.
When I made those comments I was responding to a question about that and used Lee Daniel's film THE BUTLER (2013) as a case in point. I read the script for THE BUTLER and it's a horrible little story about this poor man that suffers all of these hardships and he's happy just as long as he gets to be this Butler. It has very little to do with this man's actual story that it's based on. It's not accurate. It's an ugly script and I didn't want anything to do with that film. In order to give relevance to the past in the film this man's story is bastardized and that's not fair.
I'm saying this because it bothers me, and someone has to say something. I'm not trying to be a troublemaker in any way. Enough is enough with this stuff. I mean, it's 2013 and we're still telling stories about slaves. Can we get past the point where we need to talk about the past? Can we talk about today which is critical? There are 1.5 murders a day in Chicago alone.
TV STORE ONLINE: On that note do those thoughts also apply to someone like Quentin Tarantino and his film DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)?
LENNIX: I didn't see DJANGO UNCHAINED. To be honest I didn't see it because I just didn't want to be reminded of what I just mentioned to you. With that being said, DJANGO UNCHAINED might be a great film. Tarantino is a talented filmmaker, but I don't need anyone revising my history for me to prove a point. At least in DJANGO UNCHAINED there's retribution. Django is a man who's exacting some form of revenge on his own behalf. In THE BUTLER, that man is just this powerless marginalized servant who is a fly on a wall of history. Tarantino too doesn't have the same obligation to black people that a so-called black filmmaker does either.
TV STORE ONLINE: What are some of your favorite films?
LENNIX: The list is very long...As an actor the films that have probably influenced me the most were the films of Marlon Brando. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) has been a huge influence on me. On a visual level, the films of David Lean have been an influence. PASSAGE TO INDIA (1984) is a favorite. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) is one of the greatest films ever made. I've fantasized about being in MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982) with Peter O'Toole and I really like films on that type of epic scale.
TV STORE ONLINE: What is it about ON THE WATERFRONT that's been so influential?
LENNIX: Just the performances. Marlon Brando is so incredible. Eve-Marie Saint is wonderful. Also I love the films of Stanley Kramer too.
TV STORE ONLINE: Are you a fan of IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD, WORLD (1963)?
LENNIX: Of course! That's a great one.
TV STORE ONLINE: People reading this will be quite angry if I don't ask you about your work in MAN OF STEEL (2013). How did that come to you?
LENNIX: I was literally sitting around one day and a call came in from my agent telling me that Zack Snyder wanted to talk to me. So Zack asked me to come in and help him with some casting stuff for the film. The next thing I knew I was signing an agreement and I was in the film. I had no idea what character I was going to even play. It was great though. Zack Snyder is an expert at the visual aspect of film-making. He really knows his camera lens, and he's a great storyteller. That MAN OF STEEL set was the most well run and most efficient film set I've ever been on.
TV STORE ONLINE: Critics and fans alike seemed somewhat disappointed with the film as a whole...It seemed like expectations were so high for MAN OF STEEL that there was no way that the film could possibly be what the fans wanted it to be. Is it possible to have too high of an expectation for a film, and can having expectations like that effect the way a critic sees a film as well?
LENNIX: That's a good question. I think that they can. Overall I think that the fans really liked MAN OF STEEL. I loved it. I think it had two of the greatest storytellers behind it in Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. When you're a critic it's so easy to point the finger at someone. We don't have film critics anymore we have reviewers. Today's critics rarely mention what they'd do differently in a film if they made it themselves.
TV STORE ONLINE: I think that today's film criticism is more about taste than criticism really.
LENNIX: Yes I agree. I'm not so sure about the tastes of critics today. The movie did really well, the fans seemed to love it and there will be another one.
TV STORE ONLINE: What about THE MATRIX films (2003)? How did those come to you?
LENNIX: Those came to me the old tried and true way. I had to audition for those. They were looking for a guy and I went in with a bunch of other guys and through the weeding out process, I got the part. I don't know why they chose me but I'm thankful that they did.
TV STORE ONLINE: Lastly...You've got what looks like one hell of a great new show coming to NBC called The Blacklist (2013). I've seen the promo and it's wonderfully disturbing. What can fans expect from the series?
LENNIX: It's going to be a thrilling ride. There's a lot of intrigue in it, there's a lot of action in it, there is some cat and mouse in it. Then there is also the great aspect of "Whodunnit" in it as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: What can you tell me about your character on the show?
LENNIX: My character is the Asst. Director of Counter-Terrorism for the F.B.I. James Spader's character "Raymond 'Red' Reddington" turns himself into my character on the condition that he's able to speak to one particular rookie F.B.I. profiler who is played by actress Elizabeth Keen. It's a very interesting situation for a series.
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