Last Friday morning I chatted with CSI: New York's Hill Harper, who plays forensic autopsy guru Dr Sheldon Hawkes in the series.
CSI: New York recently started on M-Net and Hill's been in Cape Town -staying at the Mount Nelson - to film the Wes Craven flik The Breed so it was all perfectly timed to hook up with him.
I've only seen the first episode of CSI: New York and didn't know too much about his role. I thought it would be fun to find out more from him and get his take on what it's like to be an actor in Hollywood:
Auditioning For CSI
Tashi: The audition for CSI - what was it like? Can you give us some insight into what it's like auditioning for such a huge, major show?
Hill: Well, I hate to let you down on this question but I didn't audition - they offered it to me, which is great.
Tashi: That's the ideal.
Hill: That's the ideal - to not have to audition for a show. I'd done a show that's over here now, as a mini-series, called The Handler. It's on SABC1, Tuesdays at 10pm for the next four of five weeks. It's a great show and stars Joe Pantoliano - from The Soprano's - and I play an undercover detective and different characters.
Now that show was for CBS who do all the CSI shows – so what happened was they were gonna cancel The Handler, but they liked the character and they liked what I was doing. They made a suggestion to Jerry Bruckheimer and Anthony Zuiker at CSI saying there's a guy Hill who's on our show and we think you should hire him for CSI. So it was a blessing.
Tashi: Oh, that's very cool. So for The Handler you had to audition?
Tashi: What was that like?
Hill: When you audition for a network show everyone has a say. The President of the network, the people who work for him and then you have the producers of the show and the production company, which has its own hierachy. So when you do the final audition, they call it The Test.....
Tashi: The Test?
Hill: You're testing against other people, you've already signed your contract and there are 25 other people in the room.
Tashi: All up for the same role?
Hill: No, no, no - watching you audition. By that time they've whittled it down so it's you and someone else or maybe two other people. So there are three of you left but 25 people watching and everyone has their opinions, I guess.
Tashi: You wouldn't get to hear that. That happens once you leave.
Hill: Once you leave - exactly - and they make their decisions. You know, the most difficult part of being an actor is the rejection.
No-one likes to be rejected and it's difficult because as an actor ..... if you're a writer rejection is tough because it's something you created, but when you're an actor you feel like they're rejecting you.
I think that's why a lot of actors - you see that once they become "celebrities" or "famous" they act out. It's not because they're bad people, it's because the process has made them hard - so once they get through they lash out. Rejection is the toughest part of the job by far.
Hill's Dr Sheldon Hawkes
Tashi: Once you got the role of Dr Sheldon Hawkes and CSI started, what kind of preparation did you do? He's a man who's very comfortable with death.
Hill: Very comfortable with death and dead bodies. I went to the Chief Medical Examiner's Office in New York and got to spend a great deal of time with them.
I sat in on a few autopsies - one autopsy in particular was a gentleman who was 74 years old who'd been dead a month. His whole stomach was green and when they did the Y incision and cut him open the fumes that filled the room was probably the worst smell - times 10 000 - I'd ever smelt. I had a mask on and it came through.
These people are heroes. They deal with things society needs done but doesn't want to do - they take care of society's dirty laundy, a job that has to be done but that no-one really wants to do.
That's why I'm really proud, because talking to them these people are heroes and when September 11th happened they had to indiviually bag and barcode 27 000 individual body-parts.
Thumbs, legs, toes and then the DNA analysis on each to try to piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle. That's why I'm really proud to be playing one of them in the greatest city in the world.
Tashi: What would you say the biggest difference is between yourself and him?
Hill: I think the biggest difference is that he's much more reclusive than I am in real life and he's also much more, I would say, book-smart. I have a lot of education in my background, but he's brilliant and he loves that - he revels in that brilliance.
Lights, Camera, Action
Tashi: What's a day like on the set of CSI?
Hill: We start very early and you shoot a long time. It's a challenge - each episode of the series takes eight days to shoot. Jerry Bruckheimer has a level of quality; a bar that he's set.
You can oftentimes tell a movie or a show that's Jerry Bruckheimer because it feels big - he represents big Hollywood and the majesty of what cinema can do. Given that though, we have to make a television show, which is like a mini-movie in eight days - so the schedule is really difficult.
The real heroes are the crew because they work so hard and big hours, and Gary Sinise has the toughest job on the show because he's in more scenes than anyone and so he's there a lot. I get time off - a day here, a day there - but he's there everyday, all day. It's tough, but it's fun.
Tashi: What time do you start?
Hill: On Mondays we always start around 05h30/06h00 and we work until about 20h00.
Tashi: Do you have a place where you can go and rest? I would want to rest a lot.
Hill: Yeah. Everyone has a dressing room and that's nice, but as the week progresses it gets later and later and oftentimes we don't finish until 05h00 Saturday morning. It's a tough schedule but it's worth it because we're able to reach millions of people around the world - and that's exciting.
Tashi: What are your thoughts on this whole trend of movie actors moving into TV?
Hill: I think that's great because at the end of the day the audience is the most important thing. People want to be entertained and we as actors and artists want to entertain them - so it doesn't matter what the medium is. If you do a play - great, if you do television - great, if you do movies - great. In my opinion art is art, performance is performance - it doesn't matter the medium.
Crime Scene Investigations
Tashi: The cases in CSI -- are these all based on real cases that happened or is it that with a bit of artistic license?
Hill: It's real life with artistic license, because we're talking about murders and what you certainly don't want to do is to hurt a family by ..... murder's a very hard and difficult thing - the last thing you want to do on television is a show that depicts someone's family member's murder so closely that it brings up all that emotion again. I can't think of anything more difficult to deal with, so it's all fictional but based on true stories.
Tashi: True kind of forensic investigation, etc?
Tashi: What acting tips did you give Gary Sinise?
Hill: *Laughs* You know, I will never give Gary Sinise any acting tips. He's such a master at the craft and I have so much respect for him. He started the Steppenwolf Theatre Company with John Malkovich in Chicago and he's a wonderful man and a wonderful actor. We have a ball. You know, everyone has different acting styles. So I respect his style and hopefully he respects my style.
Tashi: Was there anything he did that you thought was particularly interesting for yourself?
Hill: You know, the characters are so different, but I'll tell you this - he has a focus and a stillness that's really nice when he acts. There are certain times when I want my character to have feeling so I do that and I try to pick it up: okay, I see, that's nice, there's a stillness or a focus or a this. You're always learning. Anybody you ever work with you learn and grow.
Aha! Jeffrey Wright
Tashi: Who's your favourite actor?
Hill: I have a few; I can't just name one.
Hill: My favourite actors are Daniel Day Lewis, Morgan Freeman, Emily Watson, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright.
Tashi: Yes, I love him!
Hill: Those actors are the greatest in the world.
Hill Harper's Bob Marley
Tashi: Besides CSI - your career aspirations? What's your passion?
Hill: I would love to do some major, major feature films that reach all over the world, where I'm playing characters that are heroes; characters that are uplifting.
I've been so fortunate as an African American, as a black man, to have been blessed with opportunity and I love the idea of playing characters that are positive and reach a lot of the world and break down stereotypes. That's exciting to me and that'll happen.
I look at people like Sidney Poitier, who's able to do that, Denzel Washington and Paul Robeson - there are people historically I look up to who've done this and I want to take it to the next step.
Tashi: Is there any story you have in mind that you think could do this?
Hill: So many stories. I mean, there are so many true to life stories that I would love to play – from Bob Marley and Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye to fictional stories. You know, there are so many wonderful writers and artists out there - it doesn't matter where the story comes from, it just matters what it is.
Then Hill gave me an autopsy, he did the Y incision across my chest, I got slightly flustered and he was very close.
He also told me that the bodies they use in the autopsy scenes are real bodies. I assumed they'd use special effect dolls and things, but Hill says they're right up close to real people.
Is there method to such acting madness? Watch CSI: New York, check out Hill and you be the judge.