Harry Lennix: Hard-Working Nonsense

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Television fans will likely know Harry Lennix best from his role as Harold Cooper in NBC’s The Blacklist, although his role as Boyd Langton in Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is probably a close second. But across over three decades of acting, Lennix has brought a keen intelligence and a solid gravitas to a wealth of projects in film, television and theater—from The Five Heartbeats to Get on the Bus to the Matrix sequels. He’s also a fantastic interview. Audio of the full 90-minute conversation will appear soon on the Paste podcast The Work, but in the meantime, here’s Lennix discussing his upbringing in Chicago, his flirtation with the priesthood and why music is a higher form of art than acting.

Paste Magazine : You’re a Chicago guy. What part of Chicago did you grow up in?
Harry Lennix: On the South Side. You know, we’re proud of our regionalism in Chicago, so I’m a proud South Sider. I went to Catholic school until college. Even in college, I did some Catholic school. I went to Jesuit Northwestern, which had a very strong acting program. I was a professional actor by the age of 18, so this is my 31st year as a professional in the industry. I’ve done quite a bit, but most of it has been more or less under the radar. And I like it that way.

Paste : Yeah, when I got pitched this interview, I looked you up and said, “Oh, that guy!” You’re one of those “that guy” guys. Which is good.
Lennix: It is good. I get a lot of “Where do I know you from?” Well, I don’t know. I’m not going to do your work for you—where do you know me from?

Paste : Being a “that guy” is a lot better than being a “Who the heck is that guy?”
Lennix: Right. “Who are you?”

Paste : So in addition to having Catholic schooling, were you raised as a Catholic?
Lennix: Yes. My father was a Louisiana Creole, and my mom was a Southern Baptist from Virginia. So she converted. I actually went to a Catholic seminary. I had every intention of becoming a priest, but I chose acting instead.

Paste : You and Scorsese.
Lennix: Was he in the seminary?

Paste : Yeah, he’s a former Catholic seminarian.
Lennix: I bet he was a Jesuit.

Paste : That sounds about right.
Lennix: He seems like a micromanager. In a Jesuit kind of way.

Paste : What order were you?
Lennix: Dominican. We’re the real school.

Paste : So, did you grow up in a big family?
Lennix: There were four children. I was the youngest of the four. My oldest brother just passed away four years ago now. My father died when I was not quite two, so my mother raised all four of us, sent us to Catholic school with no kind of government assistance. Just worked really hard at several jobs simultaneously. I had a job when I was 10 and have never stopped working since. We were all that way. Raking leaves, shoveling snow, carrying groceries, all kinds of stuff. Whatever we could do to hustle milk money or what have you. She instilled a work ethic in us. The motto of Chicago is “The City That Works,” and I think that’s true. That kind of work ethic was instilled in me, which is why I think my body of work reflects a great deal of output. I’m going to keep working until I die. Although I may want to do something other than acting in my second half.

Paste : Go back to shoveling snow?
Lennix: Go back to shoveling snow, exactly. No, I think I could find a better way.

Paste : So you didn’t know your father?
Lennix: I don’t remember him. I know that he was a machinist, and he wanted to be a singer. His nickname at home was Uncle Brother; that’s what they called him in Louisiana. He was a veteran of World War II. I think he went in at 18, perhaps even 17. He died of Hodgkins’ disease at the age of 42.

Paste : Uncle Brother should be a character in an August Wilson play. That’s fantastic.
Lennix: Yeah.

Paste : So, coming from that no-nonsense background—
Lennix: Oh, there was nonsense. There was lots of nonsense. It was just hard-working nonsense.

Paste : Hard-working nonsense, I like that. But what did your mom think when you said you thought you might want to go be an actor?
Lennix: Well, her suggestion was that I be a priest. But she said, “if you’re not going to do that, if you’re going to be an actor, have something you can fall back on.” And that was teaching. Work is sporadic, as an actor. So there would be months at a time when I wouldn’t work, and I would be a substitute teacher. And then eventually I got a full-time position there. There were some years when I just taught. And some years when I did a fair amount of acting, and a fair amount of teaching. There was one time when I was doing two plays and teaching school, all at the same time. And I developed an ulcer. But she never really had to prompt me to work. She just wanted to make sure I could take care of things, because there wasn’t a safety net I could fall back on. So to speak.

Paste : And you were teaching music?
Lennix: Music, Social Studies, English, Civics. Wherever there was a vacancy, I’d step in. At one point I was a gym teacher. At one point I took over eighth grade for a year. Even then, because I had a musical background, I’d still be teaching music at assemblies. So there was a multi-tasking situation. Which I enjoy very much.

Paste : When had you first started playing music? And was that your mother’s influence?
Lennix: No, it really came from my brother Larry, the one who has passed away now. He was six years older than me. And he loved music; I think he would have been a great music producer, or a great orchestrator, or something, had he the discipline. He was very bright; he was tested at a genius IQ level. But you know, there are those genius kids who never do really well in school; that was him. But he knew a lot about music, and introduced me and my brother to funk music. And R&B too, but he came up in the age of funk, so we came up in the age of funk. My other brother Michael’s musical interests went more toward rock, but Larry’s influence led me into funk, R&B, soul, then jazz. What he was calling jazz was really fusion, but then I took that and went into jazz and classical. But he really had a sophisticated ear. He taught me how to appreciate music.

In addition to that, the nuns at school were teaching us the popular folk songs of the day, and I was fascinated by lyrics and by song structure. The system of making music intrigued me as a science. And I think it puts music in a superior position to acting, which becomes very subjective. For example, you can play the C# Minor Prelude, and you either hit the notes, or not. Within certain parameters, you have to play that with the right notes, or you can’t play it. That kind of musicianship, ,musicality, technical facility, is seldom required in acting, except by a very few people who have mastered it. Laurence Olivier is an example of someone whose technical facility is so exceptional that very few people on the planet, in the history of the profession, have been able to do what he did. That’s the kind of scientific approach that I would like to apply to the craft of acting.