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Q&A: Chicago-native 'Mr. Sophistication' star Harry Lennix

October 17, 2012|Matt Pais, @mattpais | RedEye movie critic

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.

“Mr. Sophistication”
***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.

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