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Cass' Interview with Hill Halper

Cass' interview with
Hill Harper
One of the stars of the CBS drama series CSI: New York

Copyright Cassandra Henry, 2004


Hill Harper is a fascinating individual and a gifted actor. His versatility has afforded him the opportunity to play an eclectic array of characters like a porn addict in his current film, Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, to a Catholic priest in America Brown. Both of these independent films are screening in various film festivals, including Tribeca and Toronto.

CSI: New York

Hill has appeared in countless movies, including The Visit, Loving Jezebel, The Nephew, The Skulls, In Too Deep, Beloved, Hav Plenty, He Got Game, and Get on the Bus. You also may have seen Hill co-starring or guest starring in roles on The Handler, Soul Food, The Sopranos, Mama Flora's Family, ER, NYPD Blue, Murder One, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and Married….With Children.

This fall, Hill Harper will portray Dr. Sheldon Hawkes in the CBS drama series, CSI: New York, and on August 11, 2004, I had the wonderful pleasure of interviewing Hill.

Cass:
Hey Hill!

Hill:
Hey Cassandra!

Cass:
How are you?

Hill:
Great! How are you?

Cass:
When this interview was finally confirmed this afternoon, my giddy levels went up. Thanks for doing this interview.

Hill:
Not a problem. That's funny -- giddy levels.

Cass:
Let me tell you, first and foremost, that The Diva, Bams, and myself of course, ABSOLUTELY LOVE YOU!

Hill:
That's great to know, because I love you guys, well, Chicks, too. When I heard about this interview, I got online and checked you ladies out, and I love what you ladies are doing on your site.

Cass:
On behalf of all three of us, thank you. We don't simply love you because you're a cutie, but because you're such a good actor. In fact, Bams reviewed The Visit, which is actually in our book on page 340. Bams said, "I've come to expect solid performances from Obba Babatunde and Hill Harper . . . Likewise, Hill Harper made his mark as Alex, proving that he's not just another pretty face (in many scenes literally)"

Hill:
Thank you. That's really nice. The Visit is probably the favorite project that I've done to date. I love the film, the character, the story and I love the director, Jordan Walker-Pearlman. To this day, the film still lives on which is really nice.

Cass:
It's one of those movies I never get tired of watching no matter how many times it comes on cable television.

Hill:
When people see The Visit on tape or DVD, they are still moved by it. I've gotten some letters and notes from people telling me how much they loved this movie. In particular, there's a young man who wrote and shared how he got his father to watch it and how it changed his relationship with his parents. Comments like that really make me feel good.

Cass:
The Visit touched me on so many different levels. After someone watches The Visit, I'm sure they think about whomever they know in prison, because the truth of the matter is, everyone knows someone in prison. The obvious conflict comes in when that individual is wrongly accused of a crime they say they didn't commit, but you believe that perhaps they're guilty. So, the question becomes how do I help this individual or would I help this person, given the nature of his or her crime?

Hill:
Right.

Cass:
You also played another character with AIDS, Kelvin Chadway, Kenny's little brother, in Soul Food.

Hill:
Actually, Kelvin was HIV positive. I'm a board member of the Black AIDS Institute, and they approached me after The Visit and asked me to do it. They pitched this particular storyline to the producers of Soul Food because there is still an attitude of stigmatization in the Black community that AIDS is a gay man's disease. So, the two characters that I've played with AIDS weren't gay.

Cass:
It continues to be a stigma, especially how someone can contract this disease.

Hill:
Also, we have no idea of its enormity and that it's killing Black people worldwide. Unless we start dealing with it, we are going to dwindle down to almost nothing. Since they couldn't figure out how to colonize Africa by force, instead, they've now figured out how to kill everybody there. This disease is running rampant in Africa and it is literally killing our people. More people have died from AIDS than have died from all the colonization of all the countries combined.

Cass:
My best friend, Marcus, died of AIDS in 1987, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him. It took a long time for me to heal from his passing, so much so that I wrote a poem about him so I could cope with the fact that he wasn't here anymore.

Hill:
Thanks for sharing that with me.

Cass:
I just love the fact that you have stepped out of these so-called urban flicks and gotten into more character-driven roles.

Hill:
Thank you. I've been trying to change the fabric in the perception of the Black male to what is the true reality of who we are.

Cass:
I applaud you for that.

Hill:
The way that we as young Black men are depicted in the media isn't accurate. For example, I'm going to a birthday party tonight and the brothers that are going to be there are very dissimilar from the cats you see in the vast majority of the movies or in television. They have interests, hobbies, they're funny, they're smart and have all of these idiosyncrasies, but at the same time they can act stupid.

Cass:
Oh, without a doubt, because they're a combination of all these things.

Hill:
I want to play characters that represent us accurately and hopefully people get that. It is a struggle because playing a whole bunch of different characters has affected my career in a sense that Hollywood doesn't necessarily say, "Oh, this is a Hill Harper thing."

Cass:
Right.

Hill:
Part of the beauty of being "typed" is that you get all those "typed" roles. Therefore, your career can grow in popularity, for instance, like Tom Hanks or Jim Cary. Once you amass that kind of power, you can spin it or flip it to varying degrees of success or failure. The point is, that they do one thing for a long time and they get known as that one person or character, and then they're able to spin it. I haven't done that yet because I have chosen a different path.

Cass:
In a sense, the fact that it's difficult to pigeonhole you as a particular "type" has helped your career. When people see you, they immediately know just how different you are from the rest of the Black character actors.

Hill:
That's part of the hope. Also, the hope is when people see that I'm involved in a project, they know that the project is interesting and has some quality, whether it's a comedy or drama.

Cass:
I'm sure it's also more of a personal choice too. You've done more independent films than mainstream films, correct?

Hill:
I've done significantly more independent films. The studio films are great and I want to do more studio films. At the end of the day, Art isn't made to live in a vacuum. It's made to be seen. But, the one thing studio films do have is the marketing muscle behind it, which allows their projects to be seen on 3,000 or 4,000 screens. Finding the right studio films is important to me in the future, but I will continue to do independent films.

Cass:
You will definitely get some screen time as a member of the ensemble cast on CSI: New York.

Hill:
Hopefully, 25 to 30 million people will be watching a week.

Cass:
Back in 2000, you were on CBS playing Dr. Wesley Williams on City of Angels and now you're going to play a doctor/coroner again on CBS in CSI: New York. What are the chances of that?

Hill:
I know. [Laughing]. I'm playing another doctor, Dr. Sheldon Hawkes. There are different levels of coroners, and my character is a forensic pathologist and he's the head medical examiner in the Medical Examiner's Office. They have written Dr. Hawkes as a wonderful and interesting character who's intelligent, very strong, but somewhat reclusive.

Cass:
But don't you think that this particular professional somehow creates reclusive behavior because medical examiners deal with so much death?

Hill:
It's not just death, but MURDER. Certain coroners just perform general autopsies, but these people in the crime unit of the Medical Examiner's Office only deal with suspicious deaths that didn't happen by natural causes or disease. You're talking about 200 to 300 bodies coming across the autopsy table a year.

Cass:
I couldn't imagine having to look at dead people everyday regardless of how natural or unnatural their death may have been.

Hill:
These people are also scientists, and basically they can't have a personal relationship with a corpse.

Cass:
Not legally that is, which is pretty creepy when you think about it.

Hill:
Definitely.

Cass:
So how do you think they stay sane?

Hill:
They can't allow themselves to get involved in learning too much about the victim -- i.e., their name, their story, where did they go to high school? They just have to deal with the victim from a scientific standpoint to help solve the crime.

Cass:
Right, because if they get personally involved with the how and why surrounding each victim, then they can't do their jobs.

Hill:
Exactly. There's no way they can do their job because they'll go crazy.

Cass:
That's part of the reason that they become a recluse in a sense because they have to shut off the science in their brain so they can live and exist without the madness.

Hill:
Right.

Cass:
So take us through a regular day on the set of CSI: New York.

Hill:
That's what so amazing about New York City, and it's kind of an interesting template that we have with this show. New York City is an old city, and they've built this incredible set and incredible morgue that's in this old building with all this high tech stuff. That's what CSI: New York is -- the idea of the old meeting the new. You know, these people are heroes, coming out of 9/11.

Cass:
Everyday heroes.

Hill:
I did some research and spoke with many of them [coroners]. They had to individually bag 27,000 body parts and then try to match them up so the families could have proper burials. It was an incredible toll it took on these people. Also, I got to sit in on an autopsy at Bellevue Hospital and see how the autopsies are done. On the set, since Dr. Hawkes is always in the morgue, it's wonderful for me to really be able to get deep into the research. Even as I'm talking to you, I'm also looking up medical terms on the Internet.

Cass:
Why? To add more credibility to your character so the terms roll off your tongue?

Hill:
Right. I want to be able to know when I refer to something, I know exactly what I'm talking about. I respect these people and I want to portray this character with the knowledge that comes with the profession.

Cass:
Even though we know that you're not a coroner in real life, you certainly have to do the homework in order for you to come across credibly.

Hill:
Coroners are bookish people.

Cass:
Are you going to look nerdy and wear glasses?

Hill:
[Laughing]. In fact there was some discussion about glasses, but it worked out that because the audience wanted to see my eyes better, I'll only wear glasses when my character reads, which isn't very often because he'll usually be looking over bodies.

Cass:
What's going to set CSI: New York apart from CSI: Las Vegas or CSI: Miami?

Hill:
I think a few things. First, we have Gary Sinise. He's one of the best actors in the world, let alone on television.

Cass:
I totally agree.

Hill:
Second, because of the types of crimes committed in New York, the show is going to be a little bit more serious. You have to remember this is a post-9/11 world, so it's like doing a show of people who have come back from war.

Cass:
Folks are still dealing with post-traumatic stress.

Hill:
You have that element, which makes the show a little more serious.

Cass:
Will CSI: New York have the same franchise format -- a murder and solving who committed the murder?

Hill:
Yes. Crime is still going to be the star. But, what it also offers the viewers is more character involvement, and the stories behind these people's lives.

Cass:
How does someone from Iowa City, Iowa, make it to New York?

Hill:
I was born in Iowa, but when I was 5-years-old, my parents split. My mother took my brother and I to San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area then I went to high school in Sacramento. I was then offered the opportunity to play football at Brown University, which is what really changed my life. In my freshmen year at Brown is where I found the theater. My life took an incredible turn in terms of my interests, and I got a lot more political and artistic. Then, I decided to go straight to graduate school because I thought education was important, so I got my joint degrees at Harvard. [Hill graduated magna cum laude from Brown University with a Bachelor of Arts degree and graduated with a J.D. (cum laude from Harvard Law School, as well as with a Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government]. I was acting professionally during graduate school. Ultimately, you end up going where the work is.

Cass:
Which is typically in Los Angeles and New York?

Hill:
Right.

Cass:
Do you believe in Divine Intervention?

Hill:
I believe in complete Divinity, and talk about God stepping in the way. I was filling out my schedule for my freshmen year and I was looking for a class that met on Tuesday and Thursday between 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. because I had to go to football practice at 3:00 p.m. What was so unique at Brown University was there was no general education requirement, as a freshman, you could look through the whole catalog to pick a class. Well, I saw this class, "Voice for The Actor: Shakespeare," Theater Arts 21, taught by Professor Tannabaum. It was a perfect schedule and I was always interested in acting, so I decided to take the class. I also saw that all the prettiest girls were in theater.

Cass:
[Laughing]. And, as they say, "The rest is history."

Hill:
Now, why would I want to go be in the locker room with all these sweaty guys when I could be in theater with the prettiest girls?

Cass:
It's funny you would say that because I just interviewed jazz saxophonist, Walter Beasley, and he basically said the same thing about sports versus music and girls. Why get injured playing ball with guys when he could enjoy the fringe benefits as a musician. So this Divine Intervention also included girls too?

Hill:
Well, yeah, basically. [Laughing]. But, as I learned more about acting and the artistic side of it, I realized I could reach people. My whole thing is, I don't want my life to be in vain. I want to actually feel like I've made a positive difference or some kind of change in the world. I don't want to feel like a succubus sucking the world's resources out. I want to feel like I'm putting something back, and hopefully through my acting I'm doing that. Maybe I'll choose something else later in life, whether it's philanthropy or politics. But right now, it's acting.

Cass:
What I love about your acting is that you inhabit the spirit of your characters so well that the dialogue authentically flows through you.

Hill:
You want people to forget when they're watching you that they're watching an actor act. You want them to feel like the actor really understands that character.

Cass:
I hear you're re-teaming with director, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, and Billy Dee Williams in Constellation.

Hill:
We did. For the past three months, we were shooting scenes in Alabama. It's very different than The Visit. It's much more of an ensemble piece and much bigger in scope.

Cass:
What's the plot?

Hill:
It's about the matriarch of an old southern family who dies and the family members and friends come back for her funeral. Of course, coming back to a small town for a funeral, issues and relationships, and all these things start coming up that they have to deal with. I'm really proud of Jordan for taking on this challenge because this is basically a throwback type of film. There's no gun, no car chases, and no special effects.

Cass:
Thank God. It's more character driven in that it deals with real issues families must face.

Hill:
This generation of moviegoers who are used to special effects would probably say, "Well, nothing really happened." But, if you go back to 1950's and 1960's with a film like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, it's just about a guy who talks to a girl, then he comes to dinner at the house and everyone has a discussion about their relationship, and no one punches anybody in the face.

Cass:
Back then it was all about dialogue and characterization. The thing is, I can identify with movies like A Raisin in the Sun or Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. I can't relate to Booty Call or even Soul Plane, not that these weren't good movies for whoever wanted to see them.

Hill:
Ultimately, it's about having choices and diversity out there. Booty Call, Soul Plane and all those movies like that are fine, but studios really need to get behind the opposite types of films as well. The problem is that you have to look to the independent arena as the only arena portraying us differently.

Cass:
But getting the right financial backing is a major hurdle.

Hill:
Also, on the independent side, they don't have the marketing muscle to get the film out to consumers. So, people don't see some of these movies until they end up on DVD 3 or 4 years later. That's why I really appreciate this support and hopefully it will get more people to watch CSI: New York. Also, people can leave me messages on the message board at http://imdb.com/name/nm0004991/. Go to Hill Harper and look at the bottom of the page for the message board. Periodically, I'll respond to some of the comments because I love feedback.

Cass:
There's such a small community of Black male actors in Hollywood getting all the work. Is there any competition when it comes to the meaningful character roles?

Hill:
Absolutely, there's no doubt about it because there are so few films and roles. So, when real good roles come up, folks really want them, but it's healthy competition. You ultimately believe if you're in this business long enough, that what is meant for you is going to be for you.

Cass:
As well as what's not meant for you is not going to be for you.

Hill:
Exactly. The roles that are for you, you can almost do nothing in terms of auditioning, because that part is meant for you to play. I'm not going to elbow anybody out of the way to get it, but I am going to do my best and hopefully it works out in my favor. Unlike with white male actors, there are so many roles for them that if the guys that are on top of the list are busy, all the studios have to do is go down the list to the next available white actor. In our case, there are never enough movies shooting at the same time to keep Morris Chestnut, Jamie Foxx and Will Smith simultaneously busy. Since those cats are at the top of the heap, you'll definitely continue to see them more often. That's just the way this business works until we get more and more roles and projects out there, or until you do something that catapults you to that level. That can come from an independent film or a successful television show.

Cass:
You've been recognized for you work and received nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards for The Visit, a NAACP Image Awards for City of Angels, and most recently, a Golden Satellite Award nomination for The Handler. And, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the impression that you're not the kind of guy who brags. If you're nominated for that work, great, but your job is simply doing the best work that you can.

Hill:
Right. But at the same time, you can't turn a blind-eye to the way the business works right now.

Cass:
And how is that?

Hill:
Part of the business has to do with being a celebrity. People in this industry work with publicists because they understand the reality of this business. For me, it's not about trying to be famous. At the end of the day, it's about trying to get to play the best role that reaches the most people.

Cass:
But I'm sure there's also a catch-22 factor involved.

Hill:
Right. The only way I'm going to get the best roles and reach the most people, is if my celebrity status is high. So the catch-22 factor is in order to get the role you have to have celebrity status, and only those roles reach the most people. The key is trying to figure out a way to reach that celebrity status.

Cass:
Or getting the roles?

Hill:
Or dating Jennifer Lopez.

Cass:
[Laughing]. I'm not sure if that's a benefit these days, though.

Hill:
It certainly can't hurt.

Cass:
Is your first name really Frank?

Hill:
Yes, but my mother's maiden name is Hill, so I used that as my name and then I was always called Hill.

Cass:
Did you know that the meaning of Frank is "Free"?

Hill:
No, I did not know that.

Cass:
So, you are free to do whatever it is you want to do in life, and when you really look back at things, it looks like you've always been free.

Hill:
That's pretty cool. I have always been and have been blessed in that regard. My parents definitely created a world and life for me that allowed me to believe that I could do anything.

Cass:
You are certainly doing that, and I am so very proud of you.

Hill:
Thank you. I really appreciate you doing this for me. I'll talk to you later.

Cass:
No, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. Now, I'm really looking forward to seeing you this fall in CSI: New York.

So what's on the horizon for Mr. Hill Harper, besides CSI: New York? Hill recently wrapped up production on two independent films, Constellation., where he re-teams with the director of The Visit, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, and Andre Royo's Big Scene where he re-teams with the director of Hav Plenty, Christopher Scott Cherot. Hill also stars in the HBO movie Lackawanna Blues, which is based on the critically acclaimed stage play be Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Dramatist and screenwriter, Jean Anouilh, said, "Love is, above all else, the gift of oneself." Therefore, whatever movie, stage play or television program Hill Harper stars in, you can be assured of one thing, he loves what he's doing, and above all else, he loves sharing that love with us.

This interview could not have happened without the assistance of Joseph Babineaux at Lisa Sorensen Public Relations. Thank you Joseph!!!


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