Playing a dad doesn’t come easy these days for Russell Hornsby. Not, at least, the fathers in his next two projects.
Best known as Det. Hank Griffin on ABC’s supernatural drama “Grimm,” Hornsby is returning to TV opposite Emmy-winner Regina King in the new Netflix drama “Seven Seconds,” premiering Friday, Feb. 23. The two play Isaiah and Latrice Butler, parents of a teenage boy who is critically injured by a white police officer in Jersey City. What starts as an accident snowballs into a complicated cover-up, igniting tensions throughout the community.
Then there’s “The Hate U Give,” a film based on Angie Thomas’ bestselling debut novel about an African-American teenage girl named Starr (Amandla Stenberg) who witnesses the shooting of her best friend by a white police officer. Hornsby plays Starr’s father.
Hornsby, 43, is married and a father himself, to two young boys. The Oakland native studied at Oxford University before finding acting work on stage and screen (he played Denzel Washington’s elder son, Lyons, in “Fences”).
Well, sir, “Seven Seconds” is one intense TV series.
It is. It’s an intense time in our country’s history.
Was that intensity on the page when you first read the script?
It was. That’s what attracted me to it. I’d been shooting goblins for the last six years [in “Grimm”]. I’m an actor of the theater. I grew up raised on [playwrights like] August Wilson. I want authenticity. And rarely do actors — more specifically, black actors — get a chance to be authentic on film and television. This was important to me. To be a part of this conversation.
The story is certainly timely. It’s fiction, but feels “ripped from the headlines.”
Hopefully this will shake people up a bit. [It shows what happens to those in the news] once the cameras are turned off. What happened to Trayvon Martin’s parents when they got home? It’s meant to be difficult. Every once in a while we need to watch something that makes us feel.
It must be hard to play dads like these — going through such pain — when you’re a dad yourself.
I have two black boys, so it’s palpable for me, the concern, the fear. It’s scary, but . . . [He pauses.] Actually, what it does — it makes it easier to say “I love you,” to just grab my kids and kiss them. They’re still relatively young, only two-and-a-half and like 10 months. As a black man, you say, “Wow, this happens. Let me go find my family.” For somebody else — someone white, Asian or whatever — maybe they’ll say, “Wow, let me understand. Let me really see this.” That’s the hope. In the ’90s, there were these shirts I wore as a kid — they used to say “It’s a black thing — you wouldn’t understand.” And I’ll never forget this, I had a religion teacher in my high school, Mr. Harper, a black man, and he said, “No, you can’t be that way. That’s shunning people. You have to be inclusive.”
So the T-shirt should say . . .
“It’s a black thing — let me help you understand.” It’s an LGBTQ thing, it’s a woman thing — let me help you understand. We have to be inclusive. When we do that, then people go, “Oh, I get it.”
How does the dad in “Seven Seconds” compare to the father in “The Hate U Give?”
It’s a 180. In “The Hate U Give,” I play Big Mav’, who was incarcerated for a number of years, and is raising three children. He was a gang member, but reformed himself, and he’s trying to empower his children, help them understand the best way to keep out of trouble. Mav’ is like a mix of Furious Styles [Laurence Fishburne’s role] from “Boyz n the Hood,” and Melvin, played by Ving Rhames, in “Baby Boy.” An intelligent hoodlum. My hair was long, I had tattoos all over my body. I had to gain 15 pounds. In “Seven Seconds,” my character, Isaiah — it’s like his whole center is dropped doooown. His shoulders are hunched. Mav’ is strong, tall, and leads with his chest.
I keep thinking back to your memory of Mr. Harper. He was right. It’s a cliché, perhaps, but true. It takes all of us — moms, dads, Mr. Harpers and all the rest to understand what people are going through who maybe haven’t experienced life quite in the same way we have.
Yeah, I’ll never forget him as long as I live. It struck me. And you realize, that’s all it is, in our society. You don’t get it — that’s why you treat me this way, because you don’t realize who I am. The prejudice, the prejudging, is just because you don’t understand.