A conversation with actor Harry Lennix includes glowing references to Marlon Brando. This might seem a bit incongruous at first–but then the thunderous impact the legendary star has made on this craft-conscious, Chicago-born actor becomes clear. Talking about his latest role as the ambitious Walter Lee Younger in the Goodman Theatre’s revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, running through June 3, Lennix ponders the state of his career at age 35–the same age as Walter Lee. And, like Walter Lee, Lennix feels the need to take stock of his accomplishments.
“I used to say that by the time I reached 35, I would have landed a major movie deal and met Marlon Brando,” Lennix says. “Well, I was in the movie Titus, but I haven’t met Marlon Brando yet.” Lennix was, however, cast with another titan among thespians, Sir Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Julie Taymor after Shakespeare’s notoriously difficult Titus Andronicus, the film also starred Jessica Lange. Lennix, who received the 1999 Golden Satellite Award and the Tree of Life Award for his role as Aaron (the queen’s lover) in the film, reveals that he reveled in Taymor’s auteur-like yet collaborative vision. “Julie poeticizes the violence [in the film],” he says. “She’s extremely visual and symbolic. By treating violence in a more stylized fashion, she intensifies it.”
Lennix, who divides his time between Chicago and Los Angeles, is firmly rooted in the theater and drawn to doing theater-oriented films. In the case of Titus, he made a seamless transition from appearing in Taymor’s stage version of Titus Andronicus, staged for Theatre for a New Audience in New York, to her cinematic version of the same tragic tale. Lennix also moves easily from directorial style to directorial style, whether creating a character with a more conceptual director like Taymor or working with the Goodman Theatre’s Chuck Smith, whose direction of A Raisin in the Sun centers on the purity of the text. Still, he acting chops remain rooted in Method–which is to say, of course, rooted in replicating the mystique of that ol’ Marlon magic.
“When I saw Marlon Brando in The Godfather,” Lennix says, “he became my role model. He lays his soul bare. When Marlon Brando performs, he plays a character but he also tells the truth about Marlon Brando. He may have been a wreck of a human being, but he was a genius of an actor.” Musing on that thought, Lennix says, “I’m not saying that I’m a wreck of a human being or a genius of an actor. In fact, given the opportunity to be anybody but me, I’ll jump at the chance.”
Lennix calls A Raisin in the Sun a “war-horse of a play” while acknowledging the fear attached to playing a role indelibly associated with Sidney Poitier. He also affirms some of the more dated qualities of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, about a black family from Chicago’s South Side who encounters hostility when they move into an all-white neighborhood.
“It has been argued that Lorraine Hansberry was promoting assimilation by presenting a black family’s wish to live with white people,” Lennix says. “[But] their action was not viewed as an improvement. I believe the story had a lot to do with Lorraine’s aversion to the ghetto as a place of poverty and very little chance for advancement. There isn’t one issue in this play that is not relevant today. It takes place on the South Side of Chicago–one of the most racially stratified cities in America. Racial profiling by Chicago police is a major issue, and we’re still dealing with the imbalance of matriarchal households. The play questions how we achieve parity–through civil rights, through education, or through political advancement.”
Lennix says that he has known many men from his old South Side neighborhood with dreams as big and as sadly deferred as that of Walter Lee, an entrepreneurial character that the actor describes as something of an Everyman. Realizing as well that Walter Lee “sees himself as an extraordinary human being,” Lennix grew uneasy because “Walter Lee is braver than I am as a human being. Despite his shortcomings, I have great admiration for him. I connect to his respect for his family and the memory of his loved ones. That rings true for me on some sort of molecular level.”
Lennix met director Smith–also from Chicago’s South Side–13 years ago when Smith cast him as Malcolm X in The Meeting, a fictional drama about a dialogue between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Chuck directs plays like Ella Fitzgerald sings,” Lennix says. “He aims to clarify and illuminate what’s on the page. He doesn’t put any kind of spin on it. He’s an ‘outside-in’ director–and I’m an ‘outside-in’ actor. I love to strip things down. I’d have stick figures on stage if I could.”
“Julie [Taymor], on the other hand, puts a spin on the spin. But I’m willing to cooperate with her to help shape her highly individual idea of a production. I can adapt to both approaches, and it’s important to develop a trusting relationship with the director to help achieve their vision.”
Perhaps it will come as a surprise that this tall actor with the leading-man looks was originally going to become a Dominican priest at Chicago’s Quigley Seminary when he first discovered the thrill of acting. The stage, however, soon won out over the sanctuary as his lifelong vocation.
Lennix next enrolled in Northwestern University’s theater program and, while still in college, made his Goodman Theatre debut in The Government Inspector. That was 1985. Since then, he has performed in Goodman’s A Christmas Carol and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Other roles include the lead in The Great Gatsby at the now-defunct Wisdom Bridge, and Macbeth at the Piven Theater in Evanston.
In addition to his stage experience, Lennix often harkens back to the tough life lessons he learned from the time he was teaching music and social studies at a public school in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
“I’ve taken the strength from some of the students I’ve known,” he says, “and applied it to my characters. Those kids in Englewood were extremely brave. They came from broken homes; they were abused. The only time they ate was at school. They also remind me of how fortunate I am. When we were filming Titus in Rome, and we were shooting the same scene for 14 hours, I had no desire to complain. I think about those kids, and they make me a stronger and more appreciative person.”
Like many actors who have achieved success in his field, Lennix is disturbed by the lack of multidimensional roles for African-American actors. He also has a problem with tokenism, which he believes fosters patronizing attitudes. For example, he takes Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre to task for not offering “decent roles” for actors of color. “Steppenwolf should be ashamed of itself,” Lennix says. “They engage in mere tokenism.”
Like his dream to someday come face-to-face with Marlon Brando, Lennix remains “cautiously optimistic” about his future in show business. “The shaky history of the state of the art as it relates to black actors,” he notes, “has made me ever so circumspect. As an actor, I seek out good, fulfilling work, whether I’m playing Hamlet in Teaneck, New Jersey, Walter Lee at the Goodman or performing in a Julie Taymor film.”