André Holland Is Changing The Future Of Black Men In Hollywood

‘We’re not just talking about a white American problem. This is an American problem.’

André Holland isn't interested in how Hollywood sees black men. As a Southern boy who ended up attending New York University for his master's degree, he's incredibly measured when it comes to talking about his career. It's a drive I recognize: My own family is from the South and I, too, attended NYU for my master's. It's a hall that not many black men have passed through, but those who do come out with a drive to grab the world in their fists. It's why his résumé includes pivotal roles in the mesmerizing and emotional Oscar-nominated Moonlight, starring roles in The Knick and American Horror Story, and now a turn on Broadway in one of August Wilson's most powerful plays, Jitney.

Written in 1979, it took Jitney nearly four decades to have its Broadway debut at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The production stars Holland, who previously starred in Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone during its 2009 Tony-winning Broadway revival. Both works are part of Wilson's 10-play cycle that chronicles the black experience in America over the course of the 20th century.

Jitney tackles racism, the effect of the prison-industrial complex on black men, and gentrification, among other topics; it feels just as powerful and as relevant in the black community today as it did in 1979. It’s fitting, then, that Holland, who has meticulously picked some of the best roles available to black men in Hollywood, plays Youngblood, a Vietnam veteran who's trying to build a life for himself in America but finds the deck stacked against him.

Jitney means a lot to me. One monologue in particular sticks with me: In the second act, Youngblood talks about how the world sees him one way and will never let him change. Years later, black men in America and in Hollywood are still seen one way. They're not allowed to be three-dimensional, to possess the type of empathy that Wilson's characters often exhibit — the kind of empathy Holland showcased in Moonlight, in what might've been the first time I'd ever seen an emotional relationship between two black men in a film. Holland brings that same compassion to Youngblood, making a character written in 1979 — one that I studied for a semester in school and only ever saw on the page — come alive as a bona fide metaphor for the black male experience in America. MTV News caught up with Holland in the midst of rehearsals for Jitney, just before its Broadway debut on January 19.

[This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Now that we're in the midst of awards season, how does the response to Moonlight feel to you?

André Holland: It feels great to me, man. This is a story that, obviously, needed to be told and that people have a thirst for. I feel really proud to have been a part of helping to get this story out there. The timing of it all — this movie coming out in this election year — is a great counterpoint to a lot of the ignorance and meanness that we see in the world. At the heart of the story, it's really about love — a love between people — but also about what that costs, and what that does when one is able to find an empathetic place. Kevin [Holland’s character in Moonlight] grows up to discover that empathy. He’s eventually willing to act on it and to reach out to Trevante's character, and that's where the healing begins. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need more and more examples of healing. We need to learn what it takes to heal.

I've always found that the best black art — so much of our art, in general — deals with that empathy and that healing aspect. Regarding the empathic nature of Moonlight, have you seen a change in the roles you're being offered? Or how black men in general are being represented onscreen?

Holland: It's really hard to say because, unfortunately, I'm only privy to the things that happen to come my way. You hear about other people reading certain scripts or whatnot, but in terms of the stuff that I see and I read, to be honest, I have not yet felt a palpable difference. I do hear a lot of people talking about it, and it does seem to be a conversation that more people are willing to have now, so I'm hopeful that more projects will be made that offer more three-dimensional characters. I want to work with stories that speak accurately to our experience. I hope that the success of Moonlight, of Hidden Figures, of Fences — all these films this year that show these alternate takes — will encourage people to make other films like them. I personally feel a responsibility to not just wait on those things to happen, but to be more active and to create these things. I've been writing, I've hired writers to work on some material, and I've auctioned some books. Basically, I'm also trying to do my part in ushering in this new wave.

You're starring in Jitney on Broadway now. August Wilson has always been someone who accurately represented the black community, and his stories contain conversations we're still having today. Can you walk me through the process of getting involved with Jitney?

Holland: The director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and I did a play two summers ago at Williamstown called Paradise Blue. We had a really great time working together, and he had mentioned that he was trying to get Jitney done on Broadway. About a year later, he called and said, "Finally got it together," and asked me if I'd like to do it. At the time, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to because of scheduling issues. But he and the Manhattan Theatre Club were patient, and my agents were diligent about working it out, so it all kind of fell into place.

I saw Fences recently and it felt so modern and immediate. Wilson’s characters and the issues he talks about in the black community are still really relevant now. We haven't even seen a lot of work that delves into the stuff he was doing in theater. Do you feel the same about Jitney?

Holland: Yeah, it does feel like a modern character to me. I mean, he's a guy who feels like he lives in a country that doesn't fully represent him, and isn't allowing him to fully participate. Even though he's gone and served his country in Vietnam, he comes back and simply wants to buy a house and make a life for himself — that's threatened [by] outside forces each and every time. That very much makes him a modern character. Politically, nowadays, as we know and feel, we are similarly underrepresented and not heard. It definitely feels like this play could have been written tomorrow.

Wilson obviously wrote it long before Obama became president, and during those eight years this might have seemed more like a period piece, but with Trump it seems like it's very relevant again.

Holland: Absolutely. I feel exactly the same way, man. Look at [the political narrative] about the rust belt, and the former factory workers whose jobs have been taken away. But then when you look at these people in Pittsburgh [where Jitney is set], for example, the steel industry really supported — buoyed — that community for a very long time. There are a number of black people who have been affected by the loss of these factory jobs, and we don't hear very much about that. I'm from Birmingham, [which] was also a huge steel town. I've seen U.S. Steel and U.S. Pipe, and Pullman, and these different steel factories go under, and affect people in my community and in my family. But, for some reason, the conversation about it has been about white voters, about white working-class people who feel like they've been underrepresented. I personally feel like black people in this country have contributed so much for so long, and haven't always gotten credit for it. So I agree with you: This political season I was taken aback to hear so much being said about those rust-belt workers, while the black workers who also were depending and relying on those same jobs were, in my opinion, largely ignored. But again, that's why it's so great to see this play right now. It reminds people that there is a whole other swath of people who are going through similar things. This is not just a white American problem, it's something that affects us all. This is an American problem.

Do you think theater offers more of an opportunity for black people to tell their stories? I mean, you've been in two August Wilson plays, you've also done the Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney [whose original script was adapted into Moonlight] ...

Holland: In some ways it does. There are a number of different platforms in theater. Broadway is its own ... [laughs] incredibly complicated thing, but there are a number of off-Broadway theaters that produce the work of new writers. There seems to be more of an opportunity to get work done [there] than there is in film and TV, especially when it comes to reading and workshopping the work of young talent. It takes so long to get a film or television show together, but in theater, you can say, "Hey, I've got this idea, let me get five or six friends together. We're going to put on a reading, invite a hundred people, get some Trader Joe's wine," and before you know it, you've got a little thing going. And at least that way, you get to hear your work out loud. That's one of the reasons that I've chosen to continue living in New York, rather than moving out west, because that community is one that really means a lot to me, and is a relationship that I've fostered for a really long time. It helps me to stay sharp and stay in contact with some of the writers who are coming up. For example, I did a play two summers ago called Paradise Blue. It was written by a woman named Dominique Morisseau, who is a fantastic, fantastic writer, and she's now writing on the show Shameless. I knew her as a playwright, but now she's getting more TV space, and as a result I think we're going to hear even more from her going forward. There's more real estate available for new writers and new talent than there is in film and TV.

Talking about TV a bit, you worked with Steven Soderbergh on The Knick. Dr. Algernon Edwards was one of the best black male characters we've seen on television. How was it working on the show? Will you do more TV?

Holland: I just want to play interesting characters, and I want to work with the best directors I can work with. I always imagined that that would be in film, but the way that things are now, people are working everywhere. So if that ended up being a TV series, then I'm open to that, as long as it's a cinematic experience, not one that's sort of a framed-by-numbers type of show, or a procedural — I'm not really attracted to that kind of stuff. The Knick changed everything for me. Working with Soderbergh was the first time I realized what it’s like to really live with a character, and to do that in the hands of a real filmmaker. It checked all the boxes for me.

If I find great material, or a great character, or a great director that wants to do something on TV, or whether it's in film, or whatever it is, man — as long as it's good, and on the level, I'm open to it. The lesson I learned from The Knick is that everything will come at a time that it's supposed to come, and that it's really up to me to create opportunities for myself. So, has there been a huge rave of things now that Moonlight's come out? No, there hasn't been, but there have been some things that have come along that are interesting. There's one thing that I'm doing in the summer, which they've made me swear to secrecy on, but it's a film and it should be interesting [following this interview, Variety announced that Holland will star in Steve McQueen's Widows with Viola Davis]. I'm hopeful that there'll be more coming, and I'm grateful for everything that has happened. I think it should be an exciting year. I'm hopeful that it will be.

As a black man in Hollywood, and looking at how we're represented in the future, what do you want to see more of and what do you want to see less of?

Holland: Good question. Good question, and it’s one that I don't actually know how to answer. Actually, here's what I want to see: I want to see directors like Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, and Andrew Dosunmu. What's wonderful about Moonlight is that it really does amplify Barry in a wonderful and very well-deserved way. But at the same time, I hope that we can find a way for that to also shed some light on some other filmmakers who can really use a little bit of a lift right now: people who have stories to tell and just need an opportunity to tell them. I want to see more young filmmakers, and specifically filmmakers who have a unique voice. I wouldn't mind seeing less of the attempt to force-feed people what others think they want, if that makes sense — whatever the formula is that some people seem to operate under, like needing a certain star, or needing a certain thing in order to get a piece made. Moonlight is just a story that these two young guys from Miami wanted to tell, and they did it without any huge, huge stars — obviously Mahershala and Naomie are stars in their own right — but it wasn't about that: It was about telling the story in an ensemble way. I want to see more story and character pieces from a unique perspective.

I've always thought that the best things I want to see, personally, are when you look at the Oscars — and they don't all have to be Oscar-nominated films — and see films like La La Land, Arrival, Nocturnal Animals, and 20th Century Women: films like those that don't have to just have white people in them. And then I see Moonlight as an art film taking up that space, because, you know, normally that story would not be told with black people in it.

Holland: Very well said. I don't know that any other filmmaker ever could've made Moonlight, because it is so unique to the creators' experiences: It is so personal. I guess that's what I'm getting at: things that are singular, stories that are singular, that derive from a strong, strong, strong point of view. Those are the kinds of things that I like to be a part of, and would like to see more of. Because I think it's only really through that specificity that you can get at anything that's even remotely universal.

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