In the mid-season finale of the hit NBC drama series The Blacklist, which also just happens to be Pt. 2 of the story of “Anslo Garrick,” Liz Keen (Megan Boone) disarms the signal jammers to call in back-up, but runs into trouble along the way. Meanwhile the fate of Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff) hangs in the balance as Red (James Spader) tries to bargain with Anslo Garrick (guest star Richie Coster).
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Harry Lennix (who plays FBI Agent Harold Cooper) talked about how he came to be a part of The Blacklist, how much fun it is to face off with actor James Spader, how much of Harold Cooper’s backstory he knows, deciding how he wanted to play this character, how he thinks Harold Cooper feels about Elizabeth Keen, and whether he’d like to get out in the field more. He also talked about the surreal experience of announcing the Superman/Batman movie at this past year’s Comic-Con, and his hopes that he’ll have some involvement in the film (he played General Swanwick in Man of Steel). Check out what he had to say after the jump.
HARRY LENNIX: During pilot season, every year, if you’re an actor who’s lucky enough to have an agent, you get sent out a lot, and it’s kind of like the California Gold Rush. They’re looking to cast a bunch of new stuff. It’s like speed dating. Some of it works out and some of it doesn’t. Most of the time, it doesn’t work out. Occasionally, things all coalesce together. So, I heard about the script, read it and enjoyed it. I went to a meeting/audition with Jon Bokenkamp and read one page of dialogue. And then, to be honest with you, I told my manager, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to act anymore.” I was sick of it. I was sick of waiting in rooms for people half my age to give me the once-over. All they really have to do, if you want to see an example of my work, is to go to Google or YouTube. I’m in every project ever done, just about. So, I just felt that I had come to the point where I wasn’t gonna take it anymore because my work is widely available, people seem to like it, and I’ve proven myself about a billion times, across a wide variety of genres.
I’m not saying that I’m entitled to anything, but I’ve paid my dues, twice, and I didn’t want to pay them again. I was just about to walk away. The next day, my manager called and said, “You might be on the plane in two days, to go to New York to shoot this pilot.” They made a quick decision. I was done with the process, as far as I was concerned. I’m really at the point where I’m not doing that anymore. I’m just not. When does it stop? When I’m 65 and ready to retire? So, I’m glad that it worked out this way. I take that as a divine sign or signal of, “You did it the right way. You were right to stand your ground, as it were.” I’ve been on a lot of shows. Some of them looked like they were going to be great, and then they tanked. Some of them looked like they weren’t going to be so good, but they got picked up. But, I don’t think I’ve had this kind of infrastructure on a show that I’ve been involved with, where the network, the studio, the showrunner and the executive producers are all capable, competent, eager, want it to work and have a track record of that. It’s an unusual situation, but I’m glad that we’re in it.
Is it fun to get to face off with James Spader?
LENNIX: Yes! He’s a masterful actor. It’s going toe-to-toe with one of the best. What’s better than that? He’s somebody that raises the level of the game. It’s like being on the field with Joe DiMaggio. You’re gonna try to be Ted Williams, but there’s Joe DiMaggio. So, I’m enjoying it.
When you do a pilot that’s this good, did that make you extra nervous to read the script for Episode 2, and did you breathe a sigh of relief that it was still as good?
LENNIX: Yes, I did! That’s precisely what I did. I looked at it very carefully, and as it kept going, I was like, “Whew! Okay, it wasn’t an accident.” NBC, these writers and these producers are good at this, so they’re gonna make sure that they keep the ball in the air, so to speak.
This kind of character is not someone viewers get to learn much of the backstory about. Did you have those talks, so that you would know that history yourself?
LENNIX: We did. I talked to John Eisendrath and Jon Bokenkamp, and we discussed who this man might be, and how that would fit in, to some extent, with my own background and my knowledge of the FBI and law enforcement, in general. I am the spokesperson for the youth initiative of the National Organization of Black Law [Enforcement] Executives, so I frequently interface with FBI agents, CIA agents, ICE officers, and all kinds of people. My brother is a 30-year veteran of the Illinois state police, where he did a lot of DEA work and all sorts of other things. So, I’m conversant in the FBI aspect of it. What’s interesting to me is what happened before he was the Assistant Director of Counter-terrorism at the FBI ‘cause there was a before. The beauty of doing a series is that, over the course of time, it’s like peeling an onion. You’re able to reveal these layers, more and more, and I know that those layers are there. You just don’t want to reveal too much, too soon.
John Eisendrath has said that one of the reasons he liked you for this role was the charm that you brought to the character and how he comes across as a nice guy, even though he’s using that to manipulate what he wants. Was that a conscious decision for how you wanted to play him?
LENNIX: Interestingly, the first time I walked on the set with Joe [Carnahan], the first thing he said was, “I want you to play the exact opposite of the straight-ahead guy. I want you to be charming. I want you disarm. You’re as much a politician, as you are anything else.” So, a lot of that came from Joe, as an idea. And I think that that’s the proper relationship between actors and directors. A lot of times, actors come in and they have a take on it and they know exactly what they want to do, and then other things start to happen and they’re locked into this reading that they have of this character. I think the director is the what in the equation and the actors is the how. Somebody can say very general things like, “Be more charming. Be more amusing.” But, how do you do that? What does that mean? How does that actually get put into effect?
For me, it’s almost like a logical puzzle. I like the how. What matters to me so much less than how. But, I’m glad that Joe very much contributed to the what. The rest of it is implied within the character. He wouldn’t be in this position, if he wasn’t very good at reading people and his people skills weren’t sharply honed. I’m sure he could be many different people, if he was called upon to be that. I doubt, very much, that Harold Cooper is the same at home, as he is at the office. I’d be interested to see who that guy is. I know that, as a black man in America in 2013, the way I speak at church, the way I speak in the schools that I used to teach at, and the way I have to be on a set are all radically different. In many ways, we are trilingual. That’s not something that is dissimilar from this character that I’m playing.
What do you think Harold Cooper makes of Elizabeth Keen? Do you think he resents her, at all?
LENNIX: I don’t think he has any resentment, whatsoever. Whatever his past with Red is, I don’t think he’s the least bit surprised about what Red does. The surprise was that he turned himself in. He wants the information because it’s useful and that’s his job. It makes the agency look better and it makes the United States safer because he’s helping us catch criminals. He doesn’t care about the rest. So, I don’t think he resents her, at all. I think he sees Elizabeth and Red as knights and bishops in his big chess game that’s going on, both with Red and perhaps with the director of the FBI. Reddington is not his only concern. He’s juggling multiple situations, and he has to deal with all of those things.
Do you think that Harold Cooper would like to get out in the field and out in the action, or is he find with other people taking care of that?
LENNIX: I think the character, Harold Cooper, is happy to sit behind the desk and enjoy 5 o’clock cocktails with the head of the NSA, as they discuss the situation of the day. Harry Lennix, the actor playing Harold Cooper, would love to get out in the field, whip out my gun and shoot some bad guys. It would be great to get to do more of that. I got to do that a lot on Dollhouse. I would chase people around, beat them up and all of that, and I had a blast doing it. I’d be more than happy to do that on The Blacklist.
You weren’t at Comic-Con for The Blacklist, but you were there this last year because of your involvement with the Superman franchise. What was it like to make the announcement about the Superman/Batman movie?
LENNIX: First of all, when I went there, Tom Cruise was on a panel. I saw Tom Cruise walk off the stage, and I’m a huge Tom Cruise fan, from the time he started. And then, Zack [Snyder] introduced me and the people understood what was coming. It was all in real time, and the audience was playing catch-up to the mysterious weight of this reading. Just to be a part of that and to really be going on auto-pilot was just surreal. It was like an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t see anybody out there, just because of the nature of the configuration, but I could feel them. It’s like having sonar. You could feel this wave of energy coming up, the lights black out, and then I went off stage. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. When’s the next time I’m ever going to be able to say that Batman and Superman are going to be in the same movie. That’s crazy! And then, I got to meet Tom Cruise after I made that announcement, and what a gentleman. He’s such a gracious man.
While you were giving that announcement at Comic-Con, did you ever think, “Okay, are you going to put me in the movie”?
LENNIX: Well, to be honest, whether or not I’m in the next movie, it was fun to do that. I would have done it, even if they’d said, “We’ll never see you again.” I’d have still been thrilled just to be a part of it, as I was with the first film. When I heard that they were going to be doing Man of Steel, I thought to myself, “Man, that would be great! I would play a street sweeper in that.” And then, to have actually been a part of that whole process, not in the writing of it, obviously, but through the casting and the reading of the script, was a great honor. I have some confidence that I’m gonna be in the next installment.
The mid-season finale for The Blacklist airs on NBC on Monday, December 2nd.