Photos by Theo & Juliet Photography
“Those things that don’t kill us, make us stronger.”
Harry Lennix has spent decades carving out a path for himself as an actor and filmmaker. It was on the South Side of Chicago where he learned the value of hard work and thrift. A student of Northwestern University, he majored in Art and Direction. After moving around a bit from coast to coast, his breakout role came in the early 90s when he starred in Robert Townsend’s film The Five Heartbeats as Terrence “Dresser” Williams. Throughout his career, he has played supporting roles in major franchises like The Matrix (Commander Lock) and the DC Extended Universe (General Calvin Swanwick). His performances have drawn acclaim from critics and fans alike including a role in 2002, when Harry performed as the lead in a biopic film about the late great Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. entitled Keep the Faith Baby. Harry has also garnered acclaim on the smaller screen as Harold Cooper in NBC’s The Blacklist.
As a director and visionary, Lennix has adapted some of the most celebrated works of literature and turned these classic works into something fresh and new. In 2012, he created an urban version of Shakespeare’s Henry IV titled H4 and in 2020, Revival! about the Gospel of John. His latest project, Troubled Waters, is a character study on a comedian who is offered a second chance at a career. Lennix’s legacy will be cemented when the Lillian Marcie Center of the Performing Arts is built for those on the South Side of Chicago. Those on the South Side will be able to experience and enjoy the greatest art and entertainment without needing to travel across the country.
We recently had a chance to talk to Harry about his upbringing on the South Side of Chicago, his calling to support great black art, and his advice for young people who want to know what they need to do to become exceptional actors as well as respected for their talents.
Where did you grow up and what was it like growing up there?
I’m from the South Side of Chicago. It’s a tough neighborhood but a great confluence of people—blue-collar workers, doctors of science, gangsters and hustlers, Muslims, and recent migrants from the South. It was a heady time when I was growing up. I was born in ’64. I came up in the political, social stew of the civil rights and black power movements, but also the syndicate of the Chicago gang system was in full effect. It was a pretty trippy time. I am very much a fabric of that community.
Who or what was your biggest inspiration growing up?
We had not far from us the great Muhammad Ali who was living maybe a couple of miles away. I would say Muhammad Ali was my biggest influence and then Jesse Jackson with Operation Push.
What was the most important lesson you learned in the early phases of your career?
Well, certainly with working, I knew thrift, working hard, and discipline. Growing up, the biggest lesson I took away is that people in my neighborhood were not lazy. They worked hard and the harder they worked, the better they did. In Chicago, our motto is “The City That Works.”
That has always been my ethic. I studied to be a priest as a young man. I studied at Quigley Preparatory Seminary South and our motto there was ora et labora or “prayer and work.” I don’t feel like I can relax when I am not working. It is a very strange thing. In some ways, it is a curse. I think hard work is really the biggest lesson that I learned. Obviously, I can say trite things like honesty and trustworthiness and those things like pride and political involvement. But even if those things are absent, the diligent application of the lessons I observed was really that you just have to keep at it and it will eventually come to be.
“I don’t feel like I can relax when I am not working. It is a very strange thing. In some ways, it is a curse. I think hard work is really the biggest lesson that I learned.”
At what point in your career did you begin to feel you had made it?
Well, I’ll keep you posted. I never felt that I’ve made it. I’ve never been the flavor of the month in the industry, per se. People have said kind things but in no way do I feel like I’m a star. I’m still working on that.
My great mentor as an actor and my big brother so to speak—we just lost him this past year—is the great Anthony Chisholm. Whenever someone gave him a compliment he would just say, “I’m trying to get better, man.” He was well into his 70s at that time and he meant it. And I do too. I am nowhere near where I want to be.
What would you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Not to be overly cute about it but I’m working on it now. That is to say, I am working on what I know will be my greatest achievement. My single, greatest achievement will be the Lillian Marcie Center of the Performing Arts and the founding of the African-American Museum of the Performing Arts which will populate it.
I am currently in the process of developing the center on the South Side of Chicago. I hope it will be the black version of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. We will attract entertainers and artists from all over the country who will be able to bring to people in their own backyards, the greatest entertainment that the United States ever created. We are the inventors of the only original art forms, culturally and to some extent beyond, but there is no home for it on the South Side of Chicago where much of it was created. That will be my crowning achievement when we pull it off.
In recent years, you’ve mentioned that there is a lack of substance in black entertainment. Do you still feel that way? What needs to change?
There is still room for improvement, growth and development. I think that is only natural. Undeniably, we were not given the same resources, the same access, the same opportunities. We were not encouraged to create dimensioned, nuanced and subtlety within various art forms. The most popular entertainment—and that is not exclusive to black people—for us is broad and low brow humor. We are still digging around the dirt of our past, like slavery and so forth. Not that that’s been exhausted but that’s not where the beauty of our story lies.
Is that where you come in?
I like to think that’s where I come in rather than complain about it. I’ve been pretty diligent these past 10 years creating content of my own. I have a movie on BET+ which is doing very well. I think it is their number two movie?
It is called Troubled Waters. I play a comedian by the name of Ron Waters, who has gotten his second chance at a career. Think of a Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce kind of guy with demons and that sort of thing. It is set in the present day.
“My single, greatest achievement will be the Lillian Marcie Center of the Performing Arts and the founding of the African-American Museum of the Performing Arts which will populate it.”
Do you have any other projects you are working on that promote your mission?
I have a great calling, a vocation really, to create a form of entertainment for the faith community. I refer to it as “greater faith entertainment,” which is giving the church audience something good to look at. There is a lot of content that has a church focus but doesn’t have faith or any of the life lessons. I don’t want to be the only one doing it, but I want to speak to the souls of our people through entertainment. I believe that is the greatest platform, and the greatest form of lessons is through spiritual literature. Dramatizing that is what I hope will be my bailiwick.
I have a movie called Revival! which is the Gospel of John put to gospel music. Mali Music plays Jesus Christ and we use well-known gospel songs that tell the story of what happened, but we have never seen the stories in gospel music applied to our own people. It’s really the most effective way to get to the hearts and minds of people rather than being faith-adjacent or “faithy.”
Right. These stories should be authentic.
I really want to take these stories and bring them to life like many, many other people have done and very, very successfully. There is no reason that Moses should be played by Charlton Heston and not be played by someone who looks like us. I mean, Charlton Heston was great in the film. He was a Northwestern man like me of course, but why not someone who looked like Moses? I think that other people, other races have done what we should have been doing. That is to make our God look like us and there is nothing wrong with it and in fact there is everything right about it. I am not trying to deny anybody else the ability to do it. Whitewashing the history of it has been the popular choice for a while. Go right ahead, but we need to be able to see ourselves up there too.
And honestly, if you could reengineer and go back to 1619—really go back to the enslaved people who were brought over here in 1501—the thing that you would take out would be giving people a God that does not reflect or respect their faith traditions. Giving black people a God that is the opposite of who they are can be a death blow. If you could take that and just correct that, we would be a lot further along. We often become what we think of ourselves, right?
Zack Snyder will be releasing his director’s cut of the Justice League in March on HBO Max. On social media, he revealed your character, General Calvin Swanwick, was a Martian Manhunter. How was it working with Snyder and were you surprised as much as fans were about the reveal?
Zack is an innovative, visionary director. You know he’s taken a very popular form. He did this before with zombies too but today he has taken these superheroes who are really like Gods. Some of them are Gods—like Thor and what not—but he gives what would be catchy, popcorn drama, a very serious artistic treatment. It is almost like Andy Warhol when he took a soup can and turned it into art. I think Zack has a unique gift. I am very proud that I am going to be in his version of the Justice League. I was originally supposed to be in it, but due to script changes, I was left out. I have been restored, so I am very fond of Zack for that. He didn’t have to do it for me. I consider him a friend and a colleague and I am very enthusiastic about his vision.
What advice do you have for young people who want to get into acting?
The Bible puts it in 2 Timothy (paraphrase): Study to show yourself approved by God. The workmen need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. That’s the right side I lead with.
Of course, the great alto sax player Cannonball Adderley said to imitate, integrate, and innovate. Imitate someone that you find compelling. Someone whose career you admire. Whose work you are fond of. If you master it, it will become integrated. It will get into your bones. It will get into your DNA so to speak, more or less naturally. At some point you will have gone from copying a style to it being a part of your being. If you master that you can innovate; take that base and create a style and a method of your own.
There can be a lot of distractions on your way to greatness.
People see the trappings of it. They see the fame, fortune, and accolades that go along with it and think that it is exciting. They think it is what it looks like, but it requires very hard work and breaking down your psychology and comfort zones and doing an exploration of yourself and other people. That’s where the great actors really distinguish themselves. You can be a star and not have to worry about those things. However, if you actually want to be a great actor, you have to be honest and say that it is not only just the outer version of what people see, but this is something that I have to master. That is where the years of studying, application, copying, rewinding tape, and seeing something 50 times come into play. Doing the ugly work, the fundamentals, that’s where you separate the wheat from the shaft.
“Giving black people a God that is the opposite of who they are can be a death blow. If you could take that and just correct that, we would be a lot further along. We often become what we think of ourselves, right?”
How do you relax when you aren’t working?
I play piano, but not terribly well. It is probably my greatest meditation along with swimming. A nice long swim in the ocean or pool is my best exercise. It sort of helps me meditate, breathe, and stretch. On Friday the 13th of December in 2001 or 2002, I had a near-death experience. I was swimming in the ocean in Mexico and I got caught up in an undertow and almost “bought the farm.” I don’t go swimming alone anymore. I almost didn’t make it. God be praised that I did. Even now when I have the opportunity to swim in the ocean, I make myself do it to confront that fear and I realize whatever mistake I made that day was a human error. It was completely innocent on my part, but I learned a lesson: Those things that don’t kill us, do make us stronger.