Courtney B. Vance, recent Guest Actor in a Drama Series Emmy nominee for HBO’s Lovecraft Country, discusses what drew him to the show and how he delved into his character. He also goes into detail about his acting process plus his joy for Aunjanue Ellis for her work the Emmy-nominated drama. Finally, he talks about how thankful he still is for what his Emmy win for The People vs OJ Simpson did for his career and the excitement of that Emmy night.
Awards Daily: I read you signed on to Lovecraft Country just hearing that Misha Green was the show runner. So, what was that experience like since you were so excited to work with her? Are you planning on working with her again in the future? Maybe on one of her Apple TV+ shows?
Courtney B. Vance: I am a huge fan of hers after seeing her show Underground a few years ago. It has always been about Misha. I hadn’t even read any of the script except for the part I was in. I jumped in–which sometimes I do if someone like Misha or Tom Cruise is attached. You know what it’s going to be, it’s going to be something wonderful. So there wasn’t much risk for me because I know the level of excellence that she brings to all of her projects. I jumped in and it is always a struggle making something from scratch, building a team, putting them together, and seeing if we can get our rhythms in sync so that we can do a series.
Initially it was all about the pilot, if we get this pilot up and running. It is really difficult because nobody knows each other and nobody has any rhythm. So our pilot was very difficult to do, but we got the green light with some retooling and we started. And I have to say once I finished my part and it aired and I saw my two episodes I became a fan! I was just so excited to see what is next, just like everyone else. Because I hadn’t read any of the other scripts. Misha is a force of nature and one to be reckoned with, and I am excited to see what she does over at Apple even as disappointed as we all are that our show is done.
AD: You described your acting style as problem solving. How did you come upon that style, and how did you use that in approaching your role as Uncle George?
CBV: In every project there is something you have to overcome even if it’s just a lot of lines. It started with me just trying to figure out how to stand on stage without my knees shaking because I was so nervous. I didn’t know how to control my nerves. I went to drama school and in my third semester my teacher helped me with my focus, away from who is in the audience to what I am doing right now. Once I solved that problem, then I would focus my attention on issues of each role that I get or audition for whatever. Life is about problem solving every day. How you approach and how you deal with what is presented to you today. And I am not going to give up, so based on that, sometimes a role is more difficult for me to handle. Some years are more difficult. But you just look at it and say, okay, take a deep breath, all right, I took two steps back today, okay, what do I need to do? How can I refocus? I mean it is a life tool. I use it not only for my acting but for my life.
For George, the pilot was a very big thing for me, a lot of uncomfortable situations on set, and in the environment and just blinding it through. Through my experience on stage and on-screen I’ve learned to just chip away at it. Hit a single today, strike out today, bunt tomorrow. The overall effect of all of it is eventually we will get there if we persevere. It has served me well and I go right back to my initial idea of how do I stand on stage and be present, and that’s what it’s really all about. How we put the on-screen audience or stage audience at ease to let them know we’ve got you. Don’t worry about it, we’ve got this. The people who are able to do that are the most successful performers, entertainers, producers, that consistently do that. It’s a gift to be able to stand in front of a group of people (speeches too) and put them at ease. So they are not nervous for me. I’ve got it—we are going to tell a few jokes. We’re going to be here for 20 minutes. I’m joking about 15 minutes, I’m still joking I will be about 5 minutes, and then I’m out. Then people are like, okay, he’s good; they are not holding their breath for me. That is how I approach my craft.
AD: You talk about all the mediums you’ve worked in, and characters you played. Is there some role or concept that you still are anxious to do?
CBV: I’m going to leave that open to see what happens and what comes my way. I know from just working and being in front of people eventually someone says, we want you to do this. I am very happy with the way I am in my career and in my wife’s career. For our families it’s a juggling act. Oftentimes you don’t know how a project will be received. The turning point for me was The People vs OJ Simpson. The problem solving I did in that was choosing not to look at the footage of Johnny Cochran. That was a decision I made based on a feeling that I had and it served me well. And consequently that project and performance was well-received by audiences and the entertainment industry as a whole, and my world spun on that.
Though personally I didn’t change. I approach life with—how can I help? What do you need me to do? I feel that if you help somebody they are going to want to help you and pass on that goodwill to other people. People want to be around people that make them feel good. They may not agree with what you said, but they appreciate the way you made them feel. That’s me.
AD: Speaking of your Johnnie Cochran performance, the night you won your Emmy one of the highlights for me is when you said ‘Obama out, Hillary in.’ Was that planned, or was it an in-the-moment kind of thing?
CBV: That may have been in-the-moment, but I had to write stuff down because my focus that night was for them to not turn the music on me. I was not going to be ushered off the stage and drowned out by music. I had all my bullet points set out boom-boom-boom, and I think that might have been a part of it. It didn’t pan out that well but I got the Emmy.
AD: In your new project 61st Street you are reunited with your co-star Aunjanue Ellis. What has that experience been like?
CBV: It’s been great. She had a lot of questions about should she commit. She didn’t want to be a glorified add-on, being the stay-at-home wife character. I said, No,that’s not what it is, and that we are very interested in hearing your views, and then she came in like gangbusters. So she really is the heart and soul of our team. It’s really become a dynamic piece now because she’s here and challenging everything. Forcing them to look at where we are taking our character’s family and how we’re getting there. Her character is fighting while mine is trying to work in the system. So thank God she asked me, and that I gave her some interesting things to think about, and let her know that they will honor her opinions and her views. Peter Moffat, the showrunner, is in London and asks us, as the boots on the ground in Chicago, what works, what doesn’t work, what do we need to change. It’s all very refreshing.
AD: I also heard you were very passionate about Aunjanue Ellis getting an Emmy nomination for Lovecraft Country. What was your reaction when it happened?
CBV: She is long overdue. I was very upset that she didn’t get recognition for The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel playing the mother, and she was just a force of nature. But you know that’s politics. That was on Lifetime and people look at Lifetime in a certain way in terms of quality, but this wasn’t just a typical Lifetime piece. It looked like it could be on HBO, Amazon, or Netflix. Not to say anything against Lifetime, but we all know about the amount of money they spend per episode, and it looked like they spent 10 million dollars per episode on that. And I just knew she was going to get the recognition. Then she did not, to my horror.
So this was another opportunity, and she’s with HBO now (the big boys). So hopefully she will come out victorious and be able to stand up there with that golden statue. She will be very articulate, quiet, but with the mic she will be able to run everything, so everybody will get her perspective on where we are in the 75 seconds that they allow it. I am very excited for her and for our show. I hope our show wins all 18 nominations. It would send a wonderful message.
AD: How are you finding this Emmy season different from the last time you were nominated?
CBV: I am doing a show now so I am a little busy so I can’t do all the press meetings that we did in person 3 or 4 years ago. So with Zoom available there is less travel, it is not as taxing, and doesn’t require as much from us. For the 2016 Emmys with as big a show as we had we were everywhere and had to do everything, which I did! FX made sure we covered all our bases so there was a ring of fire around all of us to push through and on that evening we ended up winning the whole thing. That is the goal of these tentpole limited series: to end up winning the individual honors and the big prize of limited series. It was such a wonderful feeling being up there with your compatriots, knowing what you went through to get there and, for the time being, the king of the hill.
AD: Do you have anything you want to leave us with?
CBV: I just want to say not only did I receive this nomination, but I received nominations from the Hollywood Critics Association and Black Reel for Lovecraft Country and Genius: Aretha. I am honored to have had the opportunity to portray two very different characters that resonated with viewers. Like I said, The People vs OJ Simpson changed my trajectory towards the things that I am working for. Nominations are a wonderful thing, but to cut through all that and actually win one of those golden statues, the Oscar or the Emmy, is a wonderful and career-changing thing as well. I am just grateful that I was able to play Cochran and problem-solve the role and be in the right place and at the right time.
Lovecraft Country streams on HBO Max.