Aldis Hodge (‘One Night in Miami’) on how Jim Brown was ‘far more intelligent’ than he thought [Complete Interview Transcript]

Aldis Hodge plays legendary NFL running back Jim Brown in the new film “One Night in Miami.” The film imagines a conversation had between Brown and three other iconic Black figures in the 1960s: Malcolm X, Cassius Clay and Sam Cooke and is gaining major awards attention.

Hodge spoke with Gold Derby editor Rob Licuria in December about what he learned about Brown in his research, working with Regina King as a director and his memories of winning a SAG Award for “Hidden Figures.” Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Jim Brown is considered to be one of the greatest running backs of all time. He’s one of the greatest players in NFL history. Was he a legend to you even before you considered playing this role? 

Aldis Hodge: I was aware of Jim Brown’s presence. I actually didn’t grow up watching football. I grew up on fighting, with martial artists. But the thing that I was more aware of was his transition and how he sort of took the power of his position and transitioned that from football to film and more importantly, his motives when it came to Black economics. That’s what I was focused on. So that’s what I knew of Jim Brown and that was what was most fun to learn about, even more so to dive into deeper when it came to the research was understanding what his moves were, what the stakes were given the time frame. I mean, back in the ‘60s, right in the midst of all the civil rights movement, it’s crazy to think we’re, to a degree, going through our own civil rights movement for this particular generation right now. So that, for me, made it feel like this is all full circle and nothing is ever a coincidence or a mistake. It felt like it was all on purpose for me to have to do the research to step into these shoes because it fed what my personal activism is today. 

GD: Yeah, it sounds so obvious to draw parallels between that period and what has unfolded over the last 12 months in America but it really is quite extraordinary that this film is coming out and it’s so relevant to what we’ve seen unfold on our TV screens and in our streets. What are your thoughts on how history repeats itself and how the film spotlights a moment in time that is so relevant to today?

AH: Man, history repeats itself. Life is cyclical in so many ways and I feel like history continually will repeat itself until we learn what we need to learn in order to stop engaging the same habits, to continue living in the same environment. It’s going to take a lot of help and a lot of change for that. I feel like the importance of this film is championed even further, given what has happened recently this year when we started shooting it. I know a lot of us came to it with purpose in mind. I came to it with that because when I read it, I understood what it made me feel and what we’ve seen this year is actually not new. The circumstances were new because everybody had to sit home and deal with it. We couldn’t turn away. We had to watch it. We had to envelop ourselves in what this was. We saw a different sort of empathy spawn within people, and then we saw a different sort of support because they finally got a glimpse of what we have to deal with on a regular basis, people who are not affected the way we were affected. So, yeah, the film was very important when we were filming it. It became ever more important afterward and I feel like it’s just a step towards purpose, and personally, for what I am trying to do in my life, I feel like it’s something that taught me a little bit more about my particular purpose. 

GD: Yeah, you’re so right that the circumstances of us being in a pandemic meant we really were forced to recognize and realize what the hell is going on with things that we’ve turned a blind eye to before. The film actually explores a lot of that theme as well. I love it how when you were making the film, this most recent BLM movement hadn’t really solidified yet, and then it opened at Venice and things started to get really tumultuous and now the film is going to open, I can’t wait for people to see this, Biden and Harris are about to take office. There’s been so much change. Are you looking forward to seeing people in the streets’ reaction to how this film explores issues that are so relevant to us today? 

AH: Yeah, well, first off, I’m just looking forward to seeing people on the streets (laughs). I haven’t seen a face in God knows when. Thank God I’m back to work, but I don’t know what anybody looks like! So that’s number one. Number two is yeah, I’m really excited to see how people respond to it, given the context. Typically, my work, the films that I’m a part of, I hope it gets a good response but I stay away from engaging the response or reviews because it’s just smarter to distance yourself. But in this particular case, I would like to see how it touches people on a personal level and to see how it aligns with other people’s motives and activism and most importantly, with their perspective of what’s going on, whether they’re active or not when it comes to pursuing change. I want to see if people actually get it, if they understand why we had to make a film like this, like, “Do you finally get it now? Do you understand? We’re not making this up. This is real. We go through this.” I feel like this film can be a great asset towards a conversation that has been happening already and has been proven successful when it comes to progress but I feel like we can be a great added asset to keeping that progress moving forward. 

GD: So you get to work with Regina King, who, over the last five, six years has become pretty much an icon now. She’s won every award under the sun. She is a queen. She’s incredible. I’ve met her many times. 

AH: She won ‘em all. Ain’t no more!

GD: Ain’t no more for her to win. But people are now talking about her awards potential—

AH: I was about to say, I’m lying. There is one, and she’s going to win it. I’ll tell you that much (laughs). 

GD: Can you imagine? That would be would be incredible. 

AH:  I have imagined, and man! All I know is that she has already made history with this film and I foresee her continuing to make history and I just want to be a fly on the wall when that history is made just to say I saw it. I was there and I seent it!

GD: You did, and you were part of it. I mean, that’s the question. When you’re working with her, what’s the upside to working as a performer, first of all, generally speaking, with a fellow actor who’s directing you? What’s the upside to that? 

AH: Communication. A director’s job is really to communicate, translate and understand when it comes to the actor and the performances, and because she is such an accomplished actor, she understands choice and she understands the preparation and personal ideals of an actor and she really allowed us, all four of us, to figure out who these men were and how we wanted to strategically approach executing these performances and she created a really comfortable environment for us to do what we had to do and she just was quite grand in that way. She’s really humble and really patient and I was most impressed with those traits because a person of her magnitude, you can easily throw weight around but you never saw her lose her cool once. You never saw her get snappy. You never saw any of that. She was always very warm and inviting and she gave us such great space to just explore and I think that’s what helped us find our relationship amongst the four of these characters within the film and that, to a degree, is the glue, because the conversation these guys are having is the star of the film. That’s what we’re coming to see. These men are great vehicles for that conversation but the relationship that we have, it’s not about any one of us individually. It’s about our relationship and that has to be genuine and authentic and she really allowed us to find it.

GD: Yeah, it occurs to me when you’re doing a film or a play or a series where there’s a lot of conversation in a room, I mean, this was based on a play, if that chemistry is not working, the film is going to be a dud. This one is not because there’s this electricity between you all. Did it take long for you guys to develop that language so that you were all on the same page?

AH: Thank you, brother. We didn’t have the time! I know that I was cast around November, I believe. I mean, I had done my auditions prior. I was actually auditioning while I was in Australia shooting “The Invisible Man.” So I was cast and then I believe the rest of the cast rounded out around late November, maybe early December, and then we all got together for the very first time as a cast in December. We started shooting in January. January and February, we were done. So we didn’t have a lot of time for anything. We didn’t have a lot of time really to get together. A lot of us were spread all over the place and I think the magic of the relationship was primarily there because we were so very dialed into the people that we were playing. Much credit to the fellas for putting in the work, but also to Regina King and then also Kim Hardin, our casting director. I know Regina said that she wanted to make sure that each of us actors had the essence of who we were playing and depicting and I think that was one of the elements of her brilliance in terms of casting, because having that essence is what allowed us to figure out one another even further, because when I did my research, it wasn’t just on Jim Brown, it was on the four of them. I had to research what their relationship actually was and it made it easier to connect with the other three fellas when it came to figuring out how they handled situations. 

GD: I would think as a performer, playing a real person, especially someone of note, would be so challenging and stressful because I’d be worried about getting it wrong and you’ve talked about the research. I mean, how far do you have to go to really imbue him with some authenticity? That’s a really, really strange balance, making him your own but playing him as well. 

AH: Yeah, there’s pressure. My approach is always honesty, figuring out how to make it as honest as possible and then your job is to not judge yourself as an actor in the process. I’m going to micromanage a few things and make sure that my technique is on and I’m doing the homework but don’t be too hard on yourself. I did the research only in the time frame. So there’s a couple shortcuts. Having somebody to play who’s actually a real person is almost like a cheat sheet for a test because you have all this information that you can soak up and then you can use but now you have the actual added work of accurately depicting that research. Whereas if you’re playing somebody who’s facetious or fake, you play somebody at your own whims. So when it came to playing Jim Brown, I just wanted to make sure that he was depicted as honestly as possible and then given the research that I did I wanted to make sure that I got the essence of him down even more, his cadence, his voice, his mannerisms, his movements, and then how he responded to certain things, watching different videos to show how he responds to conflict or how he laughs and what makes him laugh, things like that. So there’s a challenge always. That’s what we do it for. We do it for the challenge. I ain’t here because it’s easy. 

GD: I was also wondering, did you find any one particular thing — you kind of touched on this already — about his story? What was most compelling to you about his story? 

AH: For me, it was how he managed certain issues when it came to economics, racism, things like that. I thought that he was far more intelligent and eloquent than I had known him to be, especially given back in the time. All these men were very, to me, outliers ahead of their time when it came to certain things and the way Jim managed a lot of subject matter, which I found in a lot of different interviews and things like that, the way he spoke, he really was he still is — but back in the day in the ‘60s, this man really was on top of his game and he understood the real values. Like, “I’m not just a football player. I’m a businessman. I play football. That’s my business. But now I’m gonna shift that to this other thing, and why am I shifting that? It’s not because I want to be a famous star. It’s because I see the potential. I see my potential and I know where I can grow and I’m not gonna let somebody hold me back and now I’m going to try to influence the culture to do the same thing. I’m gonna stand behind my people and gather my brothers and we’re gonna make a movement together.” So I thought that was really, really special and impressive and just his perseverance when it came to trying to initiate the educational aspect of economics within the Black culture, to me, was most compelling. 

GD: My final question before we go is speaking of working in great casts, you were nominated twice in a row at the SAGs for “Straight Outta Compton” and then you won for “Hidden Figures.” I don’t remember if you were there when you won. I think you were. 

AH: I was. I was on that stage, brother (laughs). 

GD: That’s right. So, winning an award for yourself, that’s amazing. But winning with your fellow cast, that’s got to be pretty special, too. 

AH: Yeah, first of all, to win a SAG Award, the voting committee are your fellow SAG members, your fellow actors. Like, “Y’all voted for us? OK!” That was really awesome and to win for a film like “Hidden Figures,” because of the meaning of the film, yet again, a pivotal film that is depicting the truth and the value of what women went through, who were beautiful Black women that the other world at the time were trying to hold them back for being Black and they said, “Nah, you can’t hold us back. But at the same time, we’re going to hold ourselves up. We’re going to hold the world up too.” That strength and what that did for little girls across the country when we showed the film and you see all these little girls, like five, six, nine years old, talking about, “Oh, I really love STEM and I can really see myself being an astronaut now,” that’s the point of it. So that win brought all of that purpose back and says, “This is why we as artists do what we do. That’s the point of it all.” And to be on that stage with that caliber of talent, I remember I was sitting there like, of course, we’re doing our thing, but I’m standing on stage, the person standing right next to me is Mahershala [Ali], and we’re just sitting there enjoying it and I’m seeing where his career has grown to and then you’ve got Octavia [Spencer] over there. I love Octavia. She’s been a fantastic source of knowledge for me and she’s a great human being, a great friend and you’ve got Taraji [P. Henson], you’ve got Janelle [Monáe]. You got all these great talented people and we’re all sharing this moment together because we did it together. “Dang, we did that?” We felt like a team. You got Ted Melfi, who directed us and co-wrote and it’s like, “Dang, Ted, thank you for picking us, putting us together,” but you did it together and you realize how much you have to go through to get to that point that you don’t even understand at the moment that you’re going through it. So much thanks was given in that moment. It’s just a process of humility. It’s a humbling experience and my family’s out in the audience, my mom is jumping up and down like crazy and losing her mind because she’s so happy and to see that kind of joy, you can’t pay for that. She was gone. It was awesome.

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