Q: In RUNAWAY ISLAND, your character is dealing with the loss of a child, and playing that role must have been very difficult. Why did you decide to accept this role? And how did you approach it?
R: For what it's worth, I'm a method actor. I cherish the text and the opportunity to create and bring to any character I'm given, a personal or historically accessible reference. I've lived a fully charmed, eventful and tremendously flawed life. I start there, with that truth, then listen to my character speak. I have 2 children, who, like the children of other parents, are my breath...my absolute existence. I've been fortunate, because of my work, to be able to spend significant time with them during those very important developmental years. It's hard to imagine not having been there, not being able to give them a chance at life. A chance to make their offering in this human conversation. While the loss of my daughter Abbie (in the movie) is indescribable, and my personal cross to bare, I took the position of what she was losing, what experiences and opportunities she wouldn't have. As parents, at some point, if not instantly, we stop living for ourselves and commit to the journey that is our children. I'm not sure that I accepted the role as much as I just gave in to it. My soul needed it.
Q: Even as a Method actor, it must have been daunting to dive into such a role head first. What was the audition experience like? How did you deal with this personally?
R: I'm by nature emotional and life, in all of it's daily combustion, fascinates me. I got the call the morning of the audition and there were 2 scenes and 9 pages of dialogue. Between school pickups and a rehearsal for a staged reading I was directing, there was little time to study and I had to trust the instinctive choices. Already stressed, the audition was exhausting. So much so, that when we were done with the first part the director, Dianne Houston, got up from the table, came around and hugged me and we stood there until we were both spent. She said she was done and told Gingi she didn't want to see anymore. I left there not knowing the outcome. But neither did I know that that was only the beginning.
Q: There seems to be striking similarities between the Rev. Hines character and that of Levee in August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (for which you won a NAACP Theatre Award for Best Actor). How do these type of roles find you?
R: Dr. Stephen Mckinley Henderson, my friend, the actor's actor and pound for pound the best of the best, said to me about faith, "Russell, can't nobody stop you from getting your blessings but you." The first time I read Ma' Rainey I told my mom after 20 or so pages that I could put it down live in Levee's world. We wanted the same thing...to do something significant, to be independent, to try and outrun our demons... self-inflicted or otherwise. There is a similarity with Rev. Clinton Hines. They both rightly so, are struggling with, if not completely have lost, their faith. That is a subject close to me as I have for many years wavered in my belief and trust. You can be in this business for 20 years and never have a role with your name on it. The phone doesn't ring and when it does it's not a job. You doubt yourself, your abilities, your accomplishments. Then all of a sudden, the Creator has a way of getting your attention. Now, all of your readiness begins to flow. If I know anything about this art form, anything, I learned it directly or indirectly from The Penumbra Theatre, Claude, Lou, Marion, August, Abdul and Jim. I learned how to learn, I learned when to talk and when to listen. It's about the story. I was thrown in the deep end so when these opportunities come, in particular with such an fluid ensemble, I swim. "It's better to be prepared and have nowhere to go than to have somewhere to go and not be prepared."
Q: What was it like working with such a strong ensemble of actors?
Humbling. I'm an unapologetic fan of most actors that I see. If, but for no other reason than because we are all daring to fail publicly. Of those I met on set or have seen their work, they were everything I thought and more. Silent crushes and challenges in full affect. Most of us, as humans, have places and moments in our souls that we have buried and don't like to visit. I'm not immune to that but my co-star, Erica, has such a genuine presence and is such a generous artist, that I lived in a heavy, yet comfortable place the entire time. During one of the early days of shooting the producers Gingi and Allison came to us, Erica Tazel (who plays my wife Vonda Hines) and I, with photos of these three little girls. They were all very pretty little girls, all with obvious personality, but Trinity was different. Her picture was not a headshot. It was a candid shot that was taken over the shoulder as if someone called her name and she turned around. Her eyes were peaceful and to me immediately reflected soul, and like my own daughter, an ancestral depth. I turned away and looked at all of them again to be sure. She was the one. Period. Gingi then went to Erica, a deep spirit in her own right, and her decision was instant and to a person, it was the same answer. It was her eyes and what they reflected.
Along with Lorraine, Aisha and the rest of the cast and to my pleasant surprise the crew, I learned and shared and grew as a man. Most times on a set, a stage or even in a dressing room I become the sponge. I want to hear and learn it all. I read everyone elses lines, stand behind the camera, trying to learn the language of the crew. It's amazing in these settings how everyone can be talking at the same time but all those sounds are musical, they're solos and combinations and they ultimately come together as the directors voice... and oh my goodness, Dianne Houston...what a voice. When that happens it's bigger than one actor. There will be other work but I left there with something. Obviously the experience is still very much with me. Hoping for the best.
Q: RUNAWAY ISLAND is slated to premiere on TV One on July 25 at 8PM/ET. What do you hope viewers walk away with after seeing this movie?
I hope they (the audience and advertisers) see the production value, the direction that TVOne is going in, and that they can become a part of something that can be both entertaining and socially significant to our core viewers and to television as a whole.
What project(s) are you currently working on now?
I'm a theatre producer and I've jumped head first into a partnership and new membership at Towne Street Theatre in Los Angeles. Very happy about the future there. Prior to 'Island', I'd just finished RESET directed by Arun Vir. It, too, is a heavy, valuable story that's doing really well on the festival circuit. This past fall I worked for the first time with F. Gary Gray on STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON. I played a minister in that film, too.
Multi-Award Winning Actor A. Russell Andrews stars in RUNAWAY ISLAND
with Oscar-Nominated Director Diane Houston at the helm
Q&A with A. Russell Andrews...
ABFF Festival Highlights
A. Russell Andrews stars as Rev. Clinton Hines, a grieving father dealing with the loss of his daughter in the original movie RUNAWAY ISLAND, a story about a group of troubled strangers looking to escape their woes, and who end up sharing a transformational experience on an island – Isle due Soleil, a secluded 1700s Gullah Sea Island resort - steeped in African American heritage and culture.
Oscar-nominated Dianne Houston (“Tuesday Morning Ride”) is at the helm of this unique story written by Christopher Brandt, the 2014 American Black Film Festival screenplay competition winner. In the film, Andrews is a successful pastor who recently lost his daughter to leukemia. He is forced to deal with his loss while taking stock of his life and renewing his love for his wife.
“My character, Reverend Clinton Hines, is struggling with his faith, and rightly so. But I don’t think it’s about whether a greater power exists, but is it just? Is it fair?” said Andrews, who recently finished working on the short film RESET with award-winning director Arun K. Vir who was voted one of HBO's 'Women to Watch.’ Andrews is also featured in the upcoming N.W.A. biopic STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON directed by F. Gary Gray.
The film is produced by Gingi Rochelle of GR Entertainment Group and Allison Wilmarth Kovak of Cottonseed Studios, and is slated to premiere on TV One on Saturday, July 25 at 8 PM/ET. Additionally the cast stars Lorraine Toussaint (“Orange is the New Black”), Aisha Hinds (“Star Trek”) Erica Tazel (“Justified”), Tom Wright (“All My Children,”), Thomas Q. Jones (“Being Mary Jane”), Leon Thomas III (“Victorious) and Melanie Liburd (“Stalker”).
RUNAWAY ISLAND received a World Premiere screening at the 2015 American Black Film Festival (ABFF) in New York City on June 12, 2015. To see highlights from the festival, click here.