Sowing Seeds with Grace & Frankie
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s funny the curveballs that life throws you. Take Ernie Hudson. After a good 40 years hustling, hitting the casting offices and sets and craft services tables of hundreds of movies and TV series, making a name for himself as a go-to guy in Hollywood, was finally hitting a point where he was thinking maybe it was time to slow down a bit.
That didn’t last very long. 2017 was one of his busiest years in an always busy career. In the past year alone, he has worked on five movies (including the upcoming Nappily Ever After and The Family Business). He also had recurring or starring roles on several series, his third and fourth seasons with Netflix’s hit sitcom Grace & Frankie, FOX’s police drama APB, the Nick Nolte political satire Graves and even had a small role on David Lynch’s reboot Twin Peaks: The Return.
So much for thoughts of taking it easy. Hudson, who looks decades younger than his 72 years, had even hit a point where he was only living in Hollywood part of the year. He also has a place in Minneapolis.
“I have a house here,” Hudson told me on a phone call from his Minnesota home. “We have a place in LA, too. This is what I’m trying to consider home, I just don’t get here very often. My wife’s dad is 97, so she needs to be here. And, home is pretty much wherever she is, so this is home now.”
So how crazy is it that just when he was getting ready to gear down, the casting people started to ring his phone off the hook?
“This past year was really a good year in terms of me figuring out where I am,” Hudson said. “Realizing where I am now is different than where I was five years ago. Not necessarily in terms of the success deal, but in terms of where I am in my life….”
And, it seems, he is not completely ready to stop working. He enjoys it too much. Now is just a time where he gets the opportunity to be a little pickier.
“The work is always fun,” Hudson explained. “It doesn’t become too much. I’ve been throwing in some conventions and some public speaking. A few weeks ago, I thought that part I can cut down on. The difference in the work now is really wanting to find things that are going to be fun. That I want to do.”
It’s an interesting place to be, having these choices. Realizing the world will not end if he holds out on a role that doesn’t interest him.
“My mindset has always been I need to work,” Hudson said. “Having kids, being a single dad, and re-marrying. You’ve got the mortgages and stuff. [Now], thankfully, I don’t have the mortgage, and the kids are all grown up. I thought why don’t we take a look at this a bit differently? I’m not in the habit of saying no.”
In fact, it has always slightly amused Hudson when people congratulated him for his good taste in projects – over a career that has included such classic films as Ghostbusters, The Crow and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. Hudson admits is wasn’t totally his taste that made his career. Sometimes it’s a matter of luck, skill, and just being the right fit.
“Maybe when you let go things have a way of going on their own,” Hudson chuckled. “I realize you can’t make a career. People congratulate me on my choices, but those were the jobs that were offered. You look back on it and it’s an interesting thing, but I wasn’t as selective as I felt I could have been.”
So how have things changed since he has let go?
“In the past couple of years, and especially in this past year, I wanted to do something where I could really extend myself and have fun with,” he said. “A movie called The Family Business – [based on a novel by] a guy named Carl Weber who has a series of books out – we shot that. It was just so much fun to be the lead in something and just do your homework. Sometimes, especially when you do a lot of the TV stuff, I think they’d almost prefer you didn’t do homework.”
Hudson laughed, “They just want you to show up and say their words and go home. It’s been some fun projects.”
One of those fun projects really came out of the blue for Hudson. He recently finished his fourth season on the star-studded Netflix sitcom Grace & Frankie, co-starring with Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston. The fourth season will be available to stream on January 19. In fact, Hudson was recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award for his role as Jacob the Yam Man, a farm owner who falls in love with Lily Tomlin’s Frankie.
“I got a lot of congratulations from people who I didn’t even think would be aware of the Image Awards,” Hudson admitted.
Still, when Hudson first heard of the series’ creation a few years ago, he never imagined this would be a project which he would get a chance to work on, though he did know a few members of the cast slightly.
“I had met Jane some time ago,” Hudson said. “I didn’t know Lily. Sam, I had worked with on Law & Order. Martin, I had almost done a film with, and it kind of fell apart, but I got to know him a little bit.
“I heard the show was happening,” Hudson continued. “I didn’t even imagine doing the show, because it just seemed like one of those shows that I wouldn’t be invited to. Then my agent got a call saying that they were interested in possibly a love interest. I think at first, they thought it would be Jane and then it switched to Lily.”
Hudson was flattered that they would consider him in such a well-known cast.
“Just the thought of working with that group of people… I’ve been acting a long time, but as long as I’ve been acting, they’ve been prominent,” Hudson said. “They are people who I looked up to, and admired their work over the years. It was great to be invited to come and be in that company.”
Another perk in Grace & Frankie was the fact that the role was being written with him in mind to play it.
“Sometimes early on you have to audition,” he said. “I always feel like I’m begging for a part. So, it’s nice that they liked my work and just said, ‘Okay, would you like to be a part of this?’
Still, he wasn’t sure what they were going to do with his character, but with this kind of talent attached, he decided to trust the showrunners. Soon after he joined up, he knew he had made the right choice.
“When I met Lily, I just fell in love with Lily,” Hudson said. “She’s just the most amazing person. I think she takes a little different approach, not starting out as an actor. She’s very open, and giving, and honest.”
In fact, even as a long-time actor, Hudson finds Tomlin’s acting technique intriguing and refreshing. He said that when he is on set, he tends to go in observing. Checking out everyone’s techniques, the things that are happening around him. Particularly in this company of smart old pros, Tomlin’s style stands out – perhaps because Tomlin comes out of the world of stand-up and sketch comedy, rather than starting off as a straight actress. He feels that when they are working together they are engaged, though he tries to give her space and respect her privacy when not doing scenes.
“I’m so fascinated by what she does,” Hudson said. “When actors can be in the moment so readily – because I’ve worked with a lot of actors, even veteran actors, that really have to work hard to find the moment. It forces you to come from a more honest place. So, I’ve just been admiring how she does what she does. It’s a very different process than Jane, or Sam, or Martin. She has just an intuitive [feel for the situation]. I’m just fascinated by her.”
Grace & Frankie is rather unique in a very youth-obsessed Hollywood, because it is a show that is focused on people of a certain age. Hudson finds that to be an intriguing part of the project, as well, though he acknowledges he is not totally surprised that Hollywood doesn’t make more shows for the older demographic.
“Hollywood, it seems… and I don’t know, everybody has an opinion… but, it seems they are always trying to find their way to make money,” Hudson acknowledged. “It’s not really about doing something that they think people really want, unless people really want it and they will show up at the [box office]. It’s not like ‘This will be a wonderful thing.’ I get the feeling it is really driven by the financial bottom line.”
Yet, while Hudson understood where that is feeling was coming from, he didn’t necessarily agree. In fact, he felt that often Hollywood was selling the fringe demographics short.
“A lot of times it’s not even real, because I’ve heard reports that family movies make more money than a lot of the big blockbuster things,” Hudson said. “I think Hollywood has a version of what will sell. I think that’s why it took so long for blacks to finally get to be the lead in things, because they said that won’t sell. ‘The European markets won’t buy it. We don’t want to focus on old people. We don’t want to focus on overweight people. We want to do what’s going to make us money. We need beautiful people. We need stories of 18-year olds.’ Whatever that idea is, they are holding to it, and trying to cater to it.”
However, Hudson has noticed over the years that despites fits and starts, like the old Sam Cooke song said, “a change is gonna come.” And more and more people are supportive and open to diversity.
“We’re a different society. A different world. I used to have that argument when I would work on shows, and I’d be the only black person in the cast, and it would be supposed to be Detroit. I’d be like this is frickin’ Detroit.” Hudson laughed. “So, I think we’re coming around, when you talk about diversity. I don’t just mean diversity in terms of racial makeup, just in terms of how we are. I mean, the weight thing… A lot of the foreign movies are a lot more honest in terms of the people they cast.”
Hudson hopes this feeling of tolerance will soon be mirrored in film and TV, a state that has started, but still has a while to go.
“I know that was a long, drawn out answer to your question, but I think Hollywood has an idea of what sells,” Hudson said. “Even when it doesn’t sell, they stick with that idea. I’m having a problem now with… I mean, I love all the comic action stuff, but I’m getting a little burnt out. I’m so sick of all the war. Everybody’s battling. It’s two hours of people fighting. But, whatever, everybody has an opinion.”
One nice show of progress in Grace & Frankie itself is the fact that Frankie and Jacob are an interracial couple is an issue at all in the show.
“It’s not even commented on,” Hudson said. “I think it’s wonderful. I travel around, and people come up, I don’t care where I am: ‘Love the Jacob character. Love their relationship. It feels they’re perfect.’”
Hudson admitted when he was approached for the show, he wasn’t sure that people would be so open-minded. He also had to get himself into the mindset of doing a show for older people.
“When I looked at the show, I was thinking this is a show for senior citizens,” Hudson explained.
“And honestly, I’m having a hard time putting myself in there. I’m like, well, wait a second. I sort of missed middle age, you know? That thing you think, well that’s other people who are that. Then one day you wake up and go; no, that’s [me]. So, I didn’t know how people would accept us as a couple. I love her, and I think she’s amazing. But people love and seem to really respond to it. It was very creative of the writers to say she has a black son on the show [to even further defuse the prejudices]. Just looking at the world and telling stories.”
Despite having missed middle age, at 72, Hudson realizes that he has lived a full life. At the same time, he is still a very vital, very sharp, very in-shape man. There is still a lot of road ahead of him. He’s not ready to just give up.
“I think people think when you reach 65, you just wander off in the desert and die, I guess. Especially a place like LA. You don’t see them. In Minnesota, you see old people.” Hudson laughed. “You’re in a restaurant and you’ll see the senior citizens. But, in places like LA or the really cool places, I don’t know what they do with them…. The wonderful thing about the show is: You’re still trying to figure it out. Still making mistakes. Still looking for love. I love the fact that that message is there, because we’re so tuned in to the youthful thing. Older people trying to appear youthful, because they think if they don’t they will no longer be viable. That part of the show I love.”
Another great part of the character is the fact that, more than just about anyone else on the show, he is comfortable with himself and his life, knows what he wants and does not really question his life decisions. In a world full of neurotics, Jacob is something of a rock. Hudson gets that, but he also thinks he is not all that abnormal.
“Jacob, he’s just a guy,” Hudson said. “Not trying to prove anything. Not trying to justify anything. [He doesn’t] want to say, ‘Well, I’ve fallen in love with her, but she’s not black, so now I have to explain to the world why I’m with this woman.’ Or ‘she doesn’t look a certain way that other people think [she should].’ None of that. He’s more in tune to that whole spiritual side. I connect with this person, coming from that honest place. I’m realizing that yeah, life is wonderful, but you don’t have to justify it. That part of him.”
Still, when Hudson first joined the show, he was protective towards the role.
“[Creator] Marta [Kauffman], it was one of the things I said when I came on the show: I really don’t want this guy to be a jerk,” Hudson explained. “He turned out to be a real [good man]. I’ve done so many things in the past where I feel the direction of the character was based on his color, more than who he was. The character, I don’t think they got that deep into it. I said, I just want this to be a guy who is a guy. And he is clear.”
The more that Hudson got to know Jacob, the more he came to relate to him.
“I’d like to think that’s who I am,” Hudson continued. “It’s very close. Maybe this character is as close to me as any [I’ve played]. I don’t feel I have to put on something. I do in a lot of the police roles I’ve done. It’s very hard as an actor sometimes to get in the skin of a character. [Often] they can’t explain it in the script and they just want you to play it because you are African American, like there is one unanimous experience that we all share. That’s not the real world. It’s not my world. So, that part I love about the guy.
“He’s at a point in life – maybe another way he’s like me – where a lot of things I thought would happen by the time I got to this stage of my life, didn’t happen. And I’m okay with that. Still would love to see it. I’m not saying I don’t want it. I’m just saying I don’t want to try that way anymore. So, a lot of me is in Jacob, as opposed to some of the other things that I’ve done.”
If nothing else, Hudson has learned some of the basics of farming life – like if there is a difference between yams and sweet potatoes.
“I knew there was a difference,” Hudson admitted. “My favorite pie is sweet potato pie. But, is it made with yams? If I had to explain that difference to you, I couldn’t. Even now, after having done the role, all I can say is he’s a farmer. I never really played a farmer. Or at least a guy who owns his farm. That part was kind of cool. I thought, okay, he’s had a certain level of success. But, yeah, the yams, I can’t honestly tell you.”
He may have never played a farmer before, but Hudson has often played a police officer, as he mentioned above. Beyond his hard work on Grace & Frankie, he also spent much of the year on FOX’s edgy police drama APB, which was a bit of a twist on the traditional cop show. In the series, a billionaire (played by Justin Kirk) bought and basically privatized a Chicago police district in order to test cutting-edge techniques. The show lasted a (12-episode) season, but ended up not getting picked up for renewal by the network.
“I thought they’d be a little more patient with it,” Hudson admitted. “I think the show could have been special. Every time you do a show it takes a season to really find your way. Find what works. Find how the relationships [come into synch]. You’re thrown together, you have this script, but you haven’t gelled. By the time we got to the 12th episode, that was starting to happen. The writers began to be able to write for the characters, and the ideas. You are not so desperate. It would have been nice to see that get a chance. It’s still very timely. Someone will pick that up, because it is what is happening in our society.”
Speaking of timely shows, Hudson also appeared on the first season of the dark political comedy Graves with Nick Nolte and Sela Ward – about a former President trying to undo the mistakes he made while in office. Hudson had a recurring role on the show (also named Jacob!) but ended up a little disappointed that his character was not used more than he was, therefore he decided not to come back for the second season.
“Here’s what I basically proposed to them: [don’t use me] unless I’m utilized in a meaningful way,” Hudson said. “I felt the first season I was sort of around. I’d get disappointment with fans, when I’d go out to some of the conventions, or I’d go out, even just at the grocery store, or airport. A lot of times, they will watch something because they know I’m in it. Then if I’m not really a part of it, then it’s like: ‘Well, we watched it, but you really weren’t there.’ I just felt they were trying to find how to use the character, and I don’t think we ever found that.”
And part of his personal epiphany in recent years, as said before, was that he needed to be intrigued and inspired by his roles.
“That was one of the things at the beginning of the year,” Hudson continued. “I just said unless I’m really having fun and working, and being a part of the story, I don’t want a job just to have a job. One of the things I get offered a lot is people say, ‘We really want you in our thing. Don’t worry, you’re only going to work a day. It’s just a scene.’ Well, then I don’t want to do it. I’m not at a point where I just want to [appear]. I’m an actor.”
He is in it for the characters.
“I was watching Denzel’s Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” Hudson recalled. “What a wonderful character. Those are the stories and the characters that you want to be a part of. That was the problem I had with Graves. It was wonderful. I love Nick Nolte. I’m a fan of his. He’s my friend. But, I don’t think they found what to do with the character.”
However, there are exceptions to every rule. Another high-profile role which Hudson recently took was not huge, but he could not turn down the opportunity to be a part of David Lynch’s peculiar universe with Twin Peaks: The Return.
“I’m such a fan of David Lynch. I had seen the earlier version years ago. I just really wanted to be a part of it,” Hudson said. “When they called and asked me to [do it], I was like, yeah, I want to be there. It wasn’t a lot to do. I was hoping to be a little bit more part of it. But, that’s one of the shows where I don’t care if it was just one word, I just wanted to be a part of that series. It was strange and uniquely special, so it was nice to at least say I was a part of that.”
He is now also a part of is the hit CBS series Blue Bloods. On the series he was able to work again with Donnie Wahlberg, one of the main stars of Blue Bloods.
“We did a movie years ago called Butter,” Hudson said. “I think it was one of the first things he did. They changed the name to Never 2 Big. It was great to work with him again.”
Also great was the chance to play a new type of role, a character far different from what he is used to playing.
“That’s interesting, because it’s a dark character,” Hudson said. “It’s timely with what’s happening in society. It was one of those things that I really had to work. The work is make it make sense in your head. I did an episode of [the FOX series] Lethal Weapon, which was just fun. Those things, I just had fun. It was just a fun character to play. But, Blue Bloods is a different guy. How do you [play him?] It’s a very timely character, and in some ways important. I wanted to do it because I just wanted to find that place…. I’m anxious to see it, because I don’t know if what I was attempting, I was able to pull it off.”
Hudson chuckles. “I hope so. But yeah, some things, TV especially, you don’t have time. It’s not like movies, where you have time to really work it out, talk to the director, figure I can sleep on it. TV is fast, but I certainly enjoyed working on the show.”
Another quirky role came in one of his upcoming films. “I did this thing Nappily Ever After with Sanaa Lathan. I’ve been a fan of hers. Lynn Whitfield is in it, but I’ve never worked with them before.”
However, his co-stars were only part of the sell-job for the part. Once again, the role allowed him to push the envelope on his talents.
“What was interesting was I played this underwear model,” Hudson laughed. “At my age, to model underwear was… it was actually kind of cool. [That was] the first thought. The second thought was, oh my God, I’ve got to be in my underwear. But what I like is when you get a script, there’s a whole different thing. The character speaks. I don’t know what that process is. You kind of know it, you know? If you don’t know it, you wrestle, and it takes days up until the time where you do it. I love that. I love finding that. Once you find it, you can’t do anything wrong. But, until you find it, you can’t do anything right.”
With a long career that has spanned from wild comedy to dark drama, Hudson has become comfortable with all tones and tales.
“Comedy, something about it makes sense,” Hudson said. “Drama, I thought when I started out as an actor, the real key was to be able to run the range. Almost like a piano player who can play in any key, anyplace on the keyboard, as opposed to a piano player who can play within that certain range. The opportunity to play all those ranges hasn’t been there. It’s nice. I love doing comedy. I love letting yourself go into that and really enjoy it, especially when you’re working with really good people who aren’t intimidated. Also, the drama, that painful place. I don’t know if I like one more than the other. I think it would be hard for me to do a play that was really painful for a long time. You’ve got to live with that. I don’t like living with the pain. But for TV or for movies, nothing is forever.”
Well, one thing is forever in Ernie Hudson’s career – Winston Zeddemore, his character in the legendary comedy Ghostbusters with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis. More than any other project he has done, it has an afterlife that stretches well into the future. Showing the long-term pop culture omnipresence of the 1984 comedy, on a recent episode of Netflix’s popular sci-fi series Stranger Things which took place on Halloween in the 1980s, four childhood friends had a group costume as the Ghostbusters, and get into a big fight about who has to be Winston. Hudson laughed when the scene is mentioned, as he was familiar with it. And all these years later, he is still amazed by the pop culture reach of the movie.
“Honestly, I am so touched by it. I know that sounds weird, but I am so humbled by it,” Hudson laughed. “The fact that I was a part of something – not so much that I did, but I was a part of something – that really registered in a real way with people. I was recently in England, and all these guys showed up with their Ectomobiles, and they had their costumes, and their backpacks. They were telling me their story, that it was the first movie they saw with their dads, and now their kids love it. Little kids love the movie. I’m just amazed.”
With as long a career as Hudson has had, he knows that projects like this are exceedingly rare.
“I’ve done a lot of TV shows,” Hudson said. “I’ve done a lot of movies. After they have their little initial run, you barely hear about them. Some things come back, like The Crow. I’ll hear about The Crow. Or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. There is something about Ghostbusters that is so amazing, I can’t even describe it.
“I saw three guys in England with tattoos of the Ghostbusters, with my face on their bodies,” Hudson laughed again. “Honestly, I don’t even know how to [react to that]. I just find it’s turned into this blessing. At the time you do it, you don’t realize that. I didn’t think [it would last like this]. I liked the movie. I liked working on the movie, but people seem to find something. It’s just this perfect little movie. I’m touched by it. I’m genuinely touched by it.”
Hudson was even able to return to the world of Ghostbusters in 2016’s reboot of the film, in which Hudson – and most of the original cast – had cameos in the film. While the new movie did not become a sensation like the original was – and Hudson somewhat understands why – it was still a hoot to return to that world.
“It was fun,” Hudson said. “Obviously, we all have opinions. Had we had our say in it, we all may have done things differently. But, I like the girls and I like the fact that they made an attempt to carry that whole franchise forward. You’d see a lot of little girls over the years dressed up as Ghostbusters, so it gave them a sense that they could also be a part of it. There was a little something for them, as well. I just… I wouldn’t have done a reboot. I would have liked to have seen 30 years later an extension of the first two, but once again, everybody has an opinion when it’s already been done.”
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 18, 2018.
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Photos 4-8 ©2016 & 2017. Courtesy of Netflix. All rights reserved.
Photo 9 ©2017. Courtesy of Showtime. All rights reserved.