‘The Breaks’ Star Wood Harris on Hip-Hop, Prince and Preserving Youthfulness
Wood Harris has built an enviable resume over the course of a 25-year career. The Chicago-born actor initially broke through via roles in films like Above the Rim and Remember the Titans, before landing the role of Avon Barksdale on HBO's critically-acclaimed drama series The Wire. More recently, he's been doing his thing in a wide range of projects; from 2015s hit action-comedy Ant-Man, to BET's record-breaking mini-series The New Edition story. Harris also stars on The Breaks, VH1's new series about New York's early 1990s hip-hop scene.
I've been a fan of the guy since forever, so it was a pleasure getting to chat with him about his latest projects. Harris talked to me about what acting still means to him--and how he feels about starring in period pieces that reflect eras of which he has firsthand memories.
You're an intensely committed actor. With more than two decades under your belt, has your process changed?
WH: In my career so far, I've been trying to become a master of listening. Any person can pick up a script and give you some conversational reality. Anybody can go be in a movie or a TV show and it's not like [you're] solving climate change. It's really simple stuff. It doesn't require a genius. But if you want to be on the next level as an artist, I think you have to find out what those next level requirements are and put your energy towards it. For me, the next level as an actor is to be a more genuine listener.
What type of wisdom do you bring to your interactions with younger actors on projects like The Breaks? I mean, you know this era that they're likely just now being exposed to.
WH: These younger actors are watching you--I don't think about them watching me. But they're talking about me like they were kids when they saw me [in my films.] These kids were born in 1989 or born in 1990. I was an adult--a young adult, but I was out of high school in 1990. They don't know what a payphone is. It became very obvious to me that some of the markers of time are technological things. We don't have to get the grey hairs--your phone will have the grey hairs. Your car will have the grey hairs. We can preserve youth--because a trip around the sun is not an age marker. Age is life and wellness--and I've been a great preserver of youth.
How much has hip-hop affected you when it comes to maintaining a sense of youthfulness?
WH: I'm a hip-hop kid. Hip-hop kind of preserves a little bit of youth. You see Russell Simmons--he's 60 years old with the baseball cap and the t-shirt still. Puffy's 48 or 49 or something like that. You see Jay Z, Snoop--we're holding onto youth. Unlike, say, rhythm and blues. I think hip-hop is gonna be where an artist can be 80 years old and still rock the mic. There's a lot of things I don't like about hip-hop--misogynistic, can be extremely negative. It's not lyric-driven music anymore--it's just rhythms and sounds. There's no voice of the people. And we could use that now.
So what is it like starring in a project like The Breaks that documents history that you actually remember firsthand?
WH: When I'm doing a period piece and it's a period that I was a part of, it can't help but be surreal. But I realize these kids have never seen a payphone that you put 25 cents in. I don't badger them about it because you age yourself. You have to let it go. Because you don't really age. You're gonna wake up new every day. And if we embrace that, then we have a little more control over the aging process that's bound to happen. I remember Prince--I was honored to know Prince, rest in peace--and I remember he said that when he turned 35, he stopped counting his age. And it popped into my head when I was 35. I stopped counting. Now I'm one of those cats who has to do the math to know how old I am. I always have people come to me and talk about my age in a youthful way. With The Breaks and The New Edition Story, it's good for me to be in those things because I was there.