The UK-born actor offers an update on life after his turn on the Emmy-winning drama, Homeland, including his upcoming portrayal of the legendary Paul Robeson.
Actor David Harewood
Tavis: British-born actor, David Harewood, has made something of a career playing men who challenge the status quo. Get this. He has played Nelson Mandela for the BBC. He has starred as Martin Luther King, Jr. in the London run of the play, “The Mountaintop.” And now he’s about to play Paul Robeson, one of the first African American artists to break through racial barriers both in film and on Broadway.
Robeson was the first American actor of African heritage to play Othello. Robeson was also a political activist who supported civil rights and communism. Got him in some hot water with the House Un-American Activities Committee. David Harewood, good to have you on this program.
David Harewood: Thank you for inviting me.
Tavis: It’s good to see you.
Harewood: What year did he do Othello?
Tavis: That’s a good question.
Harewood: I think it was 19…
Tavis: I was going to say…
Tavis: Yeah. I was gonna say ’25, but you may be right about that. Let’s start with that since you raised it. So Mandela, King, Robeson. I mean, I would love to have spent time with any of them. I have spent time with Mandela. I’ve been very honored and fortunate in my lifetime to at least be around in the era of Mandela. I missed King and, of course, missed Robeson.
Let’s take them one at a time, though. Playing Nelson Mandela for the BBC? Tell me about that experience.
Harewood: Yeah. I was very fortunate in that I was working on a set. I think it was somewhere in Hungary and I got the job with enough time so that I basically read “Long Walk to Freedom” and read – I like to really research the characters I’m playing especially if they’re still alive.
So I was very fortunate that I kind of had all this time to get kind of get to know who this guy was. It’s interesting. The name obviously comes up all the time and people that they know these people. It’s only when you start to really investigate their lives.
I was really astonished that this man had achieved so much and was still so unbelievably gracious and humorous. He managed to completely bury his anger and completely bury his hatred of other and was able to kind of understand. I was really blown away by his capacity to understand.
Tavis: On a personal level, on a human level, what do you make of that? Because I think you’re right. I think that, for anyone who has ever spent any time with Mandela or, for that matter, just read about him, the thing that is the most humbling about him is that, with all that he endured, he is not bitter. He is still gracious. He is kind to a fault. So on a human level, what do you make of that?
Harewood: Well, I think it shows a true statesman. I mean, I think unfortunately we’re living in a world right now that I think it lacks statesmen, people who are prepared to reach across the aisle, people prepared to reach out and take the hand of opponents and say, “Look, this isn’t getting us anywhere. We need to go a different direction.”
And I think that speaks of maybe our times. I think it’s very sad, but we’re living in perhaps a very adversarial era when it comes to either politics or leadership. Yeah, I think that’s pretty sad.
Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think that the times, the conditions that we live in now, still have the capacity. Are the ingredients still there to create the kinds of statesmen and stateswomen that we have known and celebrated historically or is Mandela part of a bygone era?
Harewood: I would have to unfortunately say I think it is part of a bygone era. I don’t know.
Tavis: Ouch, yeah.
Harewood: Maybe it’s because we’re living in – there’s so much information now. You know, everybody’s a critic now. Everybody can, you know, go online, read about something and have an opinion about something. Whereas, in those days, we really did leave it to our leaders to lead us, to help us through difficult times.
And I’m not sure whether we are disparate now, whether we’re so locked into our own ways of thinking because we’ve each discovered, well, I can go online and I can find 1,000 people who think the same as me, so I’m not wrong.
So it’s a very different world that we’re living in now in terms of information and in terms of sharing that information. I think it’s a very difficult place to lead right now.
Tavis: So this other person you’ve had a chance to play in “Mountaintop,” Dr. King. The viewers of this program know because I say it all the time, that I personally regard Dr. King as the greatest American this country has ever produced. That’s my assessment. A lot of great Americans. I could talk to you about Abe Lincoln. We could debate FDR. A lot of great Americans…
Harewood: Well, how about Robeson?
Tavis: Robeson is a great American. He’s at the top of that list. But for my money, King, given where he started and given that the only weapon that he ever used was love.
Harewood: Yeah, extraordinary.
Tavis: It’s extraordinary, his story. He’s dead at 39. You know the story because you played him on stage. But I regard him as the greatest American this country has ever produced, not Black American, the greatest American. But you had a chance to play him on stage which I have never done, played him on stage.
I saw the play on Broadway here. I didn’t see the run in London, obviously, but what was the experience like for you playing Dr. King?
Harewood: Extraordinary because, again, you’re dealing with an icon the same as Mandela. But as an actor, as an artist, I’m interested in humanizing, in taking these people from ideas, taking these people out of the realm of this image of kind of untouchable kind of icon and making them flesh and blood.
I thought the play served that pretty well because – and I’m not sure about the American run, but I know one of the strong points of our production was that I think people kind of didn’t realize how funny King could be. They’re not used to having humor and King in the same kind of sentence.
So I think we were able to weave in lots and lots of laughter and I think people kind of turned up expecting to see this historical piece and, you know, to kind of have this very stoic kind of evening in the church, and it was anything but. It was actually really a very, very funny piece and I think Katori had written a play that was extremely irreverent, but in doing so, I think it was very disarming.
You know, she was very honest and she said to me that many theaters in America had just said no way, absolutely no way. I mean, it was a very different look at Martin Luther King and I think it was too much for many theaters.
So when the play debuted in London, the people were actually coming from America and finding it a very refreshing evening in the theater. Not only could they laugh, not only could they remember the man, but it was just a slightly different look at the man, a more human look at the man.
Tavis: How did the play get reviewed in London? I’m glad you went there because I was going to say, as you well know, that it was very controversial here in the states.
Harewood: Yes, yes.
Tavis: We can talk about that in a second. I have my own thoughts about the play. So it was controversial here and, again, this is King’s birthplace. London is not. But how was it played in the media? How did the critics treat the play?
Harewood: Well, it won best new play, Olivier Best New Play. I think people were genuinely blown away by it. They’d never heard that type of dialog before. They’d never – as I said Katori had written it. It was viscerally very irreverent.
So it just took no prisoners, but I found that incredibly freeing and I really attacked it with verve. I mean, as an actor, I kind of went for the voice and I went for the – you know, I tried to play up his humor, that this was a man in a room with a beautiful young girl.
I think Martin Luther was – I won’t say renowned – but had other women and people knew about that and some people didn’t know about that. So, again, some people were there going, “He shouldn’t be flirting with that girl. He’s a reverend.” Why shouldn’t he be flirting with her? He’s a man.
So I kind of – again, I just tried to take a lot of those icon pointers out of the question and just tried to play him as a human being.
Tavis: I asked you earlier your assessment of Mandela as a human being and you gave that assessment about his graciousness, given what he endured. Aside from the play, share with me your thoughts about King, the man.
Harewood: Well, again, I mean, how anybody could nonviolently oppose such a violent body of people. It would do him no good whatsoever, and yet he did it with grace. He did it with poise. He did it with beautiful poetry, wonderful speeches.
Again, I played Mandela months before and Mandela was known for his great speeches, but his speeches were great, but they were very long and they were brilliantly written, but they weren’t as poetic. They weren’t as beautiful.
Tavis: Martin charted the prose.
Harewood: His prose was extraordinary, extraordinary.
Tavis: Yeah, hard to beat.
Harewood: You know, to this day, when I see that – I think we all do – the address to the Lincoln Memorial. You get shivers even to this day.
Tavis: 50 years ago this August.
Harewood: Wow. You know, I can watch that and just think how on earth can a man speak with such power, such passion and have the world kind of saying we need to start this, we need to start listening to this…
Tavis: The irony of that is – and I don’t think there are too many folk who’d take me to task on this, not King scholars – as brilliant as that address was, the “I Have a Dream” speech…
Harewood: He’d made it before.
Tavis: Yeah. It wasn’t his best stuff. It was brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but there’s so many other speeches in his corpus.
Tavis: Oh, my God.
Harewood: And the actual “Mountaintop” speech itself, again…
Harewood: Very, very powerful.
Tavis: “Beyond Vietnam,” “Around Midnight.” I mean, there’s some powerful stuff in his corpus.
Harewood: Well, again, I think when you come from the church as a preacher and then you segue into politics, it gives you a wonderful sense of oratory, a wonderful sense of…
Tavis: Yeah, and the country heard that in August 50 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial. He did this every Sunday at his church [laugh].
Tavis: This is vintage Martin King every Sunday at Ebenezer, he did this. So if you think that’s the best he ever did, then you got to dig a little deeper into his stuff. It’s going to be fascinating as we get to August of this year to talk about Martin King 50 years later particularly in the era of Obama.
Here’s where we get a chance now to segue to Robeson and, for that matter, you’re playing the CIA director on a TV show called “Homeland.”
Tavis: Was. Yes, of course. But what’s fascinating to me is going to be how we navigate this moment later this year.
Tavis: I raise this because my friend, Cornel West…
Harewood: I remember him, yeah. He’s quite an outspoken critic.
Tavis: Yes. Dr. West and I have been friends for many years. We’ve had so many conversations about this very issue. So just give me a minute to set this up and I think you’ll appreciate this.
So a few years ago – and you may know this – every year, there is an official Mandela Lecture in South Africa. So some world-renowned figure is asked to give the Mandela Lecture annually in Joburg. So a few years ago, Dr. West was asked to give the Mandela Lecture and he, of course, went to deliver the address.
He used a phrase in that speech that’s been picked up by a lot of people and been dissected. But he referred to Mandela, he referred to what was happening to Mandela all these years after being out of office. He referred to as the “Santa Clausification of Nelson Mandela.” Only Cornel West can use that phrase, the Santa Clausification of Nelson Mandela.
What he meant, as you can imagine, was as we get away from Mandela’s time and tenure, we start to look at him like he’s some sort of Santa Claus figure with a big smile, happy grin on his face, a bag of toys on his back.
What we end up doing is taming and deodorizing and sanitizing and defanging who Mandela really was. Yes, he’s gracious. Yes, he’s kind and we love the big smile and everybody wants to be a Mandela fan. But do you know who this man really was and what this man really stood for?
The same could be said of Dr. King 50 years later. We want to Santa Clausify Martin King. So we tame him, we deodorize him, we sanitize him. We don’t want to get to the real truth of who Martin King really was and what he thought about white supremacy and what he thought about militarism and what he thought about poverty.
So we stick with this notion of King being a dreamer because we don’t want to really get to that. That’s a long way of saying that it’s going to be fascinating later this year to get a sense of how the country in the era of the first Black president, no less, is going to navigate who King really was 50 years later.
Harewood: Well, I think that’s very true and I do think it’s going to be interesting to see how they respond to that. But I think that’s also one of the reasons why I think people were reluctant to have me play King here in America.
To have a British Black person playing an American Black icon, I think it was maybe too much for the producers perhaps. Maybe they just didn’t think the audience would accept it and that the play was already too irreverent for it to succeed.
I think, if I’m not mistaken, but I think part of the success of the show was that I was able to go to places that were not only funny, but were also poignant and also very moving, and the whole thing was a performance.
Tavis: To your point then, were you offended in any way when they passed on you for the Broadway production?
Harewood: No. I understood it, you know…
Tavis: By the way, say it, say it.
Harewood: Sam Jackson, David Harewood…[laugh].
Tavis: So Samuel L. Jackson ends up playing Dr. King, Angela Bassett. And originally, I think, it was supposed to be Halle originally on the list, but Angela – great actress, of course – so Angela Bassett plays the motel maid in the motel and Samuel L. Jackson plays Dr. King. But were you a little offended by that at all?
Harewood: I wasn’t offended. I understood it. No, I understood it. I was disappointed, but as I say, you know, he’s such a big name. Broadway is in a strange place right now. You know, in order to get a show on Broadway, you’ve got to have a big movie star in your play. There are countless fantastic actors out there who are being denied the opportunity to play Broadway because they’re not a name and I think that’s kind of wrong.
Tavis: But Sam doesn’t have your accent, though. That accent is what…[laugh].
Harewood: No, but he can change it, he can change it.
Tavis: We Americans love the accent, man. We love that British accent. So we will see. We are seeing what is happening to Mandela. We will see later this year what happens to King and we’re already starting to see how King is being treated all these years later, which brings us to third person in this trilogy of great icons you’ve had a chance to play or will be playing now, Paul Robeson.
Now I said earlier that I regard Dr. King as the greatest American this country has ever produced. I regard Paul Robeson as perhaps the greatest American we’ve ever produced that people don’t know a lot about.
Harewood: No. It’s extraordinary.
Tavis: Paul Robeson was a bad man and he’s not as known, you know. If you talk to…
Harewood: Why do you think that is?
Tavis: Again, back to what we said earlier about the fact that Robeson is a complicated person. He’s really not that complicated. He stood in his truth. Paul Robeson stood in his truth. So from that perspective, he’s not a very controversial figure. But standing in his truth led, of course, to all kinds of controversies.
But if you get a chance to sit – I mean, two of the greatest humanists and greatest actors of our time happen to be Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Over the years, I’ve been blessed to be friends with both of them. You cannot sit with Harry Belafonte for any length of time and not have him wax poetic about sitting at the feet of Paul Robeson.
You cannot talk to Sidney Poitier for 10 minutes without Sidney Poitier talking to you about the impact Paul Robeson had on his life. That’s just Belafonte and Robeson. That’s Not Ozzie Davis, that’s not Ruby Dee. There’s a whole bunch of folk who Robeson impacted in such a major, major way.
But you’re going to play him, so let me flip it on you and ask you why play Paul Robeson and what is it that you want to get us to wrestle with about the Robeson that you are coming to know?
Harewood: That’s a big question. I’m constantly amazed when I tell people that I’m playing Robeson. They go, “Who?” I came across Robeson 15 or 20 years ago and was astonished that even I, somebody who I thought at that age was fairly well read and had known quite a bit about Black American history, I had no idea this man existed.
I had no idea that he came to England. It opened up this kind of huge kind of Pandora’s Box of things that I just didn’t know about, that he predated Martin Luther King, that he was an All-American scholar, that he was…
Tavis: In three or four sports [laugh].
Harewood: Just a leading, wonderful athlete, wonderful singer, wonderful actor. It was just mind-blowing to me that I had no idea who this guy was and why I’d heard so little about him. I’m always hearing about Martin Luther King or I’m always hearing about Malcolm X or all of the other great political Black leaders in America.
I hadn’t heard about this guy, so I was kind of astonished. I started to read about him and I was really amazed at his capacity to understand, to sympathize with, empathize with, the idea of struggle, the idea of humanity, the idea of freedom.
Whether you were a Welsh worker in the hills of Cardiff or a Chinese worker in Beijing struggling with your employers, he felt he had to go and speak on their behalf. He felt somebody had to stand up for these people. I suppose it’s unfortunate that history paints him out to be a kind of communist or a socialist.
It’s just that I’m sure many people in that era felt that that model of political understanding seemed to be different from a capitalist dog-eat-dog type of system. You know, I think he felt that that was the correct way, that they treated him better.
When people are being lynched here in America and yet there’s people inviting him to sing and to perform in Europe and around the world and he’s treated like a king, to then go back to your own home and be treated like a second class citizen must have been incredibly difficult for him to understand.
Tavis: And to be blackballed and to have your absolutely brilliant artistic genius shut down…
Tavis: Over your political views is just untenable.
Harewood: They took his passport away. I believe they took his passport away. I believe he was followed. I believe that people threw spanners into his relationship with the NAACP. You know, this was a systematic attempt to discredit and to destroy him by the establishment.
And I think that’s possibly also one of the reasons why he’s not more well-known because I think the more the story is told, the more shame, I think, it piles on the authorities, I believe. And I think he’s been vindicated of every single charge.
Tavis: Well, if you get a chance to talk to Mr. B or Mr. P, Belafonte or Poitier, do yourself a favor. Those guys…
Harewood: Well, if they’re watching the story, do it. I will lower my voice.
Tavis: No, no, no. The stories that they have are just amazing about this guy.
Harewood: Wow, I love that.
Tavis: I got a couple of minutes left and I want to get back to the CIA character that you did play on “Homeland” before they killed you off. In our country, we have just gone through a very contentious Senate debate about John Brennan who has now just been approved as our CIA Director. Did you follow any of that stuff?
Harewood: I tried to follow a little bit. I like to read about American politics, yeah. It’s a very contentious – this whole drone thing is a very contentious issue. You know, sometimes I’m not very sure where I stand on it. As I say, researching “Homeland,” I did come across – I thought my character might be a Navy Seal, so I started reading about Seals.
All of them basically said, you know, at some point, you will be glad that there is somebody standing in your line of fire protecting you. At some point, somebody has to stand up to these bad guys. And I kind of want to say, go ahead, guys. I trust you to protect me.
Tavis: But the debate in Washington, the real debate, you know, off the “Homeland” script back to Washington in real life…
Harewood: Yeah, whether you should target American citizens, right?
Tavis: Well, do you target American citizens? What about killing innocent women and children? This notion of some guy sitting in a desert with a joystick, you know, like he’s playing a game or something, killing people 10 million miles away, when war used to be hand-to-hand face-to-face combat when you had to put something on the line for what you believe to fight this war.
I mean, there are all kinds of debates about it. I mean, Brennan, as I suspected, eventually got through, but it’s just fascinating conversation to have, given that you play the CIA guy.
Harewood: But isn’t it extraordinary how like in the Second World War, literally thousands, thousands of men died every day, thousands. We would never pull our people. I don’t think people would do that now. Well, it’s easier to throw bombs and rocks a million miles away.
Tavis: It’s impressive to know you played Mandela, impressive to know you played King, impressive to know you’re gonna play Robeson. You really want to impress me? Give me a real Black man running the CIA [laugh]. Then I’m impressed. But don’t hold your breath on that one.
Harewood: Yes, exactly.
Tavis: Anyway, president maybe, CIA director, not so sure. Good to have you on the program, man.
Harewood: It’s nice to meet you.
Tavis: I’m honored to have had you here. It was a great conversation, Mr. Harewood. Good to have you here.
Harewood: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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