With a career that has spanned almost 30 years, Ruben Santiago-Hudson has been featured in a number of well-known movies and films including “American Gangster”, “Castle”, “Coming To America”, “Law & Order”, “NYPD Blue”, “Selma”, and “The West Wing” to name a few.
The Tony Award-winning actor is also a very accomplished writer/director and has thus far won three Obie awards for his work off Broadway. In 2005, his autobiographical stageplay, “Lackawanna Blues”, was turned into a made for television movie by HBO and garnered the New York native a number of awards and accolades including an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination.
2017 finds the ever busy Santiago-Hudson working on a variety of projects including a turn as Cecil Diamond in BET’s hot new dramatic series, “The Quad”, and also helming the director’s chair in famed playwright August Wilson’s “Jitney”, which recently made it’s Broadway debut at theManhattan Theatre Club in New York. In addition to his dream project of opening the Ruben Santiago-Husdon Fine Arts Learning Center in his hometown of Lackawanna, NY, he also plays a mean game of basketball.
N’Digo recently caught up with Santiago-Hudson to discuss his first big break, his numerous projects, and his thoughts on our new President.
Did you always know that this what you wanted to do? If not, what did you dream of becoming?
As a little boy coming up in Lackawanna being an actor was not my dream. I envisioned myself working in the steel mills. That is what I saw all around me. It was other people’s hopes for me that motivated me. They inspired me, they felt that I could do bigger things than just being a laborer. They told me I had too good of a brain to spend my life “chunking steel”. They made me believe that I could do anything I set my mind to do.
What was your first big break and what was the moment that you knew you could do this for a living?
I think the first role that set me apart was when I did the play “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” by Athol Fugard. The incredible reception I received from everyone that saw it gave me the bolt of confidence that I needed to dive full force into acting.
A big moment in your career came when you turned your acclaimed autobiographical stage play, “Lackawanna Blues”, into an award-winning movie for HBO. How surreal was that process for you, especially with your only taking on the role of Freddie Cobbs in comparison to the 20 or so characters you portrayed in the play?
The thing about art is that you just do it and when it’s done whatever happens after that you just have to take it and run with it. I had worked so hard and I was exhausted but then when we arrived at Sundance and they screened the movie I was energized by the tremendous response.
You’re gearing up to director the legendary two-time Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson’s play, “Jitney”, at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club. This is the only play from his famed American Century Cycle that has yet to be on Broadway until now. Is there any added pressure there for you because of that fact?
Not so much. The only real pressure is to be the best you possibly can be. Normal pressure, because I would have it no other way.
The New York Times calls you the foremost interpreter of Wilson’s plays. Why do you think that is? What is it about Wilson’s work that you so deeply identify with?
There are many people who feel a real personal connection to August Wilson and his work. No one has exclusivity of interpreting the work. But I will say this, I am intimately familiar with his characters and his stories. I am a direct descendent of them. I feel when I read an August Wilson play that these people are exactly who I am connected to. I read the plays and immediately recognize the characters because I know them. They all lived in or passed through the rooming house I grew up in.
What was it that drew you in about the character of Cecil Diamond that your portray in the new BET series, “The Quad”?
It was all Felicia D. Henderson (head writer and show runner), I heard about her, witnessed her work, and was exited about the possibility of working our art together. Felicia told me that they were interested in exploring different aspects of my personality. Using more of my humanity, my range and wholeness, the good the bad and the ugly. Just an exciting place to be in as an actor.
Another upcoming project for you is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”. Tell us a little about the film and being a part of such a great ensemble?
George C Wolfe (director of “Lackawanna Blues”) asked me to come on board. I had a very narrow window of days available to work because of other commitments but George found the best two-day role he could find. It is always exciting to work with George. I jumped at the opportunity.
You’ve worked extensively in all film, television and theater. Can you talk a little about the subtle differences as far as performing in each medium?
I don’t change a lot of what I do. I strive to get to the truth of my character, to bring something truly authentic to the stage/tv/film. I always want to be well prepared. Preparation is the key, never take any role or opportunity for granted.
Thoughts on Donald Trump?
I have no respect for Donald Trump. What he stands for, what he has said, his actions and selfishness… I am not happy about the outcome of this election. But hey, all it’s going to do is make me fight harder, dig deeper.
What’s something people would be surprised to know about you?
I am a Mama’s boy. I am just crazy about my mothers even though they have passed on to a greater realm. I have tremendous love and respect for the mothers of the world. Got respect for my fellow fathers as well.
Best advice to aspiring actors and entertainers?
Learn the craft and be ready for the long haul. To build a career you need a hundred breaks, not just one star turn. Stay vigilant, while we are talking right now someone is out there training and preparing for success so you better be doing the same. Learn the craft.
What’s next for Ruben Santiago-Hudson?
I want to continue to grow to provide more opportunities within the community. After “The Quad” I will start to write a film that is being produced by Denzel Washington. I am also developing a play with Regina Taylor – so it’s a very exciting time and I am grateful.
Catch Santiago-Hudson as Cecil Diamond on BET’s “The Quad”, which airs Wednesday nights at 9pm cst and if you’re in New York, August Wilson’s “Jitney” runs through March 12th at the Manhattan Theatre Club.