While his “Ray” colleagues wait to see if the movie wins Best Picture and Jamie Foxx is acclaimed best actor, Harry J. Lennix is hanging out on the North Shore.
The native Chicagoan and “Ray” co-star is taking a break from his busy movie career to star in Northlight Theatre’s riveting production of Thomas Gibbons’ drama “Permanent Collection” through March 6.
Transcending his everyday self and disappearing into roles is something that Lennix has been doing on stage since his days at Northwestern University in the early 1980s.
“Theatre is the place where, until recently, I’ve been most comfortable,” he says.
“You can hide yourself far more easily on stage than on film. On stage, there is always something besides you the audience can be looking at. In film, it’s all you. There’s nowhere to hide,” he notes.
In the 16 years he’s worked in movies and television shows, however, Lennix’s comfort level with the medium has evolved.
“Acting for film uses a different set of skills, a different set of muscles. I’ve gotten more comfortable just through familiarity, because I’ve been doing it so long,” he notes.
Lennix, 40, left Chicago in the late ?80s after teaching music and history in public schools for eight years to supplement his theatre wages.
“At the time, theatre roles being offered in Chicago to a young black man weren’t that lucrative.
“The Package” launched Lennix’ movie career
Lennix’s movie career was launched in Chicago in 1989 when he scored a bit part in director Andrew Davis’ “The Package.” In 1991, he broke out in a starring role opposite Robert Townshend in “The Five Heartbeats.”
Since then, he’s acted in some 40 movies and TV shows.
He starred opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins twice, first in the wickedly wonderful “Titus,” and then in the sobering “The Human Stain.”
As for commercial blockbusters, Lennix made his mark as Morpheus’ foil in the “Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions.”
Lennix’s upcoming movie is “Chrystal,” co-starring Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Ray McKinnon, the “southern gothic” was produced for under $1 million. Lennix describes it as “a labor of love.”
“Chrystal” tells the tale of a man who kills his toddler son and severely injures his wife in a high-speed police chase, serves a stint in prison and then returns home to the Ozark mountains and tries to pick up the pieces of his life.
“You’ve got your big movies like ,Matrix,’ that people believe in and finance, and you’ve got smaller movie like this one that you work on because you just believe in the story so much,” he said.
Screen subsidizes Lennix’ love of stage
Lennix has done very well using film to subsidize his love of live theatre.
He regularly returns to Chicago, where he is an Artistic Associate at the Goodman Theatre and serves on the advisory board for Congo Square Theatre Company.
In Los Angeles, he’s on the board of the Robey Theatre Company, for which he will direct “Permanent Collection.” Robey was founded in 1994 by Danny Glover and inspired by the art and accomplishments of the singer/actor Paul Robeson.
In Northlight’s “Permanent Collection,” Lennix plays the newly appointed administrator of an art museum. Delving into the comparative value society places on African art vs. Western art, the Thomas Gibbons drama is an incendiary and provocative work.
“Questions like this need to be asked,” he said. “For example, you go down to the Art Institute, and you won’t see a lot of African art there, despite the fact that Chicago has a substantial black community.
“That’s a museum we support with our taxes, and we’re not represented. That’s taxation without representation. Some people have fought wars over that issue,” he comments.
Lennix’s other theatre choices have been equally thoughtful. In the early 1990s, he played Malcolm X in the Goodman Theatre’s production of “The Meeting,” a two-person drama that imagined a fictional meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
In a Congo Square production, he tackled the role of Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, the character actor otherwise known as Stepin Fetchit.
“People tend to think that theatre has some higher artistic purpose than film, but that’s not necessarily true,” he notes. “There are plenty of things on stage that mean absolutely nothing. I mean, look at ,Grease’?do we really need ,Grease’?”
Movies with “jerks” and the guy he truly hates
When choosing films, Lennix admits his standards are not quite as high as they are when he’s tackling plays.
“If I feel a TV or film script is poorly written or I disagree with it, politically, I just don’t do it,” he says. “Of course, sometimes people just buy you out. I’ve sold out sometimes.”
And his definition of “sold out”?
“That’s when I do a movie that means nothing to me. I’ve done that. Twice,” he nods. “There were two movies I did with real jerks. I didn’t humiliate myself by being in them, but I felt cheapened by the experience. And I couldn’t stand the working environment.”
Lennix wouldn’t name the “jerks” or the cheapening movies for publication, but he has no compunction about dissing Arnold Schwarzenegger, with whom in worked in “Collateral.”
“I hate Arnold Schwarzenegger. I detest him. I think he’s a pig. And I don’t think he liked me very much either,” Lennix says. “But,” he added, “I don’t think he’s doing as much damage as politician as he did as an actor.”
Issues of race and gender
So what was the value of “Titus”?a film that featured rape, mutilation, and cannibalism? What made that worthwhile?
“That story examined justifiable violence,” says Lennix, who played Aaron the Moor, lover of Tamora, Queen of the Goths, in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”
“It dealt with issues of race and gender. You saw Tamora, Queen of the Goths, using her feminine wiles to get her revenge and put herself into a place of power and influence. And Aaron, unlike Othello, is a powerful man?he was the one who set the whole tragedy into motion.
“People who discount him wind up having to suffer the consequences. They think because of his race that he can’t possibly be of any importance, but they’re wrong.
“I saw it as something of a cautionary tale of what happens when you don’t give people the proper credit,” he states.
It’s only recently, one could well argue, that African American actors have been getting the proper credit and opportunities that white Hollywood has enjoyed since the salad days of Douglas Fairbanks.
Denzel Washington and Halle Berry notwithstanding, race often plays an inordinately significant role in film. Color blind casting is a dream far in the future.
“Yes, it’s significant that we’ve so many black actors up for Oscars this year, but it would be a much bigger deal if we could get past that,” Lennix says.
“And it’s not like anyone was doing these actors a favor. Their performances were amazing.”
“Permanent Collection” runs through March 6 at the Northlight Theatre, at Skokie’s Northshore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd. For tickets, $32-$48, call 847/-673-6300 or go online, www.northlight.org.