In the excellent new drama “Mr. Sophistication,” veteran comedian/actor Ron Waters (Chicago-native Harry Lennix) is tempted by the notion that fame means he exists on a different level in society.
“I think any honest celebrity would see a bit of Ron Waters in himself,” says Lennix, who grew up in South Shore and attended Northwestern University. “I think if you showed this movie to any of those guys—singers or actors or comedians, [any] entertainer, there’d be a lot of resonance with actual people.”
Showing Saturday and Sunday as part of the Chicago International Film Festival, “Mr. Sophistication” should resonate with viewers whether or not they’re in show business. In the film, Ron leaves Chicago for L.A. to rejuvenate his stand-up career. There, despite his wife (Tatum O’Neal) back home, he begins a relationship with 24-year-old Rosa (Paloma Guzman of “Pretty Little Liars”). Writer-director Danny Green’s insightful drama charismatically explores an artist’s ambition and somber truths about the emotional collateral damage that comes with it.
The L.A.-based Lennix, whose mom and sister live in Chatham, also plays General Swanwick in the upcoming Superman flick “Man of Steel,” but he did not shoot any of his scenes in Chicago. By phone from L.A., the 47-year-old actor—a veteran of the Goodman, Steppenwolf and Northlight theatres—talked about his Chicago roots, preferring not to see the audience and why he has no plans to play Barack Obama.
***1/2 (out of four)
“Writer-director Danny Green's suave drama takes a familiar story of second chances and underscores it with the psychology of the artist and a criticism of self-indulgent manhood.”
See it: 7:15 p.m. Oct. 20, 12:15 p.m. Oct. 21 ($11-$14) at AMC River East
When you think about growing up in Chicago, going to school at Northwestern and the progress of your acting career, what does it mean to you to come back to show a movie at the film festival?
I think it’s great. And it’s one of those things where I think if it had happened and I was 25 instead of almost 48, or even 28 or 35, I think I would have been far less stable to deal with it. I think I would be overwhelmed at this point and would not really be able to execute the classical things that come along with this when you decide you want to be a producer. I feel in large parts vindicated. I’m glad that that vindication is coming from my hometown. Chicago means a lot to me. I still identify myself as a Chicagoan. People say “Where are you from?” the first thing out of my mouth is “I’m from Chicago,” and I say that with great pride. And so I think that having finished this movie, having gotten to the finish line on this marathon is indicative of a Chicago spirit. It’s the ethos that I grew up with, which is a city that works, the city with big shoulders. You want a real working class city, and we’re people who finish what we start and say what we mean and mean what we say. So I said I was going to do it, and I did it. It’s my maiden voyage as a producer and it feels great. It’s been a long hard slog here, but I think for finally to be reaching this is a sign that I can breathe easy. So I feel relieved and I feel supported and it’s a warm embrace from my mom really. From my hometown. So it’s great.
I read that your acting career got somewhat of a start when you decided to act in a high school play while waiting for your baseball season to begin. How do you think your baseball career would have turned out had you gone that route?
I don’t think my baseball career would have turned out at all [laughs] ‘cause I couldn’t see so well. I had an astigmatism and I couldn’t pick up the ball like I needed to in order to be able to hit effectively at that level after high school. I think if Lasik surgery had been invented at that point, it might have been a different story. But I never was going to be Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. [Laughs.]
Did that vision issue ever come into play with acting?
Oh yeah, yeah, quite a bit. But not in a negative way, really. There were contact lenses, of course, but I didn’t have contact lenses and I did not have them for a good reason sometimes because I didn’t like to look out into the audience and be able to recognize people. I thought that that would be a distraction. So frequently when I was on stage I would act without my contacts and so most things were pretty blurry except for up close. It was an interesting thing. Now that I can see [laughs], I think I was right about that.
How old were you when you stopped doing that? Was it just in high school when you chose to not see people out there or later on too?
Oh, it was later on, far later. Well into my career I would say, up until the time I was about 35. I think the first time I didn’t do that was in “A Raisin in the Sun” at the Goodman Theatre in 2000.
I really enjoyed “Mr. Sophistication.” For Ron Waters, are you naturally that smooth, or did you have to do some research to get to that point?
[Laughs.] Well, first of all, I want to thank you for your review. It’s extremely nice and you were kind to us and we really appreciate it. I’m glad you liked the movie most of all because it confirms some things that we’ve been waiting to hear for a long time. ... We started it about three years ago. To answer your question, Harry Lennix is not [as] smooth as Ron Waters. [Laughs.] When I was a single man I didn’t walk around with a black suit on and a lot of pomade in my hair or anything. I think I have a bit of Ron Waters in me from people I’ve observed. I was never the smooth guy with lines or anything but I’m fairly witty, so I’m probably a little more—I can’t say off the cuff ‘cause Ron’s very off the cuff too. I’m a little more deliberative. [Laughs.] I can focus in a little bit more than Ron.
Danny wrote the part specifically for you. Why do you think he wrote it this way? I’m unclear if this is based on a true story.
It is insofar as an amalgamation of personalities and biographical figures, but there was no guy named Ron Waters. It’s our kind of blending, or Danny’s blending, of a guy by the name of Jon Edwards, who actually is one of the producers, Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. So somebody that can flow on stage talking about real events in real time. And is crazy, like most comedians, but has a kind of definite smooth style or veneer that he puts on, this suit of armor. So he’s really a mix of all of those personalities. So in that sense it’s based on real people, although not on a true story so to speak.
How do you think the fact that Danny was writing for you influenced how he wrote the character?
I am not convinced that Danny was writing it entirely for me. Danny says that he wrote this for me, I believe him of course, but I based a lot of the character, in terms of the execution, on Danny Green. So a lot of his rhythm in terms of his way of speech, that’s really Danny Green, or the pronunciation of certain words. That’s my take on how Danny hears it in his head. An actor’s real responsibility I believe and I think the responsibility of at least the theater and practitioners of it is to achieve the vision of the playwright. It may not be exactly what the playwright had in mind, per se, but what was the playwright or what was the writer, what is the story really getting at? What is the essence of it? To that extent I’ve taken on from time to time characters I would otherwise not play just because I could get behind the story, but in this case I was getting behind both a story and a character. I think the story is reflective of a lot of men in our society, particularly black men who need basically to put on a suit of armor. In this case you’ve got this armor of outward civility and so forth but he’s incapable of lying when he’s on the stage. I think that’s the ultimate quest of the artist is to always be in the truth when he’s on the stage.
Have you seen that a lot of people online want you to play President Obama? When’s that going to happen?
[Laughs.] I think a lot of things depend on what goes on on Nov. 6. If it happens, I don’t believe any movie will be made about President Obama until he is no longer President Obama [and is] the former president. Doing a movie about a sitting president is ill-advised, to wit Oliver Stone’s “W.” I didn’t see that film, but I don’t think it was a good thing to do that at that time while he was still in office.
It’s like Lifetime doing the Drew Peterson movie before the trial was over.
Yeah. What do we know about this guy until it’s all over? [Laughs.] I don’t have any real ambition on playing President Obama. I think that would in some ways be the stopping of my career at a certain point. I think if you take on a personality that is in the current consciousness, if you’re not already well-known or something, people will associate you with that character. I don’t think for example that anybody can think of Christopher Reeve without thinking of Superman first, foremost and first, and almost exclusively. So if you say Christopher Reeve people are going say, “Oh, Superman,” whereas if you said Marlon Brando you would have a number of things to choose from to define him. The same with Tom Hanks or somebody like that. Robert De Niro. But if you say Buddy Holly you think of my man Gary Busey.
On “Man of Steel” and what superhero he’d like to play: “[Laughs.] That’s funny. I did not film [in Chicago] unfortunately. I shot in Vancouver and central California, which was great. I had a great time on it. But I wasn’t part of the Chicago end of it. I can tell you that General Swanwick is a U.S. army general and he’s the head of Northcom, northern command. Outside of that I’m prohibited from saying anything. [Laughs.] But I can tell you that the guy they have as Superman is Superman. He’s fantastic. I really like Henry Cavill. I think it’s a very good cast. I’m as excited as anyone else to see the movie. Superman has always been my favorite superhero. I like Spider-Man too and all. I was never that big on Batman, but I really loved Superman from day one and will never forget the experience of seeing “Superman” with Christopher Reeve. It was a profound experience in my mind. I loved that. I think if I could be a superhero—I’ve never really actually thought about that. Frankly, I would love to be Superman. [Laughs.] Except that’s not going to happen at this point I’m pretty sure.”
On David Schwimmer, who was a freshman at Northwestern when Harry was a junior: “David and I were friends and did at least one play together. When he was a freshman we did this play called ‘Private Wars’ by James McClure and he was hilarious. He was precocious. He had vaudeville timing that was pitch-perfect. I’ve rarely seen somebody that young that accomplished at that manner of comedy. He was very very funny and a very nice guy.”
Guilty pleasure movie: “’The Blues Brothers.’ Not a good movie. [Laughs.] Not really. Not a great film, I’ll put it that way. But a great movie. Just a romping good time. Completely manipulative, completely over the top. Crass. Sophomoric. But I love it. if it were on right now, I’d be watching it … I do think there are some Chicagoans that would say, ‘What do you mean, what’s the matter with ‘The Blues Brothers?’ There’s nothing wrong with ‘The Blues Brothers.’ I would say it’s not a great film. [Laughs.] It won’ t be on AFI’s top 100 movies. [Laughs.] That’s probably my guilty pleasure I think. It’s just goofy.”
On his guilty pleasure TV show, “The Jerry Springer Show”: “I believe Jerry Springer is to television what methamphetamine is to pharmaceuticals. It is the distilled version of everything that television actually is. I watch so little of television. I don’t watch episodes of things. But when I do you can boil it all down to a segment of the Jerry Springer show … I think once or twice actually [I’ve had a chair thrown at me]. [Laughs.] I’ve had a chair chucked at me, but I was pretty nimble back then and got out of the way. [Laughs] The thing is really if you look at these television shows at how salacious they are, all kinds of crazy things happen. Believe me, on soap operas and even on nighttime shows crazy things happen. If you boil it all down you’ll wind up at the Jerry Springer show. [Laughs.]”
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