One-on-One with Harry Lennix

Full disclosure: The Blacklist is my new favorite show.

Filled with intrigue, hidden identities, evil assassins, heart-stopping suspense, and jaw-dropping action, this fall newbie also features another incomparable asset:

Actor Harry Lennix.

The velvet-voiced, staggeringly eloquent entertainer, who hails from Chicago, plays the head of the FBI, leveraging a natural elegance, gravitas and unflappable demeanor to great effect as a foil to the show’s star, James Spader aka “Raymond ‘Red’ Reddington.”

So when Lennix, who was visiting his hometown last week, stopped by JET, clearly I had to have a chat with my fellow Northwestern University alum about his role in the new show, latest film H4, and  why he recently lashed out against slave- and servant-themed film/TV projects.

He even shares some interesting insights on the Kenan Thompson no-Black-female comics flap.

KYRA KYLES: You can check my Facebook wall to see if I’m lying to curry favor. I posted this a few weeks or so ago before I knew I’d be talking to you.  I love The Blacklist.  It’s one of those jaw-droppers where you don’t know where to look or what to do.  The action and the intrigue do not let up!  Who did you study or what did you reference to nail this role as “Harry Cooper,” the head of the FBI?

HARRY LENNIX: Well, there’s not a direct person I’m copying, but I do serve as a spokesman for the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officials.  I’ve met a number of Black FBI agents in the past.  On top of that, I started with other roles as an FBI guy.  I was in Suspect Zero co-starring Ben Kingsley.  So, I have a great deal of fun with Spader and the other actors.

KK: The series is shrouded in so much secrecy.  We’re all trying to figure out:  Why has Reddington gone from an upstanding agent to a super criminal to turning himself into the FBI to help bag his old cronies?  Is it a situation where you know the overarching secret, or are you in the dark about his motivations, too?

LENNIX: It’s the latter.  We know a few things.  This is the first year of an intrigue-filled espionage show and part of the thing that makes it work is that we get bits and pieces as actors.  This is not like a play where you know the end or a movie where you know the conclusion by reading the script.  In this case, it’s ongoing, so I don’t know what twists and turns are ahead.  I don’t have the answers at the back of the book.  For example, for some reason, a few episodes ago: I missed the man with the apple.

KK: The apple?

LENNIX: In one episode, some guys sneak into the home of Elizabeth Keen and they put in spyware.

KK: Right, I remember that.  They come in with ladders and tools after everyone has left the house. 

LENNIX: Right, but there was a man who said it’s safe to go into the apartment and he takes a bite of an apple.  I said: Who the heck is this guy?

KK: Oh man!  You don’t even know who he is? I have to go back and re-watch.  Thanks for that tip!  Well, that’s definitely a project of yours to watch, but tell us about what you are personally launching at the Chicago International Film Festival.

LENNIX:  Well, that’s H4 and it is the first Black Shakespeare film ever done to my knowledge.  We weren’t necessarily doing it to break new ground.  But like me, a lot of people in the cast were trained with Shakespeare while in college, but there are marginal roles for Blacks in the films and television programs that have centered on those works.  This is essentially our way of creating work for ourselves and I think we’ve come up with something quite unique.  We will show and prove that we can do Shakespeare in an ensemble with the very best of the companies.  We’re very proud of it.

KK: There are so many of The Bard’s works, why did you choose Henry IV?

LENNIX:  All the other plays have been done, and done very often.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, and please, no more Romeo and Juliet.  Although, I should say that I just did Romeo and Juliet with the first people of color heading the lead roles, so maybe not that. I think if somebody did all of these plays  in a way that hadn’t been approached, I would be curious about it.  We all have interaction with Shakespeare.  We read and study Shakespeare.  We’ve read Hamlet, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, and this is taught in school with the films being shown as an addendum.  So, if Shakespeare is universally applicable, we should all have the ability to read it  and see it with people of all hues in a way they can relate to.  That has greater resonance.

KK: Speaking of resonance, some comments you made recently about other representations of Blacks in Hollywood right now were met with some shock.  You minced no words about your distaste for the proliferation of slave-centric content out there.  I actually recently wrote a piece questioning the prevalence of it as well.  Why are these themes so pervasive?

LENNIX: I think the cultural view it represent is self evident.  There’s a massive pity party going on and people are comfortable, even Black people are too comfortable, seeing themselves  in certain roles as accidents of history with no kind of agency outside of their relationships to White people in power.  When you keep projecting an image, it gains more power.  The most powerful tool we have is media and to continue to project this image of a people to keep them in a place—as butlers and servants to the White man–is wrong.  What about the brothers and sisters in these horrible times, who managed to do the first heart transplant, or how about the ones who created JET magazine or Ebony magazine?  Black people, all the way back from the founding of this country,  were accomplished and believed in the American ideal of doing for self.  But we have become, in 2013, indifferent and we keep going back to the bad old days and, to that, I say: Enough!

KK: But does that extend to all portrayals?  I don’t necessarily agree that his was the best way of telling our story, but with respect to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, some said they felt that the revenge theme and heroism of Jamie Foxx made that one more palpable.

LENNIX: I found that aspect of the film refreshing in so far as he was not taking any guff from anybody.  Here was a man on a mission to save his wife.  I didn’t watch the whole film, but that appealed to me.  Here was a man who, like Nat Turner, was not going to take it and not going to be a slave.  Quentin Tarantino is a provocateur, but thank God he decided to use a revenge angle to tell Black people’s story.  I’d rather see that than watch two and a half hours of people suffering.

KK: What are your feelings about 12 Years a Slave?  It’s tough material, but is in the same vein of showing a man fighting back against insurmountable odds and essentially prevailing.  Reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

LENNIX: I’m sure it’s a fine film, but I can’t take it right now.  There may be a time when my internal strength is built up enough, but for now, my insides are so pulverized by oppression that I don’t need to see it.  I know slavery was a horrible time.  My people come from slaves and the people telling these stories don’t necessarily come from slavery.

KK: What era or window into Black life would you like to see on the big screen right now?

LENNIX: I’m interested in all periods in history, but no period is more important than the present.  History is happening right now.  The book is almost written and closed on 2013.  Blacks lost ground on every level of social significance.  More people are getting killed, there’s less land ownership, any number of things show us coming up short.  We do a great disservice by ignoring all important present day issues in exchange for this necromancing.

KK: Well, wouldn’t some argue that you need to know the history to avoid repeating it?  There are some who don’t know.  I recall being in college with some students, well-educated individuals, who said they doubted slaves were even beaten because it didn’t make financial sense.  I couldn’t believe the ignorance and blindness.

LENNIX:   That’s a good point, but a person who feels that way will not go see these movies we’re discussing.  They are not sensitive to the race struggle.  The best way to make yourself respected as a three-dimensional person is to be portrayed as multi-dimensional.  I realize the importance of the past and studied African American history in some depth.  In this movie age, these images are going around the world to show us as a subhuman group of people always struggling and serving.

KK: While I have you, I have to ask you about images of African American women in particular.  Recently, Saturday Night Live‘s Kenan Thompson made the remark that there are no Black women on the show because there haven’t been any seemingly “ready” for that particular challenge.  What do you make of that?

LENNIX:  That’s a shocking statement.  I worked with Kenan and I like him, but that shows a misunderstanding of the great wealth of talent of Black female comedians and actors who are quite capable of representing themselves.  In fact, with H4, we have put women into roles typically played by men.  Historically, in Shakespeare’s plays, all roles were played by men.  But we’ve evolved to a point where women are among the top actors in the world and there is no question that if the role is for a female, a woman is going to be much better.  If the role is of a Black person, a Black person will be much better.  I must admit that I don’t watch [Saturday Night Live] precisely because they go a little far for my tastes.  I’d rather elevate the level of comedy.  I’d like us to be smarter as a nation and as a people.


Here’s how to support this outstanding entertainer in future ventures.

Find out when H4 is coming to a theater near you by liking the project on Facebook HERE.

Keep an eye on his Mr. Sophistication, co-starring Tatum O’Neal and Gina Torres HERE.  If you are in Chicago, it’ll be playing at the Noir Film Festival on Nov. 2.  Details HERE.

Find out when you can watch him on The Blacklist  HERE.