By Greg Carannante
City & Shore PRIME
Despite his current role on the hit ABC series The Good Doctor and nearly a hundred other roles in a 25-year Hollywood career, speaking with Hill Harper isn’t really like speaking with an actor.
He inhabits too many other roles for that.
“That’s part of the whole theme of my life,” says Harper, who appeared as part of Broward College’s Speaker Series in Fort Lauderdale on April 24. “Too often we hear, ‘don’t be a jack of all trades and a master of none.’ I think that term is one of the biggest lies you’ll ever hear, because it automatically negates the idea of our individual magnificence and greatness, because it negates the concept that we don’t have the capacity to be masters of many things.”
Certainly “master of many things” would lead Harper’s lengthy litany of bona fides, but there’s also a depth to the breadth. Let’s start with the Ivy League: magna cum laude from Brown, a master’s in public administration from Harvard’s JFK School of Government, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Harvard Law School, where he became friends with another ambitious classmate, Barack Obama.
Harper is author of four New York Times best-sellers, and he’s won seven NAACP Image Awards for both acting and writing, including for 2006’s Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny. His outreach to the young is more than just words, though — his Manifest Your Destiny Foundation empowers underserved young people with mentors, scholarships and grants.
Also, he hosts How It Really Happened, a crime docudrama series on the HLN network; and Legal Wars, a podcast on Wondery. And did I mention the acting credits? Going back to 1993’s recurring role on Fox’s Married … With Children, his career hit a high note a decade later with his award-winning portrayal of investigator Sheldon Hawkes for nine seasons on CBS’ CSI: NY.
In 2011, while still on that show, Harper was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After researching the side effects of skin-care products, he created an all-natural personal-care line, Be the Architect. And two years ago he took on perhaps his most significant role, becoming the adoptive single dad of a baby boy, Pierce, now 3.
The somewhat incongruous exclamation point on this auspicious CV is his having been named People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” — twice! Not bad for a guy who turns 53 next month.
A New Yorker, Harper spoke with City & Shore from Vancouver, where The Good Doctor was being filmed, and the role of head surgeon Dr. Marcus Andrews was the one he was playing — for the time being.
That’s a pretty unusual name, Hill. It’s your mother’s maiden name, right?
Yes. My mother is Marilyn Hill and I was named after my mother. My whole name is Frankie Jean Hill Harper.
Can you give us some details about your talk here?
I believe success is a system. A lot of people have an intuition of what they want to create for their lives, but most of us have never been taught how to actually approach it — you know, how to actually create a system for success.
But the overarching piece is that we are all active architects of our life, that we can build our lives like an architect builds a structure. But you have to approach it the same way. You have to start with a blueprint. Then the next thing an architect does is build the foundation. I always say the size and thickness of the foundation is directly proportional to the size and scope of your goals and dreams. So if you have big goals and big dreams, you’re gonna need a big foundation to support it, which means education, training, relationships, resources, family, faith — all these different things that are foundational.
And then you go onto the framework of the structure of your life, which are the choices you make. I use are all about empowerment.
You started acting when you were very young. Was there a moment you realized it was what you wanted to do with your life?
Yeah. It wasn’t until I was in grad school at Harvard that I decided that I was going to make a career out of it. I knew I loved it, but I didn’t have an understanding of how you actually build a career. So when I was in grad school, I’d go down to New York from Boston and work with professional actors. And just like anything else, the more I was exposed to folks who are actually doing it as a profession, I realized that: one, I was good at it; two, I loved it; and three, I could do it.
Since then you’ve played so many different roles in films, TV and theater. Is there one that’s most meaningful to you?
I’ll give you two. They’re both independent films that I’ve done years and years ago, and they won awards at the festivals but not a ton of people saw them. I know my mother saw them both. [Laughs.] One is The Nephew, where I was the lead character. And I did it with Pierce Brosnan. That was just a wonderful experience to go to Ireland for three months to make this beautiful film. It played in Europe mostly. And the other film is The Visit, which I did with a director who became one of my best friends, Jordan Walker Pearlman. It was a wonderful film, a true story about a man who was dying of AIDS in prison and just wanted to get out to visit his family. Those two films I’m very, very proud of.
One element of The Nephew, I must say, is that Pierce Brosnan and I became very dear friends, and I named my son, Pierce, after him. If I hadn’t done that movie, my son wouldn’t be named Pierce. It warms my heart that Pierce and Pierce get to spend time together every once in a while.
Do you feel that that the doors have opened any wider for blacks in Hollywood in recent years?
I think there’s certainly significantly more opportunity because the barriers to entry and distribution have come down. There are more opportunities to get your voice heard and get your story out. I’ll give you a great example: Issa Rae, who is the lead of a super successful show on HBO, Insecure. When she was an actress just stumbling around in LA, no one would hire her. But what did she do? She created a web series called The Awkward Black Girl. And that web series was so popular, I called her up and said, ‘Hey, I want to option The Awkward Black Girl.’ She was like, ‘Listen, I don’t need anybody to option anything. I’m good.’ And she negotiated a deal with HBO and basically created a very similar show that we know now to be Insecure. So that show would not exist, but for the ability to distribute your own content to the public and develop a following outside of the traditional decision-makers.
So to that extent, yes, technology has done it. But I don’t think Hollywood has become less racist or less homophobic or gender-discriminatory against women.
South Florida has been in the news quite a lot lately. What is your impression of the region from where you are?
I get down to South Florida a few times a year. I have friends who live there. I have a skin-care company and we do all our manufacturing out of South Florida. It’s been wonderful to be able to provide jobs for folks there in the community. I do a lot of work within the prison system and speak about the prison industrial complex. And I firmly believe that if you have served your time, you deserve to participate in the most basic American right, which is voting. So I’m very proud of the state. I’m proud that [in the November election] the citizens voted ex-felons to exercise their right to participate in our democracy.
It’s impressive how many coals you keep in the fire. What drives you to take it all on?
I truly believe that all of us have the capacity to be masters of many things. So if I say that, then I have to live that. And whether you’re creating a skin-care company or you’re doing a podcast or you’re acting on a show, all of this comes back to probably the most important thing — I believe the most empowering aspect of anything — is people being able to earn a living and earn a wage. And that’s my goal, empowering communities that are the most vulnerable. But the best way to empower communities is to provide opportunity. So I want to create things that I love and enjoy, but at the same time, I know that if I create something that’s successful, it can also help other people. So I want to keep creating more and double down, because that’s why we’re here — to live life with that level of energy.
And that’s really my message, fundamentally. If we break everything down, it’s get rid of the fear, act courageously and live your life, because this is it. We’re here for such a short little window of time.
One of the words that I believe to be the most important [in life] is courage. Most people think courage is the antithesis of fear. Courage is simply getting into your heart — and that’s it. It’s really asking yourself what makes your heart beat faster, which means what do you care about. And if you think about the environment and it makes your heart beat faster, if you think about animals, babies or kids, mass incarceration, police brutality — if you think about any of these things and it makes your heart beat faster, follow it. It’s simple but not easy. Follow your heart.
If you had to choose, which of your accolades would you keep: the Image Awards or the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’?
[Laughs]. There are other awards I’ve gotten that I think are better than those. The Muhammad Ali Center gave me an award, the Humanitarian Award for Education [in 2017]. That was a huge honor. And the National Civil Rights Museum gave me their top honor as well [2011’s Education Legacy Award]. Because of the men, Dr. King and Muhammad Ali, who I have just so much awe and respect for … those are the two awards to me that I hold above all others.
And out of your choice, you know, the funny thing about People magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ is that I got that award in 2004 and then I got it again in 2014. So I think I’m doing 2024 for one more. [Laughs.]
PHOTO: Hill Harper, Chae Haile and Broward College President Gregory Adam Haile. (Downtown Photo).