Courtney B. Vance is the very definition of a consummate professional, which we knew from our experience interviewing the president of the SAG-AFTRA Foundation previously for the underrated Ben Is Back, and he’s just such a wonderful, empathetic person as well. Add to the mix Aunjanue Ellis, who we know and love from the Canadian-American co-production The Book of Negroes, and you just have the most amazing pairing, the heart and soul of the must-see HBO series Lovecraft Country.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our Zoom video conversation with Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis from the recent HBO junket for Lovecraft Country.
Brief Take: Courtney, what did you like best about working with Aunjanue?
Courtney B. Vance: I’ve always been a fan of Aunjanue’s and I couldn’t believe that not only did we get a chance to work together, we also got a love scene. They’re not fun, I mean come on now, they’re not fun. “Are you going to put your hand there? Is it possible we can…? Can I turn my head this way?””You need me to kiss her, but can I kiss her with my ear this way?”. You know all of the negotiation that has to happen to get to the place where they get a minute of love, of kindness, of softness, of gentleness, is so much work. To have somebody there who is so beautiful and wonderful and kind and affectionate, and I love her and her work. When she was doing The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel, I woke her up at midnight, screaming, saying how much I loved her work. I just adore her. I’m so glad that one of the first images you see is Black love, I love that.
This is quite the unconventional tale of dealing with evil of all kinds – supernatural, racial, systemic. How does it feel bringing this show to the world during the current turbulent time in America?
Aunjanue Ellis: Appropriate. [laughs] I’m of the mind that this is a moment in the history of humanity, the history of Earth, the history of the universe that requires the unconventional, that requires burning it all down and starting all over, that requires rethinking everything that we thought of ourselves, everything we thought of the Earth, everything we thought of the universe. I think that we have operated as human beings very arrogantly over the last thousands of years perhaps, thinking that there would always be another day and we cannot do that any more. In my mind, we can think of COVID-19 as an alien invasion, and I say this without hesitation, in the sense that it’s something that is otherworldly. We don’t have the capacity at the moment in our existence to deal with that. So this idea that we would have a television series that meets this moment of astonishment, I think the description in the Bible references the ‘wine of astonishment’ because we are experiencing this moment of astonishment worldwide, that we would meet this moment with a television series that meets that idea with monsters, a monster invasion, because it is a true reflection of what we are all experiencing right now. If we were to do something mediocre, if we were to do something that didn’t ask those hard questions that we didn’t need to ask, if we did a series as Black Americans that didn’t suggest that we need to start all over and burn it all down, in my mind, in many ways it would be irresponsible. I think that Lovecraft Country is the right series for the moment that we’re living in.
CBV: It really talks to us about any kind of situations where, as Miss Aunjanue said, an invasion of whatever, monsters or the Great Depression or the two World Wars, except for the Vietnam War which is like where we are today, are forces that cause the people, the country, to come together to be able to confront the monster. That’s what happens in Lovecraft – Jurnee (Smollett) and Jonathan (Majors) and Aunjanue (Ellis) and I and Michael (Kenneth Williams) all come together in our various ways and put our minds together. It’s not the computers, it’s our minds, the mind of man and the mind of God, put our minds together and figure it out. That’s the solution – we need to humble ourselves and come together and figure it out. And that’s what’s not happening now, which is why this is so important, to have a series that talks about monsters and coming together, because that’s the only way it’s going to get solved, and that’s not what we’re doing. We’re thinking that we could figure this out individually, that each individual state or each individual family can do what’s best in their own eyes and that will be enough to solve this monster, but that’s impossible. Not on this one. The question is ‘what’s it going to take for us to realize that and come together to solve the issues that the twin monsters of racism and hatred, which is what precipitated all the deaths and all the murders of Black men and women at the hands of evil, and this pandemic?’. We have twin monsters that we’re dealing with and we have not come together. We need leadership to be able to say to everyone “Ok. We can do this.” If FDR can get on the radio and get people to come together and take all the money that they took out of the banks and put it back into the banks so the country can begin the process of climbing out, we can figure it out.
AE: I think we’re part of something that asks big questions and proposes big ideas and insists that the viewers rethink and reimagine. I think this is a moment in our history that requires rethinking and reimagining. I think Lovecraft is a part of that much bigger project of changing this world.
Science fiction has previously been dominated by white writers. How do you feel about being a part of that genre?
AE: The title of the series is Lovecraft Country and it’s based on the book by the same name by Matt Ruff. What Matt Ruff did and what Misha Green built on was exposing this idea of what Lovecraft is and who Lovecraft is. The people who know H.P. Lovecraft know that he was someone who wrote a poem called ‘On the Creation of Niggers’. So that’s who H.P. Lovecraft is and he was a man who was incredibly racist. He was a white supremacist and his speculative fiction is his legacy of that. The stories he told, this paranoia about these invading forces were Black people! He has a story called ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ and it’s all about these forces that come from the outside world and destroy life as we know it, and it was about Black folks! It was about Black people and Italians and Spanish folks and Jewish people, you know? So that’s who H.P. Lovecraft is. What I love about the idea of this series, what I love about what Matt Ruff did and what Misha does as well, is that they re-appropriate that. This would drive H.P. Lovecraft crazy! [laughs] That his name is associated with a series that, first of all, is about Black folks fighting aliens, but that completely turned what we stood for on its head.
Aunjanue, you grew up in Mississippi. Did you draw on your experiences and your family’s experiences with Jim Crow laws when you were filming this?
AE: Yeah, that’s something that I grew up with it, I lived with it, it didn’t die. It has not died. Personally, in my family, I think it’s important to say that my grandfather passed at a church that was bombed. At the time that it was bombed, my county, which is the major town in Pike County is McComb, Mississippi, and at the time, in 1964 thereabouts, it was called the bombing capital of the United States. It was actually called the bombing capital of the world, my town. That’s how frequently churches were bombed and houses were bombed.
CBV: In the town? So they were bombing their own town?
AE: Yes. Yes. And my grandfather’s church was one of those places that was bombed – Society Hill Missionary Baptist Church, and he was arrested. He was arrested for bombing his own church, and taken to jail, and thankfully survived and was able to come home to my grandmother. But yeah, that was life, that is life, Mississippi is trying in its way to turn away from that history, but that’s centuries of Confederate culture and Confederate economics and Confederate political structuring. I say this because it recently took down the Confederate flag as its official flag, but that’s a flag, it’s not the culture, it’s not the politics, it’s not the economics. That’s a harder job. So yeah, that was and is my life in Mississippi.
CBV: And you can imagine, Aunjanue, that’s the issue that people are starting to realize. What did your grandfather do? It wasn’t like he could go to the police and say “this is wrong”, or get a lawyer to say “we need recourse, I was inadequately represented and held in jail against my will. I want to sue”. All we could do as a people is go “I know, baby, come home. Let’s just begin again. We just have to go on and hold on to God’s unchanging hand and there’s going to be another day.” I would challenge any people to be able to be put into that kind of situation where there was nowhere you could turn, there’s nothing you could do, there’s no justice, there’s no peace. You can’t go and bomb their house after they bombed yours because they’ll bomb the whole town until there’s a race riot. That’s what I think people are beginning to wake up to, and that’s the kind of people African American people are, who, despite that, still are loving, kind, helpful, and that’s what I think people are waking up to and saying “that’s enough”. Enough of those games that we’re playing with people’s lives, that’s enough. It’s time to stop it and let us begin. You’re not going to be able to have Black folks or gay folks or Asian folks or any folks that you can dump on. When we feel bad about ourselves, we can go dump on them and there’s no repercussions. Put your foot on somebody’s neck, even though there’s a camera on them, and dump on that person because I can always say I feared for my life, and there is no place to hide that kind of behaviour anymore. That’s what I think the world is trying to say – “that’s enough”.
Lovecraft Country airs on Sunday nights at 9pm ET on Crave