Watching Soul Train for award-winning actor/writer/producer/director Hill Harper was “the front line of style and being cool,” he says. Apparently, what the Iowa-born star of television and film saw Saturday mornings rubbed off on him. Harper’s well-dressed appearance is always respectably stylish on screen and off. He brings realistic gentleman coolness to his portrayal of Calder Michaels, head of Domestic Protection Division on hit USA Network drama Covert Affairs.
A critically-acclaimed New York Times bestselling author, Hill’s latest book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, deals with a different front line entirely. “It’s the first of it’s kind; it’s a motivational book for men and women and their family members who are incarcerated,” he says. “I was told by the publishing community this book couldn’t sell, that my community wouldn’t support it. Please buy this book, please read it, and pass it on. I couldn’t be more proud of the book. It’s the most important book I’ve done in my career!”
Hill Harper has a similar feeling about his role as Tim Brown in writer/director Tommy Oliver’s dramatic film 1982. He talks about this and more in this SoulTrain.com Q&A.
SoulTrain.com: Hill, is it important to you to bring character to your performances?
Hill Harper: I guess every entertainer finds their own way in to connect with audience. Some choose to be flamboyant to get noticed, other people choose to be subtle or go more deep. Everyone has their own thing. When you see performers that resonate for you, ones you really like, you’re attracted to them being truthful and honest.
SoulTrain.com: So it becomes less attractive to be out of character, so to speak.
Hill Harper: People get into trouble when they try to do things that are inauthentic. The audience can always read when something isn’t authentic. They can feel authenticity.
SoulTrain.com: Did you have to change anything about yourself to find your way in?
Hill Harper: No, I just had to use parts of myself for different characters. I had to accentuate different parts of myself. If I’m playing a character who has lots of swag, coolness and arrogance, I have to heighten that part of me because that’s not really the way I walk through the world as me. All of us have aspects of that attitude, I just accentuate it.
SoulTrain.com: What part of you is heightened when you’re writing?
Hill Harper: My analytical side. When I’m writing my books I attempt to do research to understand the issues I’m speaking about to hopefully shed some light on it in a different way than people might think.
SoulTrain.com: Okay Hill, as a producer, do you look for authenticity in the personality of the actor or the character they’re portraying?
Hill Harper: I look for authenticity in the character they’re playing, what they’re attempting to represent. I know as an entertainer you’re never yourself, per se. You’re either doing a heightened version of yourself, or using parts of yourself, or creating a whole new character. That’s just part of being an entertainer.
SoulTrain.com: You consistently play characters with a combination of emotional, personal and professional depth. Is character complexity something that can be taught?
Hill Harper: Creating a complex character requires all hands on deck! It’s not just the actor; it’s in the writing, it’s in the directing, it’s in the way it’s shot, it’s in the way it’s edited. As an actor doing a film or television show, when you see a performance—whether it’s good or bad, it’s not just the actor. There are so many people involved in the process. When talking about the complexity of any given character what’s required are experts who are all on the same page about what they want to represent.
SoulTrain.com: Given your accomplishments off screen, I’d have to consider you one of those experts. When you’re reading a script, from what perspectives do you view the character you’ll potentially play?
Hill Harper: It all depends on how well it’s written. It depends on how well the character is fleshed out. Unfortunately, the vast majority of scripts that get handed out around Hollywood are not very good. That’s just a sad reality. But when you see something that’s really good and high quality you take notice because it’s rare. You see characters that are interesting and well-written. It’s pretty special! It’s a great a feeling when you see it.
SoulTrain.com: Tell us what you feel is going to attract people to 1982.
Hill Harper: 1982 is perhaps the most important work I’ve done in my career. It’s based on a true story [about] Tommy Oliver, who grew up in a home in the 1980s where his mother was addicted to crack cocaine. We all know during that time many of our urban communities were ravaged by crack cocaine. My character is the husband and the father who attempts to hold this family together in the midst of this crisis with his wife. I couldn’t be more proud of all people involved in the project. When it screened at the Toronto Film Festival, having its world premier, it got three standing ovations. I think the film resonates with all audiences.
SoulTrain.com: What would you say is the film’s most unique characteristic?
Hill Harper: It’s very rare to have a low-budget independent period piece that’s an African American drama. It’s not considered a “commercial film.” I’m hoping the audience and folks will support it. It’s not traditionally a lot of guys running around making jokes, shucking and jiving with your obligated scene on a basketball court or in a beauty salon. None of that stuff is there.
SoulTrain.com: What’s also rare is finding a movie that depicts devastation without involving war or some natural or unnatural catastrophe.
Hill Harper: Hollywood makes us create films, often times, requiring us to let audiences off the hook by throwing in comedy, characters in drag, or something like that. This is played for truth! This film is about telling a truthful story. It’s powerful. You need to tell the truthful story. Tommy Oliver and his mother have reconciled based on her seeing the film. It just shows you the transforming power of the medium.
Be sure to watch Hill Harper on USA Network drama Covert Affairs, and pick up his latest book Letters to an Incarcerated Brother. Follow him on Twitter @hillharper.
–Mr. Joe walker
“The Word Heavyweight Champion” Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, staff writer and columnist for Muskegon Tribune Newspaper, and co-creator of TheGrooveSpot.com, is an award-winning entertainment and news journalist and columnist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. Former Editor In Chief of XPOZ Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, Real Detroit Weekly, and MLive.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker, connect with him on Facebook, and also visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.