Russell Hornsby has been at the top of his game in Hollywood for over two decades. He’s consistently delivered stellar performances on both stage and screen. He currently has two series in rotation, Lost in Space and BMF, with a third, Iron Mike, to be released as a limited series from Hulu.
The authenticity and intensity he brings to his characters is a very big part of who he is in real life. BGN had the wonderful opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Hornsby about his most challenging and rewarding roles, the fun of portraying Don King, and the psychological warfare of being Black in Hollywood.
How does it feel to be named on Variety’s “10 Actors to Watch” list?
It felt like it was about time on a certain level — just being honest. But it was also a great honor. I felt as if I’m finally being validated for the work I’ve done for the past 20 years. You know, people have recognized that you are doing some special work and that it’s work of distinction.
You’ve had some major roles. Which of them has been the most challenging and/or rewarding and why?
The most challenging, if I were to exclude anything that I’ve done on stage, would probably have been Seven Seconds. The reason being is obviously because of the subject matter and how deep I had to sort of draw from my reservoir of emotion for that. Also at the time, I had one child and one was on the way. My second son was born right in the middle of shooting, so all I could think about as a father and as a Black father was someday this could possibly be me. Also, we’re dealing with stories of the human spirit. So we’re talking about relationships; we’re talking about husbands and wives, lovers and friends, and whatnot. Being married, you’re really asking yourself to go deep into yourself and your personal life and bring a little bit of what you’re living into the work. That was a great deep challenge.
Probably the most rewarding, though, was my character Maverick on The Hate You Give. After reading the book, I wanted to show myself and also the community at large that I could do that. Up until that point, I had played doctors and lawyers, which means people who speak well and who are bright and somewhat erudite and who can enunciate. It was very safe. Please pardon me if I come off a little indelicate, but I think at times it takes people really seeing you as an n-word for them to really want to honor your ability and your talent. So it’s almost like Wesley Snipes as Nino Brown. It’s like Denzel playing Alonzo. It’s that thing — “Oh, he can get down into the dark spot for real. Oh, he’s a real actor now. Okay, so there’s another gear he can get to.”
You grew up in the ’80s like I did. How has it been to portray Charles Flennory, the father of drug-dealing brothers, at a time when the crack epidemic was ravaging our communities?
It’s been a true satisfaction for me in that I am able to show the world what Black men went through and what Black men were willing to do for their families. I was raised by a single mother, so I know what my mom did for me. My father was not around, but there were Black men that were around. They were Black men who were there, who woke up every day just to work, brought their checks home, were loyal, were faithful, were God-fearing and hard working. I wanted to show that representation because those men existed and they exist now. I just wanted to give our people and the culture at large, everybody, a reminder that we’re not just out here living willy nilly. There are blue-collar, hard-working men. Charles Flennory represents the last of that kind.
Tell us about portraying the infamous Don King in the Iron Mike series.
I’m going deep into my artistic reservoir. It’s just going to be interesting. It’s been fun. I get to show a different side of me. People get to see the other tools in my toolbox that they don’t know or think that I have. For the first time, people will really get to see the fun, light side of Russell Hornsby that only a lot of my dear friends and people I kick it with really know exists. I’m excited for that.
It’s a challenge though. Don is a conundrum. He is a man who is misunderstood but for good reason. I think that a lot of the things that have been written about him, that people have said about him, are just true. As my momma used to say, “Where there’s smoke there is fire.” a thousand people can’t be wrong. What I tried to do was still bring a level of humanity to this carnival barker. I want people who are watching, especially Black people, to understand that we are three-dimensional human beings in Black. I think that we’re slowly having an awakening that sees that we are real human beings, and that Don King suffers from the same affliction that other Black folks had. You were placed in a corner, right? You were cornered by society, by the country, by the government, by the world. How do you get out? He chose a way, at times ways of illegitimate means. Don King bought into the idea of “Only in America.” He gave the people what they wanted, and he was right. What he was doing was totally calculated, even in his use of words and his mispronunciation of words. There’s genius in that.
With all that is on your plate, how do you find balance and take care of your mental health? What do you do to unwind?
If you’re dealing in this business, it is psychological warfare in terms of people’s perception of you, people dealing with their different perspectives of you, or lack thereof, your work, your person, your color, your manhood. There are times you have to consciously, metaphorically, talk low, and that’s painful. But it’s real. I can’t come with the full level of bass in my voice. I have to lighten it up just a tad. I have to change my words, and we inherently know what it is to do that. That’s part of the code switch. It’s a part of living and being Black in America. To manage, I work out a great deal. I do my best to meditate. I try to eat well. I mean, I’m down here in New Orleans, so it’s more difficult than it normally is. I do infrared saunas, acupuncture, things of that nature. I have a therapist I talk to to just kind of get things out.
You can see Hornsby in Season 3 of Lost in Space on Netflix and BMF on Starz.
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Celestial Holmes is passionate about the power of prose, and she uses it to uplift her people for various Afrocentric outlets. She is also a published author, writing under the pseudonym Mbinguni.