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'The Blacklist' actor Harry Lennix sees bright future for the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival

Harry Lennix as Harold Cooper on NBC's The Blacklist. Photo by: Will Hart/NBC.
Published Sep. 1, 2016

TAMPA — Harry Lennix has a lot on his plate.

The soft-voiced actor, who plays assistant FBI counterterrorism director Harold Cooper on NBC's The Blacklist, also runs a film production company he founded, directs Shakespearean plays across the country and is active in civic groups.

So when his agent in 2015 passed along a request to lead a workshop at a theater festival in Tampa, Lennix was ready to say no.

"I wasn't interested in teaching acting at the time," Lennix, 51, said in a phone interview. Then the Chicago agent told Lennix what the caller had said — that he was one of the only African-American directors in the Tampa Bay area, that he wanted to create a platform for new works and help local actors get high-quality training to which few had access.

"The next email that I received from his agent was, 'Mr. Lennix would like to speak with you directly,'" said Rory Lawrence, 44, who founded this weekend's Tampa Bay Theatre Festival. Lawrence hoped Lennix, who has also appeared in numerous films including The Matrix: Reloaded and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, would lead a master acting class.

Something about Lawrence's pitch struck a nerve.

"He was so sincere," Lennix said. "That kind of sincerity and earnestness is frequently missing in the professional circles I run in."

He agreed to lead the three-and-a-half hour class in 2015, and he enjoyed the experience so much, he agreed to come back this year. Lennix returns Saturday to conduct another free workshop. Topics include how to extract clues about character from a script, using your body while delivering lines and basic self-confidence.

"The thing I try to impart to them is that they are much better than they think they are and they should be comfortable with themselves," Lennix said.

Lennix grew up in Chicago, the youngest of four children. He majored in literature and communications at Northwestern University but also developed a serious interest in theater. Another lasting influence came after college when he taught public school. Even after 30 years as an accomplished actor, Lennix believes he picks up as much from students as they learn from him.

"It is almost imperative to get with young people and see how they are thinking," Lennix said. "I can show them traditional forms, and they have a new spin on it, a new spice. Fried chicken is always good, but sometimes you get introduced to Sriracha. I like that mix. Down in Hollywood, it's really not about technique or the joy of craft. It's about execution, being that known quantity. That's important, but a lot of the passion gets lost."

The actor who has played Malcolm X and whose film company, Legacy Productions, promotes the African-American experience, is lukewarm about recent controversies involving black representation at the Academy Awards.

"The best thing for black actors is to create their own thing, and to gain power through attraction and not promotion," he said. "To try to force yourself into a club that is hostile to you is dangerous."

He is a fan of the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival, now in its third year.

"I think what Rory is doing is creating a movement that's quite remarkable," Lennix said. "In Europe, theater is much more a part of everyday life. I think he's trying to create something like that here, to create a voice for the voiceless, a way of being an activist through storytelling. I think it's only going to grow in Tampa."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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