Hill Harper is a man on a mission. Several missions, actually, and usually all at the same time. The celebrated actor (he recently starred in the cable drama Covert Affairs) is also an activist and author of a series of motivational books, including his New York Times bestseller, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother. We caught up with Harper to talk to him about his new film, The Boy Next Door, in which he co-stars opposite Jennifer Lopez, and asked him to share his views on everything from diversity in Hollywood to the protests over police brutality.
The Boy Next Door seems like it was a fun project for you. How did you become involved with it?
I did a movie years ago called The Skulls, and the director was Rob Cohen. I hadn't worked with him since, but he called me up and said, "Hey, do you want to play a principal in this movie with Jennifer Lopez? You'd get to boss her around." I wanted to work with him again and having the opportunity to work with Jennifer Lopez was great.
Did you know Jennifer prior to working on this film?
I had only met her once before, when she was dating Sean Combs. We all worked out at the same gym in LA. We had met briefly then. This is the first time I worked with her, and she's just such a pro. This film represents the first time we see her as a leading lady on the big screen in a while, and it's where she's clearly meant to be.
Was it difficult engaging dramatically with someone who is a global icon?
Her reputation obviously precedes her. But when you're acting, it doesn't matter who or what's in front of you, hopefully you're just into your character. I just finished a movie with Will Smith, who is himself an icon, and he does an amazing job playing a Nigerian doctor. That's the great thing about being an actor, you get to lose yourself in playing other people.
The Oscar nominations were just announced, and the lack of diversity sparked an outrage. As a Black actor working in Hollywood, what did you make of it?
Number one, let me say that Ava DuVernay should have been nominated in the Best Director category. She absolutely deserved to be nominated. The quality of directing in Selma was superlative. But, when you talk about awards, that's a red herring. The real problem is way before the Oscars, in the script process, in what types of movies are being made and in who is being cast in leading roles. The casting should be wide open for some of these top roles, but it's just not. So by the time you get to awards season, it's way, way, way too late.
You play a principal in The Boy Next Door. If you had to take disciplinary action on anyone in Hollywood, who would it be and why?
I would take it on the studio system, in particular the executive ranks. I don't think you see too many movies cast like The Boy Next Door...a movie with two Hispanic leads and me, an African-American principal, so you have diversity without the film having to be about diversity. I think we need more opportunities to play interesting roles that are not about race. I'd like to see that opened up.
You've written a number of books about motivating young men to rise up above their circumstances. We're at somewhat of a low point in America after the Michael Brown and Eric Garner decisions. What was your response to the lack of indictments and the protests that followed?
I was invited down to Ferguson by a pastor there. I had a whole itinerary to speak to a lot of young people there. It's just really sad. It's loss of life, and of human potential. For me personally, I'm an advocate of protesting and activism, but I do not advocate violence in any way.
I had the pleasure of doing CSI:NY and worked with a ton of great policemen. Most cops are great cops. The problem is the powers that be that create a military-style policing. I believe in community policing. Officers should actually live in the communities they patrol. Just because you're anti military-style policing and police brutality doesn't mean you're anti-police. I'm pro-police.
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(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)