This article contains spoilers for Lovecraft Country’s second episode. HBO’s Lovecraft Country is a series that finds its main characters facing off against nightmarish monsters, mysterious occultists, and the more terrestrial villainy of 1950s American racism. Naturally, there isn’t a ton of time for dwelling on quiet domesticity. But in the show’s first two episodes, many of those low-action, tenderly terror-free moments feature one particularly lovable character: Courtney B. Vance’s George Freeman.
George is a pretty incredible guy—as the publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, the show’s version of the real-life Negro Motorist Green Book, he braves violent bigotry in order to publish a guidebook highlightnig businesses that are hospitable to Black travellers. He’s also a loving husband to his wife, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), a supportive father to his budding comic book writer daughter, Dee (Jada Harris), and a paternal figure to his nephew, Atticus (Jonathan Majors). But by the end of episode two, George is dead—the casualty of a centuries-old cult who had taken him, Atticus, and their friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) hostage. Atticus is deprived of his preferred father figure and left with his decidedly less cuddly actual father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams.) For now, George’s death leaves the show’s other characters to continue their fight against all things horrifying and mystical without his steadying presence, but in the world of Lovecraft Country, death isn’t necessarily a permanent condition. We talked to Vance, a Tony and Emmy Award-winner known for his roles on shows like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, about playing victims of racism, performing daring stunts, and whether or not George is really gone for good.
I know the show is set a bit before your time, but you also grew up in the Midwest. Was there anything about George and his family that you related to personally?Anybody who grew up in the ’60s like I did heard the stories, and we knew secondhand that it was no joke. We knew about Emmett Till, and how he came from Chicago. So I knew what the journey was for George, and for Jurnee’s character, and Jonathan Majors’ character, when we got in that car.It can be a little hard for me to watch other Black people being called slurs and racially abused, even in fiction that I love. Is it at all challenging to do scenes where your character is a victim of racism, like the scenes with the racist cops in Lovecraft Country?No. I always say I’ve been in every branch of the military, except for the Coast Guard, in movies, but they always cut at the end of whatever we’re doing. I remember I was in a piece years ago that we shot in and around London called The Affair, and at the end of the movie, I was hung. The director asked me, “Do you want to do the stunt?” I said, “No, I don’t need to do that. Let the stunt person do the stunt.” At the end of the day, they cut and it’s a stunt. I don’t get confused that what we’re doing is play and reenactment. If we’re good at it, if we do our job well, people can be moved, potentially, into action, to research. We could potentially get them to move the needle a little bit.
American Crime Story was created at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, and now this series is debuting amid another civil rights movement. Are you particularly attracted to projects with this kind of social relevance and relevance to Black history? I’m attracted to great stories, it’s about storytelling to me. If it’s a great story, I would be inclined to want to be part of it, if the timing is right. I was asked to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, which is a dream role, but it came at the wrong time. My twins were in seventh grade and I couldn’t leave the house for eight months. So, I said, “No, I can’t do that. It’s not for me.” My priorities are clear, there’ll be another time for that.It’s a mini miracle whenever a project comes to the screen, any project, because in so many places, it can fall apart. Pilots are a dime a dozen. This one, you’ve got HBO, [showrunner] Misha Green and her team, [executive producers] Jordan Peele, and J.J. Abrams. They were all committed to the struggle, because it’s a fight to get something to the screen.
On a lighter Lovecraft Country note, people are really into the cars. Was driving around in the Packard fun?We’re spoiled rotten with all our modern conveniences. When you go back in time, you really realize how it was. I remember when power steering became standard issue on cars. But when I grew up, it was an option, and it was just for the ritzy-ritzy. When somebody said power steering, it was like a colored television. “You got a colored television, wow!” We had some trouble with our car. We had a stunt go haywire, and the door of the car opened, and we’re doing a turn. I had my seatbelt on, but you don’t know if it’s going to hold when the door opens and we’re on a 40-mile-an-hour-turn and it looks like I’m going to be hanging out of the car. I reached to grab a handle, and in the ’50s there’s no handles. Was I enamored with the car? No! The last thing I wanted to do was get in that car again after we had that near catastrophe.Thank you so much. Could I just ask one more quick question: Is George really dead?I don’t think we can answer that.
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.
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