Role Recall: 'The Blacklist' star Harry Lennix on being presidential and a missed 'ER' opportunity

Kimberly Potts
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Harry Lennix in The Blacklist (Photo: Will Hart/NBC)

Harry Lennix will soon hit his 100th episode as FBI Task Force Director Harold Cooper on The Blacklist, and in this week’s new installment of the NBC drama, viewers will get a rare glimpse into the character’s private life. It’s a story that not only pairs him up with Red Reddington (James Spader) for an adventure, but also delves into exactly what makes Cooper tick.

The actor, a Chicago native whose regal delivery often has him playing politicians and high-ranking law enforcement officials, talked to Yahoo Entertainment about how he thinks Cooper is a fine role model for those in charge of pursuing justice and the storyline he’d most like to see for Cooper as the series continues beyond Episode 100.

Lennix also shared memories of some of his past TV roles, including the full-circle experience of his stint on ER, how playing the POTUS reunited him with fellow Northwestern University alum and college theater collaborator David Schwimmer, and his thoughts on exactly what happened to his game-changing Dollhouse character, Boyd Langton.

Yahoo Entertainment: Throughout The Blacklist we’ve gotten some backstory on Harold Cooper, but in small doses. That’s the case in this week’s episode too, but it’s special, because we really get to the heart of exactly why Cooper does what he does in this one.
Harry Lennix: I agree. I think it’s a really nice window into what this man’s background is. We don’t know a whole lot about him. I think Cooper likes it that way. I don’t think he likes to mix work and personal life, but it becomes inevitable from time to time. I think this is a great opportunity to get to see how he handles that situation when it becomes personal. That’s really cool.

One of the most endearing things about him is that he cares about doing what’s right for the best reasons possible, not because he’s a stickler for rules for the sake of rules. This episode really crystallizes that too. He cares about doing things the right way so that the rules are fair and applied to everyone.
I think that’s right. I think that sometimes the rules are at cross purposes with justice. Sometimes law and justice don’t mix. Obviously, when people run for president, or Supreme Court even, when they’re being nominated or what have you, that comes up. This is not a nation of justice. It’s not a court of justice. It’s a court of law. Sometimes we get to see that even in the case of the Constitution. It’s made so that it can be a living document, so it can be made more perfect from time to time. I think that there’s circumstances in life and in law that we see playing out every day. Look at what’s going on in the National Football League, for example, with players trying to be engaged and trying to make a statement, perhaps in ways that are inconvenient or uncomfortable, but the purpose that they seem to be trying to get to is justice.

I think that this episode is kind of a microcosm of that in some way, in a different sphere, but nonetheless … What does a good man of the law do when he sees that the law is not going to be of great use in this immediate circumstance? That’s the substance, that’s the very perfect ingredient, so to speak, for drama and for intrigue. That’s what I’m very excited about with this episode.

It’s also one of those episodes where you watch and you’re saying to yourself, “I wish there were more people like that in the real world” who have that as their goal and who are committed to that kind of principle.
I think that’s perfectly stated. The world would be better off if there were more people like Harold Cooper, in my opinion.

Do you enjoy it when you do get the chance to bring some of Cooper’s personal life into the story?
Yes. It doesn’t happen a whole lot, but it’s great to be able to play down a side street, so to speak. There’s the main road, the main thoroughfare, Cooper and the task force, they’re out to solve crimes and catch bad guys. Every once in a while, there’s a detour that we can take, and sometimes I enjoy taking the scenic route. Sometimes it’s not all about getting there as fast as you can. Sometimes it’s about getting to explore alternate roads and learning more about the landscape, knowing more about this character. Who is he? How did he get to be where he is now? It’s a really great digression, I think.

We get a little hint about his marriage, possibly, too, in this episode. We don’t know exactly what their relationship is right now, do we?
We do not. That’s true. These writers, I have to give them credit. They keep it interesting. The ember’s burning. There’s not a full-on flame there, but there’s something maybe that’s brewing that we’ll get a chance at a later point to take a look in on, like we’re getting a chance to look in on this episode on his life.

The show is still primarily a drama, of course, but with Red’s new situation, there’s been opportunity for a bit of a lighter vibe in the first part of the season. Will that extend to Cooper at some point this season too?
I wish I knew. Or maybe I don’t wish I knew. … I assume that it will by association. For example, I think I had a little bit of fun with Liz when we went and confronted Red poolside in the terrible motel he’s staying in. That was fun. You’ve got to loosen [Cooper’s] tie a bit. I hope we get to see that more. I think Cooper can be funny. I’m sure he’s funny. I would love that. I think we’ve earned a break. We can take a breath and reset, regroup, get a lay of the land, and the way it’s going to be going from this point on. We’re about to hit our 100th episode. I think that gives us a chance to recollect ourselves and maybe have a little fun. Let our hair down a little bit.

Another great thing about this episode, without spoiling specifics, is that there’s some quality time between Cooper and Red, and that always leads to great moments. Are there any specific storylines or type of situations that you would like to see Harold in?
I’d love to see where this relationship with Red started. What was their relationship when they were in the Navy together? How and why did they relate to the point where Red turns himself in? He turns himself in to the FBI under the direct order that he is reporting to Agent Cooper. I wonder why.

Back in the 1970s and into the ’80s, in Chicago, there was a reporter, Russ Ewing. A great reporter. There was a terrorist situation, and the hostage-taker asked specifically to talk to this one reporter. The reporter went in and he got the guy to let the hostage go, and then he got the guy to turn himself in. That happened a few times. That was very interesting to me. I think sometimes in this environment today, when the world is so Balkanized and everybody is taking sides and it’s just fractured, the people who have an ability to relate to a group, whatever the capacity initially — it might be a government person, it might be a reporter, it might be an average person in the street — somebody that can go in and speak the language and then can go back and create a line of dialogue, a communication, that would be interesting.

I think what’s happening now in the world is that we’re seeing a lot of tension on the sides of law enforcement and the common citizen. I know that … as a spokesperson to some extent for a couple of different organizations, and as the brother of a guy who did 30 years in law enforcement, who is black, that you’re black and blue. … Taking a knee and those who are standing who have to defend a community, because that’s the law, and that is what’s required, and the people who are on the other side of the line — that’s going to be increasingly important. I think that whatever decision the writers make on how to engage that, if they engage it, I think would be very interesting and perhaps instructive. Just as a producer myself now, I’m interested in trying to explore dramatically what some solutions might be, some possible solutions rather than just highlighting the differences, which again is the stuff of drama and of melodrama and intrigue and plot twists and all of that. What are some solutions today? Because it’s complicated. I would love for a show, [like the] gifted writers on this show, that they at least address some of those issues. I would like that. That’s a long-winded answer, but you asked.

You just mentioned it: The Blacklist is to air its 100th episode in December. Did you imagine that at the beginning? This is really the hardest time in TV history to reach that milestone, to grab an audience first of all, and then keep them for all those episodes.
I don’t know that there is any way to predict anything in show business, in television, where the competition is so tough and reaching those kind of milestones is quite rare. I think that I had a good hunch about the show all along. I thought that it was an interesting situation. The writing, the acting was so good. I don’t think that we could have predicted it, though. I’m glad. I’m grateful for it, its longevity, and I think that with people being able to rely on the show as a source of quality entertainment week after week, we have a pretty good chance of getting to 100 and hopefully beyond.

Lennix on his past TV roles:

Olivia Williams, Fran Kranz, Eliza Dushku, Lennix, and Tahmoh Penikett in Dollhouse (Photo: Richard Foreman/Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Dollhouse, Boyd Langton, 2009-10, Fox
(On when he learned Langton would turn out to be the puppetmaster behind the Rossum Corp. in Joss Whedon’s short-lived cult favorite)

Only at the end. I remember Joss came up once we knew the show was ending — he made an announcement that it wasn’t going to go past the second season. We were grateful for the two seasons we had. I was sad to see the show go, but he came up to me and said, “Well, it’s going to turn out that you’re behind the whole thing.” I think it was, like, two episodes before. I had time to think about the how. I don’t know if that’s what he had in mind, or they had in mind, or if they even considered those options, but I do know that as an actor, as the person having to play it, it made sense to me. I’m not even sure if it matters.

I thought it was a great puzzle, and I had fun doing it because, in my opinion, Boyd turns out to be a different person than who we thought he was. We’re in the Dollhouse. People are programmed. Is he programmed at a certain point, and we don’t know about it? Is this an entirely different personality type? Where’s the real Boyd, if there is such a person? I thought it fit right into the theme of the show. I don’t know what the people who looked at it thought, but in my opinion, the guy who was in the pilot of Dollhouse was snatched up at some point, and they programmed him. That’s what I think happened.

Lennix and David Walliams in Little Britain USA (Photo: HBO)

Little Britain USA, the American president, 2008, HBO
(On playing high-level politicians on TV)

It sure is fun playing the president. It’s sort of like being a little boy again and thinking, “Maybe one day I’ll sit in the Oval Office and be able to push buttons.” No, it is fun. I just look at it as make-believe. They always say there’s a big correlation between Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Actually, to be impolitic about it, they say that politics are for people who are too ugly to make it in Hollywood. I don’t believe that, but it’s fun to be able to engage. I like talking politics and looking at those news shows, Meet the Press and all that stuff. That’s about as close to politics as I personally want to get. Although I support certain candidates and all of that, I don’t ever want to get into politics itself.

(On reuniting with his fellow Northwestern University alum and collaborator David Schwimmer on Little Britain USA)
It was a hoot getting to work with my buddy David Schwimmer, who directed me in those episodes. I was a couple years ahead of him, but we were in school at the same time at Northwestern. As was Stephen Colbert. I was in Schwimmer’s first play at Northwestern. He was fresh off the boat, so to speak, for the play. He grew up in Hollywood. He had this precocious ability to act. He was so great. He came in, he was ready. We were in a show called Pvt. Wars by James McLure. That was his first show, fall quarter of his freshman year. I don’t think we worked together onstage anymore, but we remained dear friends, and have worked together many times since then. Usually with him directing me. It’s been a lot of fun.

Kyle Secor, Ever Carradine, Lennix, Geena Davis, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in Commander in Chief (Photo: Peter ‘Hopper’ Stone/ABC via Getty Images)

Commander in Chief, Jim Gardner, 2005-06, ABC
I regret that there was not a second season. I think [Gardner] probably would have become [the vice president]. I loved that show. I loved working with Geena Davis. She was a magnificent actor and lady and colleague, and Donald Sutherland, of course, a magnificent actor. Just a great, important, topical show that got to show the possibility of a female president. That was so cool.

Lennix in House (Photo: Fox)

House, John Henry Giles, “DNR,” 2005, Fox
It was one of those situations where the stars lined up. They were in their first season and were a hit and getting a lot of attention, a lot of love, and this role came up. It doesn’t happen a lot when you get something that’s on a great show, and it’s a great part where you get to sink your teeth into it. I’m playing a musician who is infirm, dying, and it was pretty dramatic. It’s what we train for, it’s what we hope for. The only thing that would be better is if you got to do that kind of thing all of the time, but if that happened then it wouldn’t be as special as it was. It was a very terrific experience working with Hugh Laurie, my friends over there, Omar Epps, Lisa Edelstein. [And] they did a great honor to me by allowing me to read during the cast reading of an episode that was starring the great James Earl Jones. He couldn’t make it to the reading, and they asked me to be his understudy.

(On whether he’d rather have a meaty, one-episode guest appearance or a half-dozen episodes of a less-challenging role)
From a purely bottom-line, checkbook place, no, but as an actor, which is really why we get into it, for the love of the game, it’s great no matter how brief it is if it’s an opportunity to really make an impact and to stretch your muscles and to be challenged and to bring something to it. Particularly when you’re acting with other talented actors, directors, and so forth. Its rareness makes it special. I would say that if I had a chance to have a really, really great prime rib one night as opposed to getting all-you-can-eat hamburgers every week, I would take the prime rib. That’s what that was.

Lennix in ER (Photo: NBC)

ER, Dr. Greg Fisher, 1997, NBC
(On jumping into the show at the height of its popularity, when it was drawing more than 30 million viewers every week)

That was one of those 360 stories. It’s a little bit fun to think about this now. When they were doing the pilot of that show, I was onstage [in New York] doing a play of Titus Andronicus and Julie Taymor was directing. I was making about a couple hundred bucks a week or something. This audition comes in to do ER, to go [to Los Angeles] and do a screen test. The screen test is the next day, on a two-show day, and I don’t have an understudy. It’s like, “Hey, listen, this is a chance, a big career opportunity here, but I got to fly to L.A.” They were like, “Well, you can’t fly to L.A. We’ve got a show to do.” I couldn’t do it. I wound up just doing the play, and Eriq La Salle got the part, and was great in it. I don’t know that I would have got the part anyway. It was a screen test. It wasn’t like the final thing.

But then a few years after the fact, having done the movie Titus with the great Anthony Hopkins, [Taymor] directing it, and being the lover of Jessica Lange, this opportunity comes up for an arc on ER, six or seven episodes. I went in and got the part, and was thrown into this situation where I got to do the show after all, and while I wasn’t on it all of the time, it was a great thing to have been at the point where it worked out all of the kinks. It was a hit. It was a runaway success. I got a chance to play, so to speak, in the World Series. This is the hottest show on TV, 30 million people watching, and [I’m] acting opposite Gloria Reuben, who is so talented, and George Clooney is on the show. He was a great guy, came up and said nice things at one point to me.

It was great to have come full circle with it in such a way. It was one of those good stories that keeps you going in the business when the business can get you down. A couple years after that, I couldn’t buy a job. From time to time, it’s feast or famine in this business, and it was great to have one of those to keep you going, because you know there’s nothing you can do to plan for it. Sometimes it just lines up that way. That was a great confirmation of that.

(On his dream role)
I would love to be Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. This is my favorite show. It’s a beautiful [series] that lasted for 20 years. The great James Arness, who is Matt Dillon, a U.S. marshal, and he gets to shoot his gun and ride his horse and bring justice to what was a lawless country at that time. This is after the Civil War. That would be really cool to look at that again. And there were such people. The country was kind of untamed, and these are the people that settled the land. Some of them, like Bass Reeves, was a black lawman. He worked with the Native Americans, and at a certain point, was a federal marshal. He was a great man of the law, of color, who everybody respected and who brought law and order at a very difficult time when the country was forming itself. I would love to do something like that, which, to me, helps to bridge a divide. There is a real and palpable divide between law enforcement and some elements of the black community. Television has always had cop shows. It’s a tried and true genre. But we don’t always get a chance to see it from this point of view. I think that would be very cool, to see that there is a history where people have the same legacy and the same obligation to bring justice — that that can come from both sides of the divide.

The Blacklist airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on NBC

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