Living Out Loud: An Interview with Grimm’s Russell Hornsby
We may know him as Grimm’s Detective Hank Griffin, but Russell Hornsby is probably best known for his starring role as Eddie Sutton on ABC’s critically acclaimed Lincoln Heights. His extensive theater background also recently led to a turn on Broadway alongside Denzel Washington and Viola Dadis in August Wilson’s Fences, and in productions of To Kill a Mockingbird and Six Degrees of Separation.
We spoke to Russell last week and asked him to spill the beans on Hank’s Grimm romance, what it’s really like to live and work in Portland and why he thinks American actors are so self indulgent!
Chevron One: Were you surprised by Grimm’s success?
Russell Hornsby: In a word yes. Very surprised. Every time you start a new show there are so many components that go into getting that show on the air. It’s really just a role of the dice as to whether it’s going to take and be successful. So the first thing you’re hoping for is that you have a good show – that you’re creating something of a certain quality and a certain standard. And then of course you’re hoping that the audiences take to it.
Very often there will be shows that are critically successful but just don’t catch with the audience, and vice versa, but with Grimm I think we’re had the best of both worlds. We have a show that’s been a critical success and an audience fan favorite.
Chevron One: Grimm is at times a show of two halves. One one side you have the cop procedural and on the other you have monsters and fantastical creatures and so forth. Hank seems to represent the cop show aspect of Grimm but lately the other side is starting to touch his life in a number of different ways. You got to play bad cop a little bit in ‘Three coins in a Fuchsbau.’ what was that like for you experiencing Hank expressing this other side?
RH: Obviously as an actor it’s fun to play. Generally with series regulars in a procedural things are not really character driven. It’s more story and plot driven. So when you get to tap into a character aspect it’s always fun. But I also believe – from the writers’ and developers’ standpoint – that Hank is sort of slowly and methodically becoming immersed into this world of Grimm. As an actor, that’s my hope. That he will be slowly brought into Nick’s fantastical world. That all happens in this alter-ego of the show.
CO: Will Hank ever become suspicious of Nick, particularly since Nick has this special relationship with Monroe going on? Nick tries to hide it, but Hank is the guy who is with Nick for most of the day.
RH: The more that Hank is exposed peripherally to that world, the more questions he is going to have. He made a statement in an earlier episode saying ‘Things are getting weirder and weirder in this town.’ I think he’s starting to sense something. You would think that after 10 or 15 years being a police officer that one has seen it all. But now there’s a new sort of force or energy that is descending into this town and he’s starting to sense that. As the series grows and moves on he’ll have to see that Nick is different and that Nick is also reacting differently to a lot of these forces. He will definitely become suspicious.
And that idea to learn more is consistent for me as an actor and as a character. Obviously as an actor it’s more interesting to play, and a lot more fun but also for the audience as well.
CO: We saw Claire Coffee’s character Adalind Engel in earlier episodes. She seemed to have some designs on Hank. Is this something we’re going to see more of in upcoming episodes?
RH: Well actually yes! Tune in Friday and you will see very specifically how their relationship grows. We have a very interesting episode coming up in which Hank and Adalind sort of discover each other from a different paradigm. It’s different to how they’ve known each other before. There’s a wonderful story arc of three episodes which specifically involves Hank and Adalind.
CO: Are we looking at a romance for Hank?
RH: It’s budding. It’s definitely budding this week. [laughing]
CO: There are fans that have been crying out for some Hank-centered story lines.
RH: Well I think one of the things about the show is that the writers are trying to spread it out a little bit. We have a wonderful ensemble. The cast is very talented and there are very interesting and deeply drawn characters that we can really investigate. To continue to keep the show interesting those story lines are being spread around, so everyone gets a piece and gets to have some fun.
CO: What’s Portland like to work in?
RH: As a city, Portland is a really lovely city. There’s a lot to do. The people are really nice. I think the city serves as a secondary character almost. It’s a grey, wet and dreary city at times. And we have these wonderful lush forests. It creates a very interesting atmosphere for the show. It’s a very Grimm atmosphere. In that respect it’s great for the show.
As far as living here – under these dreary conditions – [joking] it can be a bit depressing at times. One has to get over that for the sake of the job. When you’re working it’s great. When you’re in the elements there’s nothing better. It really adds to the world. But when you’re off and you want to just be out and you realize ‘wow, if I were in LA there would be sun and it would be warm and I could just walk around in my shorts!’ you’re not happy to stay inside or read or go to the bookstore or go to the movies or walk around a museum. After a while that can get a little redundant. But all in all, I’m really excited that we’re shooting in Portland. The location and atmosphere is really really a boon for the show.
CO What episode are you guys working on at the moment?
RH: We’re on episode 19. We’re finishing 19 tomorrow. We have a 22 episode season.
CO: Are you heading towards the finale in terms of story telling?
RH: Yes, we’re heading to the finish line. Everyone is anticipating a little rest before we come back for a second season.
CO: Anything you can tease about those remaining episodes? I feel bad for asking.
RH: [laughing] I can’t tell you. They’ve sworn us to secrecy. I don’t want to mess with that.
CO: Do you have time to work on other projects, or is Grimm taking up all of your time right now?
RH: No, there is no time. For two reasons. The show is so time consuming and also because we’re shooting on location in Portland. If it was LA you may be able to do something like shoot a short with some friends at the weekend if you wanted to. But because of the time and the distance you just can’t. I think that once we really get the hang of the show and we’re in our second and hopefully third seasons we’ll be able to figure out how to squeeze in other projects on days off or weekends.
CO: Is it true that you spent a year in Oxford in England studying Drama?
RH: I went and did an extended program at Oxford, which was the British Academy of Dramatic Arts program. It was for about three and a half months. I was young and all that. It was like an exchange program. I had a lot of fun. I really learned a lot. I really began to understand the different acting styles – particularly in British and American acting styles.
CO: What are the differences?
RH: A lot of Americans – although at times can be very cerebral – I feel we’re not as cerebral as the British in our acting style. I think we work more on emotion, generally speaking. Especially on stage. Our shakespeare might be a lot more visceral and emotion-filled and guttural. I saw Fiona Shaw doing Richard II, it’s very cerebral. It’s very heavy, and there’s lots of wit! It was wonderful to see the different approaches to the work.
Sometimes I think we get a little self-indulgent as American actors. They would say [adapting a flawless English accent] ‘Darling, it’s great, it’s great, but you’re getting a little too indulgent there! We don’t need to see tears all the time. What are you thinking about? Just say the line, love. Just say the line. You’re getting yourself into too much trouble thinking about what you’re going to say and getting all involved and emotion-fueled. All of you American actors are exactly the same. This is not Brando! It’s too much, love! And it’s boring! It’s just too boring to watch! We can’t stand it!’
CO: [laughing] That is one incredible accent!
RH: [still in character] ‘It’s Shakespeare love. It’s so simple. It’s very heavy and it’s very witty. Just act the lines love. Let the words tell the story.’
So I heard that over and over again while I was there. They were like ‘Stop! Stop! Stop acting!’ And I’d say ‘What? What am I doing? This is me!’ and they’d say ‘Stop acting!’ I took that to heart and learned a great deal. There are still times when I think I fall back, but I am more aware of it now.
CO Have you integrated it into your performance, or do you need to chop and change depending on the role?
RH: I have integrated it, and I was young enough for it to become an easy shift. They say ‘listen, all the stuff that you learn you put in your bag of tricks and you use it accordingly.’ I learned all the techniques – the Stanislavski, the Meisner, the Strasberg – I have a little bit of it all. But what I’ve learned, especially about doing television, is brevity. And that’s where the Shakespeare training comes into play because it’s ‘just say the words.’ You don’t have to put too much hot sauce on it. All it needs is a little pepper.
When you’re a series regular, especially when you’re playing a detective, it’s basic. All you have to do is come to the scene, say it, and then you allow your presence to be enough. Whatever you have, whatever you posses as an individual should be enough. You don’t have to comment on it. So that’s what I’ve learned.
What a lot of critics don’t understand about actors is that we’re all character actors of a sort. Especially those that come from the stage. I love stepping outside of my self, or what is perceived to be me, and doing a total 180. As serious and stern as I may come off onscreen on Grimm I’m wild and I’m crazy and I like to laugh and tell jokes. I like to sing. I like to dance. I like to do all of that. So as much as I like Hank, I like to step out and do Ernest or Paul in Six Degrees of Separation or do an Athold Fugard piece. We have all of this talent and all of this ability as actors that people rarely see and we rarely have the opportunity to exercise.
When you see brilliance on the screen or brilliance on the stage it’s that wonderful great actor getting an opportunity to live out loud. What all actors need is an opportunity. I think there are a lot of wonderfully talented actors that haven’t been seen or that have been relegated to just the small screen that could do wonderful work on the stage, or with different characters. They just have to get the opportunity.
I also believe that not everybody is a man for all seasons. I think that everybody has what they are specifically good at for their personality or type, and they should exploit that.
When you’re young and you go to acting school and you get to play the fop, Sir Toby Belch or someone like that, it allows your imagination to grow. You may get an opportunity to infuse a variation of that into a character later on.
CO: I’m listening to you effortlessly switching in and out of characters here. It’s pretty amazing to hear.
RH: Acting becomes like therapy. You have to get it out at some point. If you’re not doing it on stage, if you’re at a dinner party or something instead, that one night you become the life of the party! You end up becoming a schizophrenic Robin Williams or something! But then conversely, when actors do plays they don’t want to see anybody.
CO: I would image that a play is more mentally exhausting.
RH: It is. In those six hours that you work, you produce two hours of mental preparation leading up, then two hours of the show on average and then two hours to decompress afterwards. In those six hours you’re literally living double that. You’re releasing so much of your mind and your body and your spirit. It’s exhausting. It’s energy consuming. You don’t get it back until it’s over.
CO: I can’t imagine you would want it any other way.
RH: No! I love it. I feel blessed to be able to do what I do and make a living at it.
Catch Russell Hornsby as Detective Hank Griffin in Grimm, Fridays on NBC.