Legend has it that Aldis Hodge worked cheap early in his career. Really cheap. Like, McDonald’s Happy Meal cheap. The pre-schooler was tagging along on a photo shoot for Ebony Magazine, where his older brother, Edwin, was working. The producers had a last-minute need for another cute kid and Aldis’ mother convinced him to take the gig in exchange for a coveted Batman toy. Thanks to mom’s quick thinking, Hollywood has been gifted one of its most intense and versatile acting talents.
Hodge has amassed a colorful acting resume that includes stints on shows like A.T.O.M.: Alpha Teens on Machines, Friday Night Lights, Supernatural and Leverage. But it was his moving portrayal of a restless slave named Noah on WGN’s Underground that made viewers sit up at attention and cheer with their fingers across social media. In the same year his appearance in Black Mirror as a somewhat single father named Jack living with his girlfriend’s voice literally in his head, allowed him to blend his piercing stares with subdued comedic timing. But now Hodge gets to go for the full belly laughs in the R-rated comedy What Men Want as the bartending, romantic, very single father named Will, who gets caught up in Taraji P. Henson’s mind-reading male-strom.
During a stop at BET, Hodge is adorned in gold, beads and denim fabrics that accent flawless skin that has benefited from the sun’s full attention. He walks with squared shoulders inherited from his retired Marine parents. His cape is invisible. If not for the disarming laughs cracking his intense looks, you might think he’s one cartoonish horn blare away from taking off through the ceiling to catch a meteor hurtling toward earth. Between bites of his lunch we talk about the comedy of sex, his fascination with controlling time, engineering the perfect date and being a champion for the people.
It was kind of meta for you to have your thoughts read by Ali in What Men Want, because in the “Black Museum” episode of Black Mirror your lover was LITERALLY in Jack’s head. Did you draw on that experience at all for this role?
I didn’t cross reference it until just today. I just recently did an interview where I was like, "Dang, she was inside my head, too! What’s going on?" But it was pretty cool. The synergy was awesome. But with each role, I come at it with a clean slate and figure out where the tones are. I had been out of comedy for a long time, not my choice, but for the past five to seven years my career has been swinging up into the drama area. But most people don’t realize comedy is a big part of my life. I started stand-up when I was 11. When I was 13 I used to host a room at the L.A. Improv and I did that ‘til I was 17 or 18 years old. Then on Leverage we did five seasons of that. It was an action caper show but I still got to flex my comedic muscles. We killed that in 2012, so it’s been a minute. I was happy to reintroduce people to my idea of humor. Will is not inherently the braggadocios funny one. He’s not the big personality in the room. He’s reactionary. He’s gonna have a sense of realism, so his comedic timing is subtle. The tones and notes are a little more subdued, and that’s a different tone to play. But our director, Adam [Shankman], took so many different types of comedians with very different timing and put as all together and kept us on the same note. We were always on the same page. You had Josh Brenner, who most people know from Silicon Valley, Pete Davidson from SNL, Wendi McLendon-Covey from Bridesmaids, Tracy Morgan, obviously. Everybody has a different style that they’ve been hitting for a minute, and he just figured out how to weave together. And there are some people you’re not gonna expect to be funny but are hilarious, i.e. Erykah Badu. She’s hysterical. And then I’m there in the mix. As an actor, I’m always hungry for fresh challenges. I don’t like to feel like I’m sitting in a box, and when this opportunity came up, naturally I was nervous at whether or not I could still be funny, and I was hoping. But I just let Adam take care of me on that one.
Speaking of your comedic side, you pranked Taraji with honey buns on the set of Hidden Figures. Did anything else like that go down on set for What Men Want?
Nah. The prank for us was getting through the sex scenes. We wanted to get through those as fast as possible. It’s tough. It’s always a nervous environment when you’re doing scenes like that. But the biggest thing is, because it’s physical comedy, how do you do that without looking stupid? You want people to laugh with you and not at you. But thank God for Adam and Taraji. It’s easy to keep a straight face when you have nerves. We had fun with it. You let yourself fall into it. And Taraji’s a pro. If you see the movie, I took a couple of those hits for real. Some of them reactions are real!
Is it worse to know she knows your thoughts, or is ignorance bliss?
Better not to know, of course. I would not want to know who knows my thoughts. I wouldn’t want anyone to be in my head like that, but if you did know, imagine how anxious you’d be all day. You’d be like Brandon, Josh Brenner’s character, all day. Just rambling to keep people out of your head.
If you had to disguise your thoughts, what would you think about?
Man, most of my thoughts on a regular basis go to design. As soon as I step into a room I’m taking in the square footage, I’m measuring in distances, everything is art to me. Or I’m putting my engineering cap on to see how it’s built. So I don’t think anyone would want to be in my head, because it’s pretty boring. I’m a nerd, bruh.
Speaking of engineering, horology sounds like something men do after a breakup. How did you get into watch making?
I’ve been doing that since I was 19. I just love building things. I’ve always had a natural inclination to create and build, and it satisfies a necessary art. It got to a point in my career, I think I was 13 or 14, where I didn’t have enough life experience to add gravitas to some of these characters I’m trying to play. I started drafting blueprints for my dream house when I was 12. I always loved designing and building, because that’s where my imagination lives. Art is my language, and acting is just an emotional exposition of my art. So, it’s the same thing to me, just a different conduit. But the other side of me is like building, I love crafting things. Horology satisfies a lot of different things. I wanted to be an architect in school but that would mean I’d have to quit acting, and I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna die in a director’s chair when I’m 110 years old. But what I found about the intricacy of horology and watch design is that it was architecture and painting and mechanical engineering. It satisfied so many points for me, and I could do it at my own pace.
You rarely hear of men discussing their dream house. What did yours look like?
I like space, I like nature. I like to bring the outside inside. There’s a couple of architects that I really love. I grew up on the work of John Lautner, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry. But one of the firms I love now is Olson Kundig, particularly Thomas Kundig’s work. His houses are machines. He’ll cantilever a side or a roof and all you gotta do is crank it and you’re lifting the side of your house off. I can’t afford that in New York, but one of these days I’ll have to partner with him for a house.
Your son, Ben, in the film is adorable. What was it like working with him?
Auston Jon Moore. He’s a fun kid. I’m excited to see what happens with his career. He was five years old when we were doing it. Really spunky, good instincts. We had a good time. I was actor-parent-child wrangler. When we were shooting the rooftop scene, we had all this food out, and he kept eating the food. "We need continuity, baby. You gotta put the food back.” He’d say OK, and then we’d come back and he’d have a mouth full of chips. He was awesome.
He had one of my favorite scenes with the panties. Was your "don’t breathe" line ad-libbed?
Yes, that was ad-libbed. I was like, "The baby! What do you do?’ What would I say?" We had fun with that scene because Adam just let us be free and add as much color to the characters as possible. That was a fun day, trying to get him to put on the underwear. When he realized what it was he was like, “Hold up, fam.” So, I had to put the underwear on my head to show him it was cool.
You pulled a Mars Blackmon?
Yeah, yeah. I sacrificed [laughs].
There are two scenes in What Men Want that you’re not in, the card scene and the wedding. Which would you be in if you could?
I definitely would have loved to have worked with Erykah and have a little Taro reading. She was just pouring herself into that character. That’s her imagination splayed out on camera. But I would have loved to see Will have a session with Sistah.
What about the poker game with the athletes?
I think Will might be a card shark, but I don’t know if he got the chips to sit at that table. That was a very high-stakes game, and he’s too smart to bet his rent money. But if he had the chips, I think because of his bartending skills he could read people really well and take home a nice healthy pot.
You’ve been the subject of a lot of wish-casting, particularly to be Green Lantern. Have you ever thought of playing a superhero?
I’d love to be a superhero. I’ve been trying to be a superhero for 12 years. If that opportunity came that way, I’d eat it up immediately. I got into this business as a kid because I loved Batman. I was trying to get my Batman toys. I grew up on Marvel and DC.
Noah from Underground definitely was a superhero. How do you feel about that role years later and the impact he had?
I took it as a grand opportunity just because of the fact, when the initial idea of the show came to me, I was like, "If this is a series about enslavement, how does it work for five or six seasons? Do we want to see our people in persecution for that long? Where is the gratitude that comes out of this for the audience?" But when I read the pilot I was like, "Oh, it shows us in the situation, but not made of the situation." It showed people in bondage, not slaves. It gave us dignity. It gave the people who went through that an actual identity. They didn’t bring slaves to America, they brought engineers and doctors, brilliant people. So, for me to be able to expose that they had hopes and dreams and still had the strength to find love in those times was immensely powerful, because we’d never see it in our history books. Our schools failed us in that. So the opportunity to add to the dignity of our people was a high honor. I look at all of those characters as superheroes. They actually added the show to curriculum in schools. This is the effect that you can have as an artist. That’s what I love.
With Valentine’s Day is coming up, how would you engineer the perfect date?
That’s tough, man, because you gotta work off the person. It depends on who she is and what she wants. Some ladies want dinner and flowers and some ladies just want to kick back and watch a movie. My ideal date would start with a little dinner, some champagne, maybe some chocolates. Then we’re gonna go to the movie theater, we’re gonna see What Men Want, I’m not even lying. Get her laughing, feeling good, then probably go dancing. Then if I really feel like I’m on my mack-ness, I’mma be like, "Hey, boo. Real quick though, I just wanted you to know that I got your mom a ticket to the movie, too. I wanna let her know it’s her Valentine’s Day, too.” And that’s my ideal date: Dinner, What Men Want and a little dancing.
What Men Want starring Taraji P. Henson and Aldis Hodge is in theaters now!