Chat w/ Cynthia López, Executive Director of the New York Women in Film & Television

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Cynthia López, is the Executive Director of the New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) which advocates for equality in the moving image industry and supports women in every stage of their careers by illuminating their achievements, presenting training and professional development programs, awarding scholarships and grants, and providing access to a supportive community of peers. López is an Emmy, Peabody and duPont-Columbia Award-winning media strategist, and former Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.

NYWIFT is having their 20th anniversary of its Designing Women Awards, co-presented by Variety, on Tuesday, June 11th at the Directors Guild of America Theater. Designing Women celebrates the alchemy of design, character and story by honoring distinguished costume designers, makeup artists and hair stylists in moving image media, and is attended by designers, actors, producers, directors, writers, and fashion industry leaders. The 2019 ceremony, will feature costume displays from Game of Thrones and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

We had a conversation with Cynthia, here are the excerpts:

What are your thoughts on the current state of women in film and television?

We are making strides, but we still have a way to go. NYWIFT has always believed in the power of community and women supporting one another. As we continue to grow our advocacy efforts we look forward to engaging with women across all levels of the industry.

What has been your personal experience working with NYWIFT and what does it mean?

As a New Yorker that was born and raised here, New York City has always been my home. My career trajectory has not been traditional. I have worked in public and municipal access, worked as a library advocate raising money for the poorest libraries in the country, and spent the better part of 14 years at public television at American Documentary | POV collaborating with the country’s most distinguished documentary makers. Next,  I worked as commissioner of media and entertainment for the NYC Mayor’s Office assisting industry to do their best work in NYC. Now at NYWIFT my hopes are to use my skills to address the issues of our time – women need jobs, pay equity, and foster new pathways to the industry for diverse people.

What’s your message to young and upcoming women storytellers?

In order to survive in this industry – you need to have passion for the content (script or documentary) and tenacity – sheer will to survive. And be willing to accept a “no” and then move on to see where you can get a “yes.” I always say to myself when I don’t get the YES to grant or the opportunity: It is no for right now today not indefinitely. Never take decisions out that are out of your control personally.  

As a television executive, it was important for us at POV /PBS to take creative risks and to invest in women that had unique perspectives and were tenacious – many documentaries can take 5-8 Years to make. You need to have willpower to stick with the project no matter how long it takes to raise the money for it.

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How can people support the organization?  

  • Donate to NYWIFT scholarship money: Support scholarships for women to go to communications, business and film school

  • Connect us to foundations and corporate partners

  • Volunteer at NYWIFT

What is NYWIFT and what are your future plans?

New York Women in Film & Television is an association of professional women working in the moving image industry. Our members are producers, directors, independent filmmakers, gaffers, grips, lighting crew, editors, writers, actors, accountants, television and studio executives that work very diligently every day to produce, distribute and promote media that is made not only in New York but throughout the country.

The organization just had its 40th anniversary, and a big part of our mission is celebrating women’s accomplishments. We do this in three ways:

  • Women Behind the Scenes Party – a certificate is given to a woman working in a behind the scenes crew position, sometimes to someone well-established, sometimes to someone on the rise. In partnership with Company 3, we recognize one woman per year and celebrate in New York style at the Company 3 rooftop at their headquarters location in Chelsea.  This year we gave the award to Evin Lowe, a gaffer.

  • Designing Women celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year and we recognize individual costume designers, hair and makeup designers along with the Variety ensemble award, which is given to the full team from an NYC production. This year we are thrilled to host the awards at the Directors Guild of America Theater for the first time ever on June 11, 2019, and we encourage your audience to attend. Tickets are still available online on www.nywift.org/design.

  • Muse Awards - In 2019 our Muse Awards honoring women of vision and achievement will be held at the Midtown Hilton on Tuesday, December 10, 2019. Last year we celebrated: Sarah Jessica Parker, director Tricia Brock, Ellen Burstyn, Netflix VP Lisa Nishimura, and comedian and activist Maysoon Zayid were among those that received awards.  

Who can Join NYWIFT: Anyone that has professional experience in the television and film industry. Please visit NYWIFT.org/join  for our guidelines.

NYWIFT is a professional association of women in the industry including cinematographers, directors, producers, writers, actors, indie filmmakers, television executives, gaffers, agents, attornies, accountants and editors.

NYWIFT is part of an extensive network of women in the industry globally. There are 50 chapters -- NYWIFT is the largest one with 2400 members.

Additionally, you can also listen to full interview conversation at the link below

Chat w/ Stefon Bristol, Director of 'See You Yesterday'

High school best friends and science prodigies C.J. and Sebastian spend every spare minute working on their latest homemade invention: backpacks that enable time travel. But when C.J.’s older brother Calvin dies after an encounter with police officers, the young duo decide to put their unfinished tech to use in a desperate bid to save Calvin. From director Stefon Bristol and producer Spike Lee comes See You Yesterday, a sci-fi adventure grounded in familial love, cultural divides and the universal urge to change the wrongs of the past.

SEE YOU YESTERDAY will launch globally on Netflix May 17th. We had an exclusive conversation with the director Stefon Bristol, you can listen to it below.

A Conversation Between Director and Co-Writer Stefon Bristol and Producer Spike Lee

Stefon Bristol graduated from Morehouse College and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, just like his Oscar-winning mentor, Spike Lee. Initially, it took the now-31-year-old a year-and-a-half to get Lee’s attention. The auteur responded with years of tough love as the New Yorkers became collaborators. Below, they reflect on growing up in Brooklyn, the hazard of chasing awards, and adapting Bristol’s 17-minute student thesis — which screened at 35 film festivals — into his feature debut, a magnetic celebration of Caribbean culture and everyday superheroes.

What was your first introduction to Spike’s work?

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Stefon Bristol: My first Spike film was Do The Right Thing. I was 18 years old and I didn’t know what to do with my life. When I saw Do The Right Thing, I knew exactly what career I wanted. I told my mom that I wanted to be a film director, study filmmaking in college, and she was not having that [laughs].

She’s a Caribbean woman from Guyana. My family is conservative and it took a while to convince her that this is what I want to do.

What aspect of Spike’s films drew you in the most?
SB: 
His visuals were very visceral and unique in the way he addresses how diverse black

people are. That’s something that informs me in my work.

How did the two of you meet?
SB: 
We both went to the best college of these United States called Morehouse College in

Atlanta, Georgia [laughs]. The House.Spike Lee: The House.

SB: Obviously, he was one of the prestigious alumni from Morehouse. During my years at Morehouse, I wanted to study filmmaking. Unfortunately they didn’t offer that degree. One of my professors set me up to meet Spike during a screening of Kobe Doin’ Work. I bum rushed him after the Q&A.

SL: The Brooklyn bum rush.

SB: [Laughs] I was like, “Hey Spike, how are you doing? I know what I want to do for a living.” It was no holds barred. “Spike, I’d love to have an internship with you at 40 Acres and a Mule. Can you hook me up?” And he said, “All right, send me your résumé.” He gave me his email, I sent him my résumé, and heard nothing from him. I said to myself, I’ll try next time he’s back in town.

So I did it again. This was at Clark Atlanta University. He was showing Jesus Children of America and after that screening, I bum rushed him. I said, “Spike, hook a brother up. I would love to work with you.” “All right, here’s the email. Send it.” I sent the résumé, and still didn’t hear back from him [laughs].

My classmates and I wanted to start a film program, and the dean helped us meet with Spike one time to show him our work. And after that meeting, I bum rushed him again. I say, “Spike, this is my third time asking you for a meeting, third time asking you for an internship. Hook a brother up.” Spike said, “Third time, huh?” “Yes.” “All right, here’s my email.” And it was like, Oh God, this again! But luckily, I think he saw my film and liked it. I’m not sure. [laughs]

SL: You’re not sure? You’ve seen when I don’t like shit [laughs].

SB: [Laughs] He does rip people apart. He ripped me apart at NYU, but that’s a story for later.

SL: It’s not rip – it’s instructions [they laugh].

SB: Well, the instructions are brutal. Which I appreciate. Receiving them only makes you stronger.

SL: It’s not as brutal as some of those reviews might be [they laugh].SB: Sometimes it’s just as brutal.

One summer before I graduated from Morehouse, I worked with Spike at 40 Acres here in New York. Then I begged him to write me a letter of recommendation for NYU, where he’s a professor.

That’s amazing.
SL: 
The rest is history.
How did your mentor/protégé relationship work and develop?

SB: On my first day of school at NYU, Spike was coming out the elevator and I just quickly asked, “Hey Spike, can you be my mentor?” He said, “Yeah, of course. I got you.” Afterwards, he saw all my movies at NYU, and he gave amazing critiques. And I sat down with him for my second year film. Once he saw it, he’s “Okay, Stefon, take out a pen and paper.” I thought, I’m going to get the master’s notes. This is going to be good.

He said, “Write down this first thing: ‘This is unoriginal.’” “Huh, this is un– what? [laughs] Excuse me?” Spike said, “Write the next one down: ‘This is trash,’ okay? ‘This is tr–’” [laughs] And he berated me about the storytelling, the dialogue, the creativity. He wanted me to dig deeper. He wanted me to find something more original. It was a ‘hood film.

SL: We have enough of those.
SB: Yeah, we have Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society –SL: Those were at the beginning. I’m talking about today.

SB: That lesson informed me. What I really wanted to do before I went to NYU was make sci-fi/action/adventure stories for black people. By the time I made the short film See You Yesterday, I never wanted to hear him say my work’s unoriginal, trash, “You can do better dialogue” ever again.

When he saw the short’s script, he said, “I’ve never seen this before.”

Spike, why is it so important for you to promote new artists and give people the opportunities to show you their works-in-progress?

SL: I went to NYU for graduate school. I always thought, If I get in, if they made the mistake, I’d crack the door open and bring as many people as I can with me. Back then, it wasn’t like things are today. When I was coming up, entertainment industry unions were specifically against people of color and women. So I’ve had to have many battles.

Do you see part of yourself in the filmmakers that you mentor?
SL: 
No, everybody’s different. Everybody’s got their own stories to tell, their own experiences.

SB: Which I appreciated, working with him. He’s the best producer you can ask for. He fought for me in every way. He read the scripts, he gave me his feedback. There have been notes where he’s very adamant about what he expects, and my co-writer Fredrica Bailey and I disagreed. But he still respected our choices. We might disagree with each other, but he still fights for me, and that’s something I really needed.

What’s been your biggest challenge as a director?

SL: My biggest challenge from the beginning was finance – how are we going to get the money? We scraped tooth and nail to get the $175,000 for She’s Gotta Have It. Then you’ve got to make the movie, and that’s not easy, either. But it’s the money.

SB: I’m lucky he believes in me. The first step is believing in yourself; the next, which is the hardest, is to find other people to believe in you. There were times even when I had Spike with me, where you could tell based on people’s faces that they didn’t believe in me. They didn’t believe in the project, they didn’t believe I’d be able to pull it off.

It’s not until people finally saw the script and some dailies that they’re finally like, “Oh, okay, thankfully you’ve got something.” You can’t control that. You can only push forward and stay positive.

Spike, what’s some of the advice that you’ve passed along to Stefon and other aspiring filmmakers?

SL: Don’t fuck up [laughs] Nah. I’d say, honestly, it’s all in the work ethic. I’m stressing that very, very, very hard. This is not a joke. You can’t be shucking and jiving. It’s hard work and you’ve got to put the work in.

What’s the best piece of advice that he’s given you so far?
SB: 
I remember there was this one film festival – I’m not going to name it, because I don’t

want to seem like I’m throwing shade.

SL: He is. But...

SB: No. Obviously, I didn’t win and it didn’t hurt me in the long run. I went there for business, networking, and to compete with my short. I was not even focused on winning. At first, I was focused on just making this film, getting people to see it. And after the screening, everybody’s chewing my ears off: “Stefon, you’ll win.” I was like, “Okay, I guess I’ll win” [laughs].

Then when I found out I didn’t win, I called Spike. I said, “Spike, I didn’t win.” And he was like, “Stefon, it’s not about the awards. It’s about the work.”

That brings me back to what I wanted all along. Originally, I wanted to just influence people with my work, influence people to see something new. Challenge them, and make them enjoy the film. So I don’t want an award to try to validate me and my work. I don’t want that urge driving me crazy to make my next film. I just want to make things that I love, and hope they will be well-received.

SL: I mean, if it was about winning awards, I would’ve stopped 30 years ago. This year was the first time I got nominated for Best Director. I got an honorary Oscar and I thought that’d be it [laughs].

What’s more important to you as a filmmaker: the narrative or visuals? SL: Filmmaking’s both. It’s not either/or.

SB: For me, the narrative drives the visuals. Everything starts from the script. If the story and the script is right, everything else falls into place.

Start from the heart of the story, what the story means, what it’s about, who the characters are and what message you’re trying to get across, if you have a message. It’s all about the script, the script, the script.

SL: Well, I disagree, because there’s no one way to make a film. Now, for you, story first – script first. But there are people who are more visually-oriented, so their emphasis for a script might come from images or a painting or photographs. That’s what I tell my students – I guess he was absent that day [both laugh]. One of the things I stress in the class is that there is not one way to do everything. You’ve got to find what works for you.

Again, I’m not disputing my brother. For example, some people are more creative in the morning, some people are more creative at night. Everybody’s different, and sometimes even I forget that.

Why was it so important to make See You Yesterday in your Brooklyn neighborhood, with real people?

SB: It’s so many reasons. As I mentioned, my family is from Guyana. I’m American-born, first generation. Both my parents are Guyanese. My older brother and my older sister are Guyanese. My cousins are Guyanese.

SL: Why wouldn’t your cousins be Guyanese?SB: [Laughing] True. Please cut that out.
SL: Keep it in [laughs].

SB: I grew up in Coney Island and my mother used to always used to take me to Flatbush to get chicken patties, beef patties, salara [red cake], curried chicken, curried goat, black pudding. She used to take me to Bobby’s Department Store [laughing], buy me some fake sneakers, knock-off clothes.

SL: We didn’t call them fake. We called them M.O.s. You know what that means?SB: No.

SL: Emmotations [they laugh]. That’s that old school shit. “Yo, man, you wearing them M.O.s.” That’s torture. Oh man, I’m telling you, you couldn’t come outside if your sneakers weren’t legit.

SB: Oh, I’m used to being made fun of for my gear all the time.

SL: How old were you when you got your first pair of Jordans?

SB: 25.
SL: Damn [laughs].

SB: [Laughs] And I appreciated it, ‘cause it put a lot of stuff into perspective. Like what is the value of a dollar? How do you define yourself? I don’t want to define myself with clothes. Now I have a whole bunch of Jordans, thanks to this man.

Anyway, I grew up going to East Flatbush all the time, and the one thing I’d never seen on film is Caribbean people, done right and done respectably.

SL: What, you didn’t like that Jamaican bobsled movie (they laugh)? What was that called?

SB: Cool Runnings.
SL: You didn’t like The Harder They Come? Jimmy Cliff.
SB: No, I’m talking about American films. That was a great movie.

SL: Yeah.
SB: Everytime you go see a movie about Brooklyn recently, it’s always about Williamsburg or

Bushwick or, or Bed-Stuy – which I respect.SL: Bed-Stuy, do or die.

SB: But I’ve never seen Caribbean people. There is the black American experience and there’s the black immigrant experience. I need to show my culture. Guyanese culture, it’s in the film. Jamaican culture is in the film, Trinidadian culture is in the film.

You began working on this project in 2014. A couple years later, you won –

SB: NYU’s Spike Lee Production Grant. So See You Yesterday started as a short film – my thesis film for NYU Grad School. The thesis showcases you as a director, and all you learned getting your MFA.

At that time, I told Spike I want to do a feature. He told me I was delusional. “Do a short” [laughs]. And all my other professors said the same thing.

Summer 2014, I saw Back to the Future on repeat. It was also the summer when Michael Brown and Eric Garner got murdered. I put all this together and I made a short film called See You Yesterday.

When I first wrote the draft, I sought out Spike’s help. He gave me the grant and luckily, my mother also refinanced her home to give me extra money to shoot the movie. So with Spike’s blessing and my mom’s blessing and a few other dollars –

SL: Wait. Say your mother first.
SB: With my mom’s blessing and then Spike’s blessing, I was able to get this short film made.

We shot it 2016.

Spike, why did you want to support and loan your name to See You Yesterday?

SL: I saw the short. It screened at the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival. I remember that year, every award went to an NYU film student. He came over to our house on Martha’s Vineyard, had a meal or two or three [laughs] and it was obvious to me that this could be a feature film.

The same thing happened with Dee Rees. Her NYU thesis was Pariah. And she turned it into a feature [which took home a Film Independent Spirit Award after winning a pair of Sundance prizes].

SB: That’s another special thing about turning the short into a feature for Netflix [the distributor of Rees’s post-Pariah films]. Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, and Ryan Coogler — these filmmakers, they struggled and opened the doors for me.

I often heard that this was a risky film to make. And I was like, “How?” As an artist, making this film made sense, especially during this time. Because it’s a genre-bending film – mixing time travel with a serious issue like police brutality – I hope people will feel that I treated the subject matter appropriately.

What motivated you to make a grounded sci-fi film?

SB: I’m a huge superhero fan. I go to a comic book shop called Bulletproof on Flatbush Avenue. Back when I started writing the script, all the superhero movies left me feeling empty. I understand people want escapism and spectacle and fun. The question I had for myself as a filmmaker was, How do I combine a Marvel film with a strong, political message?

There’s too much stuff happening right now in our country and around the world that escapism is not the best route. We have to face our problems head-on.

How involved were you, Spike, in the process of making the feature?
SL: 
I was hands-off. [To Stefon] You don’t know what hands-on is. You had a good handle on

everything. I came to the motherfuckin’ set the first day and you never saw me after that.

SB: No, he was not on set every day, and I appreciate that.

SL: Every day? I came the first day.

SB: [To Spike] You was there for every single draft of the script. That’s what I’m trying to say. From draft one, two, three, all the way to the 13th draft.

SL: That’s part of being a producer. Hands-on, for me, that’s someone who’s on the set every day telling you, “You can’t cast this person;” “Do this, do that;” looking over your back; in the editing room; telling you what piece of music to use. I didn’t do that.

SB: Yeah.

SL: Didn’t want to do it. Shouldn’t do it [laughs].

SB: I really, I really appreciated that.

SL: In all honesty, some of that stuff you’ve got to learn yourself. You’re your own man, with your own feet. You’ve got to go through the fire.

Spike, why is it so important for you to stay connected to a younger generation of filmmakers?

SL: Well, it’s easy for me to stay connected to them since I’m only here ‘cause of people before me – Oscar Micheaux, Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis, Melvin Van Peebles, Michael Schultz. Everything is built to keep the succession of new voices going.



Conversation with John C. Williams, Co-Founder & Executive Director, of Reel Works

John C. Williams, Co-Founder & Executive Directorof Reel Works is an award-winning film and television writer, producer and director. Reel Works is an organization providing free filmmaking programs to inner-city youth in NYC. Their Annual Benefit Gala (April 16) is a fundraiser for the organization, and also a chance to honor industry leaders who are paving the way in terms of diversity and representation. This year they will honor Hasan Minhaj (Netflix’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj”), Ruth E. Carter (Academy Award-Winning Costume Designer of “Black Panther”), Michael Houston (CEO of Grey Group), and James F. Lopez (President of Will Packer Productions).

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Before the upcoming Annual Benefit Gala, we talked to John and here are the excerpts.

What does REEL WORKS mean to you and why do you think it's important?

Reel Works is a community where teens are mentored by professional filmmakers to tell their stories and have their voices heard.   It’s a powerful combination that changes young lives and reaches millions with their remarkable films. As teens discover a passion for filmmaking, they learn about careers in media.  In fact, over half of our graduates make careers in entertainment.

I am proud that nearly two decades, Reel Works has contributed to building a more diverse workforce in the film industry.  We really believe that when you change the storytellers, you change the world.

What are the primary challenges for your organization and how can people help?

Reel Works is focused on building stronger partnerships with filmmakers and craftspeople to mentor and support our filmmakers.   We are also seeking stronger partnerships with media and production companies to create opportunities for our young people to build pathways to careers.

What has been the most satisfying thing/incident as part of your journeyThe most satisfying part of this journey has been watching young people develop and mature as young artists and citizens.  Students often stay with us throughout high school and into their young adult years. At first it’s about telling a personal story.  Through that process a passion is ignited - leading to a lifelong journey of growth and discovery through filmmaking. Seeing our young filmmakers on stage after screening their films is the way I personally recharge my enthusiasm for the work.

How do you pick the honorees and why these people?

This year, we will be celebrating Change Makers, whose accomplishments in various industries have made an indelible cultural impact and encourage our students to envision a future where their voices are represented and respected:

  • James Lopez, President of Will Packer Productions for reinventing the American mainstream in film and television.

  • Hasan Minhaj for mercilessly taking those in power to task through humor to engage and awaken audiences of all backgrounds

  • Michael Houston, CEO of Grey Advertising for bringing a new generation of leadership to the creative renaissance in marketing and advertising worldwide

  • Ruth E. Carter - Academy Award Winning Costume Designer for Black Panther - the first African-American to win an Academy Award in that category.  

What is your message to all budding young filmmakers and storytellers?

First -  Be an active creator rather than a passive consumer of media.  The world needs to hear your stories.

Second - This is a great time to pursue a career in entertainment - especially in NYC where there has been an explosion of production and post production jobs in recent years.  

————

John C. Williams, Co-Founder & Executive Directoris an award-winning film and television writer, producer and director whose credits include independent shorts, features, documentaries, television programming and corporate communications. Prior to founding Reel Works, John created original television for WNET/Thirteen, Oxygen, WE: Women’s Television and Metro Channels. John has produced numerous major market television commercials and independent films. John holds an MFA in Film & Television from New York University and a BA in English from Boston University.

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Reel Works is an organization providing free filmmaking programs to inner-city youth in NYC. Their Annual Benefit Gala (April 16) is a fundraiser for the organization, and also a chance to honor industry leaders who are paving the way in terms of diversity and representation. This year they will honor Hasan Minhaj (Netflix’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj”), Ruth E. Carter (Academy Award-Winning Costume Designer of “Black Panther”), Michael Houston (CEO of Grey Group), and James F. Lopez (President of Will Packer Productions).

Students of Reel Works are from all over New York, and over 50% go on to be employed by the entertainment industry. Their programs develop students as young artists and citizens and help them graduate, get into college, and launch careers in media.

Previous honorees include “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, Alex Gibney, Danai Gurira, Phoebe Robinson, Gabourey Sidibe, Jeffrey Wright and more.

For more details, checkout the link below
https://www.reelworks.org/

Dinner with Russell Hornsby - The Hate You Give

Russell Hornsby (“The Hate U Give”) with award-winning, Indian playwright Rahul Tiwari, Ocean Prime, in New York City. Feb. 12, 2019 Photo credit, Lapacazo Sandoval

Russell Hornsby (“The Hate U Give”) with award-winning, Indian playwright Rahul Tiwari, Ocean Prime, in New York City. Feb. 12, 2019 Photo credit, Lapacazo Sandoval

“It’s colder than a pimp’s heart out there,” bellowed actor Russell Hornsby, as he entered the private dining room of New York’s chic restaurant, Ocean Prime to chop it up with a very small, select group of journalists to share light on his role, as Maverick ‘May’ Carter  in director George Tillman Jr’s, “The Hate U Give” which also stars Amandla Stenberg, now available on Digital, 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD.

It was an enchanting evening …

The dinner invitation to meet Hornsby was extended by 20th Century Fox Studios and the attentive staff at Ocean Prime filled the massive dining table with food, fine wine, and exotic cocktails. In short order, the evening morphed into a comfortable exchange making it feel more like “fam” was being schooled by a seasoned and respected member of an elite clan of like-minded storytellers.

Here’s where it gets very interesting because in discovering Hornsby what I noticed first (happily) is that he’s unapologetically Black (recognize),  brimming with passion for his profession, acting, and unafraid to share details about the dark moments of his climb to fame. From where he’s standing now, it’s hard to believe that he had moments of doubt, but he confessed:  “I thought this might never happen” sharing more with me, in a tone much lower than he used to field questions from across the massive dining room table— ”It was my wife,” Hornsby said in a tender, hoarse tone. “She’s my ride-or-die.”

There are moments …

Now that I have spent some quality time with Hornsby, I won’t use the word “fan” to describe my admiration for his work. Rather, I will lean on the word respect. Respect for his process of finding the soul of his characters and honoring his theater roots and the powerful connection he has with the work of the late, great playwright August Wilson.

Hornsby is always at the ready …

Toward the end of the dinner, he turned his body toward me—forcing the person seated between us to slide forward (and stay there) and he dropped, ever so cool,  into a monologue from “King Hendley 11,”  the ninth play in August Wilson’s ten-play cycle that, decade by decade, examines African American life in the United States during the twentieth century.  Set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1985, the play tells the story of an ex-con in Pittsburgh trying to rebuild his life.

Hornsby’s eyes never left ours and although there were other colleagues in the room at the time, his performance was done, just for us.

Here are edited excerpts from my shared evening with thespian Russell Hornsby.

MyNewYorkEye:  Did you just say ‘it’s colder than a pimps’ heart’? I’ve never heard that expression.

RUSSELL HORNSBY: Clearly, you’re not from Oakland [California]. That’s where I grew up. Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and me went to the same high school, miles apart which is cool.

MNYE: Looking back do you remember your first thoughts on reading the screenplay for

“The Hate U Give?”

RH: Great question.  Well, I knew it had the potential to really make a dramatic impact, a deep impact, a social impact. Understand, just a visceral impact if it was done authentically and honestly, and that’s what George [Tillman] did.

MNYE: You’re a father of two, small sons.  That must be challenging balancing being a working actor and a father.

RH:  First of all to be truthful and this is very real, I picked the right mate. And, I’m not saying that to ‘say it’ it’s real. I have a ride-or-die wife. We’ve been married for ten [years], but we’ve been together for 15 [years]. And so, my wife in her vows said that ‘I will do whatever it takes to be supportive of you.’

MNYE: Russell, wait … I think I’m going to cry.

RH: I’m on the verge of tears myself and my wife, she’s held [to her vows] to that! She’s had my back the whole way. Do you know what I mean? And so what it really challenged me to do is to grow up! You know what I’m saying, on some real stuff. It didn’t take me long to realize that she’s given me a leg, a real opportunity to do what I need to do, and to be successful.

MNYE: That’s powerful. Thank you for sharing that.  Question, along the way, did you ever get a piece of advice that struck and stuck with you?

RH: Yes. Years ago a friend and mentor told me, when I was 30, that I had to put life first and I think when you choose to put life first, the balancing act comes easy because the choices and decisions that you make are in support of your union and your family.  I’m really trying to walk in accordance with that. I’ve been blessed.

MNYE: You’re the type of man that keeps it 100%!

RH: Exactly. I’m the type of cat that keeps it 100!

MNYE: Let’s discuss the character that you play, Maverick. A stretch to find him?

RH: Not at all!  I know him. You know him. Maverick exists in my community; I grew up seeing Mavericks, the character jumped off of the page and hit me; it was real and three-dimensional, which you don’t see.

MNYE: So the layers all the conflict that make him so powerful were there, on the written page?

RH: Absolutely on the page.  Listen, we’re talking about a complicated man who has conflict—outer conflict, inner conflict. He’s desperately looking for ways to resolve it. Right?  Maverick is an ex-con, a store owner; he’s a father and a husband. This is real life stuff. Regular people, stuff, how does one go about navigating their way through that mire?

MNYE: Real people are often the most challenging to bring to life, on the big screen. Do you agree?

RH: Hell yes, I agree and because of that, it presented a wonderful challenge, to be honest with you, keeping it 100, that’s the kind of challenge, as an actor, that I want to take on. It’s good to be a little nervous, but in the end, you just dive in.

MNYE: Got it. You dive in.  How did you, the actor find a sense of the reality of this character?

RH: As an actor, I do my research. I read the news, books, and I listen. I create a character’s backstory.  The saying goes, [that] you can’t lie in life, and tell the truth on stage. The character has to be a representative of who you are. I tell people, all the time, that there are very few, true chameleons in the business. So then every character that you portray is a representative of who you are at this point in your career.

I know Maverick. I know how he talks. How he walks.  I understand who he was, who he is now, whom he wants to be.

Russell Hornsby (“The Hate U Give”) at a special dinner held at, Ocean Prime, in New York City. Feb. 12, 2019

MNYE: You are a father of two, small boys.  What do you think of him as a father?

 

RH:  Maverick is an exceptional father.  There are men who get down. Who go to work every day, come home, feed their kids. He encourages his daughter to use her voice, however difficult it might be to do so.  He’s like an old school throwback.

MNYE: Who encouraged you? You mentioned that you were raised by a single mother.

RH: Good question. Let me think. I can’t narrow it down to one person. As you mentioned my mother raised me.  I was raised without a father, so many men that I encountered in my life helped raise me. Coaches, the football coaches, the soccer coaches and then the men you see in the street, around you. You know, as I get older and I reflect back and think, wait, maybe Maverick may have been a drug dealer, and you begin to realize the dimensions that people have, and that people take on, and the humanity that they possess.

MNYE: That was insightful.  Let me ask you if you could do anything for the big screen, what would it be?

RH: Any and all of August Wilson.  My favorite is ‘King Hendley 11.’  He says:

‘I don’t know about you and Leroy but Pernell made me kill him. Pernell called me champ, I told him my name is King.  He said, yeah champ. I go on. I don’t say nothin. I told myself, he don’t know. He don’t know my daddy killed a man for calling him out his name. He don’t know, he’s fucking with King Hendley, the second. I got the atomic bomb as far as he’s concerned and I got to use it.  Now, they say that GOD looks after fools and drunks. I use to think that was true but seeing how he was both, I didn’t know anymore. He called me champ but I didn’t say nothin. I put him on probation. I told myself, he don’t know but I’m gonna give him a chance to figure it out. He come back and say he’s sorry I’ll let him live. I’m gonna fuck him up. I’m gonna bust both his knee caps but I’ll let him live. Saturday. I don’t know why it’s always on a Saturday.

MNYE: OMG, that was amazing. Thank you.

RH: You’re welcome!

“The Hate U Give” now available on Digital, 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD.

https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-hate-u-give