Holland recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Kevin Jacobsen about what attracted him to “The Eddy,” how it strengthened his relationship with jazz and his memories of “Moonlight.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: First off, I think one interesting thing about your performance here is that you are playing a character who owns a jazz club in Paris and you’re not just speaking English, you’re also speaking quite a bit of French too and I don’t remember if you’ve ever done that before in a role and I’m curious if that was a challenge for you.
Andre Holland: Yeah, it’s a good question. I studied French when I was in high school and then I continued to take classes just kind of for pleasure throughout my life, but I’ve never spoken in French or in any other language on camera before so it definitely was a scary thing. Fortunately, I had an amazing coach, Dany Héricourt, who helped me. She was there on-set with us pretty much every day, helping us to make sure we were pronouncing things right and that we didn’t sound too crazy, but it was definitely scary. I think the trickiest part of it all was it’s one thing to learn the text in another language and it’s a different thing when you are actually playing with another actor in a language that’s not your own. In the scenes I had with Leïla Bekhti, for example, she’s such an incredible actress. She loves to improvise and I do too, but there were a lot of times when there were things I want to say that I didn’t know quite how to say in French so it was not easy but she was patient with me and we managed to work it out, but it was a lot of fun. I’m still taking my French lessons and I’m getting closer and closer to being fluent. Yeah, I really dug it.
GD: Damien Chazelle is involved in the series, of course. Like I said, he’s an executive producer. He also directed the first two episodes, and I’m wondering if he was a big reason why you just wanted to be involved here in the first place.
AH: Yeah, for sure. Damien being involved definitely got me excited about it. He and I met when we were doing press for “Moonlight” and for “La La Land,” respectively, and everybody chuckles when I say those two films together (laughs). But yeah, we met along the way and really hit it off. I thought he was a great dude, obviously a great director and so when it came my way and I saw his name attached to it, I was interested right away.
GD: So what is he like just to work with as a director? Clearly we know based on “Whiplash” and “La La Land” that, you know, big fan of jazz. So he’s really in his element here, I think, but how does he just operate with you as a director?
AH: My favorite directors that I’ve worked with have something in common which is that they really trust the actors who they hire and Damien is like that. He really gave myself and Amandla [Stenberg] and all the actors really a lot of latitude when it came to the text, and also just to the way that we wanted to inhabit these characters. Also, the way that he filmed the series, the way that he worked with us felt a bit like making music. It was a lot of improvisation, a lot of finding things on the fly. You see the camerawork in the show is like that, sort of cameras always searching for the bright spot in the way that we were searching for the right notes to play as actors and as musicians so I think that his directing style and the music in the show and just the sort of world of the series really matched up in a great way. So I really enjoyed working with him. He’s a super cool dude, obviously in command of all the elements of filmmaking, so it was dope.
GD: Kind of speaking to the visual elements, I think the series has a very distinct visual sense to it just from the cinematography alone and you worked with primarily filmmakers as directors, not just Damien Chazelle and I’m curious whether filming this just felt different in any way from other series that you’ve done in the past.
AH: Yeah, I would say that it did feel different from other series in that, yeah, all the directors we had are filmmakers and I think that was Damien and everyone’s intent from the beginning was to get filmmakers who really were sort of auteurs who had their own their own styles, and then give them the freedom to create their own palette for the show. I mean Damien, of course, established what the looks would be and what the tone would be and then gave them the freedom to kind of put their own signatures on it. So in a way, yeah, it did feel like working on four different films. We had four directors each doing two episodes and it was exhausting at times and challenging at times to sort of switch your brain and go, “Okay, I’m with Damien today,” and suddenly it was someone else. Obviously the language barrier as well was really interesting. Two of our directors are French women. They were wonderful but then, the crews are French so there’s multiple languages being spoken and it was a really fun challenge. I think that that’s one of the things that the show had going for it is that everybody in the show is being asked to do something that they haven’t done before, or aren’t comfortable doing. Musicians are being asked to play really difficult, complicated scenes, not having acted before. Actors are being asked to play instruments and singing in some cases, we’re all being asked to speak different languages that we’re not used to playing in, so the whole show started to feel like a big band, everyone just trying to figure it out.
GD: And so, delving into a little bit of your character Elliot, owner of this club in Paris, you have a lot of plates spinning, trying to make sure everything’s going as planned, but there is this event that happens in the first episode that really has him unraveling, I guess you could say. So can you just talk about how you approached this character and his background?
AH: Yeah, there were a lot of things I was interested in about the character but the two things that really kind of grabbed me, or three, rather, was the music, which I had to educate myself on, his relationship with his daughter, Amandla Stenberg, which was a unique relationship and one that I don’t think I’ve seen before in terms of being a black father and his black daughter, and them trying to navigate their relationship, and then, the grief that Elliot is living with and having lost a child previously in his life. So those three things were my ways into it. And ironically, as I’m sitting here talking to you I just looked over and one of the books that I read was a book about Miles Davis, which was really helpful, and another book called “Blues People” by LeRoi Jones, which was really, really powerful. I did a lot of work in reading around grief and the grieving cycle, the grieving process, what that looks like and feels like. And then we watched a bunch of films. Amandla and I watched films together as per Damien’s suggestion about this sort of father-daughter dynamic and the way he wanted to capture that, so there was a lot of work that had to be done, to try and hold in my head and heart all that Elliot was going through. And as you say, there were a lot of plates spinning. Hopefully, we were successful in landing some of it.
GD: And, Amandla Stenberg, like you said, plays your daughter staying in Paris. You have a bit of a complicated relationship. Tell me a little more about just working with Amandla on-set, who you probably spent the most amount with her, right?
AH: Yeah, Amandla’s fantastic. I’m not telling you nothing you don’t already know. Everybody knows it but I’ll say it again. She’s really special. She has this ability to not only look at her part of the story and take care of that part, but she also holds the whole story in her head all the time. So, in instances when we felt like maybe we were going astray or we had questions, she and I would often just go into a corner and talk through it, and we could very quickly find our way. She’s incredibly smart, informed, she’s curious, she’s super talented, hard worker, I mean, she’s got it all. I really, really enjoyed working with her and I think without her I know that we wouldn’t have been able to craft the story that we did.
GD: And we also have Joanna Kulig here playing the singer at the jazz club, Maja, who Elliot also has a bit of a complicated history with, and I was actually curious, had you seen her performance in “Cold War” before this? Because she’s playing a similar kind of enigmatic singer character there too.
AH: You know, it’s funny I had heard a lot about that film and had been meaning to see it. And then, when we got hired to do this job together, I sort of thought, “You know what, I don’t think I want to see it just now.” We were starting to shoot in like two months the time I realized that she was in the show too. And so, I didn’t want to sort of cloud my brain with that, but I’ve heard she kills it in that movie and I’m definitely gonna take time to watch it very soon.
GD: Yeah, she’s phenomenal. What was it like for you just working with her authentically just on-set, without all the expectations?
AH: Yeah, she’s great. She, like everybody else, had a lot of challenges. I think she has to perform something like 16 songs in English, some of them in French, neither of which are her first language. She obviously was far away from home. She was a new mom and I don’t know how she did it but she managed to show up every day and was right there in there with us. I’ve gone back and watched most of the episodes and I think that she brings something to the show that’s really, really unique and I think her energy is really necessary for the series, for sure, and I think people are gonna really like her character. Really funny, really hilarious and a fun person to be around.
GD: And I was also just wondering about your relationship to jazz and whether doing this series gave you a deeper appreciation for it, because I could say just as a viewer, there’s just so many great performances featured in all of these episodes that are just very dynamic.
AH: Thank you for saying it, I appreciate it. Yeah, I’ve definitely developed a greater appreciation for jazz as a result of working on this show. I think being a Black man, particularly a Black man from the South, I grew up rooted in music, mostly gospel and blues and soul music, but learning more and more about jazz you see the sort of connective tissue between all of those forms. So that was one of the things I was really keen to keep an eye on as we worked on the show was just making sure that my understanding, the music that flows within me, within my soul that I know to be true, that it resonated in the series, if that makes sense, that Black people’s contribution to jazz was represented in as much it can be in this show. That was important to me, and still is important to me. So, did I learn more? Yeah, man, I got a chance to do a deep dive and learn about cats that I hadn’t really heard of before. I went to a bunch of different jazz clubs and heard some of the new people out here who are making music. That’s really powerful. So yeah, it’s made more of a fan of me than I was going in.
GD: That’s really cool. And this is also a series that delves into a lot of themes and one of the ones I found most interesting was just this thing that artists have to face which is the mixing of the art that they’re creating, the creative side, and mixing it with the business side of things, and I think a lot of creative industries like this have been feeling that sort of conflict over the past few years especially. So, what is your general philosophy on that and I’m wondering how you think the show also addresses that?
AH: Yeah, that’s a big question, man. The first thing that comes to mind for me is what we see in the first episode between Elliot and Farid is that the two of them seem like they really make great partners in that Elliot takes care of most of the bulk of the creative lifting and then Farid takes care of the business side of it. So, my takeaway from it is just that I think art, for me anyway, is at its best when it’s done in community and in collaboration with other people. So for me, it’s important in my life to have people who I trust. My best friend from the time I was 17 years old is my producing partner. We work together on a lot of projects and everything I do I sort of run by him and we have a real deep discussion about it because he sees things that I don’t see sometimes. Sometimes my artist brain kicks in and all I can think about is, “What is this scene going to be like? What is this moment about and how do we get from here to there?” And he has the ability to kind of look at the macro. So, I think, trusting one another, understanding that art is made in community and in collaboration with other people, I think those are the things that the show was about. I think it’s also about second chances. I think it’s about people making mistakes, making the wrong choice and then finding their way back to some solid ground, which I think is really a beautiful thing especially in this moment that we’re in right now. Nobody knows. Nobody knows what’s going on in the world, right? All we can hope is that on the other side of this thing, whenever that comes, is that we can learn something from this moment and try to reshape ourselves and reshape the world in a better way. So to me, that’s a part of what the show was about too. Elliot comes to Paris because he’s in that place where he’s broken and doesn’t know what to do and needs to be redrawn, in a sense. Yeah, I hope that people watch the show and maybe feel a little bit inspired to look at the moment that we’re in and recreate ourselves and recreate this world in a way that’s more sustainable, more love-filled.
GD: Yeah, absolutely. And as we wrap up here, you mentioned it earlier, I just wanted to ask you since I have you here about “Moonlight.” It’s interesting that you worked with Barry Jenkins and now Damien Chazelle, who did “La La Land,” these two movies that have really been linked in Oscar history at least, but with “Moonlight,” it’s four years old now and I wonder if you just have any lasting memories of that experience and the whirlwind of award season and just how the film has lasted and had such an impact over these years.
AH: Man, you know, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting. It was four years ago and I think in a way, it’s only now that I’m looking back on it and really starting to appreciate the moment for what it was. I don’t think I was maybe as present as I wish I had been. It was such a surreal… not just the moment at the Oscars but just the whole thing to go from making this little film in Florida with some friends that I thought, “Well, maybe my friends will see it. My mom and dad will see it.” But you never expect that something like that is gonna turn into what it did. But to go from that and then have the Oscar moment and then the sort of fallout from that, I mean it was really, really intense and only now recently I went back and for some reason looked at that moment when it happened onstage, and I just thought, “Man. I can’t believe I was there in that moment.” My memory of it is so fragmented because it was such a crazy thing, and I enjoyed it and took it in for sure, but I don’t know, when I think about it now, I just think, “Man, it was such a special moment, so important.” And also, in a way, it feels like I’m still holding onto some of that magic because I’ve had the chance to work with Tarell McCraney, who wrote the script. Since then, we did a film “High Flying Bird” together and remain really good friends. Barry and I have a thing that we’re working on together so we’re on the phone or on email fairly often. Adele [Romanski], who produced the film, she and I talk. So we still are very connected. So yeah, I think it was an amazing moment, for sure, and I think that the magic, the sort of stardust of that moment is still on me and on all of us, I think.