John Douglas Thompson Opens Up About ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ and ‘Julius Caesar’

The acclaimed actor talks to Black Enterprise about starring in these new productions

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO)

 

John Douglas Thompson has been extolled by the New York Times as “one of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation,” and noted as “the best American actor in Shakespeare, hands down” by James Shapiro, Columbia University scholar and an international leading authority on William Shakespeare. Now, Thompson will star as Caius Cassius in New York’s upcoming Public Theater Free Shakespeare in the Park production of  Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in historic Central Park, May 23–June 18. Directed by Oskar Eustis, The Public’s artistic director, this contemporized production of Julius Caesar is the first to be produced in the Park since 2000. In 2005, Thompson played the role of Flavius in Julius Caesar on Broadway alongside star Denzel Washington.

Humbled and often overwhelmed by critical praise, Thompson hopes that the production inspires more people to support and experience the classics of the theater. “If it gets a new audience to come to a classic stage company, or any theater I work at that focuses on the classics, that’s good,” says Thompson. “Ultimately, I want people to come see the work—especially people who look like me to come see the work—I’m so passionate about.”

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of HBO)

 

Recently seen on Broadway in August Wilson’s Jitney, Thompson is featured in HBO’s highly publicized theatrical release of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, premiering this weekend. He appears opposite Oprah Winfrey in the role of Lawrence Lacks, the eldest brother to Winfrey’s character, Deborah Lacks, the youngest daughter of Henrietta Lacks. Directed by Tony Award winner George C. Wolfe, and based on Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times’ best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks features a stellar cast of theater, television, and film actors, including Rose Byrne, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Reg E. Cathey, Rocky Carroll, Courtney B. Vance, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Leslie Uggams, Reed Birney, Adriane Lenox, and Roger Robinson. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks premieres on Saturday, April 22, at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT.

Thompson, who is featured in three pivotal scenes, says working with Winfrey was a profound experience for him. “Working with Oprah was great because it wasn’t what I expected, he says. “She was incredibly accessible, totally open, and just there for us [actors]. I found her quite wonderful as the character Deborah. She was in the moment as we were filming these scenes. She was that character. She had created a physicality and a cadence and a countenance, particularly a cadence in the way she spoke with that slightly Southern dialect. She was very good; she carries the film.”

Thompson says he was fortunate and blessed to secure the role of Lawrence for this epic project. There were many other top New York actors up for the role. Working with director Wolfe was a first for Thompson. “George is incredibly skilled, and he just knew the characters,” he says. “He knew the story. He knew those people. He knew the book. He knew the script. He knew how he wanted to frame this story, and got us all on board. We rehearsed, which is rare. His vision and what he sees, and how he captures it, is genius.”

(Photo Credit: Courtesy of John Douglas Thompson)

 

In Thompson’s upcoming production of Julius Caesar, he says he was predisposed to Shakespeare through his mother. Thompson remembers that his mother would recite Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar, and he would talk with her about Shakespeare, since she had been exposed to Shakespeare in school while growing up in Jamaica, the West Indies. Thompson, like most young people his age, studied Shakespeare in English classes at both a Jesuit high school and college. “During that time, I never thought about being an actor,” he says. “I remember liking the language, liking the text, liking the words, the meanings of the words, and the poetry.”

The story of Julius Caesar resonates with today’s political climate and the social environment of activism. Written more than 400 years ago, Julius Caesar is a play about the fall of the Roman Empire. Thompson’s character, Caius Cassius, is in direct conflict with Caesar and is the first person to start the rebellion to plot his demise.

“That’s what makes [this] stage performance so fascinating because it speaks to our current time,” says Thompson. “It’s very similar to what’s happening now. It’s a story about the machinations that create the fall. The fall of the leader, the impeachment of the leader, the death of the leader. It’s about people making big mistakes, who miscalculate, based upon their personal desires. They create a situation where there’s a lot of collateral damage to themselves and those they support. It’s also about wanting better leadership, and a better future for your country, for your family, and for yourself. How was Shakespeare so prescient to know what future civilizations and countries would be going through? That’s the genius of him. That’s why he’s always in the moment. He speaks to our future. He speaks to our past, and to our present. A play like Julius Caesar, albeit it’s over 400 years old, may as well have been written on November 9th.”

John Douglas Thompson in TROILUS and CRESSIDA (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

 

Thompson has performed in numerous Shakespeare plays, including Macbeth, King Lear, Richard III, Antony and Cleopatra, and Troilus & Cressida, which he performed last year at Shakespeare in the Park. Best known for his extensive work in Othello, which he has performed in seven productions to date, Thompson said Othello is one of his favorite Shakespeare plays.

This fall, Thompson will star in the role of Hamlet at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Many consider Hamlet to be one of the greatest plays and one of the greatest roles ever. Thompson said Hamlet has been on his bucket list for a long time. “I have never, in my life as an actor, in the more than 20 years, have ever seen an African American or a black person play the role of Hamlet. I’ve seen many versions of Hamlet, but I have never seen someone who looks like me, represented in that role.”

Awarded the Samuel H. Scripps Award for extraordinary commitment to promoting the power of language in classical and contemporary theater, and the Robert Brustein Award for Sustained Excellence in American theater. Thompson’s other works include The Iceman Cometh, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler, Red Velvet, Mother Courage, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Tamburlaine, Satchmo at the Waldorf, The Emperor Jones, The Father, and The Forest, among others.

Although Thompson envisions more work in television and film in his future, he says theater is his first love, which is why he will always be connected to it. “It’s the only medium that is truly a part of our human DNA. When we were in the caves, though we were Neanderthals, we told stories to each other to describe the hunts,” he explains. “In the caves, we drew pictures and made noises. Theater was always a part of our lives in describing our lives to our families or people in our tribe. Theater is an inherent way of storytelling. It’s been with us since our inception. My indoctrination to theater through August Wilson and the play I saw [Joe Turner’s Come and Gone] was profound, and that level of profoundness only came from theater because it’s a live and breathing art form. I can’t see my life as an actor without stage work. It’s just impossible to imagine. I will always be doing theater. It will always be a part of my life.”

Part of Thompson’s greatness as an actor is demonstrated through his unyielding commitment to the craft of acting and the art of discipline required to perform eight shows a week. He knows the importance of not indulging in alcohol or any other substances or distractions that prevent him from maintaining a healthy mind and body and performing at his highest level during a production.

“I want to honor the playwright who wrote the words and gave me the character to play,” he says. “I want to honor the audience who came to see a show because either they heard about it, or they’ve seen it before, and want to have the experience of being in the presence of the production again. I want to honor the other actors I’m on stage with that I’m giving my all, and I’m going to be there for them, and that there’s nothing that’s taking me out of that experience because I’m not prepared.”

Like a champion, he often says there’s a Jack Johnson in all his characters. Profoundly inspired by Johnson’s power, uniqueness, and his one-of-a-kind genius, Thompson approaches his roles with that same larger-than-life quality that Johnson exhibited in the ring and in life, whether he’s playing Othello or Tamburlaine or Hamlet or Becker. Thompson says Johnson is an archetype he often thinks about as he prepares a character for stage.

 


Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She is a contributor to BlackEnterprise.com, Black Enterprise’s BE Pulse, Huffington Post, EURWEB.com, and Medium.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business.