You may be familiar with Aldis Hodge from his five seasons on the TV show Leverage, or you may have caught him on the big screen in any myriad of movies like The East and most recently Straight Outta Compton, portraying MC Ren. In 2016, you can catch him in WGN’s new series Underground. Hodge gives us the skinny on both projects.
Tell us about your new show Underground.
AH: Underground, which is set in the 1850's, tells the story of a group of enslaved people in Georgia who revolt against slavery and chase the legend of the Underground railroad to gain freedom.
The subject matter is intense in regards to the slavery aspect, but I'm sure it's about much more...tell us more about its perspective.
AH: It’s a story that engages and questions the "human condition" i/e how we treat one another based on how we value ourselves. It also serves as a great platform to expose the true prominence of The enslaved Americans of this nation. It displays their true strength, courage, and heart as opposed to viewing them from a point of victimization as we often see with slave-narratives. They fight back with vigor. It's an all out rebellion - we go to WAR!!!
How did you prepare for your role as MC Ren in Straight Outta Compton? The fact that your role is based on a real person, did that change your regular approach to the character?
AH: I prepared mostly by listening to their music. Since my role was based on a real person, that helped immensely because there wasn't much I had to figure out. I could simply pick up the phone and go straight to the source.
How was it meeting the real Ren, did he give you much guidance? Did he approve of the direction you took with the role?
AH: I was nervous because I wasn't sure he would approve of me. I was like "I hope he doesn't think I'm a chump". After talking for a little while when we first met I quickly realized that we both had similar energies and ways. He offered plenty of guidance and history, but just being around him was enough to understand how to approach who he was in the early days. We talked after he saw the first cut of the film and he gave me the seal of approval.
When you're acting, do you pull from the moment or do you really prepare and have a blueprint going into each scene?
AH: It's usually an organic mix of both. In this case, I had plenty of my own experience to pull from to create the moments we captured in screen.
What were the challenges, if any, of playing a very known real-life character?
AH: My number one priority was to make Ren happy. After that it was about honoring the fans with a solid performance and giving the character a sense of honesty that people don't often see.
What did you relate to most with MC Ren?
AH: His perceptive nature. Ren seemed like the quiet type, but really he was being observant and would open his mouth when it would mean something.
The movie is a rad origin story of the hip hop movement, how do you feel about the evolution of hip hop today?
AH: I feel like true hip-hop has taken a step back behind "commercial-pop" rap in recent years. I don't feel like many of this generation's artists are honest, hungry, or as passionate about the craft. Sounds like most of what we hear musically is about making a hit single as opposed to making a statement. Though there are a few lyricists who I think are honest voices of our generation that represent hip-hop very well today, obviously Kendrick Lamar and J Cole are on the top of that list. Also this dude I found watching Team Back Pack named Locksmith. He's a beast.
Was there any rap training because I heard it's the actor's real voices? Was there any other kind of training and special preparations for the role?
AH: Yeah, we trained for a couple months and re-recorded the entire SOC album. Dub-C was our stage and rap coach and the brotha went to work! Gotta say that was some of the most fun I've had prepping for a role.
What was it like filming in some of the more dangerous areas, did the locations lend to the intrinsic intensities of those scenes?
AH: The locations kept the film true and were so necessary to lending credibility to the vision. But dangerous? I didn't feel out of place. I was raised between New Jersey and New York (and not necessarily in the nice parts) so it didn't shake me.
As one of the producers, how involved was Dr. Dre, did he come to set and give notes?
AH: Dre was on set surprisingly very often which was a great help. He was very hands on and engaged. And whenever we had questions he was always an open book.
The response has been really positive with both critics and fans alike, it really struck a chord with audiences, what do you think resonates most? What resonated most with you?
AH: I think the relevance of the political and equality issues resonated the loudest because we are still dealing with the same issues today. I connected most with them being artists who are just trying to speak up while a host of naysayers are trying to shut them up.
Heard you were a watchmaker, are you still making watches?
AH: Yes indeed!!! For my indie company, Basil Time Piece, I've made a significant manufacturing partnership this year and I've also brought on a watchmaking legend as my strategist. Pure luck how it happened. Studying his company 10 years ago was what originally inspired me to become an horologist. Can't say who just yet, but I'm really quite excited. As for my other indie venture where we create bespoke timepieces for clientele, it’s called Piece Unique, I'm back in the factory working on assembly.