For Russell Hornsby, who stars as Maverick ‘Mav’ Carter in The Hate U Give, working on the film was “a joy,” and also “painful to do.” Directed by George Tillman Jr., with Amandla Stenberg in first position amongst an all-star cast, the Fox drama follows Starr Carter, an African American student who navigates two worlds, code-switching endlessly to be the Starr her white, privileged high school peers will accept, and the Starr she really is, who emerges fully in her less affluent, predominantly black neighborhood of Garden Heights. In the car one night with Khalil, one of her closest friends—who shares her experience of the world, and its accompanying challenges— the pair are pulled over abruptly, with Khalil being shot and killed by a high-strung white cop.
For Hornsby—the African-American Film Critics Association’s pick for Best Supporting Actor—the film was painful because it was palpable and real, a story that was and is part of the everyday.“ This story represents and reflects the here and now, and here I am, the father of two young boys. I know that I will have to worry about how they will engage or interact with the police, or with other people on the street, that may look to do them harm,” the actor reflects. “You carry that pain, and that burden, and so those emotions fill you. There was a sense of a burden to tell this story, and I think honestly, that’s just being a black man in America.”
In the actor’s mind, though, the story was important to tell given just how real it is, the salve for his pain being to tell this story as completely and authentically as possible. In the aftermath of tragedy and trauma, in The Hate U Give, Starr is presented with a few different options. She can code-switch and pretend it all meant nothing, lying to herself; she can get mad, or stay silent, simply for her own protection. As Starr’s father, Maverick isn’t perfect, but it is he who gives Starr the courage to find her voice, seeing it as the most powerful weapon of all. And it is he who is intent on breaking a cycle for his children, the cycle that has prevailed in his own life. As the film explains, the issues at the core of an American cycle of violence, tragedy and grief are deeply ingrained, and continue to crop up, with the mechanical predictability of a ticking clock. For the actor, examining the complexity of these issues, which are embedded in societal infrastructure, the proper response is clear—to stand up, with one’s shoulder’s back, to pause, and to think.
What were your first impressions of The Hate U Give when you were approached for the project?
I knew it had the potential to really make an impact—to make a dramatic impact, a social impact, and just a visceral impact. I felt that if done honestly and authentically, it would do just that.
Did you audition for the film? How did you get involved?
I had to put myself on tape. But at the time, I was shooting a Netflix series called Seven Seconds in New York, so I had a quick turnaround to put it on tape. Then, about 10 days later, I was able to fly to LA and meet with the director, George Tillman, and discuss the role—my thoughts on the role, his thoughts on the role, and the subject matter in general. And I basically told him, “I’m the guy.” Actor confidence—just like, “Hey, you’re not going to find anybody better than me.”
Had you read Angie Thomas’ novel at this point?
I had not read the book, and honestly, I hadn’t even heard of it until I got the script. My kids aren’t of age yet, sort of that young adult age, so I’m not tapped in. So, I read the script but said, “I won’t read the book unless I get the role.”
Flesh out your early conversations with George Tillman Jr. After reading the script, what did you see in the character of Maverick that you felt you understood?
Well, first of all, I know Maverick. Maverick exists in my community; I grew up seeing Mavericks, so I knew that the way it was written in the script, it was palpable. The character jumped off of the page and hit me; it was real and three-dimensional, which you don’t see. You’re talking about this man who has conflict—inner conflict, outer conflict—so he’s looking for ways to resolve it. This man is an ex-con, a store owner; he’s a husband, and a father. So, having to deal with all of those elements, which are what regular people have to deal with, how does one go about navigating their way through that mire? It just presented a wonderful challenge, to be honest with you, and that’s the kind of challenge as an actor that I want to take on, when you’re a little nervous, a little scared about a role, and you go, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” I didn’t have any of the answers; I didn’t know what it was. I just knew I would have to dive in head first to prepare for it.
Once you got to set, when tattoos and wardrobe were applied that solidified a certain sense of the character, how did you tap into Maverick’s reality?
Everything for me as an actor is based on research, the books that I read, the news I listen to. I took the time. I had to read the book a couple of times. I create a character bio, a backstory, all of those elements, and what you’re doing is stacking information on top of more information, and ingesting it, as if it’s you, a real human being. What you basically do is you’re saying now, “I know Maverick. I know how he walks. I know how he talks. I understand who he was, who he is now, who he wants to be; that Maverick can exist not just in the world of The Hate U Give, but anywhere.” I can walk around and be Maverick, and that’s what you want. It’s like I became him—I am him—so that once I hit the set, I can throw all of that research away. I’ve done everything, and all I’m waiting for is the director to say, “Action.”
As you’ve suggested, the film presents a balanced picture of Maverick. An ex-con, still tangled in a dangerous world, he’s also someone who elevates his daughter, and will protect her at any cost. What did you personally admire about him?
What I like to find is the character’s vulnerability, his vulnerable spot. You know, there’s a saying: “There was a time when boats were made of wood, and men were made of steel.” I looked at Maverick as a man of, or from that time, when men were made of steel, but now he’s not rigid. He’s not stiff. It’s steel that is malleable, and in being malleable, he can be tender, he can be gentle. That’s what I really wanted to show. It’s not enough just to say that he loves his wife, and loves his kid. It’s how do you show that love? How do you dramatize that love? So, it’s finding moments in the script, in the story, where you can show the love of your wife, and the love of your children.
While he’s made his mistakes, Maverick is an exceptional father, who encourages his daughter to use her voice, however difficult it might be to do so. In your life, was there someone who played this role for you?
I can’t narrow it down to one person. I was raised without a father, so it was the many men that I encountered in my life that helped raise me. It was the soccer coaches, the football coaches, the Cub Scout Den Chiefs. It was the men that you see in the street who you think are up to no good, but once you get to know them, you understand, and know that they mean you no harm. But as I get older, I reflect back and go, “Oh, that was a Maverick. He may have been a drug dealer, or just a guy on the street, but he meant more.” You begin to realize the dimensions that people have, and that people take on, and the humanity that they possess.
So, it’s a composite. That’s why I say I know many Mavericks, because I was raised in a village much like Garden Heights, where I encountered all different types of people, and various types of men, whether they be young, middle-aged, or older. They all had different histories, different backgrounds, and different stories to tell, and when you are raised in a way where you’re able to take time to listen to those peoples’ stories, that enriches you. That adds texture to your life, and that helps raise you. So, those are the images, those are the people; those are the stories that I consistently call upon when I’m putting energy into a new character.
The film is led by the young Amandla Stenberg, a terrific actress who has been outspoken in her viewpoints from the get-go, using her platform to make well-informed points about such issues as representation and cultural appropriation. For you, what does it mean to see a new generation of actors coming up who are so thoughtful and engaged?
To be honest with you, I’m really, deeply encouraged of what the future looks like, with talents such as Amandla, with talents such as Lamar Johnson, who played Seven. These are bright, talented kids, and they have a good sense of feeling. They’re feeling people, which is important, and you can’t say that about everybody.
But what I really, honestly appreciated more is that Amandla listens. And you have to listen—not just as an actor, because acting is reacting—but also as a young person. She was a teenager, and she is very bright and talented, but what I experienced was that she knew that she didn’t know everything. There was no wagging the finger and, “Let me tell you.” She was just open to the shared experience that was happening on set. She knew when to be seen and not heard, and when someone was offering something of substance, that she should really take heed, and take it in and listen. She may have agreed, and [with] certain things, she may have disagreed, but she never voiced that, and sometimes, that’s important for young people. That’s what I was encouraged by, and that’s what I really respected and appreciated about her. Because of that, as she goes along in her development and her manumission, she’ll be open to learning more, and developing more as a woman, as a human being, and as a humanitarian. It’s going to be lovely to see.
This film has been received warmly, embraced my critics and moviegoers alike. Engaging with those who have seen the film, what kind of response has been the most gratifying?
Honestly, I know it really affects people because people, audiences, the community, they don’t come up to me and say, “Oh, my god. You’re Russell Hornsby. I love you.” They come up to me, and look me in the eye, sometimes with a welling of tears waiting to come, and they simply say, “Thank you.” I can tell in that moment that we’re talking, that we’re interacting, or exchanging, that they were affected by the film. So, them just saying, “Thank you” means the world. Because I know it’s more than them just being entertained. It’s them being affected, and changed from within, in a way that made them think differently about their community. That’s the kind of work that I like to do; that’s what you do it for.
The film does a great job of explaining, in dramatic terms, the entire societal infrastructure that perpetuates the mistreatment of African Americans—racism, imprisonment, violent encounters with the police, and more. This system can render many hopeless, but in this film, Maverick makes it his mission to break the cycle for his kids. There are no easy answers here, but do you have thoughts on how as a society we can move toward this goal?
I think it takes understanding, it takes empathy; it takes a willingness to listen. Because once people listen, and gain a sense of empathy, they understand, and you start to realize we’re not very far apart. I also think it takes a time. It takes a moment for people to be able to feel this empathy again. We’ve been so desensitized in this society about violence, and hate, and we just chalk it up and say, “Oh, another one gone. Another dead.” But we’ve stopped feeling. Like when we say, “Let’s take a moment of silence,” right? Just think about this. There’s a saying: “A minute is a measure of time; a moment, a measure of meaning.” When you take that moment of silence, it should mean something, and in that moment of meaning, you’re supposed to think and feel. You’re supposed to take a moment and say, “Wow, we lost some people today. How does that make me feel? That could have been me. That could have been my brother, my sister. That could have been my mother. How would I feel about that?” That’s what it’s supposed to do. So, when we talk about the incidence of gun violence, of racism, of sexism, misogyny, discrimination, you’re supposed to take a moment and say, “How would I feel? Let me put myself in the person’s shoes.” And when you can do that, it takes away a lot of the slings and arrows that we want to throw at people. It begins to, I think.
The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative recently shared a study, demonstrating that in 2018, 16 black directors contributed to the year’s 100 top-grossing films. By comparison, in 2017, only six made that list. USC began looking at this data in 2007, and this year’s tally is the highest recorded to date. Do you consider this information heartening?
You know what? I think the industry has done a great job in answering the bell, the calling bell to say, “We need to do more.” Is there more that can be done? Absolutely, on all fronts. The reason it’s a challenge is because there’s so many people that feel they need to be served, and deserved to be served. It’s like we’re saying, “We’re seeing minorities,” but then blacks want to be fulfilled, and then there’s Asian Americans, and Latin Americans. And then there’s women, and women of color. Everyone deserves to be heard, deserves to be served, and stories need to be told, but it’s a wide net that has to be cast. Do we need to do more? Absolutely. But we do have to applaud the progress up to this point. You can’t just say, “Yeah, but…” It’s like, “No, no, no. Let’s stop. There’s 16 high-grossing films [made by] people of color, so let’s stop, and let’s applaud that. That’s great.”
It’s positive reinforcement, and celebration of each hurdle passed, that may lead to even more diverse work?
Absolutely. Let that sit there, and then in the next moment we can say, “Okay, now what can we do next?”