“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.