Before the Scene with Hill Harper

by AJ Buckley on March 19, 2013

HH Picture

Before the Scene is where we all start. In a small town with our families. In front of a mirror with our friends. The days spent sleeping on a couch. The nights working at a bar. Living with the unknown and surrounded by uncertainty. It’s about the times that define us. It’s about the darkness just before the limelight.

Hill Harper is a veteran actor best known as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on CBS’s CSI:NY. He has also appeared in Get On The Bus, He Got Game, The Skulls and The Visit. He has also written four New York Times bestsellers, Letters to a Younger Brother, Letters to a Younger Sister, The Conversation and The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place.

What made you want to become an actor?

I played high school football and went to college to play football. During my freshman year, I took a theatre class because it fit my schedule, and I absolutely loved it. Later, I went to Harvard Law School, and I expected to graduate and take a job as a lawyer and pay off my student loans. But I had already fallen in love with acting.

What was your biggest fear?

I was afraid of not accomplishing something. I didn’t know where to start, and there was a lot of fear around all that uncertainty. I think a lot of us out there, we love something, but then we’re not sure, “Well, how can I actually make a living out of that? Can I make a living at this thing that I love? And if so, in what way can I do that?” It’s good to have mentors and guides. But in my case in the beginning of my career, I didn’t have anybody like that.

What was your lowest point?

When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. I was shooting a movie in Atlanta called For Colored Girls with Tyler Perry. I have a friend who is a surgeon in Atlanta. I shadowed him when he was a resident in L.A. because I was going to play a resident surgeon on a new series for CBS called City of Angels.

I woke up one morning and I couldn’t swallow. I knew something was wrong. So I called him. He walked me around, and he took me to the oncology department, they did a fine needle biopsy that was ultrasound guided. They stuck my neck sixteen times with the needles and put it on slides and said, “Come back in a week.”

I was able to get my voice back and able to shoot, and went back to the hospital a week later. And I immediately knew that something was really wrong. The week before, we were laughing and joking with the nurses. This time, they were all very serious. And I knew at that second from the way that they greeted me, the level of seriousness, I knew something was really wrong.

I was diagnosed with cancer. We ended up sending out to pathology to get a second opinion, and the second opinion was even worse. They were like, “You need to have surgery even quicker than they recommended.” And the reason why it was very scary for me was because my father had died of cancer in 2000.

Thinking about my own mortality, I hadn’t achieved some of the goals that I set out for. I think about my goals in life, and I think there’s four things: I want to have a positive impact, I want to leave a positive legacy that goes beyond me. And then while I’m here, love and serve. And if I can do those four things then I know that I’ve done it, and I don’t think that I’ve done those four things enough. So it really was scary for me and it really was something that was a low moment, but, in a way, an empowering moment.

What kept you from walking away?

I was very scared because what happens is your vocal nerves wrap around your thyroid, and one of the potential complications of the surgery is if they accidentally damage your vocal nerves then you’re hoarse. Or worse still, you can’t speak, which would end my career. And I was very afraid about that, and that’s why I was very careful to pick the best surgeon and talk it through.

One of the things that I love has come out of my non-profit foundation and my books are my speaking engagements across the country. I get to speak to young people and I get to hopefully empower and motivate them. My motivational speaking tours are something that I’ve come to love, and I was so afraid that if I had lost my voice that my career would be over, but also my speaking engagements would be over as well. I didn’t want that to happen.

What did you have to walk away from?

There was a time in my career that I made a mistake by walking away. I was doing a successful play in New York, and I had been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, a best acting award for a movie called The Visit. And I had been told that I was going to be the lead in this movie with Eminem that went on to become 8 Mile. But in doing that, I had to go to Detroit to do my screen test with Eminem. But when you do a play in New York, it’s eight shows a week and you can’t just leave.

I got caught up in this idea. People were saying, “Oh, if you do this, you’re going to be a movie star. You’ll be this.” You start to believe the hype around you, and I made the mistake of leaving the play. I thought for my career, and I believed some advice my representatives gave me. I left the show and I shouldn’t have left the show. I should have stayed with the show through the end of the run. An understudy took over the role and didn’t have a lot of preparation. So all those people that paid for tickets after I left probably didn’t see the quality of show that they deserved to see.

What’s crazy is that the first day I was supposed to work with Eminem, 9/11 happened. And obviously, everything got topsy-turvy. I ended up not being in that movie and I’ve always looked back on that. If you make a commitment to something, even though what seems to be a better opportunity may present itself, don’t walk away. Fulfill your commitment and then you can leave with your head high. And it took that lesson – and it was a pretty heartbreaking lesson in my career – to learn that. And it’s something that I regret walking away from.

Who has been your closest ally?

My grandfathers, on both sides. Even though they aren’t alive anymore, I still attempt to live my life in a way that honors their legacy. My grandfather on my mother’s side, his name was Harold Hill. He was a pharmacist in small town Seneca, South Carolina, who served the black community during segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans couldn’t go to Walgreens and Rexall. They’d go to his pharmacy. And I would hear stories from him about how if they needed prescription drugs but couldn’t afford them – if they were sick and needed medicine – he would trade potatoes or chickens for his prescription medicine. And he really was in service of the community.

My grandfather on my father’s side, Harry Harper, Sr., was a doctor in a small town in Iowa. I remember there would always be different people at our breakfast table or dinner table, people that may not have a place to go. One morning, there was a strange man who looked a little gruff at the breakfast table. This was when I was very young. I asked my grandmother, “Who is that guy?” And she said, “He just got out of prison. He didn’t have a place to go, so your grandfather is letting him stay here and do some work.”

In 2007, it was the Iowa Caucuses for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. And President Obama and I have been friends for over twenty years. We went to Harvard Law School together. I was asked to go work Iowa for the campaign. Since I was born there, they knew I had a lot of roots there. At one of the events, they advertised that I would be there speaking. An older gentleman who had to be in his eighties came up to me. His hands were full of calluses. You could tell he was a man who had worked his entire life. He shook my hand and said, “Hey do you remember me? My name’s Henry.” I said, “Hi Henry.” He said, “I came down to see you.” I said, “Ok, hello.” He said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” I said, “Sir, I don’t. Have we met?” He said, “Your grandfather took me in after I got out of prison and gave me a job, and I’ll always be indebted to him and your family. We met those summers when you would visit the farm, before he died. I saw your name in the paper that you were going to be here, and I wanted to come and say hello.”

And I tell you, man, I get emotional just talking about it now. When you treat people well, you create legacy of your behavior, it’s transferred generation to generation and people’s lives can really be changed. I’m flawed, I make a lot of mistakes myself, I mess up and I probably don’t live up to everything they expected, but I am attempting to do my best at that.

What were you doing the morning before the audition that changed your life?

Spike Lee hired me for the film Get on the Bus. I was an actor who didn’t have a lot of credits, and there was no real reason for him to put me in his film. I went in to do the audition, and I was acting my heart out and I could kind of see Spike Lee in my peripheral vision and he kinda looked at his watch, and then at his phone. I was thinking in my head, “Oh God, he must hate me.” And then it was over. And I got the job. Being in Get on the Bus was such a life changer not just for the credit, but the fact that for most of the movie, I sat next to and listened to Ossie Davis and Spike Lee.

What were some words that kept you going?

Two big words I go back to all the time are “believe” and “destiny.” I also put up big words like promise, faith, hope, dreams, goals, happiness, possibility. But believe and destiny have always been really big for me.

How have you changed?
Hopefully, I’ve learned that, artistically, we build bodies of work, and hopefully I can take it easy on myself. I used to really beat myself up a lot about a scene if it didn’t go right. As actors, we don’t have control over the way it’s edited, or whether it ends up in the movie. I’ve just learned to hopefully take it easy on myself a little bit more, say, “It’s ok,” and then relax a little bit more in my work.

What words do you have to inspire others?

There is nothing that you cannot do. The people who have created impact and legacy in this world in a positive way are people that believed that they could achieve anything. And that’s what we need. Follow your heart, no matter what.

A partner in Scene Magazine and the president of Louisiana Entertainment Publishers, AJ has starred for the last eight years as Adam Ross on the hit TV show CSI:NY, now on Friday nights at 8pm on CBS. Originally from Dublin and raised in Vancouver, he has spent the past twelve years in Los Angeles acting, writing and directing. He is currently in pre-production in Louisiana on North of Hell, in which he will star and produce. Find out more on Twitter at @AJohnBuckley and at