Actor Courtney B. Vance plays Rev. Franklin in the National Geographic series, Genius: Aretha, now streaming on Hulu, which chronicles the conflicts that developed between father and daughter. For Vance, playing Aretha’s father was a chance to reconnect to his own roots. He grew up “churched,” in Detroit, with music all around.
“As children, we used to run down the street on the grass and just go sit on [Motown headquarters’] Hitsville steps and watch people coming in and out,” he says. “Knowing what I know now about [Aretha Franklin], her life, it’s amazing to me that she was able to keep going for years. … Seven years she was … trying to make it before she was able to get on the charts.”
Vance was also inspired by Rev. Franklin’s own unlikely path to success. When the Reverend’s stepfather, who had been a sharecropper, made him choose between “the pulpit or the plow,” Rev. Franklin chose the pulpit.
“And the stepfather kicked him out,” Vance says. “So [C.L. Franklin] had to sink or swim. There was no safety net for him. And to see the heights that he reached after that very fateful day, to me, was everything.”
On capturing Rev. C.L. Franklin’s voice and how he savored words
Repetition was and is that Black tradition of call and response, and it ties everyone together. It ties the choir behind him together with the congregation in front of him. And he’s enveloped in sound and in family and everybody knows what they’re supposed to do. There’s a person who gives the repetition of certain words. And so it is a rhythm. It’s a rhythm that just builds. I listened to hundreds of sermons of his because they’re all digitized online. And so I listen just to hear his cadence, his rhythm, his words that give me key words that keep me in sync with him.
On C.L. Franklin’s many affairs and that he allegedly impregnated a 12 year old in Memphis
It’s tricky. [Him] impregnating a 12 year old Memphis was true. … When you look at the time period, judging C.L. Franklin and anyone with 2021 eyes is a little challenging, because anyone who came out of that degradation, out of that horror that was sharecropping South and headed North was scarred. And the people who were harmed were — who were taken advantage of by white and Black men — were Black children and Black women. So I look at that as I begin my journey with C.L. Franklin, knowing that everybody of color was harmed. You don’t know a person until you’re in their shoes and there’s nowhere for them to go and they get no relief from their pain and they turn to the innocent ones. Is it right? Was it right? No! But it happened. I know that he’s a human being and human beings are flawed.
On how he prepared to play O.J. Simpson’s defense attorney Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson — and why he chose not to re-watch videos of Simpson’s trial
The way I approach acting is it’s problem solving, and sometimes based on who I am, the problem needs to be solved by delving into and doing all of the research and doing all of the minutiae work and building from scratch. But with Johnnie Cochran and People v. O.J., I said, … I’m just going to read … Jeffrey Toobin’s [book, The Run of His Life] and I’m going to stay away from watching footage. If I’m watching footage, I’m mimicking. And I had to get to the place where I’m doing it and the scripts are great and people will forgive the minutiae that I miss because they’ll get wrapped up in the story. And I’m going to jump in. …
I saw that [Cochran’s] mother, of her four or five children in his family, she chose him, she knew that he would have the stomach to deal with white folks, and so she put him in an all-white environment and went to L.A. High and then he went to UCLA and the rest is history. So once I saw that — that he was put in an all-white world — and used that to segue out into his life and his career, [I thought] “God, I know him.” That was my journey: Scholarship to Detroit Country Day, Harvard, Yale, Fences [on Broadway]. Once I knew that, I said, “I got him. I don’t need anything else.”
On growing up in Detroit and witnessing the effects of white flight on the city
That was a very heady time. I was just starting to become, “aware.” I was 9 the summer of Mayor Coleman Young, the first Black, African American mayor of Detroit … told white folks, “We don’t need you, get out.” And Detroit was a super segregated city like Chicago, St. Louis, and for years people, the police, could do what they wanted to Black people. And they did. And Black folks were tired of it. And when they got their Black mayor, they said, “Get out.”
I mean, it literally was a battle for the soul of Detroit. And for the first time, Black folks had won a battle. And it didn’t go the direction that we would hope it would have gone and the city would have kept climbing. White folks, a tax base left the city, leaving … predominantly just Black folks there. So it used to be a million and a half folks, cosmopolitan Detroit, and it started to dwindle. And when the tax base leaves, the good schools go. And so it wasn’t a good situation and the city never really recovered from it. …
The neighborhood where we grew up was all white, and a smattering of Blacks, when we came in, and our parents were so happy. We had a five bedroom house. We had made it, you know, the deluxe apartment in the sky, moving on up. But we got there and we saw it happen in front of our eyes that the neighborhood flipped overnight. That summer of ’69, the white folks left. And my parents realized they’d never get their money out of the house. The school flipped to do an all-Black school. And we were great students. But eventually the peer pressure shifted from getting great grades, which we always did, [to] what you were wearing. And we started fighting and our parents, in the middle of the semester, pulled us out and put us in a Catholic school, an all-white world, and which was completely frightening and foreign to us. But we had to figure it out really quickly and get to the business of school.
On how being under the tutelage of Lloyd Richards, the Black dean of the Yale Drama School, changed his career
I was blessed; I was at Yale at the time when Lloyd Richards was there and he was the artistic director of Yale Drama School, the Dean of Yale Drama School. … And so the playwriting world centered around him. … My wife, Angela Bassett was there … she was his first class. … Lloyd had set up around the relationships around the country [with] regional theaters and … had a toolbox full of scripts so that he could take the scripts and develop them and have them go around to the various regional theaters. And so it was a world that had never existed before. And we were in the center of it.
It was interesting being at Yale … And it was an amazing time to be a Black guy because I was introduced into the world with [August Wilson’s play] Fences. … I owe my career to Lloyd Richards.
Lauren Krenzel and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Courtney B. Vance, is starring in “Genius: Aretha,” the National Geographic drama series about Aretha Franklin. It’s now streaming on Hulu. Vance plays Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, the pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit and a civil rights activist. Vance also costarred in the recent HBO series “Lovecraft Country.” He won an Emmy for his portrayal of Johnnie Cochran in the 2016 series “American Crime Story: The People VS. O.J. Simpson.” He was just out of Yale School of Drama when he costarred along James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the world premiere of August Wilson’s play “Fences,” presented by the Yale Repertory Theatre. When the production moved to Broadway, Vance moved with it.
“Fences” won several Tonys, including Best Play. Vance was nominated for a Tony when he starred in John Guare’s “Six Degrees Of Separation.” He won a Tony for his performance in Nora Ephron’s play “Lucky Guy,” which opened in 2013. From 2001 to 2006, he starred in “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” Let’s start with the series “Genius: Aretha” and Vance’s role as Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. The son of sharecroppers, Franklin became famous for his preaching and what was called his million-dollar voice. His reach extended far beyond church through Sunday radio broadcasts and record albums of his sermons.
When he was establishing himself in the 1950s, he toured the Deep South’s gospel circuit with his gospel caravan. When Aretha was 12, he took her on tour as a performer. The series is in part about the conflicts that developed between them over the years. Here’s Courtney B. Vance as Reverend C.L. Franklin preaching at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “GENIUS: ARETHA”)
COURTNEY B VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) I wish I had some praying people in here today. Y’all not hearing me tonight. Y’all not hearing me. Some people only want to trust in theyselves (ph).
VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) Some people put all they trust in they bank account.
CYNTHIA ERIVO: (As Aretha) Oh, no.
VANCE: (As C.L. Franklin) Some folks trust in the government.
VANCE: But, ultimately – I said, ultimately – I said, ultimately, all those things will fail.
VANCE: But I’m going to put my trust, my trust, our trust, in the Lord.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) I will trust – yes, sir – in the Lord. Come on, say, I will – I will trust – I’ll trust – in the Lord. I will trust. I will trust – yes, I will – in the Lord. How long? ‘Til I…
GROSS: That’s an excerpt from “Genius: Aretha.” Courtney B. Vance, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s a terrific performance that you give.
VANCE: Thank you.
GROSS: It’s a great portrayal of a very complicated man. So let’s start with his preaching. When you listen to recordings of C.L. Franklin’s preaching, what did you hear that you wanted to capture?
VANCE: Well, everything. He was a self-made preacher. He, as you characterized in my intro that he was a stepson of a sharecropper. So his stepfather gave him an ultimatum because he was running back and forth, literally running back and forth 10, 15, 20 miles to guest preach at small churches, and then rushing back to get back to do his sharecropping chores. He gave him a choice. He said, the pulpit or the plow. And he chose the pulpit. And the stepfather kicked him out. So he had to sink or swim. There was no safety net for him. And to see where he – the heights that he reached on that – after that very fateful day was – to me, was everything. It characterized his life, his choices to get where he had to go and his – the people that were in his church. That’s why they were so passionate about him because he was them. He was everyone in Detroit.
Most Black folks, 99% of the Black folks in Detroit, came straight up from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas. They came up. And they were part of that Great Migration. So he was real with them. And they appreciated that. And they knew that church was a place where they could be somebody. In their world, the white world in which they worked, they were nobody – less than nobody. And – but they knew when they came to church on Sunday, they were deacons. And they were mothers. And they had jobs. And they had status. And everyone needs to belong somewhere. So he was somebody that connected. And I connected with that.
GROSS: Let’s talk about C.L. Franklin’s voice, which you had to learn and understand for your portrayal. What did you hear in his voice and in the way he used repetition and just kind of savored words?
VANCE: I’m churched. So I – most pastors during that time, they did that. So that repetition was and is that Black tradition of call and response. And it ties everyone together. It ties the choir behind him – or as they say, the choir – behind him together with the congregation in front of him. And he’s enveloped in sound and in family. And everybody knows what they’re supposed to do. There’s a person who gives the repetition of certain words. And so it is a rhythm. It’s a rhythm that just builds. I listened to hundreds of sermons of his because they’re all on – they’re all digitized online. And I listened just to hear his cadence, his rhythm, his words that give me – keywords that keep me in sync with him because we were shooting three and four episodes at the same time. So when I – I needed to be able to come right in at a moment’s notice and preach and sometimes extempore. And it is a testament to preachers at that time.
I mean, MLK, who was – Martin Luther King Jr., who was his friend, whenever he came in town, he stayed with the Franklins. I mean, he was famous for that first speech/sermon he had to give when Rosa Parks sat down on the bus. He had five minutes to get himself together at 26 years old and speak to and galvanize the crowd. And so they all – preachers all – preachers at that time were able to, at a moment’s notice, just preach on anything and everything. And that’s his training that he had when he was sharecropping and just, you know, dashing here and dashing over there. And it is a genius preachers at that time had, to be able to connect with anyone and everyone on any topic and be able to take it – bring it back to the cross. So I love the – I love listening to his sermons. But I love church. So I love listening to all pastors and getting their word.
GROSS: Reverend Franklin, Aretha’s father, who you portray in the series, is such a complicated and ambiguous figure. On the one hand, he’s such a galvanizing figure in the church and in the civil rights movement. You know, he recognized Aretha’s talent when she was a child. When she was 9, he had her sing in front of the choir, in front of the congregation. Age 12, he takes her on tour on his gospel caravan. And she really learns how to perform. And she learns what it’s like to be a great performer because she sees great singers on this tour.
At the same time, he didn’t watch over her sufficiently on the tour. She became pregnant when she was 12, at least that’s how it’s described in the series. And also, he had a lot of affairs when he was married and when he was single. And I want to add one more thing. In this series, he’s portrayed as having impregnated a girl when she was 12. And again, I don’t know if that happened in real life because so much of his life is really surrounded by rumor, and this might have been the kind of thing that was never confirmed. You can tell me if you know. So anyway, like, what’s your take and what’s it like to play somebody who is such an ambiguous figure?
VANCE: Well, it’s tricky. The 12-year-old in Memphis – the impregnating a 12-year-old in Memphis was true, which is why it’s in our series. Anything else in terms of, you know – that’s – anything that we don’t – we can’t confirm is true we didn’t put in our series. The rumors we didn’t put in our series. But, you know, I would start as I always do. I would start by, you know, just – when you look at the time period, you know, judging C.L. Franklin and, you know, anyone with 2021 eyes is a little challenging because anyone who came out of that degradation, out of that horror that was sharecropping south and headed north was scarred. And the people who were harmed were of – you know, who were taken advantage of by white and Black men, were Black children and Black women.
So I look at that as I began my journey with C.L. Franklin knowing that everybody was – of color was harmed. You don’t know a person until you’re in their shoes and there’s nowhere for them to go and nothing for them – they get no relief from their pain, and they turn to the innocent ones. And is it right? Was it right? No, but it happened. I know that that’s – that he’s a human being, and human beings are flawed.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Courtney B. Vance. He’s starring in “Genius: Aretha,” the National Geographic anthology series that’s streaming on Hulu. This edition is devoted to Aretha Franklin and her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. We’ll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAX MORAN AND NEOSPECTIC’S “ALL RIGHT”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Courtney B. Vance. In the series “Genius: Aretha,” he plays Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. Vance also costarred in the recent HBO series “Lovecraft Country,” and he played Johnnie Cochran in the American crime series “The People V. O.J. Simpson.”
When you hear a – say, like, you’re listening to, you know, the radio or a music app and suddenly Aretha comes on. Do you hear her differently now than you ever did before? Do you hear things that you didn’t?
VANCE: Of course. I just – you know, my mother, that was her era, you know, Aretha and Motown. We grew up – we lived on – we were on West Grand Boulevard. We were eight houses down from Motown, from Hitsville. So as children, we used to run down the street on the grass and just go sit on the Hitsville steps and watch people coming in and out. Get out of the way, boys and girls. Get out of here, you know, they would say to us. But, you know, we didn’t know who was coming in there.
But, you know – and, you know, she wasn’t of course a Motown family, but, you know, knowing what I know now about her life, I just – it’s amazing to me that she was able to keep going and not – you know, for years with as gifted as she was. She did not – she got two little babies at home, and she kept going back and forth, you know, trying to crack into the business as opposed to just giving up and going back and singing in church and doing the gospel circuit. You know, she could have done that. You know, we just assume when you think about Aretha Franklin, you assume, wow, she’s so talented. She probably came into New York and took it by storm. Well, no. Seven years she was, you know, banging her head against the wall of trying to make it before she was able to get, you know, on the charts. So, you know, Nancy Wilson came in and popped right away, but Aretha, it took, you know, seven – six, seven years.
She did not give up. She pushed past where everyone else would have gone to get to where she had to go, and she kept doing it. That’s why she remained – you know, the film ends with “Nessun Dorma,” her singing “Nessun Dorma.” And we go, of course she did that. Of course two minutes before we supposed to go on, OK, I’ll do it. Let me see it. Just let me listen to it. Because that was her genius. She could listen to something one time or having something played one time, and she could recreate that on the piano or singing it. That’s her gift.
GROSS: So in terms of playing complicated people, let’s move on to Johnnie Cochran (laughter), who you portrayed in the “American Crime Story” series, “The People V. O.J. Simpson.” And Cochran, of course, was the star lawyer in O.J.’s defense team. You’ve said you didn’t watch a lot of videos of the trial, and you felt you didn’t need to. Why did you feel you didn’t need to?
VANCE: I lived the trial, the year-long drama that we all lived through, those who were of age who remember that nightmare. So I was intimidated to go back and to portray a person that everybody knows and has an opinion about. So my – the way I approach acting is it’s problem-solving. And sometimes, based on who I am, the problem needs to be solved by delving into and doing the – all of the research and doing all of the minutia work and building from scratch. But with Johnnie Cochran and “The People V. O.J.,” I said, no. I don’t – I’m just going to read Jeffrey Toobin’s – The Run Of – “Run For Your Life” I believe the name of the book is. And I’m going to stay away from watching footage. If I’m watching footage, I’m going to be – I’m mimicking. And I had to get to the place where I’m doing it. And the scripts are great. And people will forgive the minutia that I miss because they’ll get wrapped up in the story. And I’m going to jump in.
I read the book twice. I saw that he – his mother of her four or five children in his family, she chose him. She knew that he would have the stomach to deal with white folks. And so she put him in an all-white environment. And he went to – I believe it was LA High. And then he went to UCLA and changed – the rest is history. So once I saw that, that he was put in an all-white world and used that to segue out into his life and his career, I said, God, I might know him. That’s what – that was my journey, Detroit Country Day – scholarship, Detroit Country Day, Harvard, Yale, “Fences.” You know, so once I knew that, I said, I got him. I don’t need anything else.
GROSS: Well, let’s hear a clip of you portraying Johnnie Cochran. And this is part of your closing argument. So Mark Fuhrman was the LAPD officer who found the bloody gloves near the crime scene while he was investigating the murder of O.J.’s ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. During the course of the trial, the defense presented tapes of Fuhrman making racist remarks, not only making racist remarks, but kind of bragging about being racist. And Fuhrman’s racism became a key part of the defense strategy. So let’s hear a scene in which you’re making – you as Johnnie Cochran are making the final argument for the defense.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON”)
VANCE: (As Johnnie) But don’t be fooled, this isn’t just one officer. Mark Fuhrman represents the entire LAPD. Now, you may not know this. But you are empowered. Your decision has a major implication both in this courtroom and outside of it. Things happen for a reason in life. Maybe that’s why we’re gathered together. Something in your background, your character, helps you to know that this is wrong. Maybe you’re the right people at the right time to be able to say, no more. We can’t have this. What they have done is disgraceful. O.J. Simpson is entitled to an acquittal. They have entrusted this case to a man who says he’d like to see all [expletive] gathered together and killed. That is genocide. That man speaks like Adolf Hitler.
Now, since you can’t trust the man and you don’t trust the people, is it any wonder, in the defining moment in this trial when they asked O.J. Simpson to try on the glove and the glove didn’t fit, it didn’t fit because it wasn’t his? If you don’t stop this cover-up, who will? Send them a message. Let them know that your verdict will travel far outside these walls. Ladies and gentlemen, remember these words. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.
GROSS: Nicely done (laughter).
VANCE: Wow. Wow.
GROSS: That’s my guest Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran in a scene from the “American Crime Story” series, “The People V. O.J. Simpson.” Did you ever wonder if Johnnie Cochran thought that O.J. actually did it but he was going to give him the best defense he could possibly come up with?
VANCE: I don’t know. He could. But, you know, defense attorneys, they don’t want to know that. They don’t want to know if you’ve done it or not. It’s a show. And people are always, you know, talking about, you know, Johnnie, how he – demonizing him for him – I mean, that was his job. And it was the – it was Marcia Clark’s job to prove that he was guilty. And she didn’t do a good job, obviously, you know? And it was – it’s so polarizing because it was a Black man that was – that got off. And it was a Black man that got him off.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you again here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Courtney B. Vance. He played Johnnie Cochran in the “American Crime Story” series, “The People V. O.J. Simpson.” He’s now starring as Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father, in the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha.” It’s streaming on Hulu. And the series was produced for National Geographic. We’ll be right back. I’m Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SPIRIT IN THE DARK”)
ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) I’m getting the spirit in the dark. I’m getting the spirit in the dark.
(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON’S “SOUL STOMP”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Courtney B. Vance. He plays Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha Franklin’s father, in the National Geographic series “Genius: Aretha,” which is now streaming on Hulu. He recently costarred in the HBO series “Lovecraft Country.” He played Johnnie Cochran in the “American Crime Story” series, “The People V. O.J. Simpson.” Vance got his start on Broadway in the original production of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning play “Fences,” with James Earl Jones playing Vance’s father.
So let’s talk about growing up in Detroit. You’ve said that your family moved to a lower-middle-class, predominantly white neighborhood when you were a child. And then you got there, and then the white people moved out. What are some of your memories of that period and what it was like to be a Black family moving into a white neighborhood?
VANCE: That was a very heady time. I was just starting to become, quote unquote, “aware.” I was 9 the summer of Mayor Coleman Young, first Black African American mayor of Detroit, you know, Black Power. Again, I – you can’t – you know, with 20/20 eyes, you can’t judge the time period, but Mayor Young told white folks, we don’t need you, get out. And Detroit was a super segregated city like Chicago, St. Louis. And the – you know, for years, people – the police were – you know, could do what they wanted to Black people, and they did. And Black folks were tired of it. And when they got their Black mayor, they said, get out.
I mean, it literally was, you know, a battle, you know, for the soul of Detroit. And for the first time, Black folks had won a battle. And it didn’t go the direction that we would hope it would have gone, and the city would have kept climbing. White folks, a tax base, left the city, leaving just – for the predominantly just Black folks there. So, you know, it used to be a million and a half folks at cosmopolitan Detroit, and it started to dwindle. And when the tax base leaves, the good schools go. And so it wasn’t a good situation, and the city never really recovered from it. But, you know, at the time period, we celebrated, you know?
But the neighborhood where we grew up was all white and a smattering of Blacks when we came in. And our parents were so happy. We had a five-bedroom house. It was – you know, we had made it – you know, the deluxe apartment in the sky, moving on up. But we got there and, you know, we saw it happen in front of our eyes that the neighborhood flipped overnight. That summer of ’69, the white folks left. And my parents realized they’d never get their money out of the house.
The school flipped to an all-Black school. And we were great students, but eventually the peer pressure shifted from, you know, getting great grades, which we always did, to what you were wearing. And, you know, we started fighting. And our parents, you know, in the middle of the semester, pulled us out and put us in a Catholic school, an all-white world, which was completely frightening and foreign to us. But we had to figure it out really quickly and get to the business of school.
GROSS: So you went on to Yale, studied at the Yale School of Drama.
VANCE: Went to Harvard, then went to Yale.
GROSS: Went to Harvard first, OK. At what point did you think that you wanted to act?
VANCE: I had no idea. I had no idea about – I was just trying to find a career that I could be happy doing. It was a thing for me because I know my father wasn’t happy doing what he did. I could feel it. And I knew he probably wanted to be a lawyer or something. And when Chrysler was floated by Lee Iacocca, he was, you know, really devastated by it because he wanted it in a real sense to go under so he could start again and get his benefits all covered and his family. Because he couldn’t do that now because he had bills and the kids were in school. And, you know, so it was a thing.
So I knew, for me, I was not going to settle because I didn’t have to. That’s why they did the work that they did to put me in a position to go to Detroit Country Day and to Harvard. And I knew it was my responsibility to take advantage of everything at Detroit Country Day, which I did, which allowed me to go to Harvard and, you know, get partial scholarship and do the work study that I had to do to pay, you know, some of my – of the way there for my parents. And all of a sudden, there is when I discovered acting.
GROSS: So but how did you actually find acting? How did you think, yeah, I want to do that?
VANCE: I didn’t know anything about it. I’d promised my drama teacher that I did one show with, had one line in the play, that I would do it when I got to Harvard. And I knew if I did shows, it would be a way for me to meet people. But once I did my second play, my auntie came and saw me in the show “Story Theater.” And she said, woah, Courtney, you’re really good at this. Maybe you should do this as a career. And I had never thought about it. I wasn’t thinking about it as a career, it was just a way to meet people. And when she said that, I went, wow, this is it. And then that’s how it happened.
GROSS: So you were cast in the Yale Repertory Theatre production, which was the world premiere, of August Wilson’s play “Fences.” And James Earl Jones played your father. I mean, that’s a pretty big deal for a young actor who only recently figured out that he even wanted to act. Tell us a little bit about what you learned from James Earl Jones. And I know, you know, Reverend C.L. Franklin, who you played, was said to have had, like, a million-dollar voice. You know, talk about voices – James Earl Jones’ voice (laughter), so.
VANCE: I was completely in awe. I mean, as you said, I don’t know upstage from downstage. I knew nothing. It was our second year in drama school. And so I was shocked. I read the play up in the library. I read it and said, wow, somebody – some big football player type young man’s going to get this role, put the play down and went back to, you know, doing what I was doing. I was doing – in class I was doing some amazing work, you know, in Uncle Vanya. And I know our first-year acting teacher – God rest his soul – Mr. Earle Gister, you know, was very impressed with what I was doing. I didn’t know that, but I was just – I was working. I was so happy. I was just, you know, doing my thing. And I’m sure he passed that on to Lloyd Richards, our dean, who was, you know, directing “Fences.”
But I was in shock that – my girlfriend at the time told me to go look at the casting board. I said, what for? She was just like, please go look at the casting board. And I saw my name up there. I was in shock. So for me, the hardest thing was trying to figure out what to call James Earl Jones. Everyone was calling him Jimmy. He wasn’t a Jimmy to me, and I couldn’t call him James, so I just called him sir. And that was exactly what I had to call him in the play. I didn’t know, as I said, upstage from downstage. I upstaged James Earl by, you know, doing the scene. He was sitting on the steps and I was sitting – I was in the nook of the steps in the porch. And he didn’t say anything.
And on a break, Lloyd took me aside, and he said, Courtney, if Jimmy were any other star, he would tell you himself, but I’m telling you, when he’s sitting on the stage, you have to be downstage of him looking up at him. I said, that’s what upstaging is, oh. I had no idea. And so they all brought me along. That cast and Lloyd brought me along so that when I was up to speed, by the time we were in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre and then in San Francisco at The Curran when we were pre-Broadway, we were all on the same page and cooking with gas.
GROSS: Broadway supposed to be, like, so glamorous. Like, you get to Broadway; your name is in lights. Every – you know, actors dream about being on Broadway. You got to Broadway, and apparently, the theater was pretty old. There were rats in the theater. You had a fifth-floor dressing room with a walk-up. There wasn’t an elevator. How did that change your impressions about what it really meant to be on Broadway?
VANCE: (Laughter) Yes, there were rats in the theater. And the stage manager, as he was calling the show – and go – (imitating pellet gunshots) had a little BB gun and was shooting the little rats. It was cold in the wintertime and, you know, blazing hot in the summertime. You know, but it’s always something more or something less than what you have in your mind. Or people say, you know – yeah, I remember we started pre-Broadway in March. We opened in March, and in August, the middle of August, our contracts were up for re-up. So we just assumed – you know, at least I did – that they were going to offer us a little more money and – instead of the Broadway minimum, which is what I got – and said, we’re going to get some more money. It’s going to be so great.
And then this company manager came to me and my agent and said, you know, no more money – just what it is. We were like, no, that’s not right; you got to pay me some more money. They were like, take it or leave it. You don’t like it, we’ll bring your understudy in, and they’ll take over. I was like, no, I’m leaving. And the show had opened in the – (unintelligible) business. The show is the star now. They don’t really need you, Courtney. They need James and Mary. That’s it. So I was going to leave, and my – Frankie Faison, my cast member, said, Courtney, stay. Charlie Brown said, Courtney, stay. But it’s not right, guys. I know, but stay; you need to be associated with the play throughout. Stay. You know, and it was my lesson of rude awakening to the business of show.
And, you know, I stayed. Thank God. I stayed, made no more money. And, you know, I don’t think they ever did pay us more money ’cause they didn’t have to. That play recouped in five months – the – you know, the biggest play on Broadway at the time and the first play of an African American playwright that got the Pulitzer and got its money back (snapping) like that. So it was – you know, it was a wonderful, wonderful, heady experience. And they told me, everybody’s going to see you, Courtney; you must stay with the play; you must stay with the play; I don’t care about the money; stay with the play. And they were absolutely right.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, you didn’t make a lot of money, but you sure established yourself.
VANCE: Exactly. And that’s business, and that – I didn’t – they didn’t teach you that at Yale, you know, at the time. It was just…
GROSS: Yeah, right.
VANCE: You know, just stay, Court.
GROSS: And let me reintroduce you here. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Courtney B. Vance. And he’s starring in “Genius: Aretha,” the National Geographic series that streaming on Hulu. We’ll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Courtney B. Vance. In the series “Genius: Aretha,” he plays Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin. It’s a National Geographic series that’s now streaming on Hulu.
When you were first establishing yourself – so you – the first thing you really did was “Fences” on Broadway. It was a really big deal. It won a Pulitzer Prize for best play. James Earl Jones and Mary Alice won best actor and actress. Lloyd Richards won best director. So, I mean, that was – that show was seen. Yeah. But that was a show about Black characters. It had a Black cast. Most shows on Broadway didn’t – were not about Black characters. There were few, if any, Black actors in them. Was it hard in film or on Broadway to find roles as a young Black actor?
VANCE: You know, I was blessed. And I was at Yale at the time when Lloyd Richards was there, and he was the artistic director of Yale Drama School, the dean of Yale Drama School. He was the artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Conn. And so the playwriting world centered around him. So for a Black actor to be at Yale at that time when my wife, Angela Bassett, was there – she was there his first year in 1980. She was his first class. And so, you know, for us to be there during that time period and when Lloyd had set up around the – relationships around the country with regional theaters and found a playwright who had a toolbox full of scripts so that he could take the scripts and develop them and go around – and have them go around to the various regional theaters – and so it was a world that had never existed before. And we were in the center of it.
And, you know, it was interesting being at Yale at the time when we were in class, and we were working on dialects and things. And there was – we were doing these Italian and Irish and, you know, the standard American English and English dialects, and we were like, what is this going to have to do with us when we go out into the world? But when we – we were coming out and being able to work in these plays for – with Lloyd Richards, and the white students there were like, but we don’t have the opportunity to work with Lloyd Richards, and you do. And they were upset with us. We were like, but do you understand that the whole world revolves around you and around your kind of classes and dialects and plays and things? And this was the first time we’ve ever had something to – why you trying to take the – it was a real, real time period of dissension and – because Lloyd was changing the theater world – he and August. And it was an amazing time to be a Black actor. So I was introduced into the world with “Fences.” So from that, I worked. I was at the Public in “Romeo And Juliet” as Mercutio. I did Athol Fugard’s “My Children! My Africa!” And I started doing, you know, film work all from Frankie Faison and Charlie Brown encouraging me to stay, Courtney; stay with the play. I don’t care about the money. Just stay.
And you know, that was – I was – I had a very unique position. My classmates didn’t have anything like that, you know, to be able to be introduced to the entertainment world because everybody came to see “Fences” – everybody during that time period. So when I went into casting for anything, they were like, oh, wow, you’re Cory. Wow. And that was – I had a leg up right there. So you know, I owe my career to Lloyd Richards.
GROSS: You got so much out of the Yale School of Drama. It led you to Lloyd Richards. It led you to “Fences.” And it’s also where you met your wife, Angela Bassett. You and Angela Bassett have twins. Being a parent must have been so different from your parents’ parenting – different generation; they were struggling, you know, financially some of the time. And once you and Angela Bassett both established careers, you weren’t struggling financially.
VANCE: Well, you know, our parents instilled in us some basic things that we carry on. So as I said, the message is more important than the money. We are really about discipline and really about education and really about our God. And so we instill those things in our children. When they go into this world – and the world’s crazy – they have a sense of themselves. So our parents did that for us, and we’re doing that for our children. So you know, the world may be crazy. They go to the fancy schools, but they weren’t raised that way. They weren’t raised with limos going to – you know, here and there. We didn’t take them to our events for that reason – so they would think that this is their world. This is not their world.
I remember we were coming back home from a big event. And we were – a car service was bringing us back home, and the children were at the daycare center in the evening. The place was on our way back home. And Angela said, let’s stop and pick up – I said, no, baby, please, let’s go home. Let the limo go away, get in our car and go back and pick them up. This is not their world. Our world is not their world. And so they did not grow up seeing – going to, you know, red carpet events and going to our premieres and going on sets and – uh-uh, that’s not your world. You go back home. Do your reading. Do your chores. And every now and then, we take them to something – to a premiere for a children’s movie or something like that and do a little red carpet thing. So it’s something for them, you know. And then gradually, you know, I think “Black Panther” became the first thing that Mommy – my wife let them, you know, really be a part of and go, you know, engage and go to the red carpet and do all that kind of stuff.
GROSS: Well, that’s a pretty big deal (laughter).
VANCE: Yes. It was a huge deal (laughter).
If you’re just joining us, my guest is Courtney B. Vance. He’s starring in “Genius: Aretha,” the National Geographic anthology series that’s streaming on Hulu. This edition is devoted to Aretha Franklin and her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin.
We’ll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGABLE PLANETS’ “REBIRTH OF SLICK (COOL LIKE DAT)”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Courtney B. Vance. In the series “Genius: Aretha,” he plays Aretha’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin.
Can I ask you about your father? I know that your father suffered from depression and ended his life in 1990, when you were 30. Did your father know that he suffered from depression? Like, a lot of people never had the language for it and didn’t seek therapy and didn’t think therapy would help. And part of it is generational. But did he understand that he had depression?
VANCE: Yes, he knew he was depressed. He was – my father – Conroy was his name. He was a foster child and didn’t think – he thought his mother didn’t want him and love him. And so he – you know, his life was a – constant periods of disappointment. His mother left him monies to be able to go to college so he kind of blew off high school because he knew he had some money so that he can go to college. But when he got ready to go, he found out that his foster father had spent it. And so he was, you know – disappointment.
And, you know – so I think when marrying my mother, Ms. Leslie, and having my sister – Cecilie and I were the highlights of his life. And the – all the things that that we were able to do and he was able to watch was – were very wonderful. And they kept him going. But the disappointments that happened at Chrysler, when he thought he’d be able to start again and then, you know, those kinds of things – he didn’t have anywhere to go. I mean – and when things get rough for me, I know that my mother and father loved me and my sister. They were there for everything that we did. And all the events and things, they were there. So when things get rough, I know I’m loved. He didn’t have that, you know, and, you know, he’s not alone in that.
You know, after he passed away, my therapist said that if she had had him, she would have put him in the hospital so that he could, you know, survive, so that he – recognizing that he was suicidal. She said, I would have put him in the hospital. But he was in between the cracks. You know, this therapist and that he went to. He was probably seeing two or three therapists trying to figure out which one he liked and on Prozac. And, you know, on Prozac, everybody’s got to know, you know, so that they can see signs and make phone calls and make sure that, you know, you are where you’re supposed to. That wasn’t happening because he was controlling it.
And he was – you know, so it was one of those things that – you know, which is why, you know, I’m passionate about, you know, suicide prevention and talking about it and getting help, you know, especially in the Black community, when it’s stigmatized. You know, therapy is stigmatized. So, you know, he knew – my parents knew, but they didn’t have the support around them. And my father fell through the cracks. And my – you know, we always thought – I didn’t know anything about it, but I’m sure my mother thought that they would have time, you know, to be able to get him where he needed to be. You know, and I think that one of those things when Chrysler was not floated – when Chrysler was floated and he didn’t have the opportunity to begin again, he was – I think he was a little done then.
GROSS: You know, I’ve been seeing a therapist for several years, and I just find it just, like, so helpful in so many ways. And I’m thinking for you, as an actor, being in therapy – I don’t know. I’m not an actor, but I would imagine the more you know yourself and the more insights you have into your own character and into, you know, the narratives that you tell yourself about who they are and, like, the false parts of those narratives and all of that, that the more insights you’d have into other people as an actor. Has it been helpful, like, professionally as well as personally?
VANCE: For me, it’s personally. My mother – when my father died, my mother said, when you go back to your cities after we – we were with my mom for about a month, just helping straighten up, getting her effects together and paperwork and everything. But she said, when you go back to your city, make sure you get with a – you know, find a therapist. And we each of us did, mother, my sister and I. And it saved my life.
GROSS: When you say that the therapist saved your life, what was in danger of either derailing or…
VANCE: My mind. You know, not knowing who I was. You know, everyone has some recovery work to do from growing up. There’s no perfect parents and no perfect environment to grow up. You know, however you grew up, there’s stuff that you’ve got to figure out and you’ve got to make sense of. You know, I remember my therapist, Dr. Kay (ph) saying, Courtney, how do you make decisions? I said, well, shoot, I just, you know, flip a coin. You know, just like acting, I just make a choice. She said, oh. She said, OK. Courtney, you know, that’s great for theater and great for acting, but in life, that could be devastating. There’s sometimes when you don’t know what to do, you just have to just be still. You realize that, right? No, I can’t be – I need to do. So she said – she gave me the phrase, can you let the mud settle in the water and the water become clear? I said, no. No, I don’t – ain’t no mud settling in no water on me. I got to go, doc. I got to do. She said, OK, I see. And she was able to see now what some of the things that we had to work on. I had to work on that.
GROSS: I wish we could talk more, but I know that our time is up, and I regret having to end now. Courtney B. Vance, it’s really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
VANCE: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Courtney B. Vance plays Aretha Franklin’s father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, in the National Geographic drama series “Genius: Aretha.” It’s now streaming on Hulu. We recorded our interview Monday.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we’ll talk with Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, about working with local police departments on strategies to reduce racial disparities in car stops, searches and the use of force. I hope you’ll join us. I’m Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “I NEVER LOVED A MAN (THE WAY I LOVE YOU)”)
ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) You’re a no-good heartbreaker. You’re a liar, and you’re a cheat. And I don’t know why I let you do these things to me. My friends keep telling me that you ain’t no good. Oh, but they don’t know that I’d leave you if I could. I guess I’m uptight, and I’m stuck like glue because I ain’t never – I ain’t never – I ain’t never – no, no – loved a man the way that I love you. Some time ago, I thought you had run out of fools, but I was so wrong. You got one that you’ll never lose. The way you treat me is a shame. How could you hurt me so bad? Baby, you know that I’m the best thing… Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.