Growing up in rural Alabama, actor André Holland spent countless Friday and Saturday nights sitting around on the front porch, listening to people tell stories. Looking back now, Holland credits those evenings — and the cadences he heard on the porch — with inspiring him to become an actor.
Holland, who appeared in the film Moonlight, is currently playing Othello in Shakespeare's Globe in London — without a British accent. When he auditioned for a Shakespeare production earlier in his career, he was told by a casting agent to eliminate his "southern sound."
There's a sense, Holland says, that to do Shakespeare, you must "elevate yourself to meet the text." But he rejects that idea; his grandparents were capable of expressing complex and beautiful ideas in their own way. "The way they told those stories sounded a lot like Shakespeare," Holland says. "Even to this day, when I call home and speak to my father ... [there's a] rhythm that we communicate in, and I feel like that has as much a place on the Globe Stage or any stage as does any kind of well-spoken, well-trained, perfectly-delivered mid-Atlantic sound."
Holland also stars as a lawyer who works with death row inmates on the Hulu series Castle Rock, which is based on the work of Stephen King.
On doing research with the Equal Justice Initiative to prepare for the Castle Rock role
I just felt like I needed to understand what the process is that one goes through when defending an inmate who's on death row, and then also what the emotional toll is that that takes on a person. So one of the people who I spoke with ... who's an attorney there at EJI, really was very generous and walked me through it, and told me sort of step-by-step what it feels like and what some of the interactions are that she's had with inmates. ...
Part of [it] is just that living in limbo that a lot of her clients feel, that sort of day-to-day not knowing if today is going to be that last day. And the sort of desperation and the look in their eyes as she comes in to meet with them — that sort of hope and also despair and resignation as well, and what that does to her.
I just wanted to know what it felt like to carry that responsibility. She spoke about how often at the very, very last minute they'll come up with an idea that will get them to stay — that will extend the life of that individual just a little bit longer — and how sort of improvised a lot of that work is.
On getting cast in Moonlight as the oldest of three Kevins, and how he never met the younger actors playing his same character
We were cast and never met each other prior to filming. None of the Kevins met. None of the Chirons met. [Director] Barry [Jenkins] intentionally wanted it to be that way. ... He didn't want us to meet. I think he was concerned that we might fall into some sort of mimicry. ...
Yesi Ramirez, who cast the film, did a wonderful job of finding actors who had a similar sensibility and look that maybe wasn't identical, but there was an essence about us that was the same. Then Barry, some of his framing and shot selection helped to tie the three parts of the story together.
Now some of us, myself included, did sort of sneak around and I went to wardrobe one day, and — I don't know Barry knows this — and asked to see some photographs of the actor that they cast, just so I can get an idea of what it looked like, and they let me have a peek, but that was about all I could get out of them.
On growing up in Bessemer, Ala.
It was kind of a beautiful childhood, as I look back on it. ... Bessemer itself is a community that struggles financially. It's a very working class community. A lot of people are struggling and certainly were struggling back then as well, but I was raised in a house that was full of love and we never felt the lack — even though there certainly was — we never we felt it. And [I] had parents, have parents who just taught me to believe in myself, and to believe that anything was possible.
On being called a racial slur by the first girl he liked — it was on Valentine's Day when he was in the fourth grade
We went to school that morning and made, out of construction paper, we made these little mailboxes and bought our Valentine's cards and went around in the morning and passed them out and then at the end of the day we got to open our mailboxes and see all the mail that we had gotten and open our Valentine's cards.
I remember opening mine and noticing that the one that I put into the box of this young girl — Brooke was her name — the one I put in Brooke's box had ended up back in my box. I opened it up and looked at it and on the front it said "Happy Valentine's Day, I love you, to Brooke from André," and I turned it over and she had written in pencil, "I hate you, n*****."
I remember holding that card and being really in shock and getting in the car with my mother later that day and sitting in the back seat and holding it and wanting to tell her what had happened, but feeling so ashamed of myself, I guess, that I didn't tell her. And instead I took it home and hid it in my dresser drawer. I still have it to this day.
On feeling "in the middle" of two communities
I had a cousin who I was very close to growing up ... and he got involved in some bad activity — essentially he and some other people who I know had a very, very bad idea to try and burglarize this little five and dime store that's in an area where we grew up in. And after they had gone in and ... they stole a few hundred dollars or whatever it was that they got, on the way out my cousin, who was 17 at the time, was shot in the back by the store owner ... and he died that night. The store owner was also my baseball coach.
So there's always been down where I grew up just, like, really kind of complicated friction between people in the community that I grew up in [and] the white people who also sort of share that same community, or the community sort of adjacent to it. There's always been this tension.
I've often felt sort of in the middle of that, definitely belonging to my own family and my own culture and my own neighborhood, but then also ... I went to a private school that was on the other side of town. And just not quite knowing where I fit, how I fit, if I fit. And a lot of the characters that I play, choose to play, are also wrestling with similar things — that question of identity and where they fit.
Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. 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 Andre Holland stars in the new Stephen King-inspired Hulu series "Castle Rock." In the Academy Award-winning film "Moonlight," Holland played the adult Kevin, who - in the final sequence - has become a cook and meets up again with the film's main character, Chiron. In the Cinemax series "The Knick," set at a hospital in New York in the early 1900s, Holland played a surgeon who faces racial discrimination inside and outside the hospital. In the film "Selma," he played civil rights leader Andrew Young.
In "42," he played sportswriter Wendell Smith, who was instrumental in convincing Branch Rickey to break baseball's color barrier and sign Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers. Andre Holland grew up in Alabama. We'll talk about what that was like a little later. Holland is now in London, starring in the title role of "Othello" at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Let's start with a scene from the first episode of his new series, "Castle Rock." The title comes from the fictional small town in Maine in which Stephen King has set many stories. Holland's character, Henry Matthew Deaver, is from Castle Rock. But before he's called back there and before the weird stuff starts, he's living in Texas where he's a criminal defense attorney specializing in capital punishment cases. Here he is addressing a jury.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CASTLE ROCK")
ANDRE HOLLAND: (As Henry Matthew Deaver) How much doubt is reasonable? Well, folks, if I had to choose whether or not to take someone's life - and that is the choice before you today, make no mistake - I don't think any amount would seem reasonable. Now, me - if I had to kill someone, I'd need it etched in gold and signed by God himself. Judge signs an order. Needle goes into a vein. The body goes into a box. And in six hours, that body - that body will be ashes. And ashes don't get appeals in the state of Texas. So I ask, how much doubt are you folks comfortable with?
GROSS: Andre Holland, welcome to FRESH AIR. So...
HOLLAND: Thank you.
GROSS: ...You play a lawyer who works with a lot of death row inmates. What kind of background did you feel you needed to have in order to play this role? 'Cause I understand you spoke with Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative who's been our guest a couple of times on the show. And he's worked with death row inmates and the poor and children prosecuted as adults. What did you need to learn from him to play the role?
HOLLAND: Yeah. Well, I'm a big fan of Bryan Stevenson's work and...
GROSS: Me too. Yeah.
HOLLAND: (Laughter). Yeah, and I actually spoke with several of his associates. I only spoke with him very briefly, but I spoke with a couple of his attorneys who worked with him there. And I just felt like I needed to understand what the process is that one goes through when defending an inmate who's on death row and then also what the emotional toll is - that that takes on a person.
And so one of the people I spoke with - Rachel Judge, who's an attorney there at EJI - really was very generous and walked me through it and told me sort of step by step what it feels like and what some of the sort of interactions are that she's had with inmates, many of which were very upsetting, as you can imagine - part of which is just that living-in-limbo that a lot of her clients feel, that sort of - that day-to-day not knowing if today is going to be the last day, and the sort of desperation and the look in their eyes as she comes in to meet with them - that sort of hope and also despair and resignation as well and what that does to her.
And I just wanted to know what that sort of - what it felt like to carry that responsibility. She spoke about how at the - often, at the very, very last minute, you know, they'll come up with, you know, an idea that'll sort of get them a stay that'll extend the life of this individual just a little bit longer and how sort of improvised a lot of that work is.
GROSS: So as we speak to you, you now - you're in London where you're performing the title role in "Othello." And you're not only starring in "Othello," you're performing at the Globe Theatre, the theater - like, the renovated version (laughter) of the theater where people performed Shakespeare in Shakespeare's day. That must be, like, pretty exciting.
HOLLAND: (Laughter). It's incredible. It really is. You know, when I was a student - a university student - I came over here to London to study abroad for a semester and completely fell in love with the Globe. I came and saw - I forget what the - I think maybe "The Two Noble Kinsmen" was the first play that I saw here. And I just fell in love with the sort of - the immediacy of it, the audience interaction that you're able to get in a space like that. The history of the place...
GROSS: A space like what? Describe the space.
HOLLAND: Well, it's - I mean, it's a reconstruction of the Globe itself. So it holds about 1,500 people, around 650 of which are standing in the yard just at the sort of lip of the stage. And for 5 pounds, which is the equivalent of what would've been a penny in Shakespeare's time approximately, people can come, pay that 5 pounds and then stand anywhere in the yard and watch the show.
And then, you know, there are seats and sort of - it's built, obviously, in a circle - the wooden O, as Shakespeare referred to it. And the remainder of the audience are seated in three levels of the house. So throughout the play, there are people who are as close as, you know, a foot or two feet away from the actors. And oftentimes when you're on stage, you'll hear people make comments, or (laughter) sometimes they'll be eating a bag of potato chips or crisps, as they're known over here. And, you know, it really feels like a sporting event as much as it does feel like a play.
GROSS: So Othello is a character that is specifically supposed to be black. He's the Moor, so he's the outsider. And I think, you know, for African-American actors or British actors who want to do Shakespeare, like, that's the character that they're often given because that character used to be played by white actors in blackface. And now, of course, it's usually played by African-Americans. But did you feel like typecasting in a way? Do you know what I mean? 'Cause sometimes, like, that's the only role available to African-Americans in Shakespeare.
HOLLAND: Yeah, that's a good question. You know, when I think back to my first sort of expressing interest in Shakespeare back when I was in college - I'm from Alabama, and I went to college in Florida. And I remember the first time I sort of expressed being interested in Shakespeare. "Othello" was the first play that I was given. And at the time, I sort of took offense to it, you know? I mean, I was excited to read the play obviously, but I also thought, well, you know, why is this the only thing that's being given to me?
I'd also like to play Hamlet, and I'm interested in, you know, "Coriolanus" and then all the other plays, too. And so I rejected it for a long time. And I know a lot of other actors - you know, African-American actors have - and I assume black British actors, too - have had similar experiences. And yet, we (laughter) - we all seem to come back to it at some point, you know? But, yeah, it's a really complicated play. I mean, it's a beautifully written part, but it's not an easy one.
And, you know, James Earl Jones, I think, played it six times. My friend John Douglas Thompson has played it probably four or five times, if not more. And I imagine that I probably will play it again and again, but it's going to take some time before I approach it again 'cause it is the most emotionally and physically draining part that I've ever played.
GROSS: Now, spoiler alert, you have to strangle your wife every night...
GROSS: ...Because your deceitful number two has basically told you she's cheating on you, which she's not. Give us an example from one of the soliloquies of a passage that you just, like, really like to do every night.
HOLLAND: One of my favorites is at the very beginning of the play where Othello has been called in front of the Senate because Desdemona's father has been made aware of their relationship. And he runs to the Senate to complain and demand that Othello be put in prison for marrying his daughter without his consent. And, you know, underlying that obviously is the fact that Othello is black.
And, you know, when Othello is put on the spot, he's told to explain himself. And he starts the speech by saying, her father loved me, oft invited me. Still questioned me the story of my life from year to year - the battles, sieges, fortunes that I had passed. I ran it through, even from my boyish days to the very moment that he bade me tell it. He starts it like that, and then he goes on to say - he tells this amazing story about his life and how he was sold into slavery and got his freedom from slavery.
And he's had this incredible life, and then he says, I told Desdemona this very same story. And it's because of that that she fell in love with me. She, you know, pitied my life story. She understood what I was coming from and that - this only is the witchcraft that I have used is how he ends the speech because one of her father's accusations is that Othello has used witchcraft to win his daughter.
And it's just a beautiful, honest - I believe - recounting of his life story. And it's the moment where, you know, every night, you sort of - I can feel the audience is with me at that moment, you know? He wins - not only does he win over the Senate, but he wins over the audience. And it's a really, really beautiful piece of writing.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Holland. And he's now in London starring in a production of "Othello" in the title role at the Globe Theatre. He also stars in the new Stephen King-inspired series "Castle Rock." And he starred in "Moonlight." He was one of the stars of "Moonlight." We'll talk about "Moonlight" after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Holland, and he's in London now starring in a production of "Othello" at the Globe Theatre. He also stars in the new Stephen King-inspired series "Castle Rock." And you may know him also from "The Knick," from "42" from "Selma" and from "Moonlight."
I think a lot of Americans doing Shakespeare - at least, certainly, more so in the past than now - have felt the need to sound British when they were doing it. You're an American performing Shakespeare in London at the Globe. You're not faking a British accent, right? (Laughter).
HOLLAND: No. No way.
GROSS: Are the rest of the actors British?
HOLLAND: Yeah. Yeah, everybody else is British. There's one actor who's Welsh. But, yeah, I don't want to fake a British accent. And, you know, it's interesting. I remember one of my early auditions for Shakespeare, I went in and did a soliloquy for the audition. And then I got a call from my agent a couple of days later saying, well, the casting - they really like you, but they've asked you to come back in tomorrow, but they want you to take another look at the script and make sure that you, you know, can eliminate your Southern sound and also eliminate any sort of urban sound, right? We want you to sound - there's this, like, emphasis on this mid-Atlantic sound, which is somewhere between like, you know, standard American and British, which I never understood the need for.
But that's what the drama schools taught for a very long time. And I always bucked at that. It didn't feel right to me, you know, because I felt like it separated me from my own experience as a human being. There's also this thing that I've heard a lot of times - that, well, if you want to do Shakespeare, you have to sort of elevate yourself to meet the text, which I find to be complicated. Where I'm from in rural Alabama, you know, my grandparents, my parents are capable of expressing some pretty complex and beautiful ideas in their own way - you know? - and in their own sort of language or dialect, if you will.
And even to this day when I call home and speak to my - my father's birthday is today. I called and spoke to him on the way here. And I answered - he answered the phone. I say, how you doing? And he said, well, if I had your hand, I believe I'd throw mine in, you know?
HOLLAND: Or other times you might say, how are you doing, man? He say, well, I can't kill nothing and look like won't nothing die. You know, and those - that's perfect iambic, you know? And that's just the rhythm that we communicate in, and I feel like that has as much a place on the Globe stage, or any stage, as does any kind of well-spoken, well-trained, perfectly delivered sort of mid-Atlantic sound. You could probably tell this is something I'm really passionate about.
But also, my grandfather was a preacher in a Pentecostal church. And I was listening the other day, obviously, with the passing of Aretha Franklin to some of her father's sermons, C.L. Franklin's sermons, which I listened to from time to time and really love. And that sort of hooping style of preaching is what my grandfather did and what the other pastors of our church did, and there is a definite rhythm to that. There's also a phrasing that those kinds of preachers employ that I think, to my ears, sounds a lot like Shakespeare, and it's very useful to me in terms of playing Shakespeare.
For example, in the church, there might be, say - if you could imagine, like, a preacher up there at the podium, and then there's often, like, a woman on the mother's board who's sitting off, you know, to his right, and that woman will often read from the Bible. The pastor might say, turn in your Bibles, if you would, to the book of John 14:1-7. Read. And then the lady might say, let not your heart be troubled. And the preacher would say, let not your heart be troubled. Read on. If you believe in God believe, also, in me. If you believe in God - you know, and it's this way of sort of using language to literally, like, lift the audience up in the air. And he can hold them in the palm of his hand, and they'll stay there until he comes to the next line. Does that make sense?
HOLLAND: So it's the difference between her father loved me, oft invited me and her father loved me, oft invited me. And when you sort of, you know, offer the language in that way people will hang around to hear what else you've got to say.
GROSS: You know, another thing about that style of preaching - because I, too, was listening to some C.L. Franklin - Reverend C.L. Franklin, Aretha's father, because we reran our interview and played an excerpt of one of his sermons. And it's just, like, a step away from soul singing. I mean, there's so much, like, music, he might as well have been singing his sermon.
HOLLAND: Yeah, yeah. It's so beautiful. It's so, so beautiful, and it's a style of preaching that I think is really fading away. But it - there's something so powerful and so magical about it.
GROSS: So I need to talk with you about "Moonlight." It is such a great film, and I loved your performance so much in it.
HOLLAND: Thank you.
GROSS: You know, there's a scene - this isn't you playing this, but in the high school version of your character - to protect himself from the school bully and to show that he is tough and that he's a man, he makes a deal with the school bully. And part of the deal is that when the bully says, you have to beat somebody up, he has to do it. Because the bully's is also a sadist, he has your character, Kevin, beat up Chiron, who is a friend. And those two characters have recently been on the beach alone together and kissed and did a little more than that.
And so right after all this, you know, the high school Kevin is told he has to beat up Chiron, and he does to prove his manhood. And I'm sure you read that part of the script and that your interpretation of the character was based on knowing that that happened. And I was wondering if you were ever in a position where you had to prove your manhood in a way that felt wrong or uncomfortable but, like, you had to do it.
HOLLAND: Wow. Yeah. I mean, there have definitely been times in my life where I felt that. The first thing that comes to mind was - wow. We're going in, huh? All right.
HOLLAND: They said you were something else, Ms. Terry.
HOLLAND: Well, let's see. The first thing that comes to mind was in school, I remember - sort of early high school - I went to a number of different schools growing up. And the second one that I went to, during the first week of school, I remember the - we were in PE class and, you know, had sort of done our activities and were waiting for the bell to ring. And I was a new kid at school. And so I was sitting by myself with my little glasses on and the - you know, the oversized coat that my mom bought and made me wear that I didn't like, but I wore it anyway. And I was sitting alone, and I remember this kid, who was one of the sort of cool kids, saying - looking over at me and saying, who, him? And it got really silent.
And then the kid got up, walked over and stared down at me as I was sitting down. And he reached back and punched me for no reason. And instantly, this, like, circle formed around us. And it became this moment, you know, not unlike - as I'm thinking about it, not unlike the moment in "Moonlight" - where, like, this group of kids were around us trying to, you know, egg us on.
And I remember it like it was yesterday, this like, feeling of like, well, this is the moment where either I have to, like, defend myself and, like, hit him back, even though that doesn't feel entirely right, or the rest of my high school life will probably - I will be probably considered a coward and probably have to deal with this, you know, for the next four years.
And yeah, from somewhere, I guess, deep within me, I summoned the courage and took a swing that connected. And anyway, we wound up having this fight, and I felt horribly about it, of course, because it's not really in my nature to be like that. But it did feel like that moment of - one of many moments along the way of sort of, you know, proving your - proving my manhood, even though it didn't feel entirely right.
GROSS: Who won the fight?
HOLLAND: I would say that I won, Terry.
HOLLAND: Yeah. He was older than I was. And so, you know, after we exchanged a couple of swings, people sort of parted us. And I think I came out the victor. The next day at school, I came in. I remember walking into the gym, and all the - they all were there. And the kid, John (ph), who I fought was there, too. And all the other kids kept saying, ooh, John, there goes Dre; there goes Dre; he beat you up yesterday; you're going to take that, man? You going to take that?
And the whole time, I just kept thinking, please stop, y'all; please stop, just - but, you know, I got to keep the exterior like, yeah, man, I did it; you want it? You want some more? But inside, I was praying that he wouldn't get up. But from then on, I was pretty much left alone for the rest of high school.
GROSS: My guest is Andre Holland, the co-star of "Moonlight," "42," "Selma" and "The Knick." He's now starring in the Stephen King-inspired Hulu series "Castle Rock." After a break, we'll talk about a couple of traumatic events related to growing up in Alabama, and he'll tell us about his family's connections to the civil rights movement. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Andre Holland. He co-starred in the Academy Award-winning film "Moonlight." In "Selma," he played civil rights leader Andrew Young. In "42," he played sportswriter Wendell Smith, who helped convince Branch Rickey to hire Jackie Robinson.
In the Cinemax series "The Knick," he played a surgeon facing racial discrimination in the early 1900s. Holland stars in the new Hulu series "Castle Rock," which is inspired by Stephen King stories. Right now, Holland's in London starring in a production of "Othello." Just a heads-up, in a few minutes, we'll talk about an upsetting incident that involved the use of a racial slur. When we left off, we were talking about Holland's role in "Moonlight." In the film's final sequence, he plays the adult version of Kevin, who has become a cook in a diner and meets up again with the film's main character, Chiron.
Another thing I have to ask you from "Moonlight" - your character, I mean, he's a cook. He has a reason to have a toothpick in his mouth. But you use the toothpick very expressively to show surprise, to show concern. Was the toothpick written into the script, or did you decide, like, you needed it?
HOLLAND: No, it wasn't written into the script, but I did feel like I needed it. I needed something because, you know, the scene is quite a long scene. There's a lot of changes in the scene, a lot of, like, subtle emotional changes in the scene that I wanted to play without overplaying. You know, and I felt like if I had something that I could work with, that would help me remark some of those changes behaviorally that didn't require - and I wouldn't fall into sort of overacting or overselling anything. So, yeah, the toothpick became my best friend.
GROSS: (Laughter) Did you go through a lot of toothpicks?
HOLLAND: Oh, a lot - a lot.
HOLLAND: Yeah, they were (laughter) - yeah, definitely.
GROSS: So let's talk about your life. You grew up in Bessemer, Ala. Tell us about the place where you grew up.
HOLLAND: Well, Bessemer is sort of a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. It's about half an hour south of Birmingham, and I grew up in a pretty small town, small community surrounded by, you know, cousins and aunts and uncles. And one of the roads in our town was called Holland Drive, if that gives you any indication.
GROSS: Well, who was that - which part - which member of your family was it named after?
HOLLAND: My great uncle lived on that road - Mozell Holland (ph).
GROSS: And what did he do that was worthy of having a street named after him?
HOLLAND: I think he just managed to live on that road.
HOLLAND: Not many people lived down on that end of the community, but he and about two or three others lived down there. So, yeah, Holland Drive was the name, and it was kind of a beautiful childhood as I look back on it - you know, a lot of time spent with family, a lot of time spent listening to stories - old people telling the stories of their lives. And I think that probably is what inspired me to become an actor. They're also - you know, Bessemer itself is, you know, a community that struggles financially.
I mean, a lot of people are - it's a very working-class community. A lot of people are struggling and certainly were struggling back then as well. But I was raised in a house that was full of love, and we never, you know, felt the lack really. Even though there certainly was, we never felt it and had parents - have parents - who just, you know, taught me to believe in myself and that - to believe that anything was possible.
GROSS: So it sounds like you had a really big, extended family in the town where you grew up. A lot of African-Americans from the South, particularly places like Alabama - once they could - decided to go to the North where there might be more opportunity. Were any members of your family part of the great migration North?
HOLLAND: Yeah, for sure. My father had three older brothers, all of whom moved to New York City as soon as they finished high school and took jobs up there. On my mother's side, there were several people who moved to Ohio - to Dayton, Ohio, and to Chicago to take jobs up there, but a number of people stayed behind as well. And...
GROSS: I wonder how much of a conscious decision that was, like if they asked themselves, should we stay or should we go?
HOLLAND: Yeah, I'm not sure. I mean, I think - I know in the case of my family, you know, my grandparents as I was - when I was growing up, both my grandparents lived with us. My grandmother had cancer, and my father - my grandfather had had a stroke. And so both of them were in need of help. And so I think my - why my three older - my father's three older brothers left. My father decided to stay, I think, largely to help take care of his family - his parents.
And I know that he's had opportunities to leave. He had opportunities to leave in his life, but he decided to stay behind and, you know, take care of his family. And I really admire him for making that decision 'cause I - you know, Alabama is not an - it's not an easy place to grow up. It's still very complicated. And certainly when I was a kid, there are things that I experienced that illuminated to me just how complicated it must've been for my parents. So I'm...
GROSS: Is there an example you could share?
HOLLAND: Oh, man. There are a number of things. I mean, I guess one of the early things I remember is (laughter) - I was in fourth grade. And I remember the first time I sort of had a crush on a girl. And Valentine's Day is coming around. And when we - our teacher had told us to go out and get Valentine's Day cards. And so my mother went to Walmart and bought this, you know, sort of perforated sheet of Valentine's cards. You can rip them off and sort of write in the to and the from.
And we went to school that morning and made - out of construction paper, we made these little mailboxes and brought our Valentine's cards and went around in the morning and passed them out. And then at the end of the day, we got to open our mailboxes and see all the mail that we had gotten and open our Valentine's cards. And I remember opening mine and noticing that the one that I had put into the box of this young girl - Brook (ph) was her name - the one I put in Brook's box had ended up back in my box. And I opened it up and looked at it. And, you know, on the front, it said happy Valentine's Day. I love you - to Brook from Andre. And I turned it over, and she had written in pencil, I hate you, nigger.
And I remember holding that card and being really in shock and getting in the car with my mother later that day and sitting in the back seat and holding it and wanting to tell her what had happened but feeling so ashamed of myself, I guess, that I didn't tell her. And instead, I took it home and hid it in my dresser drawer. I still have it to this day. But that feeling of shame that, you know - I just remember feeling, well, there must be something wrong with me, you know, for her to say that to me and to treat me like that.
And I think that for a long time I walked around sort of internalizing that, which then created this pattern of behavior in me where, you know, I felt I had to prove my worth all the time, you know, and that I wasn't allowed to make bad decisions or make mistakes or to be wrong, that I had to be - I had to be right, you know, every time. I've always been so frightened of being wrong that it sort of kept me in the middle. So that's one of, like, many examples that I could give. But, you know, I've thought about that a lot. And as I look back over my life, I can see the places where that, like - instances like that still, to this day, affect my relationships with people and the choices that I make. And I'm trying to do a better job of letting go of those things.
GROSS: That must've had a big effect on you if you still have that Valentine's card.
HOLLAND: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah, I do. I do, and it did. And, yeah, and there are a lot of things like that. I remember - yeah, not to get too - I remember also there was - I had a cousin, who I was very close to growing up, who - yeah, I'm going to say it - who I was close to growing up.
And he got involved in some bad activity. He essentially - he and some older - some other people who I know had a very, very bad idea to try and burglarize this little five-and-dime store in our - that's in the area where we grew up in. And after they had gone in and done what they - stolen the, you know - a few hundred dollars or whatever it was that they got - on the way out, my cousin, who was 17 at the time, was shot in the back by the store owner. And the store owner - and he was killed eventually. He died that night. And the store owner...
GROSS: I'm sorry. Yeah.
HOLLAND: Yeah, but the store owner was also my baseball coach...
HOLLAND: ...Which - yeah, so there's always been - down where I grew up - this, like, really kind of complicated...
HOLLAND: ...Friction between people in the community that I grew up in, the white people who also sort of share that same community or, you know, the community sort of adjacent to it. There's always been this tension, you know, and I've often felt sort of in the middle of that, like belonging to - definitely belonging to my own family and my own culture in my own neighborhood but then also often finding myself in, you know - like, I went to a private school that was on the other side of town and - just not quite knowing, you know, where I fit, how I fit, if I fit. And a lot of the characters that I play - choose to play - are also wrestling with, I think, similar things - that question of, like, identity and where they fit. So it's clearly - to answer your question - like, a thing that I'm still trying to figure out and unpack. All of that stuff is...
GROSS: Was the baseball coach white?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Holland. He co-starred in "Moonlight," "The Knick" and "Selma," and he's starring in the new Stephen King-inspired series "Castle Rock." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERFLIES' "PLEASE KEEP THAT TRAIN AWAY FROM MY DOOR")
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Andre Holland, who's co-starred in "Moonlight," "The Knick," "Selma" and "42." He stars in the new Stephen King-inspired series "Castle Rock." When we left off, he just shared two traumatic events from growing up in Alabama. One when his cousin burglarized a store and was shot in the back and killed by the store owner. The store owner, who was white, was Andre Holland's baseball coach at the time. The other story was when Holland gave his fourth-grade crush a valentine, and she wrote back using a racial slur to describe how much she hated him.
Was the school that you went to where you got that Valentine - that horrible Valentine - was that an integrated school?
HOLLAND: It was a Christian school, (laughter) so it was meant to be integrated. But it actually - there were two black students at the school, myself and another...
GROSS: Oh, wow.
HOLLAND: ...Another guy. Yeah.
GROSS: Why did your parents choose to send you to that school?
HOLLAND: Well, I think it was - the public schools that I was zoned for, they weren't good. They were quite dangerous. And I went to that public school for a year. And in that year, I think I maybe brought a book home once the whole - you know, the whole school year - to the point where my mother used to tell me, if you get off that school bus tomorrow without a book, you're going to be in big trouble, you know? But, you know, I still managed to make all A's, and it just wasn't a challenging environment, you know? And a lot of my friends were doing things that - you know, gangs were big back then. So people were joining gangs and fighting and doing stuff, and my parents could see it coming. So they wanted me to go to a school that was different from that. And so that's why they sent me there, I believe.
GROSS: I'm still processing that your baseball coach shot your cousin in the back. What was your relationship like with the baseball coach after that? I can't imagine being coached by him after he shot your cousin.
HOLLAND: Yeah, I wasn't. I didn't play any more on that team. We ended up - I ended up playing someplace else, but I still saw him around. You know, we - I played baseball all the time growing up. And so I - you know, we were still - we would come into contact with one another from time to time.
GROSS: Was the coach ever punished?
HOLLAND: I don't believe so. I mean, this was many years ago. And, you know, I was 17 at the time, but I don't believe he ever was punished.
GROSS: Wow. That must've been really frightening for you, no?
HOLLAND: Yeah, it - you know, it was. But what - this is the interesting thing, Terry, is that I'm learning about myself - is that, you know, it was frightening. But I think that I got very good at putting those feelings away whenever these things would happen. You know, basically the same thing I did with that stupid Valentine's card. I just tucked it away in a drawer somewhere, you know what I mean? I did the same thing...
GROSS: You held onto it but (laughter) tucked it away.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
HOLLAND: But I hid it, you know what I mean? I hid it and - so that nobody else could see it.
HOLLAND: You know, and it felt that my sort of survival and progression felt dependent on nobody else being able to see it. And I did the same thing with those feelings, I think. And it's only now in recent years, I think, that I'm really starting to look at how those things have continued to affect me in my adult life.
GROSS: Has the stage been - the stage and in front of a camera been safe places for you to express feelings that you never felt comfortable expressing in real life and to draw on experiences that you kept tucked away?
HOLLAND: Absolutely. Absolutely. And this play I'm doing right now - there's an opportunity to express a lot of that, which is really uncomfortable for me. But I'm doing my best to go to those places and...
GROSS: Like expressing Othello's rage.
HOLLAND: Yeah, yeah.
HOLLAND: Exactly. His rage and his grief and, I think, also - you know, and I think also his - that experience of - I mean, Othello's a guy who, you know, has assimilated into a society that's not his own. And one of the reasons that he's been allowed to assimilate is because these people consider him to be valuable, you know, as a general, as he's sort of, you know, lead their army. And that I believe is one of the reasons that he's allowed to continue his relationship with Desdemona.
But, you know, what does that do to a person, you know, who's living sort of straddling these two worlds, one that's his own and one that he wants to be a part of? But he knows that that's conditional, and I know what that experience is, you know, going to those private schools where, you know, I was sort of told, well, you've been chosen to be here; you're lucky to be here and at the same time being told, well, you're not like those other, you know, black boys from your neighborhood but knowing in my heart that I absolutely am just like those black boys in my neighborhood. You know what I mean?
So feeling that sort of I guess, you know, gratitude and acceptance of opportunity but at the same time anger and frustration at the short-sightedness of the people who are giving those opportunities and being sort of trapped in that middle place is something I'm interested in exploring with Othello and also, you know, with myself.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Holland. And he was one of the stars of "Moonlight." He starred in "The Knick." He's starring in the new Stephen King-inspired series "Castle Rock." And right now he's performing in the title role of Othello at the Globe Theatre in London. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS TRIO'S "MILESTONES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Andre Holland. And he stars in the new Stephen King-inspired series "Castle Rock." He starred as a surgeon in "The Knick." He played Andrew Young in "Selma." He played Wendell Smith in "42." And I mentioned "Moonlight" - right? - that you are one of the stars of "Moonlight" (laughter).
GROSS: And you're now in London performing the title role of Othello. In the movie "Selma" about the civil rights movement, you played Andrew Young, who had been the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, later became a congressman from Georgia, mayor of Atlanta. Your mother worked for him, right?
HOLLAND: Yeah, she worked - actually he shared an office with another gentleman. And so she worked with that gentleman but got to know Andrew Young quite well...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
HOLLAND: ...During the voter education project.
GROSS: So did she tell you a lot of stories about the civil rights movement?
HOLLAND: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. She and my dad both did. Yeah, in fact my family owns a - and has owned for quite some time - a funeral home called Poole Funeral Chapel that is adjacent to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. And...
GROSS: That's the church that was dynamited by white racists. Were they Klan members or just...
HOLLAND: Yeah. yeah.
GROSS: ...Unaffiliated racists? OK (laughter).
HOLLAND: Think so, yeah, (unintelligible).
GROSS: And four girls.
GROSS: Like, a bunch of people were injured, but four girls, four young girls, were killed in that bombing.
GROSS: It's one of the, like, really infamous incidents of the civil rights era. So anyway - so your family had a funeral home across the street from that. Were the girls buried in that funeral home?
HOLLAND: One of them. One of them was. And I'm not sure which one it was. So I don't want to misspeak.
HOLLAND: Yeah, one certainly was. And my Uncle Ernest who ran the funeral home - you know, he always told stories about the civil rights movement. And my dad did as well. I mean, you know, everybody did. Like, I grew up really steeped in that sort of - that history. And one of the - one of my favorite stories that my Uncle Ernest used to tell is at the funeral home, there was a man named Reverend Weaver, a white man who used to work with organizers to try and fight, you know, Jim Crow and racist policies.
And on this one particular night, the - apparently these group of white guys got behind Reverend Weaver and chased him all through the city. And he wound up on the doorstep of the funeral home. And he knocked on the door late at night. And Uncle Ernest let him in and took him in the back and, in order to keep him from being killed, hid him in a casket. And the white guys came in and looked all through the funeral home, and they couldn't find him. And Uncle Ernest loved to tell that story.
And about six years ago - maybe more, like, seven or eight years ago - Uncle Ernest's wife, my great-aunt Meteria (ph), who passed away. And I was at the funeral. And I remember sitting there. And towards the middle of the service, this little old white man with a few pieces of hair on the top of his head and his bright blue eyes filled with tears came shuffling into the back of the church. And he made his way up to the front and got up behind the pulpit and told the story about the night that my Uncle Ernest saved his life.
GROSS: That's an amazing story.
GROSS: Were there any things in the movie "Selma" that you feel like your family had experienced firsthand? I don't know if they were in those marches or not.
HOLLAND: Yeah. You know, my - both my parents - when Dr. King, and Reverend Abernathy, and Andrew Young, and Shuttlesworth and all these guys were organizing the Birmingham boycotts after so many people had been put in jail, they ended up turning to the students - right? - the students at these high schools. Brighton High School was the one that my parents went to. They left school and walked from Brighton, downtown Birmingham, to participate in these marches. And my parents were among those people who - those students who did that.
GROSS: So given your family's activity in the voting rights movement, is voting really important to you?
HOLLAND: Extremely important and has been all my life. Right? My mother made sure that we all - my two sisters and I - all understood the importance of it and that we would go with her when she would vote at every election, she and my parents. And to this day, whenever there's any election, she calls and says, did you vote? (Laughter) And I have to tell her that I did - you know. So it's - yeah, it's always been a staple in our household.
Speaking of voting, my mother, when we were - when I was in high school, and we were studying social studies and learning about the legislative process and the electoral process, my mother, partly in order to illustrate for me how the process worked, went and registered to run for a local office - assistant tax collector - and made me her campaign manager. And (laughter) so she sent me around, and I would go make these speeches on her behalf.
And on election night, we almost won. We only lost by - I think - about 50 or 60 votes. And that's just - that's the kind of person that she is. She - you know, she'll do anything for her children. And she just doesn't believe in taking no for an answer.
GROSS: So I wish I could see you in "Othello" in London. Sadly, I won't have that opportunity. Tell us what I - and we - can see you in soon.
HOLLAND: We finish "Othello" here in October. And then after that, I'm going to take a bit of a break. The last few years have been pretty intense. And I have sort of found myself, you know, running on fumes here and struggling a bit with - I think - taking care of myself and really slowing down enough to make sense of all that has happened. And I want to just take a time-out and, you know, breathe a little bit, relax a little bit.
There's a stack of books that I want to read. And I want to do that and spend time with friends and really figure out what I want the next sort of chapter of my life to look like. And I think that, you know, as amazing as the last few years have been, the truth is I - you know, it really took a toll on me. You know, and I think I wasn't really - haven't really been my best self at all times. And I'd like to be. I'm committed to being, and so I want to take the time I need to take time to figure out how to do that.
GROSS: That kind of success bring a lot of stress and pressure.
HOLLAND: Enormous amount.
HOLLAND: Enormous amount. And I feel guilty - I felt - yeah, I feel guilty saying it because, you know, obviously I'm grateful for it. And...
GROSS: No, of course. Yeah. Yeah.
HOLLAND: You know, not many people get to experience. But just the level of stress and the demands of, you know, traveling all the time and then, you know, all the people in your life who, you know, you want to help and be supportive of. And then - yeah, all the - it's just a - it's been a lot. It has been a lot...
GROSS: You only have one body. You have to take care of it (laughter).
HOLLAND: That's it. That's it. That's it. So I think...
GROSS: Yeah. Well, take care of yourself because we need you (laughter).
HOLLAND: Thank you. Well, not as much as we need you, Terry.
GROSS: Be good to yourself (laughter).
HOLLAND: I want to tell you, I really appreciate you having me on. I've been a big fan of this for a long time...
GROSS: Oh, it's been such a pleasure. It's - you've - it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
HOLLAND: Thank you.
GROSS: Andre Holland is now starring in the Stephen King-inspired series "Castle Rock." Season 1 is now available for streaming on Hulu. The series has been renewed for a second season.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff, the co-creator of the Israeli TV action series "Fauda" about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It's based in part on Issacharoff's reporting. The series won 11 of the Israeli equivalent of the Emmys. And it's now streaming on Netflix. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN TENTET'S "KENEDOUGOU FOLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.