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Acting Is 'Problem Solving,' Says Courtney B. Vance

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Courtney B. Vance has been nominated for a guest actor Emmy for his role in HBO's "Lovecraft Country," a supernatural horror series inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The period miniseries set in the past in the segregated Deep South was truly scary, but also managed to probe deeply into such concepts as racism, identity and self-worth. Here's a scene in which Vance, as George Freeman, finds himself invited to stay in a remote mansion along with his nephew and his nephew's girlfriend. It's a mansion that generates dreams and anxieties.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOVECRAFT COUNTRY")

COURTNEY B VANCE: (As George) You OK?

JONATHAN MAJORS: (As Atticus) Who'd they make you see?

VANCE: (As George) Doesn't matter. They're just trying to get inside our heads.

MAJORS: (As Atticus) Something happened in the war, something bad.

VANCE: (As George) Don't. You know who you are. You were a good boy. And you're even a better man. Don't you ever let them make you question yourself. That's how they win. They want to make us crazy, terrorize us, make us scared.

BIANCULLI: Vance also starred in "Genius: Aretha," the National Geographic drama series about Aretha Franklin. Vance played Aretha's father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin. Earlier, Vance won an Emmy for his portrayal of Johnnie Cochran in the 2016 series "American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson." At the start of his career, he was just out of the Yale School of Drama when he costarred alongside James Earl Jones in the world premiere of August Wilson's play "Fences," presented by the Yale Repertory Theater. Vance later starred in the original stage production of "Six Degrees Of Separation." He also starred in NBC's "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." Terry spoke with Courtney B. Vance in April.

Let's start with a scene from "Genius: Aretha," with Vance as Aretha's father. The son of sharecroppers, the Reverend C.L. Franklin became famous for his preaching. His reach extended far beyond his church. In the 1950s, he toured the Deep South's gospel circuit with his gospel caravan. When Aretha was 12, he took her on tour as a performer. The series is in part about the conflicts that developed between them over the years. Here's Courtney B. Vance as the father preaching at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GENIUS: ARETHA")

VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) I wish I had some praying people in here today. Y'all not hearing me tonight. Y'all not hearing me. Some people only want to trust in theyselves (ph).

(APPLAUSE)

VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) Some people put all they trust in they bank account.

CYNTHIA ERIVO: (As Aretha) Oh, no.

VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) Some folks trust in the government. But, ultimately - I said, ultimately - I said, ultimately, all those things will fail.

(APPLAUSE)

VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) But I'm going to put my trust, my trust, our trust, in the Lord.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing) I will trust - yes, sir - in the Lord. Come on, say, I will - I will trust - I'll trust - in the Lord. I will trust. I will trust - yes, I will - in the Lord. How long? 'Til I...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: That's an excerpt from "Genius: Aretha." Courtney B. Vance, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a terrific performance that you give.

VANCE: Thank you.

GROSS: It's a great portrayal of a very complicated man. So let's start with his preaching. When you listen to recordings of C.L. Franklin's preaching, what did you hear that you wanted to capture?

VANCE: Well, everything. He was a self-made preacher. He, as you characterized in my intro that he was a stepson of a sharecropper. So his stepfather gave him an ultimatum because he was running back and forth, literally running back and forth 10, 15, 20 miles to guest preach at small churches, and then rushing back to get back to do his sharecropping chores. He gave him a choice. He said, the pulpit or the plow. And he chose the pulpit. And the stepfather kicked him out. So he had to sink or swim. There was no safety net for him.

And to see where he - the heights that he reached on that - after that very fateful day was - to me, was everything. It characterized his life, his choices to get where he had to go and his - the people that were in his church. That's why they were so passionate about him because he was them. He was everyone in Detroit. Most Black folks, 99% of the Black folks in Detroit, came straight up from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas. They came up. And they were part of that Great Migration. So he was real with them.

GROSS: Let's talk about C.L. Franklin's voice, which you had to learn and understand for your portrayal. What did you hear in his voice and in the way he used repetition and just kind of savored words?

VANCE: I'm churched. So I - most pastors during that time, they did that. So that repetition was and is that Black tradition of call and response. And it ties everyone together. It ties the choir behind him - or as they say, the choir - behind him together with the congregation in front of him. And he's enveloped in sound and in family. And everybody knows what they're supposed to do. There's a person who gives the repetition of certain words. And so it is a rhythm. It's a rhythm that just builds. I listened to hundreds of sermons of his because they're all on - they're all digitized online. And I listened just to hear his cadence, his rhythm, his words that give me - keywords that keep me in sync with him. And it is a genius preachers at that time had, to be able to connect with anyone and everyone on any topic and be able to take it - bring it back to the cross. So I love the - I love listening to his sermons. But I love church. So I love listening to all pastors and getting their word.

GROSS: So in terms of playing complicated people, let's move on to Johnnie Cochran (laughter), who you portrayed in the "American Crime Story" series, "The People V. O.J. Simpson." And Cochran, of course, was the star lawyer on O.J.'s defense team. You've said you didn't watch a lot of videos of the trial, and you felt you didn't need to. Why did you feel you didn't need to?

VANCE: I lived the trial, the year-long drama that we all lived through, those who were of age who remember that nightmare. So I was intimidated to go back and to portray a person that everybody knows and has an opinion about. So my - the way I approach acting is it's problem-solving. And sometimes, based on who I am, the problem needs to be solved by delving into and doing all of the research and doing all of the minutia work and building from scratch. But with Johnnie Cochran in "The People Vs. O.J.," I said, no, I don't - I'm just going to read Jeffrey Toobin's "The Run For Your Life (ph)," I believe the name of the book is. And I'm going to stay away from watching footage. If I'm watching footage, I'm going to be - I'm mimicking. And I had to get to the place where I'm doing it, and the scripts are great, and people will forgive the minutia that I miss because they'll get wrapped up in the story. And I'm going to jump in.

I read the book twice. I saw that he - his mother - of her four or five children in his family, she chose him. She knew that he would have the stomach to deal with white folks. And so she put him in an all-white environment and went to, I believe, LA High. And then he went to UCLA and changed - the rest is history. So once I saw that, that he was put in an all-white world and used that to segue out into his life and his career, I said, got him. I know him. That's what - that was my journey - Detroit Country Day, scholarship to Detroit Country Day, Harvard, Yale, "Fences." You know, so once I knew that, I said, I got him. I don't need anything else.

GROSS: Well, let's hear a clip of you portraying Johnnie Cochran. And this is part of your closing argument. So Mark Fuhrman was the LAPD officer who found the bloody gloves near the crime scene while he was investigating the murder of O.J.'s ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. During the course of the trial, the defense presented tapes of Fuhrman making racist remarks - not only making racist remarks, but kind of bragging about being racist. And Fuhrman's racism became a key part of the defense strategy. So let's hear a scene in which you're making - you as Johnnie Cochran are making the final argument for the defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON")

VANCE: (As Johnnie Cochran) But don't be fooled. This isn't just one officer. Mark Fuhrman represents the entire LAPD. Now, you may not know this, but you are empowered. Your decision has a major implication both in this courtroom and outside of it. Things happen for a reason in life. Maybe that's why we're gathered together. Something in your background, your character, helps you to know that this is wrong. Maybe you're the right people at the right time to be able to say, no more. We can't have this. What they have done is disgraceful. O.J. Simpson is entitled to an acquittal. They have entrusted this case to a man who says he'd like to see all [expletive] gathered together and killed. That is genocide. That man speaks like Adolf Hitler.

Now, since you can't trust the man, and you don't trust the people, is it any wonder, in the defining moment in this trial when they asked O.J. Simpson to try on the glove and the glove didn't fit, it didn't fit because it wasn't his? If you don't stop this cover-up, who will? Send them a message. Let them know that your verdict will travel far outside these walls. Ladies and gentlemen, remember these words. If it doesn't fit, you must acquit. If it doesn't fit, you must acquit. If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

GROSS: Nicely done (laughter).

VANCE: Wow. Wow.

GROSS: That's my guest, Courtney B. Vance, as Johnnie Cochran in a scene from the "American Crime Story" series, "The People Vs. O.J. Simpson." Did you ever wonder if Johnnie Cochran thought that O.J. actually did it but he was going to give him the best defense he could possibly come up with?

VANCE: I don't know. He could. But, you know, defense attorneys - they don't want to know that. They don't want to know if you've done it or not. It's a show. And people are always, you know, talking about, you know, Johnnie, how he - demonizing him for him - I mean, that was his job. And it was the - it was Marcia Clark's job to prove that he was guilty. And she didn't do a good job, obviously, you know? And it was - it's so polarizing because it was a Black man that was - that got off. And it was a Black man that got him off.

BIANCULLI: Courtney B. Vance speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "SOUL STOMP")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from earlier this year with actor Courtney B. Vance. He's been nominated for a guest actor Emmy for his work in the HBO series "Lovecraft Country."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So let's talk about growing up in Detroit. You've said that your family moved to a lower-middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood when you were a child. And then you got there, and then the white people moved out. What are some of your memories of that period and what it was like to be a Black family moving into a white neighborhood?

VANCE: That was a very heady time. I was just starting to become, quote, unquote, "aware." I was 9 the summer of Mayor Coleman Young, first Black African American mayor of Detroit, you know, Black power. Again, I - you can't - you know, with 20/20 eyes, you can't judge the time period. But Mayor Young told white folks, we don't need you, get out. And Detroit was a super segregated city like Chicago, St. Louis and the - you know, for years, the police were - you know, could do what they wanted to Black people. And they did. And Black folks were tired of it. And when they got their Black mayor, they said, get out. I mean, it literally was a - you know, was a battle, you know, for the soul of Detroit. And for the first time, Black folks had won a battle.

And it didn't go the direction that we would hope that it would gone, and this city would have kept climbing. White folks - a tax base left the city. And when the tax base leaves, the good schools go. But the neighborhood where we grew up was all-white and a smattering of Blacks when we came in. And our parents were so happy. We had a five-bedroom house. It was - you know, it was - we were - we had made it.

So - but we got there. And, you know, we saw it happen in front of our eyes, that the neighborhood flipped overnight. That's summer of '69. The white folks left. And my parents realized they'd never get their money out of the house. The school flipped to an all-Black school. And we were great students.

But eventually, the peer pressure shifted from, you know, getting great grades, which we always did, and to what you were wearing. And, you know, we started fighting. And our parents, you know, in the middle of the semester, pulled us out and put us in a Catholic school, an all-white world, and which was completely frightening and foreign to us. But we had to figure it out really quickly and get to the business of school.

GROSS: So you went on to Yale - studied at the Yale School of Drama.

VANCE: Went to Harvard, then went to Yale.

GROSS: Went to Harvard first, OK. So you were cast in the Yale Repertory Theatre production, which was the world premiere of August Wilson's play "Fences." And James Earl Jones played your father. I mean, that's a pretty big deal for a young actor who only recently figured out that he even wanted to act. Tell us a little bit about what you learned from James Earl Jones.

VANCE: I was completely in awe. I mean, as you said, I don't know upstage from downstage. I knew nothing. It was our second year in drama school. And so I was shocked. I read the play up in the library. I read it and said, wow, somebody - some big football player-type young man's going to get this role, put the play down and went back to, you know, doing what I was doing. I was doing - in class, I was doing some amazing work, you know, in "Uncle Vanya." And I know our first-year acting teacher, God rest his soul, Mr. Earle Gister, you know, was very impressed with what I was doing. I didn't know that.

But I was just - I was working. I was so happy. I was just, you know, doing my thing. And I'm sure he passed it on to Lloyd Richards, our dean, who was, you know, directing "Fences." But I was in shock that my girlfriend at the time told me to go look at the casting board. I said, what for? And she said, please go look at the casting board. And I saw my name up there. I was in shock.

So for me, the hardest thing was trying to figure out what to call James Earl Jones. Everyone was calling him Jimmy. He wasn't Jimmy to me. And I couldn't call him James. So I just called him sir. And that was exactly what I had to call him in the play.

I didn't know, as I said, upstage from downstage. I upstaged James Earl by, you know, doing the scene. He was sitting on the steps. And I was sitting - I was in the the nook of the steps in the porch. And he didn't say anything.

And on a break, Lloyd took me aside. And he said, Courtney, if Jimmy were any other star, he would tell you himself. But I'm telling you, when he's sitting on the stage, you have to be downstage of him looking up at him. I said, that's what upstaging is - oh. I had no idea.

GROSS: You got so much out of the Yale School of Drama. It led you to Lloyd Richards. It led you to "Fences." And it's also where you met your wife, Angela Bassett. You and Angela Bassett have twins. Being a parent must have been so different from your parents' parenting - different generation. They were struggling, you know, financially some of the time. And once you and Angela Bassett both established careers, you weren't struggling financially.

VANCE: Well, you know, our parents instilled in us some basic things that we carry on. So, as I said, the message is more important than the money. We are really about discipline and really about education and really about our God. And so we instill those things in our children when they go into this world, and the world's crazy, they have a sense of themselves. So our parents did that for us. And we're doing that for our children.

So, you know, the world may be crazy. They go to the fancy schools. But they weren't raised that way. They weren't raised with limos going to, you know, here and there. And we didn't take them to our events for that reason - so they would think that this is their world. This is not their world.

I remember we were coming back home from a big event. And we were - the - a car service was bringing us back home. And the children were at the day care center in the evening. The place was on our way back home. And Angela - let's stop and pick up - I said, no. Baby, please, let's go home, let the limo go away, get in our car and go back and pick them up. This is not their world. Our world is not their world.

And every now and then, we take them to something, to a premiere for a children's movie or something like that and do a little red carpet thing. So it's something for them, you know. And then gradually, you know, I think "Black Panther" became the first thing that mommy, my wife, let them, you know, really be a part of and go, you know, engage and go to the red carpet and do all that kind of stuff.

GROSS: Well, that's a pretty big deal (laughter).

VANCE: Yes. It was a huge deal.

GROSS: Courtney B. Vance, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

VANCE: Thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Courtney B. Vance speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. He's nominated for a guest actor Emmy for the HBO series "Lovecraft Country." The Emmys are scheduled for September 19. After a break, we remember civil rights activist Bob Moses. That and more. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINNERMAN")

ALICE SMITH: Oh, sinnerman, where you going to run to? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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