19 December 2016
New York, NY
Photography: Sesse Lind
Interview by Jaimie Kourt
In researching for this interview, I have found heaps of such interesting information about you, this Q & A could be 200 questions long. What do you think is the most interesting thing about you? (Something one could not find on the Internet or any other media concerns. Something even your best friends might not know.)
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I’m a very curious person. Maybe that’s interesting to people..? I get curious about something and can’t rest until I’ve explored it fully.
Is there an interview question that you always wish someone would ask you because you have an amazing answer for it? Are there any questions you are posed all too often that make you cringe? (I will attempt not to.)
Haha. Not really. I think I’ve been asked most all of them and I’m comfortable with just about anything. The one thing that does make me cringe a bit are questions about my personal life.. I just like to keep that to myself. Otherwise, I’m a fairly open book.
So this has been a big year for you career-wise. What do you think you will take away from it personally?
Gratitude. This year has been incredible. I’m so grateful for the many, varied experiences I’ve had. I think the biggest take-away for me is a renewed interest in creating my own work. Watching Barry direct Moonlight was very inspirational for me. It made me want to write, direct, and produce my own stories.
When MOONLIGHT opened at Telluride, did you have any idea it would be so significantly received?
No, I had no idea whatsoever. In fact, I was very nervous going into that first screening. I worried that people wouldn’t connect to it, and that they wouldn’t buy that the three actors playing Kevin (and Chiron) were the same person. There were so many worries, but within the first ten minutes, I could tell that the audience was with us and by the end, I knew we had something special. It was an unforgettable experience. I remember walking out f the theatre after the screening and the people who had gathered outside spontaneously started applauding us. It was an unforgettable moment.
MOONLIGHT: won a Golden Globe Best motion Picture Drama, 8 Oscar nominations including ‘Best picture’, SAG nominations, BAFTA nominatons; Rolling Stone Magazine named it The Year’s Best Film; Best Ensemble Cast at The Critics Choice Awards; a pretty overwhelming sweep at The Gotham Awards; These among a host of so many others. A film like this could have slipped under the radar, despite its brilliance. It’s opening weekend held the 2016 box office, per screen record. Why do you think it has shone through in all the right ways?
I think that people understand what it means to be lonely. The fear of isolation is probably what motivates much of what we humans do. Also, navigating high school is an experience that we probably never forget…it leaves a mark. And to watch this young boy traverse that treacherous time, is heartbreaking. This story is unique in that it’s about this one boy but it present situations that we all understand and thereby grabs the peoples hearts. Also, the film is so intensely personal. Barry and Tarell drew from their own lives in creating the story and all of the actors offered their hearts to the project fully. I think that combination made it difficult to ignore.
What were some of your favorite movies of the year?
I have to confess that I haven’t seen as many films this year as I usually do. But I saw and loved The 13TH, and can’t wait to see Arrival, Lion and I Am Not Your Negro. There’s a long list and now that things are quieting down a bit, I’m excited to dive in.
You grew up in Bessemer Alabama. In a Hollywood Reporter interview you likened your own hometown to one much like your character’s, in the film. You called it a “small town in an urban environment.” Could you explain what that means?
It means that I grew up on the outskirts of Birmingham, a once thriving steel town. So the immediate neighborhood I grew up in is typically southern in the sense that most of the people in the area are either friends or family. It felt like a small village. It was the kind of place where there was always someone watching out. If I did something wrong, somebody in the neighborhood likely saw it, and called to tell my mother before I could make it home. It was a very tight-knit community. At the same time, the closing of the steel mills along with a number of other factors, created a high rate of unemployment which led to other challenges within the community. So although it was a southern town, it was densely populated and concentrated around what used to be a fairly large commercial center. So it’s an interesting place.
“Alabama” can bring up some negative connotations. You did a film (SELMA) about some of the less then noble history of that state, and the US for that matter. What are some wonderful things about your home state? What are your fondest memories of growing up? How did Bessemer shape who you have become?
Most everything I know and understand about the world I learned from the people in my community. As I said earlier, it was very tight-knit so we depended on one another to make it. I learned the value of community, patience, understanding, empathy, education and on and on. And although Alabama does have a dark past, its a very beautiful place. I grew up in the outdoors…my dad and I would go fishing all the time (still do!) and most of my days were spent exploring outside. Also, I love how vibrant the black culture is in Alabama. Some of my fondest memories were when we would all sit around a fire-barrel and listen to older folks tell stories. These people were heroes to me and likely inspired me to want to tell stories. We rarely locked our doors and people would often just drop in. In the play I’m doing now, Jitney, there are scenes that remind me of my upbringing in Alabama…even down to the way the characters use language. They find such effortlessly poetic ways in which to express themselves. I always loved that about home.
This film seemed “Karmic-ally Destined.” McCraney and Jenkins grew up in the same place, went to the same schools, but never had met. You knew McCraney from Drama School, and at some point in the last few years spoke to you of a great new talent, Barry Jenkins. Do you sometimes see the life you are living as somewhat fated or that fate is corroborating your own choices?
Yea I do feel that way. When I think back on the oddity of the circumstances under which I met Tarell, and then flash forward to when Barry’s name came up on the set on The Knick, it does seems fated. When T and I first met and started working together, I felt that I had found the brother I never had. I knew right away how special he was, and knew that I wanted my career to be linked with is. I just felt that we could do anything together…anything at all. I remember the days when we would be working on a new play in a hot church basement in NY, or when we went to Utah together to workshop an idea he had for a play about drag houses… those are my fondest memories. We were broke and fearless…and happy. I’m so lucky to have him as my brother and my comrade.
THE KNICK and your character “Algernon Edwards” are captivating to watch. What most captivates you about the show and your role in it?
Thank you for the kinds words. I’m glad you enjoyed the work! I certainly loved that experience. I learned so very much from Steven. I was drawn to the character because I felt I understood that sense of having to always be hyper aware of yourself and how your presence (as a black man) makes others feel. I read the script and felt an immediate connection with Algernon. When I think about some of the people I grew up around who were so talented and smart but lacked access to what they needed to develop their gifts, it breaks my heart. Theres a line in Jitney where a son says about his father, “The only thing I feel sorry about it that he ain’t got out of life what he put in”. I understand that line and think that Algernon would too. Perhaps that why it grabbed you…because it grabbed me.
The name Algernon brings up an association to the novel, FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON. Was it somehow the basis for the name? If so, what is the connection?
I don’t think so, but we’d have to ask the brilliant writers to be sure. I very much like the name though.
Prejudice is such a confusing concept to begin with. And we are living in a climate that is sliding more and more backwards (or perhaps we have not progressed as far as we think we had, and it is now a bit more “PC” now to be “Un-PC”). Do you think, your own body of work, as well as “entertainment” in general, can help raise awareness to these issues and foster change? Or is the audience for your work, generally, not the people that need to be changed?
I think that all good art has the potential to initiate change. I really believe that very deeply and it’s always been a guiding principle for me. As for the audience, the truth is that you really never know who’s seeing your work. So, although you may think you know your audience, anyone can stroll into a theatre on a given day and be changed by the experience. That’s why I love doing plays. I can sometimes feel the change in the air.
On Broadway, you are currently starring as “Youngblood” in August Wilson’s play, JITNEY. You also starred in the 2009 revival of Wilson’s play, JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE. Did you ever have the chance to meet the venerable August Wilson before his death in 2005? If you did, what was something you spoke of? If you did not, what would you have liked to have spoken with him about?
No I never got to meet him. If I had, I would probably just thank him for giving his life to this work and for bringing African-American life to the stage in such a poetic, classy, truthful, and bold way. I’d thank him for giving young actors and actresses the opportunity to play so many wonderful roles throughout the course of a career. I’m playing Youngblood now but in a few years I’ll be ready for a different part, then another and on and on. We owe that to August Wilson. So, yeah, a big “Thank You” is what I would say!
What does having a personal style mean to you? What is yours?
I think it just means wearing things that are reflective of who you truly are…things that make you feel like your best self. For me, I tend to lean toward classics. I prefer well made clothing/suiting above those that are ‘current’. When I look at old photos of Sidney Poitier, for example, he looks like he’s smartly dressed for today. It’s timeless. That’s what I hope to feel about myself years from now.
How do you make men’s clothing and garb more vivid?
I think it’s all in the fabrics and tailoring. I’m not a fan of flashy colors of attention drawing accessories. I think that a well tailored piece can be extraordinarily vivid.
Have you inherited any style tricks from the men you have come after?
My father is a very stylish man! I look back at old photos and he was super sharp. In fact, much of my current closet was pulled from his. Every time I go home I have a look through his things and usually come out with a fabulous blazer or sweater. The man had some serious swag!
What was your favorite era of dressing? Have you had the chance to act in that time period so far?
One of the things I most loved about working on The Knick were the clothes. The crisp dress shirts, beautiful fabrics and expert tailoring was so special to me. I love the deliberateness of it all. For example the detachable paper collars that men wore… they take quite a while to get on and aren’t easy to work with but it makes a huge difference in the look of a suit. You’ve really got to be committed to wearing it and I like that…I like the intentionality behind it.
What is your best-loved way to waste time?
Driving. I love cars.. especially classics. I have an old car from the 60’s that is at my parents’ house in Alabama. I love to hop in, roll the windows down and cruise down a country road while listening to Earth, Wind and Fire.
New Year’s resolution? I have to ask.
To take more time to enjoy myself. Work has been the focus for a long time, and I sometimes have put my own well being on the back burner. I’m going to change that this year.
Thank you so much Mr. Holland. This was such an honor.
You’re welcome. Thank YOU!