Harry Lennix in Radio Golf
(© Carol Rosegg)
Harry Lennix in Radio Golf
(© Carol Rosegg)
Harry Lennix is no stage tyro; he's worked on numerous plays in his native Chicago and spent part of the early 1990s working in New York with his great friend Julie Taymor at the Theatre for a New Audience. But this modest, thoughtful actor is the first to admit that his newfound fame -- gained in part from his roles as Jim Gardner and Walid Al-Rezani, respectively, in the TV series Commander in Chief and 24 -- was a major factor in his being tapped to take on the role of politician Harmond Wilks in the Broadway premiere of August Wilson's Radio Golf, which begins previews today at the Cort Theatre.

"Broadway is looking for Hollywood names, and I guess I'm now one of them," says Lennix, who appeared earlier this year in the hit film Stomp the Yard. "The thing about celebrity is that it ebbs and flows, and the phenomenal success of 24 -- even though I'm not a regular -- has increased my name value and got me where I want to be. And if my name can drive some attention to this show, then I'm all for it."

Indeed, Lennix is no stranger to Wilson's work, having played the title role in King Hedley II in the show's Los Angeles production to great acclaim. "I saw August at the airport in Chicago about three years ago, and he asked what I was doing and then said 'I may have something for you,' " he notes. "Eventually, we talked about me doing Radio Golf when it premiered at Yale Rep, but it didn't work out because I was doing Commander in Chief at the time. Then the part resurfaced out of the blue."

Over the past few years, a number of actors have played Harmond Wilks in the play's regional productions, including Richard Brooks and Rocky Carroll. Lennix was asked to take on the role for the show's last pre-Broadway stop, at Princeton's McCarter Theater. But had the deal been made a tiny bit earlier, he could've played his hometown, where the play was produced by the Goodman Theatre. "It would have been nice if that had worked out, but I have to accept that it didn't happen. I try to live with no regrets," he says.

Radio Golf, the final chapter in Wilson's 10-play Pittsburgh Hill Cycle, is set in the 1990s. Wilks is a successful real estate developer who decides to run for Mayor and who eventually has to deal with some events from his past. It's a far cry from his last Wilson outing, he admits. "Harmond is very different from Hedley; they come from different economic backgrounds and lifestyles. Yes, they grew up in the same town, but that's the intriguing thing about Black America; because of segregations, blacks all grew up in the same neighborhood but not all the same. August used to like to say that Harmond was really his first middle-class character."

Lennix also says the play's structure is very different from Hedley. "In Radio Golf, the first act happens to Harmond, while Harmond happens to the second act," he says. "I think Harmond ends up being a heroic character, because he's on an odyssey and his idea of what this odyssey is changes. He responds to what he sees in a crisis and faces himself head on. But fortunately for August's vision of America, he's not a tragic hero."

The actor says he didn't really feel the need to do research to play an aspiring politician. "I spent a year playing the chief of staff to the President in Commander in Chief, so I did a lot of political research back then," he notes. "And I've known Barack Obama for many years. So I feel like a lot of the heavy lifting was already taken care of. Instead, I was able to work on the inner stuff, to analyze why Harmond makes the decisions he does."

Lennix didn't see any of the show's previous productions, which starred his now-Broadway castmates Anthony Chisholm, John Earl Jelks, and James A. Williams. "It's almost like a mathematical problem," he says of that situation. "Because the cast has done the show for two years, they've already established rhythms that lead me to conclusions on how it was done before, and that makes it easier to navigate the interactions."

Yet, he isn't the only newcomer on board; Wilks' wife, Mame, is now being played by Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins. "She is extraordinarily gifted and extremely intelligent," he says of his co-star. "Tonya has a great sense of who Mame is and fleshed her out in ways I couldn't predict. She's really laid down the gauntlet for me in terms of making an investment in my character."

Lennix also has high praise for the show's director, Kenny Leon. "I think he's used to working with Method actors and I am a very outside-in actor," he says. "He's the most quickly adaptive director I've ever worked with. Plus, he knows what works and what doesn't, yet he's very patient and giving in rehearsal."

The actor is perfectly happy taking a break from Hollywood, especially for such a heady assignment. "I think a break from what we normally do is a good thing; it allows you to get your bearings and reassess your goals. Hollywood is a difficult town for everyone; it's a competitive market with a lot of great actors," he says. "Of course, the thought of being on Broadway is a bit intimidating; but I'm more anxious than nervous. But at the end of the day, my main goal -- my biggest obligation -- is to steward August's work."