Ernie Hudson is probably best known for his role as Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters, the warden in OZ or his role in his current series, The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
But, he’s been on stage and screen for years also appearing in Las Vegas, Law and Order, Desperate Housewives, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle and was on Broadway in last year’s, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
In his new film, Doonby, he plays Leroy, a blues musician who quits his life on the road to settle down with the woman of his dreams.
He’s a truly talented guy and gave a wonderfully candid interview. We talk about how he got his start, the worst non-acting job he’s ever had, if he still has to audition (and when he does, his tech savvy way around it), his new film Doonby and so much more!
How did you get your start?
Ernie Hudson: I grew up in Michigan in a small town, Benton Harbor. Then through a series of life changes, ended up at Wayne State University and discovered theatre there and just fell in love with it. Started acting back in 67, somewhere around there, and worked in Detroit. I got a scholarship to Yale after I graduated from Wayne State, went there and came out to Hollywood and did a film with Gordon Parks. I went to University of Minnesota for a while because my wife at the time was working on her degree and then when that marriage ended me and my two sons came out to California. And we just got a little place and did what actors do.
Basically, I had got into college and was really trying hard to find– my grandmother raised me and wanted me to find a good job. And I really tried the good job thing and did a lot of different things and never really felt comfortable until I walked in the theatre one night and saw a play and I just felt at home. And I think it was when I did my first play, I just knew how to do that. I think all the jobs I had, I always felt like ‘they’re going to fire me at any minute and if they don’t they should fire me at any minute.’ Whereas, with this I just felt, ‘okay I can do this.’
What was the worst real job that you had?
Ernie Hudson: Well, probably the worst job I had actually while I was in high school, I was working at a foundry. My brother got me a job there when I was in my senior year of high school and so I would leave school at noon and I would meet him and we would drive up and I’d work from 3 to midnight. And my job was shoveling dirt in a room that was filled with this black dirt that they would use for the molding machine. They had a conveyor belt that just kept going continuously, so I had to shovel through the dirt for nine hours a day, filling these things up. And you never had the satisfaction of filling anything up because the conveyor belt kept going and you were just shoveling all day.
And then they gave me that little pamphlet that said if you work so much time you get so much vacation time and I really would have to be 60 years old to be able to get 4 weeks off, and something about the reality of that is like, “I don’t think so, there’s got to be a better way.” They wouldn’t give me the time off for my high school graduation and so I quit. I went and joined the marine corps.
But that was probably the worst job I ever had. I would go and the next day I would be blowing, sneezing out all this black dirt you know you had those little face masks but some of the dirt would get in your nostrils and it was pretty bad. And the funny part was I did it because, I did it for the money but I don’t remember ever using the money to buy anything of any importance. So I would have, I’m sure, enjoyed my senior year of high school a lot more had I not been doing that. At any rate we do what we do.
The job that should have been a great job was I was hired when I was in college by the Michigan Bell Telephone Company to be a communications consultant to go to companies that were starting up and create a phone system for them. They trained us and I went out and they gave me a little company car and I got to wear a tie and had a secretary and I would meet these people and talk about their business and design a system, but the problem is I was really awful. I was just really bad. And they would call me up and say, “Its 8 o clock and there’s no phones here! Where are our phones?” I forgot to put them in and I was just really bad. And that was finally the good job that my grandmother was just was excited about but I’m like you know what I’m not good at this I don’t think it’s worth the hassle.
So it’s a good thing acting worked out.
Ernie Hudson: It’s a good thing acting worked out, yeah. It’s one of those times when you say those prayers. I had a wife I had kids. I got to find something that I can do and I took an acting class as an elective as something to do and just loved it.
When I was telling people that I was going to talk to you I got comments like, “Oh I love him,” and, “He’s the greatest.” You just seem to universally be well liked. Even with the authoritative figures that you play you always seem to have this warmth about you.
Ernie Hudson: I appreciate that. I’ve played some characters that were really just not particularly good people but I think that the characters that I try to create are people who are just dealing with life stuff as opposed to guys who are just locked in their own idea of what they are and what the world is. In other words, they’re not a black character who is just going, “I’m this person and the world is like this.” They’re guys who are just doing their jobs and doing the best that they know how to do. Which is what I think at the end of the day what most of us are doing, just trying to make sense of it all.
I want to read something that you said. “I’m an actor and I love working and I kind of take what’s there, I know this sounds a little off but every time I start trying to control it, play the game, change my look, cut my hair, buy a new wardrobe because that’s what they’re wearing, it never works out.”
Ernie Hudson: Yeah, I kept thinking that if I just find the right thing then they’ll love me and they’ll give me this great thing and I’ll make millions of dollars and my life will change. I’m a working actor. Not to say it can’t happen. And God knows I’ve tried everything I’ve grown beards I’ve shaved my head I’ve done all this stuff. And you kind of go ‘But its working for him why doesn’t it work for me?’ So, yeah, I just work. I find it’s the best not to question it too much.
Well, you seem to be working constantly, film, TV, theatre; you’ve done a lot of guest star work. How do you pick your projects?
Ernie Hudson: Well pretty much, it’s sort of what’s there. It’s not like I call my agents and say, “Give me a movie now. I’m ready to do a movie.” It’s like, “Dude, what’s happening? Is anything going on?” “Well, there’s this one little thing. There’s this Doonby” or whatever. And most of the things have been things where I go, “I don’t want to do that.”
I did a play last year on Broadway called Joe Turner’s Come And Gone. It was a fun role and I had a great time doing that but it wasn’t like I was looking to do a Broadway play, it just happened. In my business it happens very fast. I got a call, it’s on a Tuesday and we start rehearsal on a Friday in New York. So you don’t plan too much.
I think one of the downsides of when people see it from a racial point of view is the characters become very limited. So what you want to do is say, “Well, there’s no reason why this guy can’t be this or that.” Like me being the average dad or me just doing one of the hundreds of roles out there… unless it specifically says black, it’s sometimes hard to get the casting director to say ‘wait a minute, I can do that.’
But also when you have things like IMDB that lists your age, it’s kind of hard to say you’re in your 30s. So they’ll put me in a casting session with a bunch of old guys I’m like, “Uh I’m not here guys, these are old people.” So, you’re almost too old to be old and too young to be old.
Do you still have to audition?
Oh yeah, yeah. I think the difference after all the years I’ve been doing it I just- it’s hard for me to get up to that. And sometimes they’re not even for things that are not even that particularly interesting. They will say, “We want him to come in and read.” I’m like, “Read what? There’s nothing but a few lines here. What do you want me to do? What do you want me to say?”
But they’ll ask me to come and read the stupidest stuff. So now, what I do is I have one of those flip cameras and I’ll say, “If you really want that I’ll put it on camera and I’ll send it to you,” because I’m not driving into town.
And I think that’s one of the hardest things for actors. My agent will say, “They want you to read. It’s only 8 pages of dialogue and it’s not that big a deal.” And I say, “No, but you don’t understand, I have to study the character” So, between now and the two days that I have, I’m spending my life trying to get on top of this and make sense out of this thing. And when I go in and audition and I don’t get the job, I’ve just wasted two days. I’ve gone on things where I’ve gone in for five interviews and didn’t get the job, and then you really feel like an idiot.
So now, I just I put it on tape and I send it in and they can do what they want. That’s a little bit better thanks to technology. But yeah people still want you to read. It’s all about perception. I’ve gone into interviews and I’ve seen people who I never thought would be there to read for some TV show. But that’s the nature of the game and I have to keep reminding myself that there’s no guarantee. You got to fight for the roles and this is the way it’s always been. It hasn’t changed.
How do you go about breaking down a scene or approaching a character, what’s your initial process?
Ernie Hudson: Well, first you read a character; you read a movie or take a scene. I think with every character there’s an intuitive knowingness. You kind of know. I can research and every line in the show will tell you where the character is coming from and give you a clue of who he is. Sometimes the script will give you information but most of the time it doesn’t.
“Is this person in this movie, is he a real person and where is he coming from? How did he get here? Where is he going?”
It’s almost like these chance encounters in everyday life. You go to the gas station, you pay the guy your money and you exchange a few words, he’s just a guy in the gas station. But in reality he’s a real person and he’s really important. So how do we bring in his history? Now it’s great if you’re the guy who gets the gas ‘cause the movie’s about you. But if you’re the guy who works in a gas station that’s the only moment you have and so how do I bring a complete person as opposed to me just saying a couple lines and you say, “Oh, that’s Ernie Hudson in a movie.” So you hope that the character is a part of the story because ultimately I think I’m a story teller and I believe in the story.
I have some actor friends who don’t care about the story, it’s about their moment. So, even if you’re the service station guy it’s now about the service station guy. But a lot of time that takes away from the story and I believe that you commit to the story. The character has to be vulnerable to make the story work. We don’t go, “Oh, I’m going to do my thing.” I think you should be true to the story, to the fellow actors. Just finding the heart of the character and trying to give him some history. It’s an intuitive thing. Then you get into ‘why.’ That moment has to make sense to me at some level. And if he’s in a line of work that I’m not familiar with then you have to do at least enough research to get a sense of what it’s like to be an accountant.
If you know some accountants then you’ve experienced that before but if you’ve never been in accounting office where he works, it helps to just get a sense so that world is a real world to you. If you’re playing a boxer and you’ve never been in a gym then we can fake it ‘cause we’ve seen things on TV but it’s nice to go and visit a gym, work out a few times, just to get a sense of what that would really be like.
Unfortunately, I think most actors draw their research from looking at TV and films. And sometimes you have no choice. Leonardo DiCaprio, when we did Basketball Diaries, we talked about, “I’m not going to get high. I’m not going to take heroin to see what the character is feeling,” but I’ll go as far as I can go to try and get a sense of that world and who that guy is. Some people have jobs that I can’t even imagine. I think that helps, all those little things, anything that you can bring in to just make that moment be an honest moment is helpful.
So what’s your advice to actors?
Ernie Hudson: My advice now really has changed in the last few years. It seems like it’s moving to a point where it’s almost a hobby as opposed to a profession.
Before, I would say you have to build a foundation. You’ve got to really take the time to study your craft so that you’re not in a work situation learning, you know? If you’re not working then take classes. Do whatever you can to get that foundation so you’re grounded and you get the confidence in knowing you’re getting hired because you’re good at what you do as opposed to they think you got a cute smile. Because if you get a job based on those things when the job is over you don’t have the confidence to get the next job and you want to be doing it for a long time.
But where it’s changed, I say, study your craft, but also find a way to share an ownership. A lot of the jobs I’ve done as favors and for free, I would say you need to participate on some level if you’re going to make a living. Because now everyone’s crying the blues about the economy and nobody has any money. How do I now buy the homethat I want to have, how do I send my kids to college, how do I have a life? With theatre, I saw a change back in the early days – if you were playing Broadway you could make a living. And then it got to a point where you almost have to pay them to do a play.
So I think it’s brought ownership. So if the movie does well, you can participate and a lot of times they’ll say, “We don’t have any money.” They’ll get an actor to work for scale and then the movie does huge numbers and the actor doesn’t make any more money.
So learn how to either write or produce. Because if you’re writing, writers are a little more protected than we as actors are. Producing, finding stories you want to tell. Find a way to participate. If you’re doing a favor to a friend and they say hey, if the movie makes a half million bucks I can get something because you almost have to be subsidized just to do it. And I have friends who live in New York and they’re paying that high rent and they’re trying to go to auditions and do all that stuff and how do you do that when you’re paying rent.
I got offered to do a play a few months back at the Crossroads Theater and it was paying 600 bucks a week. I mean, what can I do on 600 bucks? So, you got to find way to make a living and this is America and ownership is what it’s about. So participate and tell your own story.
But definitely, I would say be involved in the creative process on some level. If you can write that’s great because I think stories are what’s needed. But just really, being a straight up actor it’s a real short in the dark. It always was but even more so now because in the old days if you work at all you made money. I don’t care what you did in the business, if you were the caterer, everybody made money it was a good business to be in. Now, it’s like a few people make all the money and the rest are just doing favors, so if you’re going to do a favor let somebody do a favor for you.
You’re in a new film called, Doonby?
Ernie Hudson: Doonby is a cute film. I read the script, loved the script and it’s about relationships. How we impact the lives of people in ways that we can never know. So it’s kind of mystical and it’s just a really interesting story.
And I play a character who is a blues man. He’s a guy who made the decision to come off the road which he loves, to have a life with the woman that he loves. He opens a local bar and invites all of his blues buddies to come and play there. He’s a guy who really appreciates the fact that he gets a chance to live and he befriends the Doonby character and gives him a job and finds out that he’s also a musician. It was a fun character to play.
Do you play your own instruments?
Ernie Hudson: In the movie I play a saxophone and I don’t really play saxophone but I did a movie back in ’79 called Crazy Times. Micheal Paré, David Caruso and Ray Liotta were three kids growing up in New York and I was a saxophone player who was kind of a mentor. They would come and I’d try to give them advice. And Warner Brothers, who did the movie, gave me about a month saxophone lessons. I learned how to play the scales, but I could at least be convincing playing the horn. I kind of do the same thing here I remember those lessons.
It all came back to you?
Ernie Hudson: Yeah and I probably would have kept playing but they gave me an instructor who I found out later was very jealous that he didn’t get the part. The better I got, the more he tried to destroy my confidence. It was a good thing, on one hand I learned to play the scales; on the other hand, I realized this guy was trying to undermine me.
He tried to destroy your saxophone career!
Ernie Hudson: Yeah and I think because I got so cocky with it, he was like, “Oh, so you think you can do what I do and I been doing this my whole life and who do you think you are and here do this,” and he would do something outrageous on the horn and of course I couldn’t do it. He took all the fun out of it. I didn’t realize that he had been up for the part, and he didn’t get it. Why they would get him to teach me I have no idea.
How long after did you find out that he was up for the part?
Ernie Hudson: Right about the end of our month of lessons I finally said, “Dude, what is your problem,” and he says, “I went up for that role and I didn’t get it!” You know that moment where the guy tells you exactly what he thinks of you? And he’s been wanting to do it for a long time. And I was shocked.
But I do remember how to do the scales on the saxophone hopefully this will look fine.
Well when we all see the movie we’ll look at your saxophone skills.
Ernie Hudson: Definitely, yeah.