Art and Soul
Hill Harper uses both to address life challenges with optimism & help bring about positive social change
by Dann Dulin
Photography by Duane Cramer
Hill Harper drag races. Skydives. Golfs. Runs 5-Ks. Plays competitive Jeopardy! He even poses with an elephant—all in the name of charity.
Over a decade ago, Hill appeared to be going through a bad time. He lost about thirty pounds, wasn’t eating, and didn’t socialize with anyone. No, he wasn’t sick. It was all for the art of acting. In the 2001 film The Visit, he was portraying a real-life character, Alex Waters, who died of AIDS while incarcerated. Hill was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead and won Best Actor at Method Fest for his exquisite performance.
Hill fascinates by his interminable dedication. The man tosses himself full-throttle into his passions and his accomplishments prove it. He graduated magna cum laude from Brown University, earned a JD, cum laude, from Harvard Law School, holds a Master’s in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has received seven NAACP Image Awards, is the winner of a Best Books for Young Adults award from the American Library Association, and he’s a New York Times best-selling author as well. A few years ago, Hill was named a “Hero” at the annual Heroes in the Struggle by the Black AIDS Institute, where he also shot a PSA for them. The man was even bestowed the title as one of the “Sexiest Men Alive” in People magazine!
“I could never live my life without serving others,” states Hill matter-of factly, from his dressing room at CBS Studio Center in Los Angeles, where he is wrapping up another episode of CSI: NY. (He recently left the hit series after nine seasons to join the cast of USA Network’s Covert Affairs as CIA station chief Calder Michaels.) He’s involved with many organizations including the Alzheimer’s Association, Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Eracism Foundation, Leeza’s Place, Magic Johnson Foundation, Make A Film Foundation, United Negro College Fund, Somaly Mam Foundation (to prohibit sex slavery), and The Carousel of Hope.
A few years ago, Hill founded Manifest Your Destiny (mydf.org), which empowers underserved youth through education, mentorship, and scholarships. Some activities they provide are a community-service day where kids work at a mission and a Saturday conference workshop about college preparation and career exploration. This summer they sponsored their fifth year of a weeklong Empowerment Academy, exposing participants to new ways of thinking and living. In Hill’s fourth book, The Wealth Cure, he writes, “Volunteering really is an investment in yourself. It lifts you up in so many ways.” (Hill’s new tome, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother, will be out soon.)
His altruistic nature stems from his family. (Hill’s birth name is Francis Hill and to honor his family he wanted to unite both last names so he also took Harper, his mother’s maiden name to complete his new identity.) “It’s just so organic to me. It’s not something that I think about,” says Hill. Dressed in a maroon T-shirt, a light olive slightly furry winter jacket, black jeans, and ebony Kenneth Cole boots, he’s camera-ready to shoot a final scene as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes. “I remember one day coming down for breakfast at my grandparents’ house, a farm in Iowa, and there at the table was my grandmother and this guy I didn’t know.” He breaks and leans faintly forward in the standard 4-wheel rolling office chair to add an aside, “This story will blow you away.” He then eases back into the chair and continues. “I turned to my gramma and said, ‘Who’s this guy?’ She replied, ‘He’s going to be staying for a while. He just got out of prison and he had nowhere to go. He doesn’t have a job and he’s going to be doing some work around here. He’s going to stay here until he gets back on his feet.’ And this [act of kindness] happened a lot…a lot.
“But, listen to this. In 2007 during the Iowa caucus and leading up to it, the Obama campaign [Hill and Barack met on the basketball court while students at Harvard] asked me to go back to my home state. I spoke all over the state. I was a surrogate for the Obama campaign everywhere but at this particular time, early on, they wanted to focus on Iowa. At one point this old man, easily in his eighties or nineties, with the most grizzled hands, came up to me and said, ‘I just wanted to shake your hand and say hello.’ I said, ‘Hi. How are you, sir? It’s such a pleasure to meet you.’ And he said, ‘Do you remember me?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘My name is Henry. Your grandfather gave me a job when I got out of prison…and I just wanted to say hello.’” Hill pauses for a moment, then confirms, “And that was the guy! That just shows you that you never know where people are going to end up, you don’t know who or how…if you just help people…,” he halts for a moment then punctuates the next few words murmuring with beseeching fervor, “just…help…’em. My grandparents are long gone, but they helped this guy, who’s gone on to live a long life.” He had a chance to help reignite this spirit of opportunity and courage when, last month, he emceed the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington with Soledad O’Brien.
Just then, as if on cue, there’s a rap on the door. It’s the A.D. (assistant director) who has a technical question for Hill. He says he’ll take care of it once he’s finished here. She replies, “Fine. We should be ready for you very soon,” and exits. Hill’s dressing room looks very much like a dorm room, though somewhat larger. There’s a leather couch, a window with wood panels that’s drawn, a framed poster of CSI: NY, an original contemporary painting about ten-by-five feet that’s propped against the alabaster wall, an Inversion Therapy table (supposedly reverses negative effects of gravity), and a few light weights scattered on the floor along with his running shoes that appear freshly used. CNN is muted on the flatscreen TV that’s perched upon a black compact refrigerator.
Hill has great respect for his family, more precisely, both his grandfathers, Harold Hill and Harry Harper. “They are people who represented the best of their community, represented the best of what family is, and what hard work represents. Those two men, I think, really raised a very high bar for which to aspire, for me, and everybody in my family. I really appreciate them and their influence on me.”
One of the times Hill applied his grandparents’ exemplum was when he volunteered for Harvard’s Legal Aid Project, which was his first encounter with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “I became aware of how, for so many people, it destroyed their lives. This is the late eighties, early nineties, so it was a different time and [there was] a different relationship to AIDS,” he clarifies. “I was working with individuals who were being put out of their homes because of discrimination. We were working with tenant’s rights issues around people who had AIDS. It blew me away,” remarks Hill, gingerly swiveling back and forth in the chair. “You’re talking about indigent individuals who couldn’t afford lawyers and so they had these Harvard law students attempting to help them.”
Not long after graduating from Harvard, he and his cousin made a short film called One Red Rose, about an HIV-positive black woman who thought no one would love her. “And this was before there was any talk about women and AIDS,” Hill points out. Five years later came The Visit, which was extremely challenging for Hill. It was a five-week shoot and the director shot the entire film in sequence, which is very uncommon. To prep, Hill did a great deal of research with many incarcerated individuals who were either HIV-positive or who had AIDS. He’d find them through organizations he contacted and would meet the prisoners during their visitation hours. “I would just ask them questions like, ‘The combination of the prison of the disease itself combined with the prison of actually being behind bars, what does that mean?’” He explains. “When something is taking over your body that you didn’t choose for it to be there and then also you don’t have much choice of where your body moves, with those two things, what’s going on? How can you stay healthy? How do you stay mentally healthy?” He pauses, “I learned so much.”
“One guy I interviewed kept talking about how his feet felt like they were…,” he hesitates then whispers these two words in a disturbed tone, “‘…on fire.’”
“The way he described it to me it helped me so much to form the character I played. I actually put his obituary above the door of my trailer and I really felt that he was there with me when I was shooting. I would always see his picture as I walked out to the set.” He clasps his hands together and lays them in his lap with his legs crossed. “The director and I made a decision that during the film I wouldn’t speak to anyone—neither crewmembers nor other cast members—just to simulate isolation.”
Hill ate only lettuce and drank water so as to create the illusion of wasting. “In a very short period of time, at the start of the movie I weighed 160–165 and by the time the movie ended I was around 130–135. My body sort of was eating itself. It was definitely physically grueling, and emotionally grueling not talking to anybody.” He briefly ponders the memory. “I wasn’t talking…and I wasn’t eating….” He rips off some hardy chuckles, shaking his head. “As an actor it was a wonderful experience because it’s so rare that you get the opportunity to sink your whole self into a role.” He interlaces his fingers, inverting them, and presses them against his chest. “That’s probably the role I’ve played in my entire career that I’m most proud of.”
Not long after The Visit, Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, who happened to be an occasional consultant on Showtime’s series Soul Food, approached Hill. He wanted Hill to play a character with AIDS who returns home to tell his family. It would be a two-episode arc helping combat homophobia and ignorance surrounding HIV/AIDS. Hill fervently agreed. “It was well-written,” he notes, looking back, “and it was made to decrease stigma in the black community by using Soul Food as the entertainment platform.”
Hill uses his art as a springboard toward educating others about causes he’s close to. “I do believe that there’s power in our medium, there’s power in this business. There’s so many people that argue the opposite.” He dons a deep mogul voice, talking out of the side of his mouth rattling off, “I can say whatever I want. I know it’s negative, but it’s just entertainment, there’s nothing behind it, so I can use the ‘n’ word, I can shoot people, I can have violence toward women, and it doesn’t have any effect on the people watching it.” He wipes off some perspiration near his eye with his jacket sleeve. “Clearly you know I believe the opposite.” He smiles and counters, “I do believe that when you put the positive on something, when you shine a light on something, it has an effect. Therefore the negative has an effect as well.”
His optimism was strongly challenged in July 2010. While writing Wealth Cure, Hill felt something strange going on with his throat. After undergoing tests, Hill received the dreaded news that he had thyroid cancer. The word “cancer” was not unfamiliar to him, as several relatives of his had died of the disease, including his father in 2000. When he thought of this and his diagnosis he felt alone and fearful. He then recalled one of his favorite sayings, the acronym for FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real. To stay positive about the situation, he writes in his book, “I don’t believe we are destined to follow in the footsteps of our parents or our forebears. We have the will and the power to create our own destiny.” That he did. His thyroid was removed, and though he couldn’t speak for nearly two weeks, it was an early detection and there was no damage to his vocal faculties. It was a one hundred percent cure!
“My experience really made me focus on what my wealth factors are. In other words, what makes up true wealth. I realized that health is the most important factor—for me, and maybe it’s not true for anybody else, I can’t speak—but that made me realize that health is my number-one wealth factor by far. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, it doesn’t matter how successful your TV show is, it doesn’t matter who you know, who they are, what they’re doing,” he cuts off and lowers his otherwise youthful expressive voice, “if you don’t have your health, it doesn’t matter.”
“Having cancer really made me rethink a lot of things. Oftentimes when you are feeling good you can treat your body very cavalierly. The assumption is, ‘Well, I feel good all the time’ and when that gets challenged, you tighten up and, ‘Well, I’m sick now, so I’m going to drink a lot of fluids.’ You should be doing this anyway [when you’re healthy].”
An important part of Hill’s health regimen is playing safe and getting tested for HIV. He’s a huge advocate for condoms and includes the subject in his 2006 book Letters to a Young Brother and in the 2006 anthology book Not in My Family: AIDS in the African American Community. Hill writes in his chapter, entitled, “AIDS: Who Will Step Up?”: “Condoms aren’t free, so it takes a commitment to use them. If people go around and say that condoms take the fun and spontaneity out of it, they are attaching a false and negative message. I remember when it wasn’t cool to wear seatbelts. Now, it’s not even a thought. People get in the car and buckle up. It not only has to do with laws, but also retraining people’s minds. The same thing has to happen with using condoms. It has to become a necessary part of the whole sexual experience.”
Hill admits that over the years he’s consistently practiced protected sex. “I used a condom always in relationships up until a point where we both have been tested and we both decide that we are exclusive. And at that point, you know…no.” When asked, Hill answers that he’s had a girlfriend for over a year. “Getting tested is the key. There is no stigma to that, especially for young people….”
Footsteps approach outside. There’s a double knock. The A.D. says, without opening the door, “ Hill, we’re five minutes away.” He acknowledges and we pick up where we left off.
Hill is a motivational speaker, addressing youth across the country, as well as couples and business leaders. In addition, his organization, Manifest Your Destiny, targets young folks as well. I ask him what his thoughts are about how to enforce safe sex practices on the younger generation. “I think what we don’t do well enough as adults is that we don’t compete for their attention. They have all these things they get bombarded with. It’s up to us to make those things more interesting and have good messaging. If we have something great to say it’s our job to figure out how to package it. It’s not their fault for not listening; it’s our fault for not making it cool.”
When Hill speaks to kids about a particular topic he approaches them on their level. For example, with credit card debt and credit ratings he uses Bow-Wow’s song, “Under 21 with a Black Card.” “This is a boring subject to these kids. What kid wants to know about this?!” grimaces Hill, as his body trembles. “But if I use the lyric and package it in the right way, it can be the coolest…subject…matter…ever!”
The energy swiftly shifts. Hill leans forward, rests his elbows on his knees, while his hand grasps the top of his other hand’s wrist. He looks down, but a tad outward. As if giving a eulogy, he asserts, “Look, awareness is very important in this epidemic. We need to talk about it….” His soft brown eyes stare directly into mine and he appends, “Because it saves lives.”
Caring is just a part of Hill Harper’s nature. When he commits to something, he’s devoted—heart and soul. But how does he know what to concentrate on? “I think causes find you,” he utters with utmost sincerity. “That’s in part why I think we all should be activists in our own way. As I get introduced to something, I decide to just figure out, ‘Well, how can I be of service?’ That’s what I do all the time. I want to offer myself in whatever way I can. When there’s a problem, I say, ‘How can I help?’” As he stands, readying to dash off to the set, Hill cracks a warm smile and concludes, “That’s what all of us should be asking.”
Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
My mom lives in Aspen. It’s so beautiful. I like to go there and take hikes. The air is so clean. [He pauses then adds] I just love Aspen, Colorado!
What do you do when a negative thought pops into your head?
I attempt to use affirmations. I’m big on affirmations. They’re so simple [to use]. I don’t use this one personally that much, but the one I tell young women to use in my book Letters to a Young Sister is to say, “I am fine”—and fine stands for Fantastic, Interesting, Necessary, and Exceptional. If a negative thought comes up, say, “Naw-naw-naw no. I’m FINE.”
As you near half-a-century, any words of wisdom about aging?
I think when we go way into the future and people are living to be 300 and 400 years old, we’re going to think about how young our brains really are right now. We have aged based off more in terms of sociology and being how old we are rather than the actual fact. I believe at some point we’ll look back and say, “Those people were so very young but they thought they were so old.” And your body follows your mind. You are just as old as you think you are.
Also what I believe starts to happen is our activity levels change. Your body can do so many amazing things but we just stop doing it. So once you stop doing something for a long enough period of time then it’s very difficult to do again. Then you say, “I can’t do that anymore,” rather than actually working back up to a place where your body can do these things. This helps stimulate certain hormones and helps keep you younger. It’s all mental.
What happens after we die?
[Hill sighs heavily with a soft audible, “Whewww….”] I…I like to believe [he brims and chuckles] there’s a heaven where souls can go to look out over this Universe. Because, remember, we’re just here on this planet. There’s sooo much more out there.
What is this Big World?
What is the Universe?
What are these Galaxies?
What is all of that?
Where will you go?
What is this energy?
[He poses these questions as if he were a young child scanning a cosmological map for the first time.]
Energy you can’t necessarily see it but it’s there. I believe that when you die the energy just doesn’t end. There’s so many connecting points that I certainly don’t understand and or know, but I in God and I do believe in a Higher Power. I do believe that there is this place that some people may call heaven…that we go. It’s about light, it’s about energy, it’s about positivity.
What TV sitcom did you watch growing up?
There are two. One is The Cosby Show and one is The Flintstones. I love The Flintstones! These two shows are very similar. The Flintstones was just like a sitcom but it was a cartoon. I loved watching both of them.
Name your most beloved film of all time.
[Hill answers instantly] My favorite film of all time is Purple Rain. I love that movie! I love that movie. I think I’ve seen it seventeen or eighteen times.
What is your favorite physical asset above the waist?
Ya know what, I’ve always said—and many other people have said this so I didn’t come up with it—your eyes are windows into your soul. I love my eyes. I love everyone’s eyes. I love looking at people in their eyes. I love seeing their expression through their eyes.
What is your favorite physical asset below the waist?
It’s easier to say what I don’t like. I guess I like my feet in the sense that I know so many guys throughout my life…[he halts then continues] I played football in college and so many guys had jacked-up feet and they looked horrible. My feet [he giggles] actually look good.
You’ve met many fascinating people. Is there anyone you’d like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
OH! [he says eagerly.] Are we talking about alive or dead? There’s so many people…there’s so many people. I would really have liked to meet Dr. Martin Luther King. Gandhi, too. And Jesus. People who walked a higher walk. I’ve never met Nelson Mandela so that’s someone who’s alive that I’d love to meet. There are so many people who are examples of individuals who walked the earth but walked in a different way. Those types of people I would like to meet.
Hill’s Hall of Fame
Hill gives a quick response to these luminaries he’s met throughout his journey.
Barack Obama: Committed.
Chris Burke: Hardworking.
Ed O’Neill: [he chortles] <Hilarious!>
Michelle Obama: Intelligent.
Viola Davis: Genius.
Janet Jackson: Soulful.
Vanessa Williams: Luminescent.
Spike Lee: Directing genius.
Denzel Washington: Actor’s actor.
Gary Sinise: Professional.
Magic Johnson: Genius businessman.
Hill names one word to describe himself: Passionate.
For more about the work of Duane Cramer, log on to: www.duanecramer.com. Follow Duane on Facebook: Duane Cramer; Twitter @DuaneCramer, on Instagram: EyeSeeIt.
Dann Dulin interviewed Scott Bakula for the June cover story.