Exclusive: Russell Hornsby Says Being Black In Hollywood a Challenge, Talks ‘Grimm’ Season 2
By Christion Peterman
Rarely do you get the chance to see a black male lead on a primetime network television show, but viewers will once again be blessed with that rarity when NBC’s “Grimm” returns tonight from a brief, mid-season hiatus.
BLACKACTORS.net caught up with one of the show’s leading men, actor Russell Hornsby, who plays a high-strung detective who uncovers a secret world of supernatural creatures in the Portland area.
Hornsby sat down with BLACKACTORS.net for a lively discussion about the new season, his love for August Wilson, and why it’s such a challenge for black actors in Hollywood.
Blackactors.net: Congratulations on Season 2 of Grimm. The show is awesome!
Russell Hornsby: Thank you! I’m really excited about Season 2 and really appreciate your support.
Your character was kept in the dark last season, but now he’s fully immersed in the supernatural world. Has filming this season been any different?
The writers and producers have taken the show to another level. I think the energy of the show and the stakes are a lot higher for this season. Everything was thrown up against the wall immediately and we really didn’t take any time to transition–we just hit the ground running. Season 2 has been fun for me because I have a lot more to do. My character is more involved in the storyline and there are a lot more obstacles to play. As an actor, I get to play in an heightened sense of reality. And that’s the reason why one gets into acting.
Grimm doesn’t give Hank much of a back story. We know all about Nick’s family and home life, but what about Hank? What’s up with Hank’s back story?
To be honest with you, there isn’t much to tell. All that they [the show's writers] have given me is very slim. I know that Hank has been married three times. I really don’t want to expound on what I think Hank’s back story is because it could conflict with what the writers ideas are. When it comes to acting, his back story will end up being my secrets anyway. I think as the show progresses we will get into more of Hank’s back story.
For a show that is based off of folklore and fairytales, you’re doing some serious acting on this show. Perhaps some of the most difficult scenes: acting like an obsessed stalker, contemplating suicide, having a pscyhotic break. That’s some pretty intense stuff! How do you channel that intensity in your acting?
I channel life, man! And I don’t say that to be flippant at all. As an actor, we observe life and people. Also, as an actor, we are a lot more intrigued with ourselves. You have to have a real understanding of your life..your own backstory and where you come from. You have to understand your psychology and philosophy of life. We all have dark corners that sort of recess in our minds. I go back to those places. You have to channel those dark places in your life. I go back to stories that I’ve heard and books that I’ve read from other people. I’m a huge fan of August Wilson and his plays. I’m a fan of his stories that deal with people in the Pittsburg Hill district. Those men he writes about have been burdened by slavery, segregation and oppression. I channel those spirits of my ancestors and ask myself what they went through. I’ve met so many people and I’ve heard so many stories. I go home at night and write about my experiences in my journal. At any given moment, depending on what I need to get to that truth, I reach deep inside and I pull that out.
Is acting easy for you?
No. It’s not easy, but it’s what I do. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it or everybody would be good at it. There are a lot of people who try to act, just like there are a lot of people who try to sang. I’m not trying to boast or say that I’m that special person. My point is that acting is not for the faint at heart. If you’re not willing to go to those dark places and dig deep into your spirit, then you don’t need to be here! It’s just like when brothas play Rhythm and Blues–it’s that darkness–those life burdens we reach to that makes people jump up and shout Amen! It’s all because they recognize the truth in what we’re saying..the truth in what we’re doing.
Is that the most challenging part of acting?
The most challenging part of acting is to get to the truth. What people don’t understand is that it’s not about getting it right, it’s about getting it true. I’m an actor and I want to get to the truth. When you see Hank in those very intense moments, those are aspects of my life that I have examined. And as an actor, if you have no demons or no darkness, then nobody will believe you. It’s boring! People are intrigued by the complicated individual.
You’re an amazing actor who consistently turns out these brilliant and intense performances both on screen and on stage. Do you feel you get the level of recognition you deserve?
I’ve gotten the recognition that I’m supposed to have right now. I’ve said for a long time that it’s not about awards for me. There are a lot of roles that I wish I would have had and didn’t get. That’s cool. The main thing for me is to continue to be a working artist. As long as I can work, and as long as I could make a living and provide for my family, I’m at peace and I’m happy. If I don’t get the big roles, if I don’t become a Denzel superstar or whatever, then I’m fine with that. But if there are enough people who appreciate, respect and recognize what I have done up until this point–I’m at peace. When I was a younger, when I was in my late teens and twenties, I was always running around saying I was going to be a star. But once you get into the game, once you realize how hard it is to sustain a career, once you realize how difficult it is to get that second job, once you realize how difficult it is as a black man to earn a living in this game, and once you realize how hard it is to maintain sustainability–you are humbled by that. So every opportunity I have, I’m on my knees and I thank God for it. And I say that in all sincerity and all honesty.
Is it still a challenge for black actors in Hollywood?
Very much so and it will continue to be. There are a lot of aspects in this game –for black men especially–where we possess a lot of strength, power, integrity, and intelligence that scares people. And just as it always has–in every aspect–whether it’s acting, music, dance, or art. It doesn’t matter. We are intimidating to a lot of people–and some of own people– as far as that is concerned. It’s going to remain challenging. We have lost our appreciation for true talent and true artistry as it pertains to aspects of the business…as it pertains to black actors. I think we have become enamored with a lot of mediocrity. If I can be so bold to say. Because of that we allow mediocrity to rule the day. This is my biggest issue. We miscategorize levels of acting and we shouldn’t. A mentor and dear friend of mine once told me: “Amateurs get trophies, pros get paid.” You’re either good or you aint! If I’m part of the critical mass and I’m paying my money to go to the movies and you can’t get down–you’ve got to speak the truth! It’s not about qualifying and making excuses. We do that far too much. We don’t do that in the rap game. We don’t do that when it pertains to the music. Get your money, I’m not hatin’ on your money! But if you’re making money, that means you’re a professional and I have to hold you to the same standards as everybody else. I have to hold you to the same standards that I am held to. I would much rather have respect and a job than notoriety.*
You’ve played a variety of characters throughout your career. Is there any specific character or role you wish to take on if given the opportunity?
I would love to bring the plays of August Wilson to the big screen. I would love to breathe life into the variety of August Wilson’s characters that are available in his ten play cycle. I would love to bring King Henry II to the screen. I would love to bring Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton to the screen. Why? Because these are our stories. These are stories of our people as they toiled through the 20th century trying to make a way for themselves. I want those stories to be told because they are culturally specific to us, but they’re also human stories. They’re just as deep and profound as Eugene Oneal’s “Long Days Journey Into Night.” Just as profound as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Tell me about the moment you decided to pursue a career in acting
The moment chose me. I’ve been acting all of my life. I’m 38 years old and I’ve been acting since I was 16. It was one of those situations where I had no clue about what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go after high school. Somebody just recommended I should try acting and I did. My mother always said, at that time, giving an African-American male the opportunity to fulfill his dream was huge. My mother was born and raised in Boston. She went to Boston College and then got her masters in Nursing from University of California. She felt like her dream was deferred. So when she had a son who really wanted to be an artist and pursue that, she encouraged me to go after it and not half step. She told me I couldn’t quit. That’s all I wanted to do at the time. I wanted to be an actor and I wanted to tell stories whether it was on screen or on the stage.
I heard you have quite the background in theater.
I got into theater when I was sixteen. My first play was “The Wiz,” and then I did “Grease,” and some crazy play called “The Romancers.” I’m off to Boston University and I’m immersed in theater. I’m from Oakland, California. I grew up listening to Tupac, MC Hammer, and R&B music. I didn’t really understand the theatrical norms because it was new to me. There was a huge learning curve as far as the culture of theater. Fortunately, I got into it young and I was a clean open slate. I was able to absorb all that theater had to offer. I then went to London and studied abroad for a while. After I came back from Europe, I went to New York and really immersed myself into the theater community. It’s something about theater that speaks to me. The willingness to bare my soul and to speak about the lives of others. My father is from Pittsburg. He grew up around steel mills. My father grew up around black men not getting an opportunity..black men who’s dreams were deferred. He grew up around black men who came home drunk and would beat their wives and kids. These are the stories that are apart of our history and you can’t run from that. As I travel the world, see different things and read various literature–You still have to remember that part of your history. You still have to understand what the juke joint was about and why those places were full. You have to know where the jazz came from and how the blues was born. I use all of that and infuse it into my work.
You and the cast of Off-Broadway’s ‘Jitney’ won a Drama Desk award. What was so special about this cast and production that earned you guys such a prestigious award?
We had such a rich cast and we’ve been together for two years. I think we had become such a family and everybody had been cast perfectly. Everybody on stage embodied those characters. We were such a family! Again we’re talking about truth displayed on stage. Our truth grabbed hold of an audience. It was honest and real. It was also musical. It was culturally specific. It really touched everyone’s human spirit, and honestly, it was just a special play that spoke to a deep rooted truth about lives in America. Most importantly, people knew who those characters were and they could identify with them. It was a special play at a special time. Moments like that can’t be recreated.
How was life growing up in Oakland?
Oakland was beautiful. I had a lot of opportunity. We were raised in a working to middle class environment. I grew up in a single parent home. My mother struggled to send my brother and I to private school. She took out a second mortgage on the house and worked three jobs. But there was so much culture. There was the history and the consciousness of the Black Panthers. I grew up around the freedom struggles that happened in Oakland—picket lines and strikes–I’m a product of all of that. I grew up playing sports, cub scouts, traveling, and summer camps. My mother made sure that we would be able to experience a different kind of life. I was one of the last batch who grew up that old fashioned way. Where you could go knock on your neighbors’ door and get some sugar. Growing up without a microwave and no cable television.
You starred in the Broadway production of August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. What was that experience like?
One of the best experiences of my life! To be on the stage with such luminaries as Viola and Denzel was humbling. Everybody loves Denzel! I really respected and appreciated his work for so long. I really believe that Denzel is one of the greatest actors God has ever put breath in, regardless of color. He is one of the greatest actors..period. That’s indisputable. In my opinion, you can’t dispute that. Being able to share the stage with him was a wonderful opportunity. And being able to do August Wilson, who is my favorite playwright, was just taking the experience to another level. Now, again, we’re talking about opportunities for people of color–black folks–to get on stage and tell our stories. That’s rare! And so when that community comes together for one purpose—to tell the truth–you can’t help but give your all. You can’t help but to want to be apart of that. And what happens is when folks receive it, the response of the audience lets you know that you were up there telling the truth because the truth speaks and it resonates. That’s what August does to people. Whenever August is done right, you can’t beat it! It’s the best work people see bar none. The truth is you don’t have to get stars to do August Wilson and it will still be good. You have to get good people who are willing to tell the truth.
Did you know going into it that it would have such a star-studded cast?
Yes. I was one of the last people chosen to be in the play. I found out in October ’09. I read it somewhere online and I immediately called my agent and I was like “Hey! You got to get me in there. I have to be apart of this.” So, because of my history with August Wilson, I was able to get to the top of the list. I had done so much work with August in the past, and I had done so much of his work in New York. Also, I do believe my stagecraft and my notoriety at that point had helped me.
You and Viola go way back..
Viola Davis and I have a rich history. I first met Viola in 1995 when I was a senior at Boston University. She came to Boston to do ‘Seven Guitars’ at the Huntington Theater. You see my August roots go deep. I also met Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Keith David around that time too. I would run into all of these actors in New York. So a few years later, Viola and I ended up doing Lynn Nottage’s ‘Intimate Apparel’ together. It was a match made. It was just…right! We’re sort of connected that way, historically.
What did you think when Viola got the Oscar nomination for ‘The Help?’
I was so happy for her. She deserved it! She also deserved to win, but thats besides the point. Viola is the truth, man! Viola Davis is cold-blooded. Would I like to see her in a different kind of role where she could really show her range? Of course! People think that all Viola can do is play the tortured soul. But what people don’t know is that Viola has range. Viola went to Juilliard. Viola gets down! She just needs to get that opportunity and I’m sure she will. Her nomination also says to me that we are now starting to honor greatness.
You star in Sheldon Candis’ new film “LUV.” Tell me a little bit about your role in it.
I can tell you about my history with it. I met Sheldon a number of years ago. We worked out at the same gym and he came up to me with a script he wanted me to read. The script was called “Learning Uncle Vernon.” I read the script and I loved it! I told him that whatever happens, I would love to be apart of it! I told him that I would love to be the lead, but I understand how shit goes. He got into the Film Independent’s Director Lab and we workshopped the script and shot an eight minute short. He used the short to shop around for funding of the actual movie. People saw the short and everybody said it was hot! Sheldon calls me up last year while I’m shooting the pilot for “Grimm” and tells me he finally has the money to make the film. He says Common is the lead. He said that he would love for me to be apart of the film in some way, shape or form. I told him wherever he wanted to put me, I would be honored to be apart of his film. So he gave me a nice small role. I’m a police detective with Michael K Williams. We’re partners. I think I got about five lines in the whole film. It was just me wanting to honor Sheldon as best I could and really give him his respect. It was to appreciate his work and what he was able to accomplish in getting his film made. That was the thing. And I just wanted to be apart of that history so that we can look back and still be friends. Because we were friends first. What I was doing was honoring the friendship. It wasn’t about me getting a role or not getting it or whatever. It was about honoring the friendship. I think he honored the friendship by coming to me and asking me to do him a favor by being apart of his film. I’m excited for him. Sheldon is special person, he’s bright, he’s intelligent. He’s a smart director who gets it. He gets who we are. He knows about storytelling. It’s not just about some hood thang! I’m excited for the film to open. It’s going to be a wide release. I saw the trailer and it’s hot. I think Common does a wonderful job. I think Michael Rainey Jr. does a wonderful job. He’s so special, I called up my agent and told him he had to find this kid. This kid is banging! And my agent signed him. He’s a special kid. The kid is brilliant! I haven’t seen the movie yet–but it’s a fantastic story–and I really hope a lot of people see it.
“Grimm” returns Friday, Sept. 28 at 9/8c on NBC. LUV opens in theaters on Nov. 8.
Listen to Russell’s *unedited response about challenges of being a black actor in Hollywood.