Harry Lennix stars as FBI Assistant Director Harry Cooper in "The… ( Will Hart/NBC )
Ever since he was earning acclaim as a young theater actor in Chicago, Harry Lennix has never rested on his laurels.
His strong work ethic has served the South Side native well over a career in which he's succeeded in theater, movies and on the small screen starring in "Dollhouse," "24," "Commander in Chief" and now "The Blacklist."
The NBC thriller, airing at 9 p.m. CT Mondays, began with longtime fugitive Raymund "Red" Reddington (James Spader) turning himself in to the FBI with a promise to cooperate in catching terrorists and other criminals, but only as long as he can work exclusively with rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone).
Lennix stars as FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Harold Cooper, who seems to know the career criminal better than he's letting on.
"He never discusses it, nor does Reddington, but clearly there is a lot of water under the bridge there, and maybe some over it as well," Lennix said, laughing. "But they have what appears to be a reluctant allegiance to each other in some way, at least in apprehending criminals."
While he couldn't reveal too much about the characters, Lennix said he is just as curious as fans to learn more about why Cooper keeps his cool in the face of Red's open disdain.
"Why would someone deliberately take it on the chin so often from this person who's a criminal and not really throw stones back?" he said. "I'm as interested in finding out why that is as everybody else."
His job in "The Blacklist" came at a time when the veteran actor was exploring another showbiz job: that of a producer. He starred in and produced the film "Mr. Sophistication," a double-duty he replicates for the upcoming film "H4." His IMDb resume boasts more than a dozen acting projects for 2013-14, although he says many of them involved just a day's work.
Lennix has never been short of stamina. He starred in his first Chicago theater production as an 18-year-old Northwestern student and his first big notices were for a 1988 production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" at Pegasus Players. He appeared frequently on Chicago stages, but never quit his day job—or jobs. He also taught elementary school and ran a grocery store on the South Side.
It was a matter of survival, he said, and a mother who made sure he pulled his weight.
"She's like, 'Look, you're not gonna lay in the house all day, you got to pay rent and you got to go get a job,'" he said. "'You're not gonna be here sitting around while I'm working. It's not gonna happen.'"
Lennix and I talked more about his new role, his past roles and how he decides what roles to take.
Tell me about Harold Cooper in "The Blacklist."
Harold Cooper is the assistant director of counterterrorism for the FBI. And he evidently has a long relationship, however mysterious, with Raymond Reddington. … So he's an interesting guy on the periphery. It's a supervisory periphery, but it's nonetheless pretty interesting.
I noticed Reddington shows a lot of disdain and sort of disrespect for Cooper. It appears they’ve had some history. Have you discovered was that is?
No, I have not, but I do find it curious that Harold Cooper never says anything bad about Reddington really. He’s politic enough to know what not to say. So I'm curious about that. …
Are you enjoying your time sparring with James?
I enjoy working with James Spader immensely. He's a terrific actor. He's thoughtful, he's intelligent, he's creative, he's extremely well prepared. So you don't always get that combination of invention and deliberation. He's a very deliberate actor and that's a joy to work across from him.
And the rest of the cast?
Everybody is very, very nice, very professional. Everybody wants the show the work. We're doing everything we can to make sure that it's a good show and that people enjoy it.
It appears that there will be sort of a terrorist of the week kind of thing. But I like all the side stories and the mysterious connections. Are you finding little surprises when you're checking out the scripts and everything?
Yes. I enjoy getting these scripts. It's an interesting thing because we where finding out a lot as it goes on as well what's going on here in the story. Why is this man so obsessed with this young woman? Why did he turn himself in to us? Is he playing us or are we playing him? I would imagine that somebody like Cooper didn't get there because of affirmative action, he got there because he's good at his job and he knows how to read people and how to work people. But is Red always a step ahead? Does Cooper know more then what he's letting on? What is going on in the home life of Elizabeth Keen? These things are all carrots on the stick for people who may want to tune in and find out the answers. But when you got an infinitely compelling character in Reddington, because he knows a lot and he gets to move around a little more than somebody else's under the, the only way to say it is under the aegis of the FBI.