Exposing The Blacklist and the Bard
by Jay S. Jacobs
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 that 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.
The 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 think Othello would be a natural. Was it surprising to you to realize that?
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.
How 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.