Veteran character actor Henry Sanders is featured in “Selma” as Cager Lee, whose grandson Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by an Alabama state trooper in 1965, prompting the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches depicted in the film. But even though the 72-year-old actor lived through the period, he had little firsthand knowledge of the civil rights movement.
“I was in the service from 1960-69, so I missed that whole period,” says Sanders in our podcast interview (listen to it below). “I was in Germany and in Vietnam, so we didn’t get much information through the armed forces radio. It wasn’t until after I had gotten out of the service that I started to understand what that period was like.”
So for Sanders, Cager Lee was not only a role to play but a learning experience, and though he has watched “Selma” several times now, it’s still a tremendously emotional experience for him, especially Martin Luther King‘s concluding speech following the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Sanders hopes the “privilege” of voting, which King and his fellow civil rights leaders fought so hard for, will resonate with modern audiences, especially younger viewers. He recalls attending an early screening of the film with his grandson, who was “a little ambivalent about wanting to vote” but afterward “started to understand the sacrifices that had been made … and that it’s his responsibility to vote, and if anything is going to change, the young people need to be aware. It’s their voice that’s going to help change things.”
Though America is still far from full racial equality, the decades since the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s have shown marked improvement for people of color, and Sanders has experienced some of those changes in his own career. As an actor, he has racked up guest starring credits in dozens of TV programs, from “Hill Street Blues” to “American Horror Story,” but when he started his career, “the roles were limited, and if it didn’t say [explicitly that it was] a black character, then you wouldn’t get a role … but now I’ve been on interviews where pretty much three or four different races are there for the same role, and that’s wonderful.”
Below, listen to our complete podcast chat, in which he also discusses working with “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo, as well as his experience as the star of “Killer of Sheep,” a critically lauded 1977 film that wasn’t released until 2007. Then use our drag-and-drop menu to predict whether his emotional turn could earn him a surprise nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Click here to make your predictions in all Oscar categories, as well as Golden Globes, SAG Awards, and more.