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Interview with CSI:NY’s Hill Harper

A month and a half after my interview with CSI:NY‘s actor Hill Harper, here it finally is online.
Why would you care you ask?
Well, for one, he talks about online technology, and especially Twitter, in relation to TV and his show. And as you’ll see, the guy loves Twitter.
There’s also that part about the future of TV and how budgets are getting sliced.
And I don’t watch CSI.

Interview conducted on July 2nd
(Thanks to Toutelatele.com)

Can you talk a little about your atypical journey to acting?

Hill Harper (HH): When I went to college, to Brown University, I studied theatre, but I didn’t know if I was going to make a career out of it. I certainly wanted to go to grad school, so I decided to do a joint degree at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School. That is where I met President Obama, he and I were classmates. I just really felt at the time that I loved acting, and I loved being an artist. I think all of us come to a realization, maybe sometimes earlier in life, maybe sometimes later in life, that nothing else matters except following your heart. I really do believe that you’ve got to do what you love. That was reinforced when my uncle passed away when I was very young. He was 45 years old, and I was in law school. I realized that in life, nothing’s promised. Too many people I know put off saying I’m going to do this when, etc. And I’m the type of person who said: “you know what, what’s in my heart I’m going to follow.”

How do you feel about your CSI:NY character?

HH: I love that my character, Dr. Sheldon Hawkes, breaks many stereotypes. He’s the most intelligent character on the show. All the other characters have to come to my character for answers. It’s not the typical portrayal of the African American male on television and in the media in general. I like breaking stereotypes.

What do you think of the two other CSI shows?

HH: I think it’s better acted; I’m going to be honest. Not to take anything away from their shows, but I know our actors are the best, in my opinion.

In what ways did CSY:NY succeed in differentiating itself from other shows?

HH: If you look at the stories, they’re unique and interesting, and that starts with your writing. I don’t care how good your actors are, if you don’t have great writing, there’s no way you can have a good show. Really, television is all about the scripts. We’re in a wonderful time right now for American television. I call it the golden age of television. The best TV shows in the world at the moment are coming out of the US. I think that’s all about the cultivation of really good writing talent. They’ve been doing a great job. At the same time, you see the quality of American films decreasing. So it’s interesting in a time where the quality of American television is going up, the quality of American films is going down in comparison to the filmmaking around the world. I really do think the big difference has to do with the writing talent.

A lot of directors, writers, and even some actors, are moving to web-based content. Would you be interested in working on a creatively-strong web-series, even if it would mean a pay cut and reaching only a tenth of your current CSI audience?

HH: A lot of that depends on the content. I’m more of an artist who wants to do great content. If it’s great content, it doesn’t matter. I mean, I do theatre too and that’s a very small audience. That’s only the actual number of people that can actually fit in the actual seats. So, it’s not about reaching. Certainly doing a show like CSI:NY, where we reach millions and millions of people worldwide every week, that’s wonderful. But, it’s still to me about the content.

I know you use Twitter a lot, and we’re seeing a lot of celebrities now using it. What do you think is its primary appeal?

HH: Unlike Facebook and MySpace where it’s just so long, it takes time, Twitter is short-hand. With Twitter, I could literally within 30 seconds, in the middle of this interview, tweet and have responses. That’s the quickness of it. Technology is supposed to enhance your life, not detract it. You can get to a point where you feel chained to Facebook, where you have to go on, read it all. It’s just too much. With Twitter, it’s instantaneous. I’m going to be the first actor that I know of, certainly on my show, that is going to be tweeting from the set. I’m even tweeting live, asking questions to the audience: “Do you want me to wear glasses?”, or, “this is what this scene is about, do you want me to drink coffee?” I’m going to allow the audience to interact. It’s going to be three levels: my character Dr. Hawkes, me, Hill Harper, and the audience relating to both through Twitter. I’m excited about this. I want that feedback worldwide. The audience will feel they have an impact on the show, and when they see the scene, they’re like “I remember when he was tweeting about that!” I’m really interested in using technology in all ways.

Isn’t that becoming too dependent on reaction and feedback though?

HH: I think that you can pick and choose. As an artist, you need your own point of view or you’re not interesting. But we don’t do art in a vacuum. It’s meant to be seen, or else you’re masturbating. There’s always this tension. I have friends that don’t read critics or reviews, because they say, well, if I read the good reviews and I believe them, then I have to believe the bad reviews too. I think that everyone can figure out for themselves how much interaction they can have versus not. Certainly, if it s
tarts taking away from who you are, like if you’re reading reviews and it starts to change your work in a negative way, then stop. If you’re tweeting and you’re having an interaction with your audience, and it starts making yourself too self-conscious, and it’s affecting the way you do things, then stop. I think we can all find our own way. The more people you can welcome in, to who you are and the work you do, and allow them to be part of it in whatever way, can heighten the experience. Because everything that we do, I believe, should cause an experience.

Would you be interested in writing an episode for your show?

HH: The writers are so good at what they do so specifically, and it would just take me so long to write an episode, I wouldn’t be interested in that. I’d be more interested in directing an episode. I may get that opportunity to do it later on this year. I’m hoping to, but it’s very political when it comes to actors directing. Every actor wants to direct an episode and thinks they can, so it’s very political getting the opportunity. This is the last year of my contract, so we’ll see what happens.

How do you see the show’s future?

HH: I would like to stay with CSI and do a couple more seasons. But, you know, Without a Trace just got cancelled. It’s a good example of a top show that they decided was just too expensive to continue. You just don’t know what’s going to happen. The entertainment business is changing very quickly, and I think if you’re smart in the business, you have to think about other things. The days of sitting back on a show, thinking that you’re character is not getting killed off, are over. Just look at how they did the last episode of our fifth season: the entire cast was in a bar and they shot up the entire bar. You don’t know who’s going to live or die. And they’re negotiating with people. The creative and the business side are getting much more linked in a way that I don’t think is necessarily good. It’s a little manipulative. It gets negotiation advantage in a way, but at the same time that’s the reality of the business. Its called show-business not show-art, they have to make money or they can’t produce the show. And if the advertising revenues are dropping, we have to make changes. This year we’re making changes like special effects. I know we’re going to be shooting on HD digital format rather than film for the first time. They’re definitely making certain changes that are going to affect different things. But, at the end of the day, what I think has made CSI:NY so good is the writing. All television begins with the writing, period. We have the best writers in my opinion.

What other projects do you have?

HH: My third book, called The Conversation, is coming out in September. It’s my first book directed towards adults. The previous two were motivational books for teens and this book is about relationships. It’s from a single man’s perspective. It’s going to be interesting to see how it’s received. I purposely push buttons in it. It’s all about the idea of sparking conversation and communication between men and women, hopefully to make for successful relationships. I have a non-profit foundation, the Manifest Your Destiny Foundation, where I give scholarships to low-income young men and women. I also do a lot of speaking around the country, so I’ll continue doing that. The state department has sent me on two missions to speak to young people; they sent me to Italy and to Turkey. All of this because of my relationship with President Obama and because they know what I do with young people. It’s really great. That’s why I love doing a show such as CSI, it has such an international reach that it offers me a platform to speak to young people around the world that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I think that that can be a positive benefit. Any celebrities can use their platform for positive or for not so positive in a way. I personally believe that what’s the use of having a platform if you’re not going to do something good or positive with it.

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