Hill Harper

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at January 25, 2006 - 5:45 PM GMT

Hill Harper's character Dr. Sheldon Hawkes has arguably gone through the most dramatic change of any character on CSI: New York, moving from the morgue to the field at the beginning of the show's second season. Harper, whose credits include roles in the film Get on the Bus, the television series City of Angels and the HBO film Lackwanna Blues, discussed the reasons behind Hawkes' move from the isolation of the morgue to the field and how his character is adapting to his new job.

CSI Files: Your character left the morgue for the field at the beginning of the season. Are you enjoying the change?

Hill Harper: I definitely am. It's wonderful! Last year all the scenes were in the morgue, whereas now it's nice to be much more integrated into all aspects of the show, to have more interaction with all the different characters. At the same time, it helps Dr. Hawkes feel more a part of something rather than being isolated in the basement of the morgue.

CSI Files: Are you enjoying interacting more with the other characters and working cases with them?

Harper: I love it. Each actor and each character has a different dynamic. I really enjoy working with Carmine [Giovinazzo, Danny Messer]. I think Hawkes and Danny have a nice kinship and a real nice chemistry. Working with Melina [Kanakaredes, Stella Bonasera] is great because Stella has a wonderful joy and playfulness about her and Hawkes has a real joy and inquisitiveness about the science, so I think that plays very well. And then the stuff with Gary [Sinise, Mac Taylor] is great--I think Mac and Hawkes is a great thing because he can teach me things that I would otherwise not know, but at the same time, he brings a seriousness, and Hawkes is serious about wanting to solve [crimes], so [they share a] gravitas, which is really nice. All the actors have different personalities. I worked with Anna [Belknap, Lindsay Monroe] on a show called The Handler--we worked really close on that show because we both played undercover cops and we'd go undercover together. I love Anna and I love working with her and I'm so happy she's a part of the show. They haven't really paired us up much because Hawkes and Lindsay are both considered somewhat new in the field so I think they're going to wait a little while before we're paired up. But working with Anna will be fantastic.

CSI Files: Did you hear anything about Anna being cast in CSI: NY before the word became official, or did you have any input in her casting?

Harper: Anna is such a great actress that she can easily win any role on her own, but I certainly put the good word in for her because she's fantastic. When you do a show where you work so closely with people, hopefully for a long time, you hope to have the benefit of those people being great people as well, like we have on our show. It's just fantastic. Eddie [Cahill, Don Flack]'s wonderful, Anna's wonderful, Carmine's great, Melina's great and of course Gary is one of America's finest actors, so it could not be a better situation to be on this show with a great cast. There aren't a lot of egos or backstabbing or fighting or stuff like that. Everybody's just really professional and really wonderful.

CSI Files: I've heard that about all the CSI shows, that everybody gets along and genuinely likes each other.

Harper: And that transfers to the screen, too. I think if you really genuinely like each other and enjoy each other's company, it transfers to the rapport you have on camera.

CSI Files: It seems like there's also an enthusiasm that comes with being the newest CSI show, and that comes across so well in the show.

Harper: That type of energy starts from the top down, with Anthony [Zuiker, CSI: NY's showrunner], although he's been around--obviously, he created the franchise. I donít think it's a function of how long you've been doing it, but it's really how passionate you are about it. Anthony is so passionate about the show and making it great, and that's why I'm so happy that he's with us. And Pam Veasey is so wonderful and talented and such a great writer that she's super passionate. And Gary's super passionate. And Melina is into it and passionate about doing a great job. From the top down you have passion and joy and people working hard, so that infuses energy in all areas of the show. If people get jaded and cynical and tired, then that reads on film, and we have none of that anywhere in our show. None of the crew is like that, none of the cast are like that and none of the writers are like that.

CSI Files: Are you especially close with anyone off screen?

Harper: I've known Anna the longest out of everybody. Anna, Eddie, Carmine and my dressing rooms are real close to each other and there can be times they'll have their guitars out in the little dressing room...it kind of feels like a little dormitory. People will leave their doors open--it's nice.

CSI Files: Mac has been something of a mentor to Hawkes, always pushing and testing him, though he's laid off as of late. Do you enjoy playing the relationship between the two?

Harper: Yeah, I think that was great, but what happened was that that storyline kind of went towards Lindsay's character. Once she joined the show, she was the newest. I think it would be redundant to have two characters playing the newbie. And also I think there's a sense that Hawkes went out in the field a great deal [as an ME] collecting bodies, so he has a knowledge of how things work and how the field works and what we're looking for when we go out there. It wasn't like he was starting from scratch.

CSI Files: When did the producers make the decision to move Hawkes out into the field? What was your reaction when you first heard about it?

Harper I was very happy about it. The show is called Crime Scene Investigation: New York, it's CSI: New York, it's not called ďAutopsy.Ē So clearly if you're on a show called CSI: New York, then you want to be a crime scene investigator. What I mean by that is that you want to be part of solving the crime. In terms of the autopsy and the specificity of really determining cause of death, that's an important kickoff to solving the crime, but that's only one piece. And what's wonderful about being a CSI is that you get to put together all the pieces to solve the crime. Dr. Martin Luther King had a quote [something like] there's a long arc to the moral universe that bends towards justice, and I think that's the way Hawkes sees it. I think Hawkes saw his role as a forensic pathologist as being someone that is helping serve justice. If he could come up with the cause of death and how it happened and give the investigator as much information as possible to catch the perpetrator of the crime, then he was helping justice. And I think that this was the next step, becoming an investigator, and saying, I'm going to take all my expertise that I know from autopsy, from cause of death information and apply that further into all the forensics and all the other scientific information--the DNA information, the reconstruction information, the trace information--use all those elements to help serve justice.

CSI Files: Hawkes also seems to have a great deal of curiosity and a constant thirst for knowledge.

Harper: Absolutely! I think that's a huge key to the character. He was brilliant and he was a surgeon even before he was a forensic pathologist. He has been on this quest and he's always changing and learning and getting interested in doing different things and that's why I think the search for more challenges led him to become a crime scene investigator.

CSI Files: Originally it was in Hawkes' bio that as a surgeon he lost two patients and that's what made him turn to forensic pathology. Is that still current? Do you think it will be explored at some point?

Harper: Yes, that's still part of his back story. I think [it will be explored].

CSI Files: Is there anything you'd like to see addressed about Hawkes and his past in the show?

Harper: Definitely. The writers are so good on this show. Pam Veasey, Anthony Zuiker, everybody who's involved are so wonderful. [They] give information when it's appropriate. All of the characters have back stories, but at the same time, they're professional, so the most important part of their story is solving these crimes. That's what makes the show so good. All of us want the show to last as long as it can. You don't want to give away the entire baby right upfront. What you want to do is let certain things come out over time, so I think that will happen. It's like building; I think that's why people enjoy the show. What is brilliant about it, particularly about CSI: New York is that we follow in form and substance. When you're having to do the work to build a case against somebody and you're a crime scene investigator, you have to go piece by piece and the clues start to add up and they start to build and build and build. And on our show, the writers also do that with the characters. And that's what I love: you get a little piece here, you get a little piece there and it builds and builds and gets bigger.

And what you hope is as you look back over multiple seasons, you see, "Oh, there was a piece there." And I would think hopefully you would see that in reruns. I think there are little subtle things that the first time you see an episode, you miss. And then the second time, you say, "Oh, I didn't see that!" There are certain elements of what my character around him that I think are clues about his past, but I'm not just going to say [what those are]. I want people to see it and discover it. Things he says or what he's wearing or how he dresses.

CSI Files: Hawkes has loosened up a bit since leaving the morgue, and is getting dress more fashionably. He's got a nice sense of style this season.

Harper: Yeah! And you've got to remember he was a doctor, too, so in his past, he made more money than all these guys, so he's got nicer threads. He can afford nicer clothes. He's the richest CSI! He made double what these guys made for years.

CSI Files: What do you think Hawkes makes of the three new coroners who have come through the office since Hawkes left? Are they going to eventually pick one or continue to rotate?

Harper: I think that the diversity is nice and that all three are great. What I love about all three that we've seen is that they all would have worked with Hawkes so there's a wonderful familiarity that I get to play when I'm with those guys. Not just about the knowledge that I have about what they're talking about but more so the familiarity with them as people, as characters, that the other characters wouldn't have, because [the coroners] all would have worked with Hawkes for years.

I think they've done a great job casting the coroners. All three have been great--they're great actors and they're great people. It's a new lab and a different kind of experience. There's no reason for Hawkes to show any kind of fond remembrances because Hawkes never worked in that lab. When they got the new lab and moved into the new space, Hawkes never [had] worked in the new [morgue], so it wasn't like he seeing his little room that was off to the side--that room doesn't even exist anymore. The old Gothic thing in the basement--it's been upgrade; it's high tech now.

CSI Files: What do you think of the new sets?

Harper: I think it's great. Rather than being down below the city in a basement, we're above the city now, we're in a high rise and we're looking down on the city. What I think is really cool is when you think almost [of] Batman and you shine the light up, there's this bat in the sky looking down over the city or like Spiderman when he flew around the buildings. It's like there's a protector out there that's looking out over Manhattan and the five boroughs, and looking out for people. New York City is a city of skyscrapers so to be up high and to be able to look out on the city is fantastic.

CSI Files: Have you been to New York to film recently?

Harper: Yeah. It was wonderful that the episode, "Corporate Warriors", the chess episode, where the little boy was killed in the fire--we shot that in Washington Square Park and the real chess players were there. It was just a wonderful feel. And then shooting outside the Empire State Building, shooting outside the arch at the base of 5th Avenue--there are so many iconic elements to New York, it's so wonderful to be able to shoot exteriors there, whereas a lot of the show, since it is a lab-based show, a science-based show, an evidence-based show, a lot of it takes place [on the] interior, so you're inside a lot. You can't do a DNA test in the street--you do it in the lab. But that's part of the beauty, being outside in New York and being inside in the studio and in the lab.

Sometimes they don't even show iconic things in actual New York shots. In "Dancing With the Fishes", there's a wonderful scene with Eddie, Melina and Gary out by a hot dog stand. That's New York City. You didn't see the Chrysler Building in the background, but that's New York City for real. Even if you don't see an icon, that doesn't mean it's not New York.

CSI Files: "Corporate Warriors" was a pivotal episode for Hawkes, when he gave the arsonist the option to turn himself in. Did you enjoy playing that?

Harper: I loved that. It felt like the movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, which is one of my favorite films, and I really love that scene because it was basically an interrogation scene in way, but showing an empathetic take. Hawkes hasn't been an officer long enough to become jaded yet, and that's what that scene really revealed, the idea that "Look, I'm going the extra mile because I know you didn't really mean to do this." But [Hawkes] didn't have to do that. And maybe there will come a day when he's a jaded cop. But I think part of the reason he wanted to be out of [the morgue] is that he wanted to interact with people who are alive. And part of the idea of that is being somebody who's a little compassionate. He's not the guy who's jaded and browbeating the witness. He wants to do the right thing, but he still wants to catch the bad guy and if someone's done something purposefully wrong, knowingly, and hurt someone else, it really upsets him and he really wants to catch [that person]. But if someone did something that is ostensibly very wrong, and obviously it's wrong to set a fire, but not meaning to kill the kid--he loved the kid--so he's in a lot of pain already.

It was Eddie and I and I got to be the lead on that case. And the reason I got to be the lead on that case was because it was an arson. It was a fire case, and you've got to remember Hawkes would have examined hundreds if not thousands of bodies with relation to fire and would have gone to many, many fire scenes and collected the bodies and done the investigation there. So I think that's part of what allowed Hawkes to take the lead on a storyline like that. [Initially] you didn't know if it was murder, you didn't know if it was an accident, and that's why Hawkes was allowed to take the lead on that case.

CSI Files: In "Jamalot", Hawkes tells Danny what to do at the crime scene, which shows he seems to be growing more comfortable as a CSI. Was that intentional?

Harper: There's a whole set of experiences that Hawkes has that the other characters don't. The writers are so brilliant to pick and choose those moments when those things are revealed. And there are other things that Hawkes doesn't know as well as the other characters. When Danny and Hawkes go to collect the body out of the dumpster, [Danny] says [to Hawkes], "Do you want the body or the scene?" And of course, Hawkes has done thousands and thousands of bodies, so he's like, "I want the scene." But Hawkes knows about evidence collection with bodies, so he starts giving Danny advice, like "Be careful, make sure you do this, this and this." And Danny's like, "What, do you want me to tell you how to do a crime scene?" So that's the kind of stuff that Hawkes knows better than any other character on the show. It happens really fast. And that's what I love about the writing on our show in particular. You don't get beat over the head with these little elements. These guys are pros and they really want to solve the case, so their main focus is the case, but there'll be little one or two line asides that happen really fast that are more character-based.

CSI Files: One of our TalkCSI regulars was an extra for the episode "Fair Game" that was just recently filmed. She had to eat some exotic cuisine in the scene--crickets and lamb brains. Did Hawkes partake of any of the colorful dishes?

Harper: Hawkes is first and foremost interested in science and information, not in consuming dead bugs. He may dissect the bug to learn more about its mechanics, but he's not interested in actually eating the bug!

CSI Files: Do you enjoy when the show explores things that perhaps fall out of the norm?

Harper: I love doing stuff like that. All this stuff is real--it all really happens. I think even more extreme things happen that [those] that end up on a TV show, because people would actually say, "That never could happen." But there are cuddle parties, there are people who have exotic cuisine with things, these things really happen.

CSI Files: The writers are so spot on when they choose something to explore--they really look into it first.

Harper: They do their research. People can get lazy and cut corners, but our writing staff is just so great that there are no corners cut. Oftentimes on a lot of TV shows, friends of mine are always having to change lines and do this and do that because something doesnít match up with something that they said earlier, or it contradicts something they said earlier in the show because the writers aren't meticulous. That never happens on CSI: New York, never, ever ever. They're so meticulous, they do their homework, they do their research and they're so tight that by the time we get a shooting script, it very rarely changes. If you go to most TV sets, there are new pages all the time. "Oh, we missed this, we missed this." With our show, hardly ever. That shooting script is for the most part what we shoot.

[Because of that] you can concentrate on the work, you can concentrate on what you're talking about. There are all these expert consultants that are part of the show. Someone is always on set--an actual investigator in real life or [someone] who has been one, who's retired, so you can ask them questions and get definitions so you know what you're saying, you know what you're talking about, you know the process. It's very accurate, the process. Obviously, because everything has to happen in an hour, it's cut down in terms of the time, but that's the only thing that's really fudged. The process and all of that stuff is real.

CSI Files: Most of the real-world complaints about the CSI shows do tend to revolve around the time issue, how things are speeded up.

Harper: What do they want? To keep a camera on the GCMS machine as it turns and turns and turns? That's real exciting television. Let's just watch the GCMS machine turn for eight hours to spit out the DNA. You can have the GCMS channel.

CSI Files: Do you find the science in the show interesting?

Harper Fascinating! An interesting aside is that I'm getting an award from the Pan-African Film Festival that's coming up, an honorary award for some of the films I've done, and the awardees are asking to do a swab for matriarchal DNA. So I did the swab. What they're able to do now is that because there are so many cultures and groups of people that have been tested for DNA change, they can look back. A lot of African Americans who are descendents of slaves [who] were separated from their families, so you don't really have a connection to who your ancestors are. You don't really know what tribe or what country they may have been taken from and brought over here as slaves. And with this DNA work, they're able to trace your African ancestry. So they're going to present me with the award and with my DNA results at the time of the award in February. I'll know what my mother's side of the family's African ancestry is and what tribe and all that.

What's fascinating about that and wonderful is that when I was doing the swab of my cheek, it really reminded me of swabbing on the show, when I have to swab people to take their DNA. It's really fun, really great. I think [this kind of technology, the ability to trace our ancestry through DNA] it's not just useful for African Americans, it's useful for all of us. I think that what itís going to show if more people get this type of genetic history work done, it's going to show how related we all are, all of us. All of us are mixed in together in a multiplicity of scientific ways. You're not just one thing. Hopefully, it will make people realize how close we are in terms of our roots.

So [DNA research] is not just a tool for catching the bad guys. It's a tool for showing from whom you come from. There's information out there that science provides--it provides us the ability to identify who was at a particular crime scene, but it also provides us the ability to see from where we come, and I think that people will realize over time as they get their information that we all come from a pretty similar place. We're much more diverse, and much more similar than we've been led to believe we are.

CSI Files: One of the things that always impresses people about you is that you have not one but two graduate degrees from Harvard! Law and government, I believe?

Harper: It's an MPA--a Masters in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government. I did them as joint degrees. I went to Brown undergrad, and when I finished Brown I went straight to Harvard and got my JD and MPA at the same time.

CSI Files: How did that lead into acting?

Harper: I studied theater when I was at Brown but also I studied economics and sociology and urban planning. Brown is such a wonderful place to go for undergraduate [studies] because it allows you to study so many different diverse things, including theater. I loved theater and I ended up joining a repertory company in Boston. I won an Alfred P. Sloan fellowship because I was magna cum laude and also valedictorian in my department at Brown and so I won this Sloan fellowship that would help me pay for education in the public policy area. And so I thought it would be wonderful to continue to educate myself because I love education and I love learning. I had an intuition that I should just keep going to school, but at the same time I could keep acting, I could still do theater. So I joined this repertory company in Boston while I was at Harvard. For those next four years of graduate school I kept doing a ton of theater. I'd go down to New York and audition for things on my breaks and during the summer and so it just kept growing and growing.

I had no family in the entertainment business, so I didnít understand how you turn something you have a passion for and are good at into a career. I knew that I didn't want to go to "acting school." I wanted a diverse education because to me the greatest actors are people who have a lot of diversity so they have things to draw upon. If the only thing you have to draw upon is your experience in acting class, then I think you're somewhat of a limited actor unless you're playing an actor.

CSI Files: I'm sure that diverse education helps in playing Hawkes, someone who himself is very well-educated and has a lot of experience doing different things.

Harper: What also helps is that both of my parents were physicians as well. My mother was Dr. Marilyn Hill Harper--she's still alive but she's retired. She was an anesthesiologist. And my father, who actually passed away in 2000, was a psychologist, and he was Dr. Harry Harper. So having that background and going to the clinic where my father worked or going to the hospital where my mother worked, I have an understanding of certain things just by virtue of growing up with two doctors that I otherwise wouldn't have, so that helps as well.

CSI Files: You certainly sound like you know what you're talking about on the show.

Harper: You also do the research to learn what these words mean. That's part of our job as actors, if you're going to play the character then do it right. Do your homework. You have all these great writers that are doing their homework and working hard, as an actor you have the same responsibility.

CSI Files: Do you find yourself going to the internet or books to do research often?

Harper: I'll definitely go on the net to find out about things. If it's something that's much more medical that I don't know or want a better understanding of, that one simple definition of doesn't really tell me, I can call my mother and ask her about it. Or I'll talk to our on-set consultant who worked in the sheriff's office for years. So yeah, you do the research and you ask the questions so you understand exactly what the process is, exactly what you're going for and doing and talking about.

CSI Files: Outside of the role of Hawkes, do you have a favorite role?

Harper: I would say my favorite role that I've played is in a film called The Visit, which is a film I got nominated in the Best Actor category for an Independent Spirit Award and I also won a number of awards for that performance. It was a character that was in prison and who was dying of AIDS and he was trying to get the parole board to give him a release so he wouldn't have to die in prison. I did a great deal of research for the character and met with a number of people who were incarcerated and a number of people who had AIDS and just did a lot of research into the character and worked hard. And then to get all the recognition and all the positive feedback and all the nominations and the awards from the work was really validating. And it's one of my favorite films--it's a real life-affirming, powerful film. It came out in 2001. I was able to really sink my teeth into it. I also lost a lot of weight over the course of the film. The director and I decided he was going to shoot in sequence and it was a real challenging film for me physically because what we decided was at the beginning of the film I'd look very healthy and then over the course of the film you'd see an actual physical deterioration. Over the course of a seven-week I lost like thirty pounds. During that film I didn't have an everyday life; sometimes you [have to] immerse yourself in a role.

CSI Files: How does immersing yourself in a role translate to television, where you work such long hours for so many months out of the year?

Harper: What happens in television is that you make the character similar to who you are. A lot of Hawkes' mannerisms are similar to mine, whereas the character in The Visit was not similar to me. I try to bring a sense of dignity to Hawkes. I think that's why it's a natural fit for Hawkes to work for Mac Taylor because if Mac Taylor is one thing, he's dignified and proud and really a by-the-book kind of guy. And Hawkes respects that and is that way as well. In other words, he does the right thing. He will do the right thing--he's not a short-cut guy, he's not an 'I'm going to try to pass the buck' [type]. He's a stand up, very honest, very straightforward man. That's the kind of guy I would like to be in my life. Dr. Sheldon Hawkes is probably a better man than Hill Harper is all around, but that doesn't mean I don't aspire to be a better person.

CSI Files: That really comes through--there's something very earnest and honorable about Hawkes.

Harper: That's the idea. There are other characters on the show that can play jaded and cynical, let other people play that. That's not Hawkes. That doesn't mean Hawkes can't get upset. If someone's treated someone else wrongly or done the wrong thing, it pisses him off. But that doesn't mean he shuts off because of it. What I love about Hawkes is that [he] trusts the science and the evidence. If you look at somebody like Gil Grissom, I think there's a similarity between Hawkes and Grissom in that sense. Two characters that love the science and love the evidence [who believe] if you really do it right then the bad guys get caught and the good guys go free like they should and you never get that wrong, and you can trust that. And you don't have to assume they're guilty because there's no assumption to be made. If you really do the work, you don't have to assume anything--you have the science, there's no assumption made. It's not an 80% chance the DNA matches. DNA is either all there or it's not. And I think that's great.

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Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.