Hill Harper

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at August 31, 2006 - 10:52 PM GMT

Hill Harper

No one can accuse Hill Harper of being idle. He spent his brief hiatus from CSI: New York shooting a movie and traveling the country to promote his book, Letters to a Young Brother. Harper recently returned to the set of CSI: NY to begin shooting the show's third season, but he's planning on spending his free time this fall continuing his book tour. Harper took some time out of his packed schedule to sit down with CSI Files' Kristine Huntley to discuss his many projects.

CSI Files: How is the new season going?

Hill Harper: It's going to be a really, really good season. I think that the writers and the actors are really comfortable and have a really good understanding of everyone's role and what they do best, what their strengths are and how the characters fit with each other. I think everybody understands each other's rhythms. The chemistry has really solidified itself.

CSI Files: What episode are you shooting now?

Harper: We're shooting episode five now. It's called "Oedipus Hex". There are two different story lines. One is a very interesting story line about the Suicide Girls and the other one is Rucker Park. Rucker Park is the streetball capital of the world, where great streetball players play. It's legendary in New York. So two very interesting stories.

CSI Files: Which case is Hawkes on?

Harper: I'm on the Suicide Girls case.

CSI Files: Are you happy with the stories that have been written so far for the season?

Harper: They're interesting, which is the challenge with a show like this where there are so many examples, whether it be the documentary or the real-life versions of these forensics shows or all the CSIs or all of the other shows that are basically CSI spin-offs but they're called something else, like Bones or Crossing Jordan. So to keep the stories interesting, compelling and fresh is a real challenge for the writers, and I think they've been doing a great job this year. I really feel good about the way our show is represented compared to the other shows that are out there.

We've got a huge opportunity to do really well [this season]. We beat Law & Order pretty bad last year and they moved Law & Order, so this season will be the first time that we're not going up against another procedural show. The show that ABC is putting on is supposed to be the perfect combo for Lost, so they're hoping that they can keep all that Lost audience. I don't know much about it--I've heard the pilot is really good--but who knows if the audience will stay. I know that there's a big audience out there that like procedural shows, and not necessarily shows that are serialized. I think that if we can get the people from the Law & Order camp to come over to us, you'll see a real bounce. I think that's what the difference is. We're the third-rated show as far as the CSIs, but none of the other shows have gone up against Law & Order. It will be real interesting to see how the original show does against Grey's Anatomy. It will be interesting to see how our show does against the new competition. I really do like our chances.

I like the shows that we've been doing and they've been very interesting stories but not necessarily going for the super sensational. It's not huge stuff--it's just interesting stories and I think that's really the root of what makes procedurals interesting. More of that rather than huge explosions and cars crashing--none of that stuff. It's really about the characters, it's about the evidence and dealing with that. So I'm excited.

CSI Files: Any changes for Hawkes this year?

Harper: This year I'm going clean shaven. I don't know if people are going to like that. If you guys think I looked better last season with a goatee, let a brother know!

CSI Files: What's coming up storywise for Hawkes?

Harper: I think some good stuff, because we don't have to deal with [him] being new in the field [any more]. Now we can really solidify and move into who he is and how he came to be here. And I think we're going to see a lot more of that. Since you don't have to spend story time on the teaching, you can spend time on that.

CSI Files: When I interviewed CSI: NY showrunner Anthony Zuiker, he said the one mistake he felt was made last year was putting Hawkes and Lindsay Monroe (Anna Belknap) into the field at the same time. What are your feelings about that?

Harper: At the end of the day, I love Vanessa [Ferlito, Aiden Burn], so I wish she would have stayed. I think she's great. But I dearly love Anna, and I'm glad she's on the show. I think the show would be great if Vanessa and Anna were on it. Anna and I did the show The Handler together, so we worked together really closely for an entire season doing a whole different show. Anna is fantastic.

So [the writers] were in a tough situation. The decision to move Hawkes into the field was made before Vanessa decided to leave the show. That move was set up in the last episode of season one when I put in my application. Vanessa didn't tell them she wanted to leave the show until after that was done. The intention of the writers was never to have two new characters [in the field]. But how long should they go without introducing a new female on the show? I just think that circumstances came up, and they did a great job with what they had.

There were a lot of changes going on last year. The writers of CSI: New York last year don't get the credit they really deserve for making changes that certain people--maybe it was the network or [Jerry] Bruckheimer's camp, or the audience wanted made--plus adding a new character, plus my character [going into the field]. I think they did a good job because it felt really seamless. Now whether my character or her character got enough attention in whatever way--that's a different point. But I think they did an incredible job with all the balls they're trying to keep in the air, and all of the changes.

CSI Files: How do you feel about those changes made in season two? Did you like the changes they made from the first season?

Harper: I love our [new] set. At the end of the day, I think that set is one of the best sets in television. It really works well. You have all these linked shots that can happen, and it's just a beautiful set. Now, as far as the show itself, at the end of the day, the [two seasons] are not that different. They look different, because different sets have different light. That's set and lighting; that's not a show. It was lit in a way [second season] to make people look better. Melina [Kanakaredes, Stella Bonasera] has beautiful eyes, and [now] you can see her eyes, versus less light, which is more moody, but you couldn't really see her eyes. So, we're still talking about murders, in New York City being investigated.

I have some shows that I like from first season that if you were to shoot them in this season, it would have been the same show. The dog show ["ReCycling"] could have been [second] season, the circus show ["Blood, Sweat and Tears"] could have been [second] season. The skeleton on the tour bus ["American Dreamers"]--how is that so different from the person that was killed in Central Park during marine week ["Heroes"]? Now, granted, first season a woman was going to a black tie party and she was raped in Central Park ["Creatures of the Night"]--that's a tough story line. But there's still some brutality. This season, we did an episode that I would say is as brutally gory as I've ever seen the show. It's episode number four. The murder itself is bad! So I think trying to find newer and better ways to tell a murder mystery and investigate the murder is really what the challenge of the show has been all along.

But Pam Veasey is great, and Anthony is great. We have two people running the show who are really outstanding.

CSI Files: What were your thoughts on the way Vanessa's character Aiden was killed off in "Heroes"?

Harper: I don't know why that choice was made, but I have to assume--and this is just me guessing--that [they] wanted to create some measure of finality. It created a dramatic opportunity during sweeps. It also creates some measure of finality for the character in a way, for the audience to [know] that's done and they can move on, not wondering, "Is she going to pop up?" You can't wait too long to do certain things with characters or actors. I know Vanessa got a pilot this year and had that show gotten picked up, she wouldn't have been available to do any guest spots. So if you wait too long, you can never do anything with that character. So you want to do it when the actress is available.

CSI Files: Did you think it was a good way to write her out?

Harper: I think if she wasn't going to be on the show again, there should be some sort of finality. Now whether you move her to Prussia and you have a goodbye party, or you kill her--just so there's some sort of finality. Now, if she were going to pop up every once in a while and we'd all meet for coffee--I love Vanessa so I would have loved that to happen. But I didn't think that was going to happen. That's not what she wanted to do probably. I like the idea of closing things. It gives you the opportunity to move on.

CSI Files: Were you disappointed when Vanessa left the show?

Harper: I was, just because I love her. I love her spirit. She's one of the most unique women I've ever met in my life. She's super funny. So every day you're around her, you're going to laugh. Vanessa Ferlito is a character!

CSI Files: What do you think of the romantic story lines this season, with Mac hooking up with Peyton Driscoll (Claire Forlani) and Danny (Carmine Giovinazzo) and Lindsay taking their flirtation further?

Harper: I wouldn't be so sure that all of that is going to happen. I think that teasing romance is sometimes more interesting than the romance itself, so I think that's probably what is going on more so than anything else. I haven't seen any evidence like it's going to be prolonged, or that they're doing this [extended] story, I haven't seen that. I would like for them to a tease a romance for Hawkes!

CSI Files: When is Hawkes going to get some loving?

Harper: I don't know, I don't know! It will come. Whenever it comes, it comes. That's usually the thing about a TV show--you hope that you're building something that will last for a long time so that you don't have to rush into having this story line or that story line. If you're afraid the show's not going be around, [you have to]. I would like to believe that our show can last, that if we keep doing really good shows, it will be around a long time. There's plenty of time for every character to go through all sorts of things.

CSI Files: We've heard Claire Forlani's character Peyton is a former co-worker of Hawkes. Do you know what their relationship to each other is like?

Harper: They had to have been former co-workers because she's a medical examiner. [There's no interaction between the two] that I've seen yet. We may have some later, but not yet.

CSI Files: Have you worked with her yet?

Harper: Not yet. I've been working with Sid [Hammerback, Robert Joy]. He's great, and he's got great stuff this year.

CSI Files: You guys really play off each other well!

Harper: I think there's more of that to come! There's a nice dynamic, and using the history of Hawkes, knowing what he's talking about there, it allows Hawkes to do something that's specific that no other CSI can do. So it's playing to Hawkes strengths, which is nice.

CSI Files: How long do you envision staying with the show?

Harper: I will do the show as long as the show lasts. In my book [Letters to a Young Brother] there's a whole letter about how you don't quit. You can change your mind about something, but I don't quit. If the show last[s] a long, long time, something's right about it. It's so hard to keep a show on the air anyway that if it is around for a long time, something's going well. And you never know what the future holds, but certainly I'm the type of person who would feel committed to being on the show [as long as it runs].

[The cast and crew] enjoy each other, and it's a great working environment. Any working environment, whether it's a movie, a TV show or a play, the tone is always set from the top down. It starts with Anthony and Pam and Gary [Sinise, Mac Taylor]. Gary is very professional, but he's also a really good guy. He doesn't bring a lot of attitude or posturing to the workplace, because that's not who he is. He comes from theater, and usually when you do theater, you have a real respect for crew, a real respect for actors, a real respect for time and being timely and knowing your lines. There's a level of professionalism you have in theater. And that tone is set by [Gary] and everyone has to follow suit. On other shows, some people don't always act like that, or on a Lindsay Lohan movie!

CSI Files: We saw pictures of you and a few of your co-workers from the Adopt a School event you did recently with Jamie Pressly. Do you hang out with anyone from the show?

Harper: Yeah, we do. Carmine and I are going to some Emmy parties. Everybody is really busy, so [we hang out] when we find time. The three of us--Carmine, Eddie [Cahill, Don Flack] and I--are the only ones on the show who aren't married. Anna's married, Melina's married, Gary's married, so that's a whole different thing. They have husbands and wives and really don't go out. We go out! So we either hook up or bump into each other out.

CSI Files: Carmine fessed up to making off with a pair of boots from Danny's wardrobe. Have you ever lifted any of Hawkes' clothes?

Harper: You know, Hawkes dresses more conservatively than I do. The clothes they have there, I like them, but they're more dressy than I would normally wear. Whereas Danny dresses more casually, so I think that Carmine can use more of those clothes for himself. I'd like to get some of the clothes that Carmine wears on the show for myself! [But the show] usually keeps that stuff.

They just had a big Will & Grace [clothing] sale on the lot. We shoot at CBS Radford, [which has] an incredible history. Some of the most successful shows of all time [have shot there]. It's such a beautiful lot--it's so small, and it has a real family vibe, a real warm vibe. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was there for years, on the stage where we shoot. It was Mary Tyler Moore's stage first, then it was Roseanne's stage, then That 70s Show's stage, and now it's ours. Seinfeld shot there, Will & Grace and Big Brother is shooting there now. [Now] all these executives are moving there.

CSI Files: Any funny stories from the set?

Harper Not really, because [the season is] so new. But I will say one thing--we moved into new dressing rooms and I'm really impressed by Eddie, Carmine and Anna. They all fixed theirs up with rugs and art on the wall and furniture. You walk into mine and I just have this old couch that was in there from the beginning, and whatever was in their before, and forensics books stacked up, and nothing on the walls except for the old CSI: NY posters leaning against the wall. You look at mine and you look at theirs, and I think, "What am I doing?" But the season is so young--no one has really played any tricks on each other.'

We started the season in New York and that was a really good start. We shot five or six episodes worth of exteriors in New York, which was great. I think that gives all of us the opportunity to really feel the city and stay in the same hotel. It's a nice beginning. It's a beautiful city, New York. Melina and I shot this scene right outside of Radio City Music Hall, which is one of my favorite scenes. It's such a simple, little scene, a walk and talk down 5th Avenue, but I loved it. The plan is to go back to New York much more often this year.

CSI Files: How's your book tour for Letters to a Young Brother going?

Harper: The book tour's going great. It's been so amazing. I've been getting 100 to 200 e-mails a day from different people who've either read the book, or they gave it to somebody and their son who's never read a book read the book. I wrote it for even the most reluctant readers and it seems like it's hit home. So at this point it's really about expanding--getting it gifted, getting it out there, and letting people know it's not just for a young black teenager. It's universal--anybody can read it. That's been the goal, and also my foundation (The MANifest Your Destiny Foundation)--that was the event I did with Jamie Pressly. It was a fundraiser for my MANifest Your Destiny Foundation, an Adopt a School event, which encourages celebrities and other people to donate to the foundation and dollar for dollar, their donation would go to the public school of their choice.

We're living in a time right now where the public school system is suffering. The experiences most young people remember about their schools are the field trips and the guest speakers--all the intangibles that the private schools take for granted. A second grader at a private school and a second grader at a public school can have the same textbook, but it goes much deeper than the textbook. So I'm pushing and fighting to make people feel like we're in a world community. So giving money to the public schools, you have a direct effect on a child's life, and that's what the MANifest Your Destiny Foundation is about.

All the proceeds from my book are going to the foundation. We have 88,000 copies in print--the first run was 50,000. It's in its fourth printing. I was lucky--I pre-sold over 5,000 copies. I sent out an e-mail asking people to support the book to send the message to these publishing companies that books for young men that are positive should be written. They're just not out there. There are plenty of books for young women, but the publishing companies don't think that young men read or that there's a market. There is a market--create something that they're interested in reading and they'll read.

If you look at achievement with young men right now, it's just dwindling, across the board--across race, across socioeconomic levels. I've been so blessed and lucky. You get to the point where you look in the mirror and say, "You have all of this. Now what are you going to do with it?" How could I use my platform and whatever level of celebrity I have to try to help somebody else. And the book is what grew out of that. If I get another big media hit, hopefully Oprah will come through! That would be a big hit for the book, because Oprah does wonders for everything. I think it would be good for the show, good for the book, good for a lot of different things.

CSI Files: What are the latest stops on your tour?

Harper: Most of the weekends, starting in September, I'm going all around the country again, to a lot of colleges. I got a lot of different invites to speak. I'll be going to George Mason, Penn, Georgetown, Yale, Cornell, Spellman--a lot of east coast campuses. I'm going to Dallas. So pretty much bouncing around all over for the rest of the year.

CSI Files: Do you have any movies coming out?

Harper: I've done a second movie with Jordan Walker-Pearlman [the director of The Visit] called Constellation. It's going to come out in October, probably in real limited release. It's another art house movie. I love art house films because they give you a chance to do the things you don't necessarily get to do in a big studio movie. CSI: New York is more like a big studio film in its own way, where art house films are kind of like doing theater on film. So I really enjoy that.

I just did another one over this last hiatus called Shanghai Hotel about a woman from China who is brought over to [the U.S.] as a sex slave and put into a brothel. I'm a bike messenger and we fall in love through a blacked out window. It's set in New York and we shot the whole thing in Brooklyn. It's a nice story.

I feel good about doing indies because at the end of the day, I know they'll be seen. With Netflix, with DVDs, with cable, the movies still find an audience.

CSI Files: What is Constellation about?

Harper: It was shot Huntsville, Alabama and it's these interlinking love stories [that show] how we all are connected. It's a big constellation, and we're all part of the same constellation, even though we may look like separate stars or separate things. It's really beautiful--a sweet story. Zoe Saldana, Gabrielle Union and myself. Gabrielle's one of my best friends, so we got to hang out in Alabama.

I just uploaded the first vignette of my own comedy pilot that I executive produced called The Hill Harper Show to YouTube. It's kind of cool. There's going to be seven of them. It was a pilot for VH1. One of the episodes is that I was told by a mentor to reveal myself so on it, I'm handing out cards saying "watch my show" and I'm walking down the street naked! That's a later episode.

CSI Files: You've also continued to do a lot of short films. What keeps you interested in that genre?

Harper: As an actor and an artist, I just want to create. That's all we have, what we create. I think being on a television series sometimes can make people lazy. You develop lazy habits. Some people take it for granted. Like I said in the beginning, to be on a show that's on the air, you forget that it's hard to get on a show that's on the air, no matter what the show is. You're very blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to do it. So reminding yourself of that all the time and not becoming complacent or lazy or taking it for granted is important.

That being the case, I want to help other people do what they do. People call me and ask me, "Will you come do this for free?" I had this short, "Max and Josh," that wound up at Sundance. Doing stuff like that is providing opportunities for other people, plus it lets me keep acting and creating, which is great.

CSI Files: What's next for you?

Harper: [Letters to a Young Brother] has taken on a life of its own, so I had to put writing on the back burner to try to figure out what the next book is going to be. At the end of the day, the writing is my giving back thing, and my focus is on doing a great job on CSI: New York. So the writing I do on my side time, and I don't have a lot of side time because I'm still getting asked to speak with regards to Letters to a Young Brother, so I don't have a lot of down time. But also I have movies I want to do, stories I want to tell--there's a lot to do. I just wish there were more hours in the day!

Discuss this interviews at Talk CSI!

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.