A chat with Harry Lennix brings a slalom ride through the changing worlds of show business. He does it all -- big and little, traditional and trendy. With "Chi-Raq" opening Friday (Dec. 4) in theaters and "The Blacklist" returning Jan. 21, this is a typically busy time for him; here's the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
In this new-old
world, show-business juggles extremes.
A few big movies
pack theaters; a lot of little ones don't even get to theaters.
Traditional TV exists alongside new streaming services.
Harry Lennix manages
to balance all of that, plus one more contrast: He's in “Chi-Raq,”
a movie that's as new as current protests ... yet borrows a plot
that's about 2,426 years old.
“It's about the
violence that's happening right now in Chicago,” Lennix said. “It's
brave and bold.”
It's also a bit of
movie history: This is the first project by Amazon Studios, with
plans to have it both ways – a big-time opening (at the historic
Chicago Theatre), a brief run in theaters and then streaming.
“I think this is
the future, with multi-platforms,” Lennix said. “If you want to,
you can still see it in theaters .... But there are people who
wouldn't see it until it gets to their homes.”
He's all for
variety. Lennix has supporting roles in big movies (“Man of Steel,”
“Batman v Superman”) and TV shows (“Blacklist”); he also has
a company that makes low-budget art films.
Often, he plays
authority figures, something that Lennix – 51 and 6-foot-4 – fits
easily. He's Commissioner Blades in “Chi-Raq,” a movie that seems
to have overstepped Amazon's ambitions. It has a top cast – Nick
Cannon, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer
Hudson – and a big-deal director, Spike Lee.
And yes, that
creates the intriguing image of Lennix receiving commands from
someone who is 11 inches shorter. “He has such a commanding
presence,” he said of Lee. “He seems taller.”
Lee and writer Kevin
Willmott started with a notion that Aristophanes created in 419 B.C.:
Women on both sides withhold sex until the men stop perpetual their
The issue has
concerned Lennix since his own Chicago boyhood. “There were warring
factions you always had to worry about,” he said.
That was on the
south end, near Gary, Ind., in a neighborhood where Elijah Muhammed's
Black Muslim movement was big. Lennix, however, went to Catholic
schools and Northwestern University.
He was 2 when his
dad – a machinist who grew up in Louisiana, with Creole roots –
died. That left his mother raising four kids as a laundress. Lennix
had his first job at 10, but he also played baseball, did school
plays and got academic scholarships.
After college, he
was a substitute teacher in Chicago schools, until his acting career
took off. Now he seems to be everyone's boss – a general in the
Superman movies, an assistant FBI director in “Blacklist,” Echo's
handler in “Dollhouse,” the president's chief of staff in
“Commander in Chief” ... and the president himself in “Little
Those are big-budget
projects, but Lennix also has a company making low-budget movies.
With a rise in the
affordability and speed of quality equipment, he said, it's possible
to make slick-looking films for less. “People are happy to do it,
so you've got a glut.”
This works best, he
said, when aiming at a niche. Lately, some people have scored with
faith-based films; Lennix has resisted all trends for black films,
often transplanting Shakespeare stories. Lately, he's been King Henry
IV in “H4,” Banquo in “Macbeth,” Capulet in “Romeo and
Juliet in Harlem.”
Most small movies
reach a few theaters, then find alternate media. “If out of 10 you
get one or two” that do more, Lennix said, it all works out.
And occasionally, a
film -- like “Chi-Raq,” grabbing attention and strong reviews –
outstrips its goals.
Lots of Lennix
reaches theaters Friday (Dec. 4), then Amazon
Blacklist,” a ratings hit, returns to NBC at 9 p.m. Thursdays,
starting Jan. 21
-- Many more on the
way (including “Batman v Superman,” March 25) or already on video