Ever since he was earning acclaim as a young theater actor in Chicago, Harry Lennix has never rested on his laurels.
His strong work ethic has served the South Side native well over a career in which he's succeeded in theater, movies and on the small screen starring in "Dollhouse," "24," "Commander in Chief" and now "The Blacklist."
The NBC thriller, airing at 9 p.m. CT Mondays, began with longtime fugitive Raymund "Red" Reddington (James Spader) turning himself in to the FBI with a promise to cooperate in catching terrorists and other criminals, but only as long as he can work exclusively with rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone).
Lennix stars as FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Harold Cooper, who seems to know the career criminal better than he's letting on.
"He never discusses it, nor does Reddington, but clearly there is a lot of water under the bridge there, and maybe some over it as well," Lennix said, laughing. "But they have what appears to be a reluctant allegiance to each other in some way, at least in apprehending criminals."
While he couldn't reveal too much about the characters, Lennix said he is just as curious as fans to learn more about why Cooper keeps his cool in the face of Red's open disdain.
"Why would someone deliberately take it on the chin so often from this person who's a criminal and not really throw stones back?" he said. "I'm as interested in finding out why that is as everybody else."
His job in "The Blacklist" came at a time when the veteran actor was exploring another showbiz job: that of a producer. He starred in and produced the film "Mr. Sophistication," a double-duty he replicates for the upcoming film "H4." His IMDb resume boasts more than a dozen acting projects for 2013-14, although he says many of them involved just a day's work.
Lennix has never been short of stamina. He starred in his first Chicago theater production as an 18-year-old Northwestern student and his first big notices were for a 1988 production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Pegasus Players. He appeared frequently on Chicago stages, but never quit his day job—or jobs. He also taught elementary school and ran a grocery store on the South Side.
It was a matter of survival, he said, and a mother who made sure he pulled his weight.
"She's like, 'Look, you're not gonna lay in the house all day, you got to pay rent and you got to go get a job,'" he said. "'You're not gonna be here sitting around while I'm working. It's not gonna happen.'"
Lennix and I talked more about his new role, his past roles and how he decides what roles to take.
Tell me about Harold Cooper in "The Blacklist."
Harold Cooper is the assistant director of counterterrorism for the FBI. And he evidently has a long relationship, however mysterious, with Raymond Reddington. … So he's an interesting guy on the periphery. It's a supervisory periphery, but it's nonetheless pretty interesting.
I noticed Reddington shows a lot of disdain and sort of disrespect for Cooper. It appears they’ve had some history. Have you discovered was that is?
No, I have not, but I do find it curious that Harold Cooper never says anything bad about Reddington really. He’s politic enough to know what not to say. So I'm curious about that. …
Are you enjoying your time sparring with James?
I enjoy working with James Spader immensely. He's a terrific actor. He's thoughtful, he's intelligent, he's creative, he's extremely well prepared. So you don't always get that combination of invention and deliberation. He's a very deliberate actor and that's a joy to work across from him.
And the rest of the cast?
Everybody is very, very nice, very professional. Everybody wants the show the work. We're doing everything we can to make sure that it's a good show and that people enjoy it.
It appears that there will be sort of a terrorist of the week kind of thing. But I like all the side stories and the mysterious connections. Are you finding little surprises when you're checking out the scripts and everything?
Yes. I enjoy getting these scripts. It's an interesting thing because we where finding out a lot as it goes on as well what's going on here in the story. Why is this man so obsessed with this young woman? Why did he turn himself in to us? Is he playing us or are we playing him? I would imagine that somebody like Cooper didn't get there because of affirmative action, he got there because he's good at his job and he knows how to read people and how to work people. But is Red always a step ahead? Does Cooper know more then what he's letting on? What is going on in the home life of Elizabeth Keen? These things are all carrots on the stick for people who may want to tune in and find out the answers. But when you got an infinitely compelling character in Reddington, because he knows a lot and he gets to move around a little more than somebody else's under the, the only way to say it is under the aegis of the FBI.
I noticed on your IMDb thing that your profile there, there are like 15 movies and projects listed as 2013/2014. So I was wondering what makes a guy decide to do a TV series while he's already busy juggling all this other stuff?
A lot of these movies I've done like one day of work on, you know what I mean? Sometimes somebody says, "Hey, I'm doing a movie. Will you come and play with us?" And I say, "Yeah. I'd love to play."
Michael Jordan was playing basketball he had a clause in his contract and it was called "The Love of the Game Clause," where as most professional NBA players would not be able to play in pickup games at a school ground because they might get injured, Michael Jordan had a special clause that allowed him to play whenever and wherever he wanted to play.
So that's how I look at acting. I love the game so much that I'll play with anybody. If you got a web series and I've got the time and you got a dream and you have a student film, whatever, if you're trying to make art and is something that I am intrigued by, then I'll play if there's the time and availability.
What makes you decide on a role?
Well, there are some basic requirements. One is that it has to be interesting to me. It has to capture my attention. I'm not interested in playing just another empty suit or just another cop or just another, whatever. There's a lot of stock characters out there that people can make a living out of doing. I'm not interested so much in that. It has to be intriguing to me because if I'm not interested in it, it will be difficult to get somebody else to be interested in what it is I'm doing, just as a character.
The other thing is that given the circumstance of one's life, there maybe something that I'm not terribly excited about but pays well and it does not, as it says in the Hippocratic oath, it does no harm. That's first, do no harm. So as long as it's not pornography or something demeaning or something along those lines and I need a paycheck, I'm a professional actor. Listen, I love the Yankees but if I'm Hanley Ramirez or something and the Dodgers offered me a contract, I'm playing for the Dodgers. So it's just that simple. I'm a gun for hire. That's the nature of the business. It is not show art, it's show business. So at a certain point those factors become important.
The third thing is that a lot of times it depends on who you're working with. So if everything else being equal, if I'm going to work with an actor who I know is not somebody I can get along with from prior experience or whatever, I'm not gonna take that job. If it's somebody that I'd always dreamed of working with, even if it's not paying any money or whatever, or much money, I will take the job. If it's somebody who has a great intention and wants to say something important or beautiful or poignant, then I'll take the job.
I saw all these interesting things from you days in Chicago. Did you study to be a priest?
I did. [Laughs.] That's different, yeah. I studied at Quigley South, which is now I believe St. Rita or something. But yeah, I studied there and had every intention of going through, but I wanted to make sure that there wasn't something that I would always regret. And so I pursued acting and it stuck.
You owned a grocery store at some point in your time in Chicago?
I sure did. It was called First Step Groceries. Prima piano in Italian—it was our first rung on the ladder that we wanted to really comprehensively take on the neighborhood and make it into a place that was vibrant. I was young and full of dreams at the time, but I wasn't very good at running a grocery store so it didn't last long.
What neighborhood did you do it in?
This was in Englewood; it was exactly at 66 and Aberdeen.
And was this while you were in college?
No, no. It was after college. I was actually an elementary school teacher right down the street at [Perkins] Bass elementary school, so I would teach and then I would go and run the store.
How well-rounded you are, Harry.
Well, it's survival, that’s what I call it. [Laughs.] I'm just trying to make it through. Sometimes they'll be times I don't work for a year, a year and a half, two years, as an actor. ... I didn't have a teaching degree but I thought well, you know, I've always been scholastic and I've enjoyed study and maybe I could teach. And so it stuck. I was a school teacher on and off for eight years.
And you were working in Chicago theater while you were teaching?
Yeah. I did my first "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 1988 at Pegasus Players. And it was a life changing experience for me. … That's what put me on the map in terms of Chicago theater. I got all kinds of reviews that were good. And then from there I just kept doing plays. People kept asking me to do plays but they weren't sufficiently lucrative that I could only do plays, so I had a day job. I didn't even have a car so I would have to get on a bus to get to the train, you know, just to get to work every day. It was about an hour each way. So it was not easy.
Do you feel that that experience, that struggle and that need to be a hard worker, has sort of helped your success going forward?
There's no question that it worked to my advantage. Our motto at Quigley seminary … was ora et labora, which means prayer and work. And so we really did live by that. We worked hard and we tried to be devout and dutiful and those things as we understood it. So, you know, Chicago was also called, as you know, the city that works. We work. You're not going to frequently catch us asleep at the switch. We may not be the prettiest guys around or the most popular guys or whatever, but generally speaking we work hard and we take it seriously, and we try to do the best we can.
I'm going to list some of your roles and you tell me something about them. We'll start with the Dresser in "The Five Heartbeats."
Dresser in "The Five Heartbeats" was an affirmation. If I was just to think of a word association, I would say it affirmed for me that I was pursuing the right thing. I had just moved out to Los Angeles for the first time. I took a leave of absence from school, teaching, and I went out to ply my wares in the big pond. And it affirmed for me that I was on the right track. It wasn't just a silly pipe dream.
Jim Gardner in "Commander in Chief."
Probably the most intriguing character I have yet played on television. Black Republican, an unusual combination of descriptives. But I think the character was a man of great integrity and brave enough to take the road less traveled. He believed in the best principles of the Republican Party and probably had some degree of commonality with Dr. King. Of course, we now know that Dr. King supported Eisenhower; he was a Republican probably and so there's a lot things about Republicanism that make good sense and some things don't. There's a lot of things about liberalism that make good sense and that are completely ridiculous. So I think Jim is brave enough not to be worried about labels but he's about principle. And I think he's one of the most principled characters I've ever played.
Is it easy or more difficult or just a great challenge to play someone who you agree with their politics or disagree with their politics?
I don't think it makes a difference. I think that the answer is that there is a third way. Because I've played Malcolm X [and] I've played Adam Clayton Powell; I've played a lot of people whose politics generally speaking I agreed with. Do I think that they were easier to play than Jim Gardner? No. But that's the job of the actor. It was [Laurence] Olivier who once said … you have to find a way to like the person you're playing. Even if you don't approve of them as me Harry or you Curt, you as the actor have to convince yourself that what you're doing is incontinence with whatever your agenda is, your intention is. So I don't think that it matters and I sometimes like playing people who are completely reprehensible to me politically and in any other way. Sometimes that's the most fun of all.
Walid Al-Rezani in "24."
Insubstantial really, at the end of the day.
OK, next character: Aaron the Moor in "Titus."
Perhaps the most sheer fun I've ever had playing a character, on stage and on screen. I did it with Julie Taymor in the theater some years before we did the film. I loved the challenge of it. I had great fun—a very intriguing man. I disagree that he's a villain. I don't think he really is. I think with regard to the people of Andronicus family he is, but he owes no allegiance to these people. They brought him to Rome in chains, so to hell with them.
Quentin Leroux in "Barbershop 2."
He was fun. I like to refer to him as Black Euro Trash. This guy is a shark. What's the word? He's the master of the universe type guy. He's a villain. It's fun just to play a straight-up bad guy from time to time.
Boyd Langton in "Dollhouse."
Very fascinating man; [I’m] very fond of Boyd Langton. I got to run and jump and shoot and fight. He seemed a man who is disturbed but still with integrity in some form. I think that the character he turned into at the end of the series, when it seemed that he was the mastermind behind the whole thing, that was not the person that started out. He had been, what's the word that they used in it, erased. Yeah, I can't remember what they said. Uploaded, I think that that was a separate personality.
Is Cooper going to get to go in the field and get some action?
I hope so. Like I said, I'm waiting with baited breath like everybody else for these episodes. But I'm enjoying what I'm doing now. It's fun.
General Swanwick in "Man of Steel."
Pretty straight ahead guy. Not a lot of spin on it really. I liked it a lot. It was a thrill to be in "Superman" with those actors and with Zack Snyder at the helm. I enjoyed it.
Will you be back in the next one?
Yes, it appears that I will. I've been told that I will.
Good, because he and Superman seemed to become more friendly.
Yeah, or something. [Laughs.] There's some room there. We are not enemies.
Ron Waters in "Mr. Sophistication."
Great challenge. Interesting man. One of those guys whose actions I don't agree with, but whose motivations I understand. And I think a fully dimensional human being.
Coming up is your second foray into producing, King Henry in "H4."
Yes, it is my second foray into producing. Henry Bolingbrook is an extremely complicated and dangerous man. He got to power by illegitimate means really, but like many people who do that he has unrealistic expectations of the generation coming behind him. So he's got a dual standard for himself and for his son. He disapproves of the very things in his son that he is guilty of in some ways himself, not the same but from the same source as it were. So a complicated and troubled man, troubled both by what is going on inside of himself and troubled by the external events that are coming to bear because of his actions.
Are you liking this producing thing?
I prefer it. In a lot of ways it's the ability to do--for example, if I were a first chair violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but I decided at some point that I wanted to become a conductor, that would still allow me to express my musicianship in each part, perhaps even especially in some other parts. But then if I wanted to go even beyond that and become a composer, that's the ultimate goal. I just like the idea of being a person who makes movies.
We would never see you give up acting completely though, would we?
Give it up completely for all time, no, no. But to step away for a little while so I can concentrate on these other areas of my life and to give other people a chance, I would be happy to do that. I must confess, I was very close to retiring before this job came through as an actor. Or at least hanging up my spurs for a little, just because I wasn't being challenged. I wasn't enjoying it. And it's such a privilege to be able to do this work; it's such an honor and a joy. Now for someone to do it who is not happy about it, that does not recognize what an honor it is, I think it's unfair. I'm sucking up the air in the room and not providing something.
So as a producer I felt more of a contributor. I felt more vital, more alive.
You say you were ready to retire, but again I'm looking at your IMDb and the bajillion things listed now.
A lot of those things were shot in 2012. Once you shoot something it takes a while for it to come out.
But I do love that you pop up and other things like in that "Quickdraw" episode. Anything else you want to say about Harry Cooper or anything else?
I'm having a good time. We are having a good time and now we just have to wait and see what people think.
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'Blacklist' star Harry Lennix isn't afraid of hard work
Harry Lennix stars as FBI Assistant Director Harry Cooper in "The Blacklist." ( Will Hart/NBC / August 10, 2013)
Ever since he was earning acclaim as a young theater actor in Chicago, Harry Lennix has never rested on his laurels.