Interview: Russell Hornsby on His Career, Building a Character and ‘Fences’

Russell Hornsby talks coming to set prepared, how he builds a character, The Affair and more!

Actor Russell Hornsby
Russell Hornsby Photo Credit: Benjo Arwas

“I come prepared. I come ready. I can go any which way. I can go any way the wind blows. When I’m prepared, now I’m ready to have fun, and I’m no longer nervous, I’m just excited.” – Russell Hornsby

After starring opposite Denzel Washington and Viola Davis on Broadway’s in Fences, actor Russell Hornsby‘s career kicked into high-gear and since then, he’s pretty much worked non-stop. Among the many things the long-time actor has headlined is NBC’s Grimm, Seven Seconds on Netflix and the movie version of Fences. He can currently  be seen on the latest season of Showtime’s The Affair and the upcoming films, The Hate U Give and Creed 2. He’s a true testament the hard work and being prepared and he’s terrific in everything role he’s done.

In this interview, Hornsby talks about his career, coming to set prepared, building a character, Fences and more!

Your career is on fire right now.

Russell Hornsby: Yeah. Sam Jackson once said he was a 20-year overnight success, so…

You’re working a ton. If all of these amazing opportunities were coming to me, I’d probably say ‘yes’ to everything. You want me to play a talking cheeseburger? I’m in.

Russell Hornsby: Yes, exactly!

How do you decide what you want to do?

Russell Hornsby: You know what? Honestly, now I’m at the point where I have to… I would like the material to speak to me. I feel that my body of work allows me the discerning spirit to be able to say what speaks to me.

I think what happens also is that things that I’m offered or things that I’ve considered are a lot of times based on my body work that’s been of a certain caliber up to this point. I think they regard that and they respect that. You get those offers, those opportunities in time, if that makes any sense. So at times, it’s not necessarily a real difficult decision, because now at this point, I don’t have to put up much resistance, because what’s coming is of a certain quality, a certain caliber.

So now, I think it has to go down to scheduling, timing and whether or not you’re on the page, regards to the script or the director, that you can see eye to eye on all of those things.

You’re in the new season of The Affair. What’s it like coming into an already established cast? Are you nervous on the first day of something like that?

Russell Hornsby: You know, a little bit, but I think what happens is that the actors, the producers, the writers, they just really make me feel at home. They’re saying, “Hey Russell…” They want you to be there. So, because of that, you’re made to feel comfortable. You’re made to feel welcome.

The other thing that I’ve realized now more than ever is that the preparation takes away the butterflies. Do you know what I mean? I come prepared. I come ready. I can go any which way. I can go any way the wind blows. When I’m prepared, now I’m ready to have fun, and I’m no longer nervous, I’m just excited.

What do you do to be prepared like that? When you get a script, what’s the first things that you do?

Russell Hornsby: I read it a couple/few times. And then honestly, I sit down with it. I walk with it. Obviously depending on the size, I just try to walk with it and try to embody the character, and just think about who the character is, where do they come from, what likes and dislikes? I think about images. I think about images from literature. I think about images from visual images. You know what I mean? So I can sort of take images from people that I’ve met, that I know, somebody on the street, the conversation I’ve had, all of those kind of things, and I try to absorb that, put that into my body, into my spirit, and exact that, sort of outline the character that way.

I work inside out. I want to find all the character’s vulnerabilities. I want to find a style, their sense of duty, purpose, all of those things. I really want to get his soul, his spirit first.

And then I find the way a character walks, where does he lead from? Does he lead from his chest, his stomach, his shoulders, his belly, his loin? Does he walk slothfully? Does he walk pigeon-toed? Do you know what I mean? Whatever that is. I get deep.  And also, I come from the theater, so you have to construct a character bit by bit by bit.

And so, I really like to take that kind of time, because it’s artistry. I’m an artist. I’m an actor, but I’m an artist. You have to create. You have your canvas, which is the stage or it is the screen, and you have to build this character. You have to draw and outline this character much like a writer outlines a novel or outlines a script or outlines a character. Much like a painter outlines a landscape, and then they fill it in. It’s all those little things. I look at it the same way.

Do you get that detailed when you’re auditioning for something?

Russell Hornsby: If I have the time, I really do. And that’s why honestly now, I have to tell my… Because as I’m getting older, the roles become more complex, and because of the complexity, I need more time to prepare. When I was in my 20’s, it was like teenager gang member, boyfriend. I’d say, “Hey how you doing? You look sexy,” that kind of stuff. Now I’m the man over 40, and so these characters are more complex so I can’t just get the pages, walk into a room, and go, “Hey everybody, I’m here,” because I’m doing the work a disservice, and that’s unfair. That’s unfair to the work, the writers, and it’s unfair to me as an artist.

I saw you in Fences on Broadway, and obviously the movie too.

Russell Hornsby: Oh wow.

Man, I can’t say enough good things about that show. I remember seeing it and walking out and thinking, “Well, you can’t get any better than that.” How was your time on Broadway? And with that cast? That would have been just a thrill to me.

Russell Hornsby: It was. Obviously, it’s a dream come true. First and foremost, I have to tell you, August Wilson raised me. I got my Master’s in life working on material by August Wilson, working with Wilsonian actors, grown men, 20 years my senior, really teaching me something about life.

When you get a chance to work with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, what’s not to love? I felt like now I am here. I’m alive. I’m here for a reason, and I’m supposed to be here, because once you get that kind of validation from just being a part of the work, of being a part of that kind of project, I think that’s… For lack of a better term, that’s God trying to tell you something.

So now, I have to honor the opportunity, I have to honor the gift. Now it’s like, I have to look at it and be like, ‘okay, this is real.’ If I was not serious, or if I was approaching it in another way that wasn’t respectful, let me change that and come right now, be honest and be as integral as I possibly can about the work and my approach to it.

A lot of times after I do a show, I start thinking back. I’m always like, ‘Oh man. I could’ve done some things so much better.”  You did the role on Broadway, and then you got the opportunity to be Lyons again in the film, what five something years later? Were you jumping at the chance to redo things that you thought, “Oh my god, I want to retry this scene.”

Russell Hornsby: Well, yes. I was so grateful. And also, because it’s a film, you actually have to get even more specific than you do on stage. I reread the play like a dozen times, even when we were doing the film, and I found so many other grace notes that I didn’t see when we were working on the play. I was like, “Oh my gosh. That’s what that means.” I would go to other actors and I would say, “This is what I’m thinking.” They’d go, “Oh my God, Russell, that’s brilliant. I didn’t think about that. I didn’t see that.” They’d say, “Oh my gosh, thank you. I didn’t see that either.”

And then, when we were doing rehearsal, we found some stuff in rehearsal that was just mind blowing. Everybody walked away going, “Okay, we’re here to work.”

And again, that’s the beauty. Because when you’re an actor and you’re working with high-caliber people, individuals. Everybody comes ready to kill it. We’re coming ready to blow the walls out of this thing. People appreciate it.

But yes, to answer your question, I was able to go back and find some other grace notes and nuances that I didn’t see on the first pass.

Even after doing the show so many times, you guys rehearsed for the film as well?

Russell Hornsby: We rehearsed for three weeks before the movie. We rehearsed for three weeks. Denzel had the whole set in a big gymnasium. He taped out the whole set and house. It was in 3D. It wasn’t in 2D. It was like a real house. He put walls up and furniture, and everything like that. We rehearsed for three weeks, every day. That’s so important with that kind of material.

I’ve got to ask you about Creed II. Can you tell me anything about that?

Russell Hornsby: I’m a man with a mixed amount of verbal dexterity. I play the promoter sort of in the mold of a Don King, but being the kind of actor I am, I have to approach things a different way. That’s just a little bit more grounded to earth, not as flamboyant, if you will. The man has a purpose.

My objective is different and my motivation is different than I think then what people have seen with this kind of character in the past. He’s not sitting there twirling his mustache, like, “Ha ha. Let’s get all the money.” It’s grounded, and based on a real live person. It’s going to be a lot of fun I think. It’s a nice, strong, but meaning and impactful role.

What’s been your worst audition ever?

Russell Hornsby: It’s funny. I did a TV show back in 2003 called Play Makers. It was like Ballers before Ballers. It was a really big fan favorite show. A lot of people loved it. They put murals up of us downtown across from the Staples Center. It was just one season, but people loved it.  Everywhere I went… It was the first show I did where people started to recognize me.

So, I got called in to audition for Everybody Hates Chris, with Chris Rock. I read the script, and reading the sides, and to be honest, I did not get the humor at all, just didn’t get the humor at all.

I’m in there auditioning for Chris Rock and the producer, I can’t recall his name. I gave just a bad, unfunny audition. So we’re done, and there’s like a hush fell over Jerusalem for about five seconds, the longest five seconds of my life. It was quiet, and Chris Rock looks around the room, looks at me, and he kind of shrugs his shoulders and goes, “Play Makers Two?” I was just like, “Okay, I didn’t get that job.”

And now, it’s funny. To have Chris Rock make a joke at your expense was great. So yeah, it was bad, like an embarrassingly bad audition.

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