Hill Harper

By Kristine Huntley
Posted at October 26, 2007 - 5:35 PM GMT

Hill Harper is a man who knows how to keep busy. In addition to his work on CSI: New York as the innovative, intelligent Dr. Sheldon Hawkes, Harper is the author of a motivational book, Letters to a Young Brother and regularly accepts speaking engagements around the country. While hard at work on CSI: New York's fourth season, Harper took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with CSI Files' Kristine Huntley about his character's recent brush with danger, his thoughts on the significant episodes for Hawkes from last season and his new endeavors outside the hit show.

CSI Files: How's the new season going?

Hill Harper: The season is going really well. It's just building off last year's momentum. I think everybody agrees that last year was a great year and particularly we had a fantastic season finale episode ("Snow Day"). I think we've been building and building off of that. The writers are in great form, clearly they have great chemistry--Pam Veasey, Peter Lenkov, Anthony Zuiker--everyone is really amazing. It couldn't be better. And I think that same chemistry mimics itself in the acting. All of us are real comfortable with each other, we enjoy each other's company, it's a great set, a great environment, and the crew is great. So I think what you end up seeing on camera is really a reflection of what's going on behind the scenes. On show sets with a lot of turmoil and drama, you see the lack of chemistry on screen. But in the case of our show, there's very little turmoil or drama amongst anyone, and I think the end result is what you see week in and week out on our show.

One thing I'm really proud of is [something] you see all the time in print, that folks are always comparing different procedural shows and CSIs, and one thing I'm really proud about our show is, almost 100% of the time when folks talk about our show versus the other CSIs, they always say it's the best acted of all of them.

CSI Files: It was most recently brought up in US Weekly (October 22nd, 2007). That's definitely a huge compliment.

Harper: We've known that all along. Not to compare ourselves to anyone, but I know that we have great actors on our show, and that we have great chemistry.

CSI Files: This Wednesday's episode "Down the Rabbit Hole" got a lot of press. What's Hawkes' take on Second Life?

Harper: One thing I'm proud about CSI: New York is that we always introduce cutting edge things and people and ideas, and sort of suggesting where the future is going. And that's where it's going, whether folks like it or not, the future is going into Second Life. Twenty or thirty years from now, I think folks will look back and think, 'What was life like before you had your second life, and your third life and your fourth life?' and all these different things. Because that's where entertainment is going--we're becoming a more high tech/lower tech society. Through the technology, creative people are trying to find ways to make it more tactile in a way, and it may sound strange to say that, but I'm proud that we're one of the first shows to introduce that.

CSI Files: Will Hawkes ever get to play in Second Life?

Harper: No, no, no. I think they probably thought that as brilliant as Hawkes' mind is, if he got into Second Life, he may never come back!

CSI Files: Hawkes had a little trouble at the beginning of the season when he went diving in "The Deep". What was it like to film that?

Harper: That was so much fun. I got trained in diving a few seasons ago. There was a Central Park murder and a body was found in one of the ponds in Central Park, and so I got trained to be able to shoot that scene so it's nice to be able to use that training to do [the scene in "The Deep"]. Although this was much more challenging because it was much, much deeper, and to take off the mask very deep under water and to switch to another person's regulator--I switched to Danny's (Carmine Giovinazzo) regulator--was a challenging thing. You learn it in your scuba diving certification program, but to have to do it over and over and over again like that was challenging. It was fun, though. It wasn't scary or anything because there's so much support there for you. But it was definitely challenging and it was nice to be diving deeper where there's more pressure, it was great fun. It reminded me of how much I enjoy scuba diving, and also it reminded me that it's great to have a job where you can learn new skills.

CSI Files: Have you ever used those diving skills outside of the show?

Harper: I haven't! You know what's weird, I don't have a whole lot of vacation time. I would like to do that, I think it sounds really good in theory. I hope on my next vacation--hopefully sometime soon--I go to a warm weather place. Most of my vacations are centered around cold weather climates! Hiatus gets pretty busy: having a book out and I have another book coming out, and then I shot a film during hiatus. You have such a short time window of ten to twelve weeks off to [get in other projects]. Relaxation time for me is usually during the holidays.

CSI Files: Hawkes and Danny have grown closer during the past few seasons, despite their different temperaments. What's your take on their friendship?

Harper: I love the friendship. I think early on I didn't know if they wanted to make it more of a competitive or rivalry kind of thing, but what I love about it is they're two very different people that are both very passionate, very committed to what they do, wanting to get the same results, but [they have] two very different perspectives. To see where the commonality they have and they share is great. I love that. I love the friendship with Flack (Eddie Cahill) as well. Some of the most enjoyable acting moments, some of the most interesting and best for me on this show are really fun little idiosyncratic moments with Danny and really fun, little indiosyncratic moments with Flack. Working with those two guys [is fun]; we're friends, so it's nice to do that work.

CSI Files: With Flack, there have been some really humorous scenes where they've snarked at each other--those two are about as different as they can get. Do you enjoy that friendly rivalry with Flack?

Hawkes: The little repartee with them is a lot of fun. We've had the opportunity to do that and I love it. Flack teased him with the magic and Houdini [in "Sleight Out of Hand"] and this season it was about time travel [in "Time's Up"] and stuff like that. A lot of wonderful moments. Those are great.

CSI Files: Peter Lenkov mentioned in an interview with this site that he went out of his way to make sure Hawkes was an action hero in "Snow Day." Were you surprised to see Hawkes in action like that?

Harper: I loved that. I'm sure Carmine and Eddie would take exception to what I'm about to say, but I think I'm the most athletic person on the cast in real life. That's my personal opinion. I'm the only one that played college football. I bet Carmine and Eddie would take exception to this: Eddie plays a lot of hockey, Carmine plays a lot of baseball, but I think sport for sport I come out on top. I couldn't beat Eddie in hockey, but I could probably kill him in basketball, kill him in football--two out of three. I couldn't beat Carmine at baseball, but I think I could beat him at basketball, football. I think no matter what I could win two out of the three major sports. So that's a good thing. So to show that side of me within that character I think is wonderful.

You've got to remember: just because you're smart and intelligent doesn't mean you can't be athletic. That's what Peter brought out. Peter Lenkov is a really smart guy and he's in great shape. So I think the message is that you can be cool and smart and interesting and also athletic. They're not all mutually exclusive. Just because you're a scientist doesn't mean you're physically a nerd. So I love that. Peter said one of his favorite scenes, if not his favorite scene, in CSI: New York is the scene where they have me running up the ramp [in "Snow Day"]. [The shot is] on my back and I'm running away from the camera and up the ramp after I break out of the parking area and go around to the front of the building. I love that scene; that's a very cinematic movie type of shot, a very cinematic, movie type of scene that you don't normally see in television.

CSI Files: Last season in "Raising Shane", Hawkes found himself on the wrong side of the bars when Shane Casey framed him for murder. How did you feel about that storyline?

Harper: I loved that storyline. That storyline was great because it allowed me to play something completely different within the context of the show. I was so happy to get that. I'm happy they did that as a sweeps episode, an episode they really wanted to garner attention for, and I was very proud that two out of the four sweeps episode in that early (November 2006) sweeps period really had intensive Hawkes storylines. That shows a lot of confidence from the writers in me and my character, but also from the audience and their enjoyment of and desire to see my character.

CSI Files: What did you think of the reasons for Hawkes leaving his career as a surgeon, which came to light in "And Here's to You, Mrs. Azrael"?

Harper: I think they played it out really well. Whenever you get the chance to go into the back story of a character on a procedural drama, it's rare. I think they played it out really well, to see how someone who really wants to experience success, if they run into failure or problems, they may retreat. I think we've all experienced that. But he still wanted to help and serve, to move to a place where it wouldn't hurt to help and serve, and then making the transition out of the morgue into the lab and into the field, was just another revelation of how he wanted to serve even more. In the morgue, I'm not going to hurt anybody--they're already dead--but now I can help give the people who are going to solve this case the information that they need and then he says, "You know what, I'm smart enough, I'm good enough, I can actually solve cases." So [he started] solving cases, finding the murderer, and I think that he's gone full circle. That's just amazing. Rather than being an intermediary, he is the person solving the crime and actively helping people that have had harm done to them, which is exactly what he was doing as a surgeon. He's doing the exact same thing now in the lab as he was doing as a surgeon.

CSI Files: Hawkes has had some funny scenes with Sid, the current ME played by Robert Joy. Do you enjoy those interactions?

Hawkes: I love that! Robert Joy is such a wonderful person first of all, and secondly a great actor, and third, it's wonderful to have that relationship because these people are both colleagues and they know each other very well and adds all sorts of subtext and comfort to the relationship. From that, also the knowledge stuff, so Bob can play things and I can play things in a way that whatever he tells me, I understand. So we shot a scene that hasn't aired yet where he says a word to me, and then he turns to Danny to define the word and then he turns back to me. It adds this level you otherwise wouldn't have. And also Hawkes can get in there and help out at certain times. [In "Time's Up"], Bob says [to Hawkes], "Hey, do you want to help me find out what's inside this guy's brain?" It's the best of both worlds: he still gets to play in the arena every once in a while, but he's also out solving crime.

CSI Files: What episode are you guys working on now?

Harper: We're on episode number eleven.

CSI Files: Anything interesting coming up for Hawkes?

Harper: There's a lot of interesting stuff coming up! I'll probably always say this: I [would like to see] more Hawkes all the time. I've said it before: [the show] should focus on diversity, so I believe Hawkes should be on the screen much, much, much more. I also think the show is better when Hawkes is around. I believe in Hawkes, I believe in myself and there's great stuff for Hawkes and there'll be more to come. The writers are doing a great job. My heart goes out to the writers on a show like this--there are so many people giving them notes. It's such a fine balance--I don't know how they do it and still have a great show. The network execs are giving notes, Bruckheimer's giving notes, so how they're able, given all the notes they're given and all the different hoops they're required to jump through every episode, to create great programming is amazing. The real stars of this show are the writers.

CSI Files: Is the network very involved with the show?

Harper: Absolutely. Obviously, I'm not in the writers' room, but they send drafts to the network, the network approves them and they get notes back. The network's involved, Bruckheimer's involved, and then you have actors on the show that want to have some say in what goes down. So there's a lot of people that you're trying to as a writer find something for and still have your vision on the page. That's a tough, tough, tough challenge. Writers on our show could probably be elected to political office, because they're able to satisfy a lot of different interests, and that's what politicians do. So, Pam Veasey for President!

CSI Files: But only after Barack Obama, right? Speaking of that, you've been involved in Obama's campaign for President. Is this the first time you've participated in a presidential campaign?

Harper: This is the first time I've really gotten politically involved [in a campaign]. I've always been political, I think registering to vote and participating is really important--it's vital. And I'll say this: I don't tell anybody who to vote for. I believe we should all exercise our right to vote. All I can do is inform individuals about who I'm supporting and why and encourage people to learn more. And hopefully I think that once you learn more about Barack Obama, you realize he would be the best person to lead this nation. History shows that he's able to bring Democrats and Republicans together on so many issues, his approval rating among Republicans is really high, and he [makes decisions] not based on party lines but on what's right. I think he's by far the best person we have to lead this country.

CSI Files: You mentioned earlier that you're working on a new book?

Harper: I'm working on a new motivational book and this time it's geared towards young women. I got so many e-mails and letters from young women [after the publication of my first book Letters to a Young Brother] saying, "What about us? Is there a book for us?" And there's some different ideas that were in the first book that I wasn't able to flesh out as much as I wanted to. In this book, I'm really just fleshing out some ideas more deeply, and it's a motivational book for young women. It's called Letters to a Young Sister: DeFINe Your Destiny. I'm so excited that I have so many contributors; I'm really going after a lot more contributors this time, having females answer the questions from young women. So it's just been a really exciting process--doing the research and getting the book written has really been exciting. It's going to come out June 2008.

CSI Files: What's it like writing for young women as opposed to young men?

Harper: It's much more of a challenge for me for obvious reasons, but what I loved about it is that it gave me the opportunity to speak in the area of, what kind of advice would I give a young woman from a man's perspective, particularly from the area of young men and boys and knowing how we as men think. And then for things that are outside of my area, I'd go out to contributors. So it's not like I'm trying to tell a young woman how she should be a woman. I can't speak to those things. But a lot of the things I talk about in the first book are very universal things--success, happiness, those aren't gender specific. Achievement--that's not gender specific. So I really focus on those areas that are much less gender specific and then the things that are more gender specific, I let contributors and the people I call surrogate sisters [address]. I have so many surrogate sisters who I respect and love, and they're helping me and contributing to this book that this makes for a wonderful collaboration. It's not just me; it's a great collaboration.

CSI Files: Are you still out there promoting the first book?

Harper: I'm so proud of the first book because what's happened now is that the word of mouth has taken over. The publisher called me and was so excited that they shipped 7,000 books in September. I'm not out there on the road promoting it [anymore]. I'm still doing a lot of speeches and talks with school groups and things like that. But it's just been a great, great success, particularly with the context that originally many of the publishing companies said there was no market for a book geared towards young men because in their minds, young men don't read. So I'm so proud that it's one of the top non-fiction motivation books put out in the past two years. It's just been a wonderful success, and that really just speaks to the word of mouth behind it. Now that it's out in paperback, it's getting gifted more and more because it's less expensive. I'm just really happy about that and proud of that.

CSI Files: Getting back to CSI: NY, there's an interesting discussion on TalkCSI right now that sort of ties back into your book. A poster named Partly observed that Hawkes clashed with his mentor at the hospital in "And Here's to You, Mrs. Azrael" and also with Mac in "Murder Sings the Blues" and wondered how Hawkes, who is so smart and skilled and often surpasses his mentors, feels about authority figures?

Harper: I think conflict is good number one because it adds to drama. There is sense that we're in a new world today, and if you're smarter than somebody else, even if they're your elder, they should defer to you. Bill Gates built one of the most successful companies in the history of the world at a relatively young age. Do you have to wait until you're Sumner Redstone's age before you're a business expert or a medical expert or an expert in forensics? So I think a little bit of conflict is a good thing, and I also think that if Hawkes flexes his muscles in areas where he knows he's right or is more intelligent or is further ahead other individuals, it's not a bad thing. I think it's good; let the smartest people win.

CSI Files: What's your take on the latest story arc that CSI: NY is delving into, the 333 caller harassing Mac?

Harper: It's great. I think Gary Sinise is often at his best when his back is up against the wall. It's nice to have characters that are challenging and going after him a little bit. I think it's great for the show and it's great for Gary. Gary is one of America's greatest actors so when you have one of the greatest actors at your disposal, you want to give them things where they can act. It's like keeping Michael Jordan on the bench [if you don't]. You want to let them act, you want to have Michael Jordan actually play and shoot ball. So it's great. You're going to see that there are some wonderful moments that are on their way for that storyline.

Discuss this interviews at Talk CSI!

Find more episode info in the Episode Guide.

Kristine Huntley is a freelance writer and reviewer.