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André Holland on playing Huey P. Newton in new series 'The Big Cigar'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Huey P. Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party, is getting the Hollywood treatment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG CIGAR")

ANDRE HOLLAND: (As Huey P. Newton) They say it's a nation of laws. But what governs everything in the universe is the law of contradictions. It's how I, Huey P. Newton, was set free into a prison.

RASCOE: The first few minutes of the new miniseries, "The Big Cigar," opens with a close-up of Huey Newton, played by André Holland. He's wanted in the killing of a 17-year-old sex trafficking victim, running from the FBI and making an escape to Cuba. He gets help from movie producer Bert Schneider. Their elaborate scheme forms the backbone of the Apple TV+ series. And we'd like to note Apple TV+ is one of NPR's funders. André Holland is here to talk about his starring role. Welcome to the program.

HOLLAND: Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here.

RASCOE: So, first, let's listen to a little more of that opening scene because Newton's next words are interesting.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG CIGAR")

HOLLAND: (As Huey P. Newton) The story I'm about to tell you is true - at least, mostly true, or at least how I remember it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)

HOLLAND: (As Huey P. Newton) But it is coming through the lens of Hollywood. So let's see how much of my story they're really willing to show.

RASCOE: So much of the series is Huey being very reluctant to get Hollywood's help for the Black Panthers. And it was in a reluctance to have them intervene, feeling like they didn't really know the struggle. And Hollywood did end up helping in a sense, through Bert Schneider. But then also Hollywood is now kind of telling his story. Like, there's that dynamic or that dichotomy.

HOLLAND: Mmmm-hmmm. (Laughter) Yeah, contradictions.

RASCOE: Contradictions.

HOLLAND: It felt important to me, and I think to all of us in the series, to portray our reluctance on the part of Huey. What we know for sure is that there were people in Hollywood who were supporters of the Panthers. I'm thinking about Jane Fonda, Brando. But it was important to me to make sure that we were centering Huey's experience and that of the party. I was very careful, and I think we all were, to stay away from this idea that we needed a white savior to come in and save the day. But rather that these people were self-reliant, and that was kind of a cornerstone of the organization. And so the reluctance, I think that we see on the part of Huey, as it relates to Bert and to Hollywood, felt critical.

RASCOE: There's this really striking scene that recreates that photo that people associate with Newton today. He's in the rattan chair. I don't know. Is that how you say it, rattan? I might not be seeing it right, but he's in that chair with the Black Panther beret. He's holding the shotgun in one hand and a spear in the other. And in the series, there's an exploration of Huey trying to move away from that image. In your development of portraying Huey, who was he beyond this image that really became so defining?

HOLLAND: But I like how you said it, rattan. You know, but where I come from, we just call it wicker.

RASCOE: (Laughter) That's what they call it where I'm at, too. So that's why I was confused.

HOLLAND: (Laughter) OK.

RASCOE: I'm from Durham, N.C., so that's what we call it.

HOLLAND: Well, I'm from down the road in Birmingham.

RASCOE: OK.

HOLLAND: So we on the same boat.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HOLLAND: Yeah, you know, that was one of the things that I found really fascinating about Huey. And looking at his childhood, which is something I didn't know anything about. One of the things that became really clear to me was that he wasn't a person who was fond of public speaking. He didn't like to be in public or be the center of attention. He was quite shy. And so, for me, it felt like that scene in the wicker chair that you're talking about are moments that sort of got constructed. And then the images that were taken of those moments sort of became larger than life.

And then he had to kind of fill that image in order to keep things going. And I don't think from my research that he was ever terribly comfortable with that. And so there again, that contradiction of what people are expecting of you versus, like, what's actually happening on the inside is something that I found really interesting in terms of trying to figure out how to play him.

RASCOE: But I always think that with someone like a Huey, who is kind of trying to shy away from being the face of the party, but at the same time, to be Huey is to also be a larger than life figure. It takes a huge amount of almost narcissism to lead a group like this. You got to have some type of belief in yourself. What did you think of that contradiction?

HOLLAND: I found it fascinating. He had, I believe, an enormous amount of courage, and as you say, just belief in himself and in his cause. At its core, though, when it all started, they were talking about community organizing. There was a 10-point program, and in that 10-point program were things such as meals for kids before they went to school in the morning. They wanted access to education. They wanted people released out of prisons who were there unlawfully and so on. All things that I think, like, most reasonable people today would probably agree with. You know, as we said, he's a complicated figure, and in addition to the wonderful things he did, he also caused a lot of harm. I think it's important to be honest about that, as well.

RASCOE: Well, I had no idea about this history between the Panthers and Hollywood, Bert Schneider who produced the movie "Easy Rider." You know, why do you think he wanted to help Huey Newton?

HOLLAND: You know, that's a good question. Joshuah Bearman, who wrote the article on which this series is based, did a ton of research about Bert. And from what I understand, he was a person who also - who was politically aligned with Huey. And Bert certainly saw in Huey the potential - I think in the very first episode, we have a scene where he sees Huey on TV and says, that guy, you know, he's got something special. So I think they recognized in each other, again, like, the potential. And I think both Bert and Huey were aware of the revolutionary potential of Hollywood.

RASCOE: So much of this series is really about the need for community and support and who you turn to when you need help. I know you're friends with fellow actors, Sterling K. Brown and Brian Tyree Henry. And so I wanted to ask you how important is your comraderie with these other Black actors?

HOLLAND: It's so important. It's really, really wonderful. We're constantly in contact with each other and celebrating each other, supporting each other when things aren't going well. We're involved in each other's lives, personally as - really as brothers.

RASCOE: I heard you all have a group chat. What goes down in the chat?

HOLLAND: Oh, it's lit in the chat now.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLLAND: It's lit in the chat. You might be in there the day after this talk, so...

RASCOE: Well, you - OK, if I'm in the chat, you got to let me know. OK? You got to be like - now, I've interviewed Brian Tyree Henry. I've talked to him. I have not talked to Sterling K. How do you get into this space where it's not a competition? Because you could definitely look at it, and you could say it's only so many roles for Black men in Hollywood.

HOLLAND: Oh, that's easy for us. I mean, we don't feel that at all. I speak for myself, and I think I can say for everybody in the group, we want each other to win. And I think our job, our mission, and the reason why we stay connected and keep working together is because we want to create opportunities, not only for ourselves, but for other people, trying to create space so that we don't have to feel this kind of scarcity thing of there can only be one or two. We really believe that we can create many, many more seats at this table and invite a lot of people to join us.

RASCOE: That's André Holland, who stars as Huey P. Newton in the new series "The Big Cigar" on Apple TV+. Thank you for being with us.

HOLLAND: Thank you. I certainly do appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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