It’s pretty safe to say that actor Harry Lennix is one of the hardest working Black character actors in show business. The 48-year-old’s movie and TV roles are way too numerous to list here, and he has another nine films set to open in 2013 (including his film version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, entitled H4; They Die by Dawn alongside Idris Elba and Giancarlo Esposito; the thriller The Algerian; and Warner Bros’ upcoming tent-pole Superman reboot, Man of Steel, out next summer).
But currently the Chicago native’s pride and joy is Mr. Sophistication, which sold out houses at the Chicago International Film Festival this fall. Lennix portrays Ron Waters, a self-destructive standup comic shooting for a comeback. Drowning in a troubled interracial marriage with his wife, Kim Waters (Tatum O’Neal), while dealing with other romantic entanglements and headed for a reckoning, Lennix betrays hints of the late Richard Pryor.
We recently had an opportunity to speak one-on-one with Lennix on H4, the hard realities of Hollywood, and why he is definitely not a fan of Precious director Lee Daniels.
EBONY: How many comedians did you have to watch and study for Mr. Sophistication in order to get it right?
Harry Lennix: I went to a lot of comedy clubs, quite a few, and watched a lot of Richard Pryor. I watched some Lenny Bruce, some Dick Gregory, but mostly Pryor. And, of course, Bernie Mac. I used to go down to Milt Trenier’s Lounge when he would perform on Wednesdays. And then there was his TV show. And there’s a guy I know, Alonzo Bodden, a comedian who won NBC’s Last Comic Standing a few years ago. He’s got a little bit of flavor too, so I used that.
EBONY: After watching Mr. Sophistication, I have to ask: you like playing a jerk don’t you?
HL: (Laughs) I tell people this, though I know he’ll deny it: but I’m basically playing Danny Green, the director of the film. (Laughs) That is to say, the personality type of my character is Danny, all the rhythms and mannerisms and all that stuff.
But I like this guy that I’m playing, and I think I would probably be friends with Ron Waters. I wouldn’t necessarily trust him. He’s complex. But I think at heart he’s a good guy; I don’t think he’s the worst guy in the world. He’s flawed, like most people.
EBONY: What’s the current status of H4?
HL: H4 is in deep post-production. We shot it, we edited it, we have it scored. We showed the movie recently at the International Shakespeare Conference in Stratford-on-Avon in England, the most elitist conference in the world, and they received it very warmly. What I’m proud about this film really is, this film will be able to stand up to any scholastic critique because we had scholars working on it from start to finish, and it’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before. Black people, people of color in general, Americans, will be able to look at a Shakespeare film with Americans, with Black people. Because we all have to study it; there should be no reason why this should be the first or only Black Shakespeare movie.
EBONY: Do you constantly have to think about the image you are portraying as Black man every time to do a role?
HL: I think about it every day and any time that a role is offered. And believe me, lots of crummy roles are offered. But at this point, people know better than to mess with me with a lot of these things. For example, [Precious director] Lee Daniels sent me the script for that film he’s making now, The Butler, about the Black butler at the White House. I read five pages of this thing and could not go any further. I tried to read more of it, but it was such an appalling misdirection of history in terms of taking an actual guy who worked at the White House but then “ni**erfies” it. He ni**ers it up and gives people these stupid Luddite, antediluvian ideas about Black people and their roles in the historical span in the White House. And it becomes, well, historical porn. I refused.
And people want to see these images; they’ll say things like, “It’s a very difficult movie to look at, but it’s great movie.” That’s a contradiction in terms. That’s a paradox. It can’t be that it’s a great movie but it’s difficult to look at. You know what I mean? (Laughs) Why would you put these images out there? But clearly the critics, many of them, love to see this kind of material and love to see us in these types of roles.
EBONY: Because it feeds into—
HL: Because it feeds into the great lie that is being perpetrated by the most important medium, the most powerful export that the United States has to offer, which is entertainment. [It’s] the most powerful tool that they have, and it’s kept us in a place: men in dresses and things, raping their daughters. While any sort of aberrant behavior happens in any community, it has become normative in Black cinema that we are these bestial, deprived people, and I refuse to play with that.