CIFF 2013: Shakespeare and More – A Conversation with Harry Lennix

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Harry Lennix is a busy man. An actor who has distinguished himself in the theatre (for example, the title roles in August Wilson’s King Hedley II at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and Malcolm X at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) and in 95 (and counting) film and television shows, including his latest, NBC’s “The Blacklist,” Lennix has also launched a production company, Exponent Media Group (EMG), to bring back mid-budget films. The second EMG production, H4, is at the Chicago International Film Festival, where Lennix hopes it will find a receptive audience and, importantly, a distributor. I had a chance to talk with him about H4 and more this past week.

What was the genesis of the H4 project?

It was more or less a thought experiment for Ayanna Thompson, a preeminent Shakespeare scholar at George Washington University, a brilliant woman of color I met in Memphis, I think it was 2008. I told her that I’ve always loved Henry IV, and I wondered if there was a way to contexualize it without changing the language substantially to this experience we call the black experience.

She grafted together this script, and the director Paul Quinn, who’s Aidan Quinn’s brother and a terrific director and a great teacher, and I, primarily him, put it into a screenplay form. All of us started to rehearse it in a classroom at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles—30 adults sitting in chairs and desks for high school students. We would just read the script and over the course of those weeks, characterizations starting coming through, people sort of cast themselves in these parts. It was sort of an organic experience that way, and we tried to figure out a way to shoot it for not a lot of money, but not have it look cheap. If you don’t have a lot, you want to use what you have and make it look like it’s intentional.

What about these particular plays attracts you, and what about them seems particularly relevant to the African-American experience?

The black experience is a wide and long experience. There is a distinction between black and African American. The primary thing that black has in it is the slave experience. For example, you can be white and be African American. If you were born in South Africa and nationalize yourself here, you’re African American.

Why I liked it so much and why I thought it was applicable was because it is a human experience that a father does not always approve of his son’s development. And that was the case here. In this case, the father has arrived at power through what might be seen as illegitimate means. The history of Richard II and then Henry IV taking over power from him is interesting, and he felt bad about it evidently, at least in Shakespeare’s imagination. So I thought, where does that apply in black life?

I thought our royalty are generally spiritual, political type leaders, people like Dr. King. Jesse Jackson Jr., of course, has a father who himself wanted to be president, wanted to be in the great halls of power. Martin Luther King’s father was a preacher, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who became a congressman, had a father who was head of the largest Protestant church in America. So it seemed to me that this was right for a comparison, and so we created this kind of political potentate. Originally, we felt we might make him a spiritual leader because there was no easy allusion to a black person being the head of state in America. But clearly that’s no longer true, as we have a very powerful black man in office now, and so we seized on that. I think that what resulted you can easily buy.

Have you had audience reaction to the story? Do they get it?

I don’t know because nobody has seen it in its completed form. We took a more or less rough version of it to Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Shakespeare’s birthplace, and showed it to a couple hundred Shakespeare scholars at the most prestigious Shakespeare scholarship conference in the world, the International Shakespeare Conference. It’s every other year, and they asked us to screen it because Ayanna is a member. They looked at it with great interest. They were curious about what the ramifications were, the violence, the sociopolitical activity that was going on in it. I think they accepted it wholesale in the sense that you’re asking it. They didn’t have any problem with its contextualizing of the people they were watching on film saying these words and doing these things. I don’t imagine that we’ll have a big issue or a whole lot of debate about whether or not we’re worthy.

All of us, Marilyn, we all have to study Shakespeare. All of us, if you speak English. You have to read it or watch the movies and talk about it. And we are forced, as it were, just by circumstance never to really be able to see ourselves in these roles. We’re told it’s universal, we’re told it applies to every human experience and every group of people. But we don’t get a chance to see it. And so this was my way of saying, I think you’re right, it is universal, it is great, it is timeless, and we have as much right to do it since I had to study it, since I had to learn it and practice it.

And I can’t tell you how many hours and hours of craft time is devoted to Shakespeare performance, and that normally, when I get to do it, I’m in a subservient role or a marginalized or token role. And I don’t really get a chance to chew up this language and to digest it in the way that white actors do. And there’s no reason for it.

With the exception, I suppose, of Othello.

I don’t like that play, Marilyn, I don’t like that play one bit, and I’ll tell you why. I’ve done it, I’ve played the part, and I know a lot of people think it’s great, but it is like if you want to do Shakespeare, Negro, you go and do Othello so you can be this simpleton who is manipulated by this evil white man who’s not even in a position of power. But he’s got you twisted around his finger and you revert to type, to this bestial, thoughtless, murderous, suicidal animal. That’s what happens. Although it’s probably a rare black actor who says that, I don’t think I’m alone. It’s extremely uncomfortable to play that part and have any pride, any kind of equilibrium as a black man. It’s impossible, really, to walk away with your dignity. I don’t know who can do it really—I’m sure there are people—it’s just probably me, but I don’t want to be relegated to Othello. It’s not indicative of the black experience.

You seem to be forming something of a stock company with the directors, like Danny Green, and producers involved in your projects? Tell me a little more about the collaboration. Is it your intention to always be working together?

Yes, that’s very perceptive of you. Danny and Albena Dodeva actually got engaged in H4 fairly late, at post-production, as producers. Post-production is the single most important aspect of getting a film made. There’s pre-production, which is cool and fun and crazy, and production, which is heaven. You’re loving doing it, you’re loving the problems that are facing you. But you can have all this stuff, all the ingredients for a meal, but then you’ve got to put it all together and put it in the oven. That’s post-production, which Danny and Albena have learned brilliantly through doing Mr. Sophistication (2012).

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Our filmmaking company is called Exponent Media Group (EMG), and our intention in calling it exponent is because we believe we can exponentialize limited resources and show that there’s a third way. You don’t need hundreds of millions of dollars to do these blockbuster superhero movies, and you don’t have to look like you filmed it on your iPhone in your back yard. There is something in between that can combine the technological advances with a good production and good, old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making. And that’s what we intend to do with EMG, and this is the second effort. We are gearing up to go into our third effort, and I’m extremely excited about that. One of them is going to hit.

What are you doing about the distribution end of things?

That’s the million-dollar question. We had a distribution deal for Mr. Sophistication, but it fell through because it was delayed, and we didn’t want to wait too much longer because we want to get H4 out and make sure that it comes out at the right time. Now that I’m on this television show, we think this is a great time to launch EMG. We are close to closing a deal on Mr. Sophistication. We don’t have a distributor yet for H4, but we hope to be able to find one through our submission to these film festivals, Chicago being the most important one. This is our opening shot, so we’ll see.

I’ve enjoyed the films you’ve been in that have appeared at the CIFF, which go back to The Human Stain (2003). Was it problematic for you to have Anthony Hopkins in the title role for that?

I had absolutely nothing to do with the casting for that (laughs). No, I love Anthony Hopkins. I worked with him on Titus, and I think he’s a great actor. I know that other actors were interested in and up for that part. But here’s an interesting thing, color in America. What is black? For example, Dr. Adam Powell, for his early years, passed for white. A lot of people passed for white. J. Edgar Hoover, they say, was black and passed for white. So black is really a state of mind. So I didn’t have a problem with Anthony Hopkins playing the role.

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I think if somebody, particularly like me, who is taking these plays or movie ideas and adapting them for the black experience, that goes both ways. So if I want to do Shakespeare, there should be no reason why white people can’t do Lorraine Hansberry or August Wilson as long as there’s a context for it that makes sense. I just saw The Hollow Crown on “Great Performances,” with Jeremy Irons the other day and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin, York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. So who is this guy? I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.

My question has been with regard to these things is can we be inventive enough, creative enough to find a way to include somebody without forcing the issue? I don’t want to force myself on somebody just because, you’re right, the black actor should be able to do Shakespeare. That’s not good enough to me. It’s fine for some people, but I don’t have a problem with people also who don’t like it, who say, that is not historically accurate. At the end of the day, I know that there’s a way to do these plays … and not to make it relevant, the plays are relevant. The play didn’t ask me to do it. It was perfectly fine! But since I love the language and since I’ve taken it upon myself to try it, then it should make sense to the person who just wants to come in and have a good experience without having to twist his mind up so that he can make sense of it.

So, that’s what I want to do, and I hope that we get to do a lot more of these plays. I want to do Julius Caesar, for example, and I just did a Romeo & Juliet with a cast of all people of color set in Harlem. This is an idea whose time has come. We are having a good amount of attention coming our way because of H4, and I’m curious to see if it continues. I hope it does.

You are still very involved in the Chicago community. What does your connection to our city mean to you?

For me, Chicago is the prototypical American city in the sense that it was founded by a black man, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, who founded this outpost and had a relationship with the natives there and later with a lot of other people, like French traders. To me, he exemplifies the American experience, someone who takes what is in front of them and then spins it into gold. Now Chicago is also known as the city that works, and I love that work ethic that we have there. We may not have the most polished baseball team or what have you, but we find a way to get it done, and that has always been my motto. I went to a Catholic seminary whose Latin motto means “work and prayer.” I have always believed that those two characteristics are beneficial. You can’t pray too much. I think you can work too much, but when you find a balance between those two things, I believe that progress gets made. I like being identified with and representing Chicago. People ask me all the time where I live, and I tell them it may be New York or L.A., but I’m from Chicago. My mama’s there, my people are there, my beginnings, my whole roots and infrastructure are Chicago. And I’ll never stop being part of it, I love it.

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