Harry Lennix is pulling double duty this September. The 24 and Dollhouse alum is one of the stars of NBC's highly anticipated new drama series The Blacklist, and he's also starring in a new star-studded film called Mr. Sophistication, which is out today. BFTV connected with Harry recently to chat with him about both projects, and how he became the veteran character actor we've come to know and enjoy.
On The Blacklist, Harry plays FBI Assistant Director Harold Cooper, the boss of newbie agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone, from Law & Order: Los Angeles), who has a past with the master criminal that Keen has to work with. "I was excited to be asked to be a part of it," he told us. "First of all, it's got a masterful actor in James Spader. Secondly, the dialogue and the storyline is intriguing. I was very exciting about it. It's a cut above most of the material that we get."
While he couldn't reveal too much about the show NBC is banking on as its next big drama hit, Harry did give us one hint that's already got us curious. "To a large extent, we're finding out who these characters are and what they're going to be doing," he said, before he revealed, "The longest-standing relationship on the show [is] between James's character and my character. I think that's rife with potential and possibility, and I'm excited as everybody else."
He thinks the relationships are what's going to separate The Blacklist from your garden-variety crime show. "You're interested in the characters," he continued. "There's a great combination between procedural drama and interpersonal relationships and I think it's uniquely positioned in that way."
Here's the trailer for The Blacklist.
Harry is a TV veteran, who's best known to audiences for roles like Islamic-American activist Walid Al-Rezani in the sixth season of 24 and former cop Boyd Langton in Dollhouse. He's also appeared on shows like ER, House and Emily Owens M.D. But none of these are his favorite small-screen part. "My favorite show was Commander in Chief," he said, naming the ABC political drama for which he earned an Image Award nomination in 2006. "I played the Chief of Staff. I had a blast doing it. In a lot of ways, I wish that show was still on. I think it was ahead of its time in a lot of ways, and I don't think it was given its just due."
Playing authority figures like an FBI Assistant Director or the White House Chief of Staff is something Harry is familiar with both in television and film; he also appeared as a general in Zack Snyder's blockbuster Man of Steel earlier this year. Why does he think he keeps ending up in power? "I'm a tall fellow. I have a deep voice. I appear authoritative," he theorized. "Although in reality, in fairness to my career, I've played a number of parts. If you look at my work in feature films over the years, I've been in Spike Lee movies, [and] in my own film, I play a comedian who ruined his own career. I think that just the more popular films and TV series have me in more or less authoritative roles."
That film is called Mr. Sophistication, and it boasts a fantastic cast including Harry, Tatum O'Neal, Robert Patrick (Last Resort), Gina Torres (Suits), Richard Brooks (Law & Order), and Monique Curnen (Lie To Me, The Unusuals). "I'm extremely excited about it," Harry told us. "It's my first executive producer credit. It's only coming out digitally, but I've really put my heart and soul and time into it for the last three years." You can check out the trailer for what's sure to be an awesome flick with this article.
The contrast between The Blacklist and Mr. Sophistication highlights the versatility of Harry, who's come to be one of our most dependable actors in any size role that we see him in. He's one of those people who always turns in a good performance. His journey to excellence in his craft is a story of time and hard work. "I did my first professional job in the theater at 18. I was still in college," he reflected. "I guess the first time I thought, 'Hey, maybe this will stick,' I was probably about 24, and it was the first time in my life that I could support myself just by acting. At the time I was a school teacher in the Chicago public school system, and I also owned a grocery store. I had to do a lot of things to make ends meet.
"I've never only been an actor. I've always done a lot of other things," he continued. "For example, when I taught, I taught music; I'm an amateur musician. i write. I have an interest in directing. I have an interest in politics. I'll never only be an actor." With such a varied life, it makes perfect sense that his credits would be equally diverse.
What makes him want to add a project to his lengthy resume? "There are many things that are important to me. One is the quality of the material," he said. "Is it logical, does it make sense, does it say something in an interesting way? That's the most important thing. As my friend Michael Wright tells me, the first rule of the artist is not to be boring.
"You want it to challenge you on some level. You want to add value to a project. That's the second part," he continued. "And thirdly, whether or not I can look at myself in the mirror having done it, because it has not done any harm. A lot of times I get offered roles in projects that are demeaning. playing people who are despicable, horrible characters. and I'm not interested in that. I think that we have too many images of black men in the media that are adding fuel to the fire of misunderstanding, and I think it has a measurable impact."
So there's a lot to admire about Harry Lennix. Not only is he a great actor to watch, but we can also appreciate the work ethic that's brought him to where he is today, the diversity of his talent not only on the screen but in the rest of his life, and the fact that he has a conscience that accompanies his acting chops in a business where sometimes that's not the case. Aside from being fans of his work, he's a person we can like as well.
Which prompts the question: who are the people that he would call himself a fan of? There's quite a list. "I like a lot of actors very much. At Comic-Con, a couple weeks ago, I met Tom Cruise, and I was over the moon," he said. "I'm a huge Tom Cruise fan. I think he's somebody that's extraordinarily admirable. He does his best work all the time. and I am inspired by the type of projects he does. Sidney Poitier. Laurence Fishburne, who's on Hannibal. And that cast. [It's] very intriguing, very good television. very unique in the depth that it goes to explain the backstory of the movie that we came to love."
He also counts himself as an admirer of the medium of television as well. "I think TV is now providing an opportunity for very gifted actors, many of them film stars, to go and over the course of time, to do very, very good work," he told us. "TV is the last bastion of saving this art form of storytelling. You get a lot longer period of time [to tell your story]." Hopefully, NBC will give The Blacklist plenty of time to tell its story, and for us to enjoy having Harry Lennix back on TV.
The Blacklist premieres on NBC on Monday, September 23 after The Voice. Mr. Sophistication is out now and will be released to DVD on September 17; you can visit the website here and pre-order your copy by clicking here.