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Courtney B. Vance Gets Real About Race and Life With Angela Bassett

The award-winning actor shares his views on 'Lovecraft Country' and the secret to his 23-year Hollywood marriage

spinner image Courtney B Vance attends the 71st Emmy Awards
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Emmy winner Courtney B. Vance, 60, talks to AARP about his new sci-fi series, Lovecraft Country; his next role, playing Aretha Franklin's father; and how his wife, Angela Bassett, and twin teenagers are coping with life's current challenges.

What's Lovecraft Country about?

The struggle to survive. On a Black road trip in 1950s Jim Crow America, I play the author of a Black travelers guidebook [like the actual Green Book], helping my nephew search for his father — my brother. And then, in the midst of that, we discover racial monsters and literal monsters. For the audiences, it's going to be a jolt.

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Sounds like an intense look at a dangerously divided time. Are there parallels to now?

I think people are in the midst of a storm when the entire country comes to a standstill and we're all facing the same monster — this pandemic. You can choose to put your head in the sand at your own peril. You can imagine if we put our heads in the sand and we let Hitler just keep marching.

What can we learn from our history?

What we're struggling with is that we don't have centralized leadership. There is no one having the fireside chats with us to tell us it's going to be all right. We can come together. We can deal with this. In our Lovecraft Country story, we come together as a family and say, “We can deal with this; we can find our way through."

You won an Emmy playing Johnnie Cochran in The People Vs O.J. Simpson. Now you're playing a role inspired by The Green Book author; next you play Aretha Franklin's father in Genius: The Aretha Franklin Story. Do you choose to take on roles based on real people?

I like great scripts. It's a miracle when a project can come together. There are so many places where they can go awry: preproduction, production, postproduction, marketing.

spinner image Still of courtney b vance from lovecraft country
Vance stars as George Freeman in "Lovecraft Country."
Elizabeth Morris/HBO

Vance Fast Facts

Age: 60

Birthplace: Detroit

Greatest hits:  Hamburger Hill; The Hunt for Red October, Law & Order: Criminal Intent; The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story; The Closer

Award winner: Emmy for playing Johnnie Cochran, Tony Award for Lucky Guy

Vance’s law: Before joining Law & Order: Criminal Intent, he appeared on the original Law & Order series twice.

Author, author: He cowrote the book about his romance with fellow Yale Drama School grad Angela Bassett, Friends: A Love Story.

Good deeds: He’s on the board of directors of the Actors Center and is a Boys & Girls Club of America alumnus and a member of its Alumni Hall of Fame.

And now the virus has shut down film and TV production. How will you be able to get back to acting?

Who knew the pandemic would stop everything dead in its tracks? All of us have to figure out a way to come back together to shoot. What does that look like? You can only have 10 [actors] at a time. How do you do that? What are the rules? How are you going to keep me safe? All bets are off. There are no guidelines to be able to direct people about how this goes.

Are you an Aretha Franklin fan?

I grew up in Detroit. She's a Detroiter. I'm a huge fan of Aretha. My wife [actress Angela Bassett] and I were on the the Kennedy Center Honors nominating committee, so we were there when she performed for the Obamas, and sat at her table at the brunch the next day. She was larger than life. There's only one person — that's why she was a genius — to be able to step in for Pavarotti when he couldn't sing. Of course she could sing it and make it her own.

You have twin teenagers. What are your parenting strategies?

We are about, “What did we ask you to do?” We're going to try to do all we can do for you. And in exchange, you will do what we ask you to do. We don't play. It's “Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am.” They might not like all the things we ask them to do: laundry, vacuuming, folding their clothes, ironing, the garbage, washing their cars. They will leave this household and they won't be able to say, “We don't know how to clean house; we can't cook; we don't know how to take care of the things that need to be taken care of.” So when they get out in the world, people go, “Wow, they're smart and kind and gentle and respectful.” You only have to put down a couple lines on the tombstone: “Were they nice? Did they take care of their family?"

How do you handle exposing them to all the chaos right now with the pandemic, the racial unrest?

When my mother died, they were like, “Dad, do we have to go to the funeral? I don't want to feel bad things.” I said, “I understand. I wish I could protect you from it, but you're 12 now, and you got to go. I need your help. So put on your big-boy underpants and let's go.” We try to do the best we can for them, but, ultimately, we have to raise them to be able to be out in that world and deal. Unfortunately, you got to teach them that if you're pulled over by the police, this is what you gotta do. That's the real real.

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What's your advice for the next generation?

Wherever you are, get involved. It's about the journey, not the destination. In my journey I didn't want to settle, because I knew my father was unhappy. He wanted to be a lawyer, but he couldn't. He had bills, college loans to pay back. Our children will be able to do what comes into their hearts and minds to do, but you also need to be kind. You can't be me, me, me. To whom much is given, much is required.

Share the secrets from your 23-year Hollywood marriage.

Take care of each other. It's “What can I do to help you?” Angela just had a neck spasm that took her down. We all went into help-Mommy mode: the massage, the chiropractor, the sessions, up late at night, up early. So that's what it's about. When there's an emergency, it's all hands on deck over here.

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