The Haysbert Principle
Vaulted into stardom by his role as President David Palmer on "24," Dennis Haysbert brings his trademark integrity to new role.
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"Yes, but there were others too. I've had a lot of breakthrough roles," Haysbert says carefully, "but that was one that was seen by the most people. You know, whenever I do a project I always hope for the best and ["24"] just turned out that way. I knew right away it was unique. I knew it was going to be shot differently than any show has been shot before, using the multiple angles and multiple screens…split screens, quadruple screens and things like that. Those were all inventive things for this show and for television in general."
According to Haysbert, after the third season of "24," the producers decided to write President Palmer out of the show. After one failed assassination attempt—a near-lethal poison delivered by handshake—the character was finally killed off, but not until after Haysbert had been voted "Best President of the United States" in a USA Today poll that pitted him against not only television counterparts Martin Sheen and Jimmy Smits of NBC's "The West Wing," but against real-life president George W. Bush.
The irony that he's flip-flopped his character roles—in "The Unit," he plays the role of a covert agent protecting the president—isn't lost on Haysbert, nor is the fact that he segued almost seamlessly into not just that role but into two others, in movies scheduled for release in early 2007: Breach and Goodbye Bafana.
It wasn't, he insists, just luck. "I wanted it. I'm very disciplined and I wanted it. I had been visualizing this role [of Jonas Blane] since the third year of "24." He's a man of action and, I get to roll around in the dirt, shoot guns, be a boy, be a man! I'm like a kid in a candy store with a pocketful of quarters, a trapped rat in a cheese factory."
That Haysbert is thoroughly enjoying a role that involves physical action, guns and hand grenades is readily apparent. According to Haysbert, what he really, really wants to do one of these days is to go a step or two further and trade in the camouflage fatigues for some Lycra. "I think I'd make a great superhero," says Haysbert, grinning. "I'm serious. I want to play a superhero and I've already got one in mind. I think I've still got the body for the costume and it's something I really want to do."
Spend enough time with Dennis Haysbert and you quickly realize that, behind anything he might say, even in a light tone and with a rare grin on his face, there lies a steely resolve. He's known among his peers for putting his heart and soul into a project—whether it's a character role in a film production or being the face and voice behind nonprofit projects involving education, human rights or HIV/AIDS awareness. And if that same heart once had a hole in it, there's little doubt that it's working just fine for him now.
As a child, Haysbert says, he was forbidden to play with the other kids or overexert himself; as he got older, and the improvement in his health became obvious, his mother finally allowed him to participate in sports, but with an unusual caveat: that he explore other areas, too.
"I wanted to play sports, but my mother, she gave me a proviso. She said, 'You can play sports if you pursue art.' She had a great deal of influence on me when I was growing up. Besides, I didn't need a lot of coercing, because there was something in me that wanted to do that, to pursue the arts. She gave me license to."
Haysbert was a defensive end on his high school's football team, ran track and, briefly, played some hoops, but "…I was starting to achieve my height, and I played a little basketball, but basketball interfered," Haysbert smiles, "with theater season. That's when we did our term plays and did nutshell versions of Shakespeare for English classes. And, believe me, I got a fair amount of looks from the guys on the team. 'You're in theater but you can play football?!' I got a lot of shit about it," he says, laughing.
Apparently that was nothing compared to the ribbing he took for participating in dance class. "I danced a little bit…I would help the dance department out with adagios because I could physically do lifts and things like that," he says. But he still admits that he floated without much direction for a couple of years following high school, until some specific words put him back on track again.
"From the time I was 10 I think I knew that I wanted to act, and then there was the caption under my high school picture, [so] it was obvious I had no doubts, I knew what I wanted to do. But I also had a catalyst, an older brother who died of cancer, and I just happened to be with him the [day] before he died. He asked me a simple question, 'What do you want to do?' And I said, 'Well, I want to be an actor.' He asked, 'Where do you want to do it? Can you do it from here?' and when I said 'No, not really' he said, 'Well, get the hell out of here then because tomorrow's not promised.' I'll always remember those words. 'Tomorrow's not promised.'"
The following day, Haysbert's brother, Charles, died at age 32. Two weeks later, Haysbert was in Los Angeles, working in a grocery store and taking classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When he wasn't in class or working at the store, Haysbert says, he consumed any self-help book he could get his hands on, including How to Visualize What You Want and The Power of Positive Thinking. Things began to click for Haysbert and, tall and handsome, he found work in television fairly quickly after graduation; first on "Lou Grant" and then later in series as diverse as "Laverne & Shirley," "The White Shadow," "Magnum PI," "Dallas" and "The A-Team."
By 1989 he'd landed his first movie role, as a voodoo-practicing baseball player in Major League, and during intervals between near-constant television roles and the occasional stage production, Haysbert has acted in big-screen titles including Love Field, Waiting to Exhale, Love & Basketball, Absolute Power, Far From Heaven and, most recently, in Sam Mendes' war drama, Jarhead.
Looking at Haysbert's filmography, it's hard to find any significant gap of time in the past 20 years in which the actor hasn't been busy with a project…or two or three. To hear him tell it, "it's an actor's dream…it's what an actor lives for, to be able to go from one character to the next to the next."
Those self-help books he read in his 20s seem to have worked; what Haysbert wants he usually gets. Post-"24" and concurrent with "The Unit," Haysbert took on a movie role playing one of his greatest personal heroes, South African president Nelson Mandela, in the big-screen drama Goodbye Bafana.
Even though the role was offered in such a way that would allow him to film during his summer hiatus from "The Unit," Haysbert admits that he briefly questioned his ability to take on the role. As he tries to explain it, he keeps his gaze trained on a small black-and-white photo of Nelson Mandela tucked into a mirror frame across the room.
"I just remember it being a very daunting situation," recalls Haysbert. "I was a little nervous about it and almost turned it down. I had a momentary loss of confidence and didn't think I was worthy. He's such a hero of mine."
Goodbye Bafana follows the true story of Mandela's imprisonment during apartheid and the unlikely, but powerful friendship that developed between the South African president and the white, Afrikaner warden of the prison in which Mandela was kept for more than a quarter of a century. (The warden is played by British actor Joseph Fiennes.)
To prepare for his role, Haysbert studied tapes of Mandela's speeches and learned to speak enough Xhosa, one of South Africa's many languages, to use it credibly in the film. He also, he says quietly, felt the need to make a trip to Robben Island.
Located seven and a half miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, Robben Island once served as an isolated prison for opponents of apartheid, and was Nelson Mandela's "home" for nearly 27 years. Today, Robben Island is a tourist attraction, albeit a grim one, with walking tours conducted by former prisoners.
It seemed appropriate, Haysbert recounts, that it was a particularly gray, rainy day when he took the boat over to Robben Island. "It's an oppressive rock in the middle of the sea that looks out and back at the splendor that is Cape Town. That alone had to have been a hardship, to look out [from prison] and see big, beautiful Table Mountain.
"You can't go into President Mandela's actual cell, but the energy coming from it, sad energy, is palpable. It's a cruel-looking place, and even though there were some murals that had been painted on the walls there [for the tourists]—I guess it's the purist in me—[but] if you're going to show something that was really harsh and ugly, both spiritually and physically, I figure you should leave it that way."
What came as a pleasant surprise to Haysbert while filming in South Africa was how often he was recognized and greeted on the street as "President Palmer," and how easily the locals accepted him, an American actor, taking on the iconic role of President Mandela.
"'24' is big, very big there," says Haysbert, "and everyone seemed to know who I was. They're very protective of President Mandela, of his story, their story, and I assured them that I would be playing him with all the dignity and integrity that I could muster. They were all pleased [with the casting] I think, because of what I had done [before]. I had played a president, a very popular President Palmer, so it was helpful."
Between his starring in "The Unit," filming movies and regularly making Discovery Channel documentaries, it's hard to imagine that Haysbert ever takes a moment to just relax but, he swears, he does. In particular, he makes as much time for his two children, Charles and Katherine, as he can. A divorced dad (Charles and Katherine are Haysbert's children from his second marriage, to actress Lynn Griffith), Haysbert's face lights up when he talks about his daughter's athletic prowess and his son's interest in world news, politics, history and filmmaking. He also sees discipline as a key component of his role as a parent.
He is, he hopes, a good dad. "I get them every other weekend and any other time that I can muster. I love them freely and unconditionally, [but] I can also be firm. If something's not done [or] done right, or they're being lackadaisical in some really pertinent way, it's incumbent upon me to tell them and let them know that.
"See, I have a theory about parenting. There's an old saying: 'If you watch your pennies, you don't have to worry about your dollars.' Well, if you watch your kids when they're younger, you have less to worry about when they're teenagers. You just give them the attention that they need and deserve, and love them.
"I think it's all about love. When you say to them, 'Look, I'm saying this and I'm doing this because I love you and I want to see you survive your teenage years, I want to see you live fully,'" says Haysbert, "it's from love. I have friends say to me, 'I don't know how you do it,' but I have two of the most bright, polite, good-natured kids you'll ever find."
The discipline that he offers them, Haysbert admits, also has to apply to himself. When teased about eating some fried chicken being offered by craft services during a lunch break, even after having espoused the importance of eating healthy earlier in the day, he doesn't bat an eye. "You have to understand that I rarely, rarely eat something like this, but if I want a little of something I'll have it. A little. That's it. I don't 'jones' for things I know I shouldn't have…I just don't have them."
What Haysbert does have from time to time is a cigar, usually, he says, after a great meal ("a big, fat steak maybe, with some great wine") or when hanging out with close friends. He prefers Cohibas and the Fuente Fuente OpusX line, dark cigars with strong flavors that go well with two fingers of The Macallan single malt at the end of an evening. Haysbert also admits that perhaps part of the camaraderie on "24" came from many of the cast and crew hanging out in the "cigar room" on the set where, says Haysbert, a little male bonding would occasionally happen over a cigar, a hand of cards and a Scotch. But even that, he implies, comes with responsibility, moderation and discipline.
"When I knew that my son, when he was little, would smile like me, would posture himself like me, hang on to my every word…from that moment on I learned that that's a great deal of responsibility. Everything I do, these kids are going to look at and emulate, just like a son emulates his dad shaving. And now for my daughter, it's the women I date…"
Ah, dating. Haysbert is discreet when talking about his romantic life but, after pointing out that his parents were married for 51 years before his father's death, he admits that, after two divorces, he wants the complete package in his next serious relationship.
"I've seen a lot of women and men get married for some interesting reasons, and not all of it," Haysbert pauses for a second, "or I would say, very little of it, really, has to do with love. It has to do with what one can gain, whether it's financial security or they've got someone on their arm that is beautiful.
"I also hear some guys say, 'You know, things are good,' but it's the exception, and I want that exception," he says. "I don't want things to change [in a romance] just because of marriage. I want someone that I can laugh with. Someone that I can have a discussion with, that even if you disagree with each other, that you are together, you have each other's back. That you love and respect one another. That you can enjoy each other's company, that when they're sick you react as though they were your child.
"You know," says Haysbert, smiling, "I've had my children's projectile vomit on me, but it never changed how much I love them. You just stroke their head, put a cold compress on them. That's what I want…that unconditional love."