Where: his publicist’s office. 4:30 pm.
This is one of those times when the interview took a very long time to set up, but it was well worth the wait. Gregory Hines and I first met seven months ago, so we had a very easy-going conversation since we had spoken a bunch of times before while trying to set up our interview. There was a feeling of already “knowing” the other person. He also likes the publication very much and said that he reads it cover to cover!
Gregory Hines has spent the past year starring in his Tony Award-winning performance as "Jelly Roll" Morton in the Broadway smash, Jelly's Last Jam. With just a few more months to go before leaving the show, an appreciative Hines reminisces.
"We began rehearsal last year on February 13th at the Michael Bennett Studios, and I can remember at that point we were optimistic and certainly hoping that we would be received well enough to run. At this point with all that has happened, it's extremely satisfying to think that the journey has taken us here. For me now, I do feel tired. I'm ready to stop, but at the same time it's been such a terrific experience for me and all the people in the show are just great people. It's a real dichotomy for me to be ready to leave, but not want to leave all those relationships.
"I finish May 2nd. That's my last performance. Then I have some concerts to do in May, and then in June we're going to take a vacation. I didn't take a vacation during the run of the show because it just never felt right. I just felt like I had my name above the title, and that people were going to be coming and wanting to see me in the show. Some people buy tickets months in advance. Then they show up, and I'm on vacation? It just never felt comfortable for me to do that, so I'm going to take a real nice vacation," Hines says with a beaming smile.
Being conscious of the feelings of his admirers and audience members, Hines not only sacrificed not having a day off, but also made it a point to always greet them after each show.
"Occasionally I would eat between shows in my dressing room, and I knew that there were people waiting outside assuming that I was going to be leaving like everybody else. It just didn't feel right to have them standing out there. I feel like the least I can do is to go out and acknowledge their presence. Most of the time they want autographs, which I don't mind giving especially after the experience that I know they've had with our show. Audiences, over the past year, have let us know how powerful the show is and how it affects them. So it's a pleasure to actually come out and meet with them."
Starring in a play for more than a year eventually becomes a grueling task for any actor. But when the actor must sing, dance, act, and be onstage during almost every scene in the show, the demand is tremendous. For his part, Gregory Hines took the necessary precautions.
"In the early part of the run, it was a real physical test for me, and I geared my life so that I could meet up to it. Not drinking any alcohol, being sure to get the right amount of sleep, going to a chiropractor a couple of times a week just to make sure I was one step ahead of potential injury, and a voice doctor a couple of times a month. Because emotionally, it always seemed like when I got to the theatre I was ready to play the part. I just needed the physical strength to do it.
"As the run has gone on, physically I've been able to find a routine and stay with it, but sometimes I don't feel like going through that journey that Jelly goes through. I don't feel like saying those negative things that he says to people. So I found that I needed to concentrate a lot more because there were a couple of times when I'd be onstage, and I would just drift. I'd start thinking, 'Do I need to pick up some skim milk on the way home?' And the other actors would be looking at me, and I'd realize, 'I think I was supposed to say something now!'" he recalls through his laughter. "Being in the show for this length of time has given me an idea of the different phases of what a Broadway performance can be in the long run.”
The same way Hines is able to find amusement in an embarrassing onstage moment, he is also secure enough to give his young co-star, Savion Glover, the utmost praise. On numerous occasions, he has called Glover the greatest tap dancer who has ever lived.
"I liken Savion to Michael Jordan. There have been tremendous basketball players ever since the game began, but there's never been anybody playing basketball who could do the things that Michael Jordan can do. And the basketball players who played and were great know that.
"We, the tap dancers, know that the things that Savion can do nobody has ever been able to do before. The speed with which he can dance, the clarity, the kinds of rhythms that he puts together, the power that he hits the floor with without putting his foot up that much higher than anybody else and sometimes it doesn't look like he's lifting it up hardly at all! And he's only nineteen years old.
"I can remember when Savion was fourteen, and he was doing things that I couldn't do till I was thirty! So I knew then that he was remarkable. At this point, whenever all the tap dancers get together, we talk about the art, women, music, and ultimately, Savion and the fact that he is the elite."
As far as making a decision to continue to tap dance in his late years like Sammy Davis, Jr., Honi Coles, the Nicholas Brothers, Bunny Briggs and others did, Gregory Hines figures he will probably follow in their footsteps.
"I would love to be able to tap dance as long as I can, but then there's a side of me that feels like sometimes I'd like to get more into the choreography aspect. I go back and forth. Sometimes I think, 'Well, once I get to the point where I can't do it anymore, I'll stop.' But then sometimes I feel like I want to make sure that I never get to that point. I just love to tap dance, and I can't imagine not doing it anymore."
When Gregory Hines was trying to break into films back in the early 80’s, there were a lot of people who could not imagine him as a movie actor. Of course, he proved everyone wrong who thought his talent was restricted only to his feet.
"At the time, I was dealing not only with that, but with the fact that there weren't a lot of parts for African-Americans. So I knew the most important thing was that I be aggressive in trying to get whatever part I thought I was not only right for, but that was interchangeable. I knew certainly that there wasn't a role for me in Sophie's Choice because the two men had to be white. But there were other scripts that I read that I could see that I could play that part. It doesn't have to be a white man.
"So it was really aggressiveness more than anything that helped me power through any hesitancy that people had to regard me as an actor because I had a dance background. Ultimately, that was the thing that enabled me to keep from getting discouraged or depressed by any kind of rejection that I got."
Hines is encouraged, however, by the recent addition of African-American films being made and their availability to be seen by the movie-going public.
"The fact that we are now having African-American films directed and written by African-Americans is very important because that's the only way to get a real true, honest point of view. We have to take responsibility for our stories, which we are doing. Back in the mid-80’s, when directors like Francis Coppola, John Sayles, Steven Spielberg, and Norman Jewison were turning out films like The Cotton Club, Brother From Another Planet, The Color Purple, and A Soldier's Story, that's the only way those films could have been made. It gave a lot of African-American actors work, and those films made some money. Now we have Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, the Hudlin Brothers, and Bill Duke.
“It’s still a huge struggle that, as with everything in America, is based on money. Each film is always the barometer for the film to come. So because Spike Lee's last film didn't make an enormous amount of money, maybe people will be hesitant to give a green light to another African-American director.
"The thing that I wish was happening was that we, as a people, supported our filmmakers more. I know that there are enough people my age and a little bit younger who grew up with the Malcolm X experience, who should have just gone to see that movie. Just go! Not wait for any reviews, not hang around for a video. But support Spike Lee and Malcolm X and make it a huge box office smash. I mean, why not? These are the same people that would go to see Die Hard 3. The support is not there, and that really disappointed me. I was hoping that it was going to be a tremendous show of financial power that we could just go to the theater in waves."
Many famous folks have been very angry at major publications in the past for printing personal information about them or their family. Cries of "invasion of privacy" are not what you will hear from Gregory Hines though. He utilizes reporters probing into his family conflicts as an opportunity to show that he is one of us.
"I think people look at performers and people who are in the public eye and obtain a high celebrity status as if they're not real people. As if somehow they are different, separate, bigger, better, whatever. It's tough enough to go to a movie theater, and someone is projected huge. Then they read that this person gets like five million dollars.
"I don't really like people feeling separate, so I don't mind talking about things that are a part of my life. I am old enough to know that I haven't experienced or done anything that is unique. I’ve had hassles with my brother. People have had those things. I've had a lot of people come up to me and say, 'You know, I have the same relationship with my sister, and when I heard you talk about...' Then there are some people who are appalled, and they say, 'Jeez! You know, you should get together with your brother. You're family. You're blood.'
"So I really don't mind it. I want people to know that I'm just a real person. I have certain abilities and an occupation that affords me a higher profile than most people. But basically, I'm just a typical guy who goes through the same things that they do in life.
"But you know this world. People are interested in anything that is somewhat newsworthy or even the slightest bit controversial. I can remember a few years ago I did an interview for Playboy magazine, and the woman went all around and spoke to a lot of different people. And she said to me, 'I couldn't find anybody who would say anything negative about you. There's nothing to the piece. It's a boring article.' So I understood when she told me that they just were not going to run it." Hines chuckles at how ridiculous the incident was. "I understood more about where the press and magazines are coming from. If they could have written an article, 'He’s a great guy, except this one person says he's really a heroin smuggler, and…'" Hines jokes.
The greatest thing about Gregory Hines is not his impressive acting ability, nor his God given dancing talent. It is his healthy and realistic attitude towards his life's successes that is the most joyous thing to witness about him.
"I've been very fortunate. I have a terrific family, and I come from a very loving, nurturing background. And I always appreciate that because I know a lot of people that don't. I've been able to make a living at doing something that I really enjoy doing, and I know that's very rare. There are so many people who ultimately gave up the pursuit of something they wanted to do because it was too much of a struggle, so they did what they had to do in order to make ends meet. So I never take for granted that I'm very fortunate." AAA
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