Q&A: Russell Hornsby Talks Theater Background, “Seven Seconds” & Playlist

Russell Hornsby
Russell Hornsby in “Seven Seconds” / Credit: Netflix

Acclaimed thespian and Oakland native Russell Hornsby is no stranger to the many aspects of acting. His diverse skill set has allowed him to tackle theater, major motion pictures, and TV in various depths and capacities. Russell’s masterful journey into unknown waters enabled effective progression to well received roles, including 2016’s acclaimed drama Fences, playing the role of Lyons, a financially strapped, aspiring musician and son of a bitter sanitation worker (Denzel Washington). Additionally, he’s flourished in TV series like Grimm, where he played the skillful and discerning detective Hank. Regardless of the character he is given, it has been consistently evident that truth will always shine through his portrayal.

More recently, Russell has landed a role in Netflix’s upcoming series, Seven Seconds, which debuts later this week on Feb. 23. Produced by Veena Sud, the show strives to bring to light the many injustices and tragedies black people face at the hands of law enforcement. In the character of Isaiah, a father whose 15-year-old son has become the latest victim of an arrogant and careless police force, he fights to keep his family sane in the midst of devastating circumstances. As he struggles to maintain order through the chaos, it becomes clearer by the moment that things may never be the same. This powerful series seeks to offer a window into a small degree of the terror that follows these types of unjust disasters.

Prior to the launch of the new Netflix series, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Hornsby to discuss his transition from theater to mainstream entertainment, Seven Seconds, and what’s on his playlist.

I know you started your acting career in theater. How did you initially feel about the transition to TV and movies?

I didn’t feel like it was necessarily difficult. There was somewhat of a learning curve, but the way I approached my work is that truth is truth, and fortunately, that transition came in the form of a wonderful series called Gideon’s Crossing that was very well written. Because of that project, it felt seamless.

Seven Seconds by no means lacks intensity. How did you feel when you first read the script?

I was taken back by it to be truthful – I mean it just floored me. I have said to Veena many times on set, as I was thanking her for writing this and this character, you have created an organism that lives. It’s not a stagnant piece of material. It functions; it breathes, you know what I mean? It gives an actor the ability to really dive in head first and give, I felt, all of me to the material, and as an actor and an artist that’s the best kind of material you can work on.

Regina King and yourself are two very passionate actors, who bring a great deal of emotion to the roles you play. How did that pairing come about?

Well, I was cast first. I had to put myself on taped audition, and they decided to go with me. Then, Regina came onboard. From what I was told, she read the script and loved it. We’ve known each other for a number of years and we always said at one point we’re going to work together. I believe that when she saw that I was onboard, she said yes to the project. There were so many things that lined up [for her] — it was the script; it was Veena Sud; and from there it was Russell Hornsby. She did tell me that. She said when I saw you were onboard, combined with the script and Veena, I said “Let’s do it”. She said you were one of the reasons I took the role.

…and I can imagine it’s so much more authentic when you’re acting with someone that you know and trust.

Yea, I think that was just immediate between the both of us. We went out for lunch one day and just talked — we talked about life, we talked about the characters, we talked about the world and we saw them (the characters) in the same light and that felt good. It felt right, so we knew this was going to be a dynamic pairing. I think from that moment on, I completely trusted her and I think she did me. We had trust falls everyday while we were working. I caught her every time she fell and she caught me every time I fell. It was one of the rare and most gratifying work experiences I’ve ever had in its totality and it was primarily because of working with Regina.

Wow, phenomenal! Now, do you expect this story to hit home for those who have been similarly affected by law enforcement?

Yes and no. I say yes for obvious reasons, but I also say no because nothing can compare. This is a dramatized story. These people lived it. Listen, I wouldn’t be surprised if people who have lost their son or daughter at the hands of police violence don’t watch it. I know that the writer was in contact with Trayvon Martin’s mother and had interviews with her, so I would not be surprised if his mother did not watch it. I would not be surprised because you lived it. You know what I mean? …but i think, more importantly, it’s meant to hit home for the apathetic folk… for the people who don’t believe that this is a problem, for the people who don’t believe that the cops are capable and do kill our black boys. Also, to sort of breathe life back into the movement for black people where a lot of the killings, and a lot of the headlines about the deaths have become white noise on a certain level because there have been so many. The hope that it sort of resurrects our sense of duty and purpose and just passion to continue to stand up and speak out with those brave souls who are doing that.

Right, exactly. Well, that kind of leads me to my next question. Would you say that Isaiah and Patrice’s story is a good way for other people to get a glimpse of what some families have gone through?

Very much so. What we’re seeing is the anguish that families deal with from day to day. We’re talking about (seeing what they go through) after the cameras have gone. This is now the day to day fight just to get out of bed in the morning, go to work [and] eat. What does that look like? How does that impact you? That’s what we’re talking about. That’s why it’s going to hurt a lot of people who watch it, because again, all we hear are the headlines. We don’t know how a mother or father grieves their son in the darkness. How much a man — who’s supposed to be the protector of his family — feels that he’s failed, and on a certain level is looked upon as such. What sense of helplessness does one carry around?

Your character Isaiah is the head of the family, so naturally he’s expected to remain strong and get to the bottom of things. What’s going through his mind when he realizes details are being withheld about what happened to his son?

The thing is Tracee, I don’t think he’s surprised. Again, I think what’s going through his mind is that in public you (Isaiah) carry yourself one way, but in private you have different beliefs in that, what can I really do? At the end of episode two, Patrice says to Isaiah, in a veiled sort of way, you need to do something. You’re the man! I challenge you man — husband, father, protector– do something! I mean, just think about that for a second (…). That’s what I’m talking about, the hopelessness. You know the court systems failed you; the police have failed you.

The pressure is overwhelming… I can imagine. Well, I know on Lincoln Heights you played a police officer. You also recently played a detective on Grimm. How does it feel being on the other side of the spectrum as a civilian?

It doesn’t feel much different to be truthful, especially when I look at Grimm because it was fantasy. What I wanted to do for Lincoln Heights is be a police officer for the people. I wanted my approach, and this is what I spoke about when talking to the writers for Lincoln Heights is that, I want to go back to the idea where we’re dealing with community policing in that. It’s that whole idea of who are the people in your neighborhood, so that as a police officer I would know who the kids are; who the knuckleheads are. I would be a person who would talk to these young people, not treat them like criminals because what we’re all saying is, I was you once. I know how you’re thinking, so there’s a level of empathy and understanding there. Now, as a father in Seven Seconds, the idea was Isaiah as a man, father and husband is saying: all I have to do is stay on the straight and narrow and live right. You go to church, you’re faithful to your family, you’re faithful to your job, you provide, and everything will be fine, until it’s not. Whenever that happens to any man, especially any black man, that’s when you wake up one day and realize this country has failed me. That’s when you develop a level of skepticism and cynicism. The game is rigged. People try to tell you all you have to do is work hard and lift yourself up by your bootstraps, but they can take it (all that you’ve worked for) from you at anytime time.

The series is incredibly mysterious and controversial, as we’ve discussed, which is essentially the recipe for a wildly successful show these days. What kind of response do you expect from viewers as a whole?

I just want people to feel that it’s truthful. Love it or leave it, just say we’re telling the truth. There is no right or wrong, there’s only truth.

My very last question steps away from acting, but I love to ask this because I cover music and entertainment. When you’re not acting, what music are you listening to? What’s in your playlist?

My playlist… Actually… let me go pickup my playlist! You know, the thing is, I’m an old soul, so I’m going back and listening to a lot of old school hip-hop. That’s what fuels me. That’s what informs me even today, and I’m talking about groups like The Coup. I’ve been listening to Mos Def’s first album Black on Both Sides. I’ve been listening to albums from start to finish, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and really delve in deep to some old school Too Short. More recent, there’s this young woman who I really love, her name is Ryan Brown. She’s 24 years old and she’s got this album called Pretty Girl. She actually played my daughter on Lincoln Heights. But at often times, quite honestly, I find myself going back into the archives for my inspiration for music because the new stuff isn’t saying anything, you know what I mean? It’s not passionate, it doesn’t move. There’s one other artist, and I’m quite sure you’ve heard of him, but the voice of Leslie Odom Jr. is divine. The man sings like an angel. He is our modern day Nat King Cole. I’ve seen his work in Hamilton. The man is a brilliant artist. Those are the kinds of people and music that gives me inspiration because that’s what I’m constantly searching for as an artist is the truth.