By Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., NNPA Newswire Culture and Entertainment Editor
Russell Hornsby should be a household name by now with his impressive body of work. His latest role as a crusading attorney and family man on FOX’s “Proven Innocent” may be the role to do it.
The Oakland born thespian has been bringing characters to life on stage and screen for over two decades. Hornsby believes in studying the craft of acting, which is proven by his training at Boston University followed by Oxford University’s British Academy of Drama.
He is probably best known to fans for his role as police officer Eddie Sutton in the critically acclaimed show “Lincoln Heights,” (ABC Family) and most recently as Maverick Carter in the hit film The Hate U Give and Buddy Marcelle in the knockout film Creed II. Hornsby has studied under theater royalty (Lloyd Richards and August Wilson) and worked opposite incredible talent including Regina Hall, Nikki Micheaux, Erica Hubbard, Amandla Stenberg, Regina King, Denzel Washington, Robert DeNiro, Sylvester Stallone, Michael B. Jordan and the list goes on.
No stranger to the small screen, Hornsby has been delighting fans with powerful performances on top shows like “Gideon’s Crossing” (NBC), “In Treatment” (HBO), “The Affair “(Showtime), “Seven Seconds:” (Netflix) and now “Proven Innocent” (Fox).
Hornsby plays the character of Ezekiel “Easy” Boudreau, a lawyer who is best known for freeing Madeline Scott (Rachelle LaFevre), a wrongly-convicted woman, after she served 10 years in prison. Teaming up with Scott, Boudreau has dedicated his life to freeing the wrongly-convicted as part of the “Injustice Defense Group.”
While promoting “Proven Innocent” at the 2019 SCAD aTVFest in Atlanta, Hornsby discussed his keen ability to move between the stage, film and television playing a range of characters that have been historically unavailable to black actors.
The Drama Desk award-winner says when choosing roles, quality is most important. “You’ve heard the saying you need to start where you finish? Well, I started at such a high-level in acting, that I have to keep it going,” he says.
Hornsby explains that his first job after graduation was working for $217 a week for the great Lloyd Richards, the first black director to direct “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway. Richards was also Dean of the Yale School of Drama, which is one of the reasons the show had acting greats like Courtney B. Vance, Charles S. Dutton and Angela Basset. From there, Hornsby worked under August Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and 10-time Tony award-winner, on shows like “Jitney.”
“I started at the top with quality, so that’s my norm. Now when I assess material, I assess it from that standpoint. I’m constantly traversing between film, television and theater so I’m constantly staying at a high level and I can’t go back,” says the Obie award-winner. “I’m not holier than thou or anything,” Hornsby expounds. “I’m just saying I was blessed to be able to make money as an actor early on in my career. I was smart with my money, which enabled me to be able to say no and maintain my integrity when choosing roles,” he adds.
Hornsby’s work often delves into complex issues and “Proven Innocent” is no exception. In a social and civic climate where the topic of mass incarceration, the prison industrial complex, unjust sentences, wrongly convicted prisoners and a justice system run amok are at peak level, “Proven Innocent” is tackling these complicated issues head on.
Hornsby, who is known for playing strong family men, purposely chose this role because of its important representation of a black man.
“I want people to recognize and see that real men exist,” says Hornsby. “A dear friend of mine used to say there was a time when boats were made of wood and men were made of steel. That’s what I want our people [black people] to see on this show,” he says.
Hornsby, who was raised by a single mother and was surrounded by strong men, including his father, believes this is a much-needed image in media. “I’m not saying sisters don’t deserve the credit. They do. My mother did the damned thing and I’ve got a wife who is bad as she can be — smart, talented, everything — but men exist too. Let’s not exalt one at the detriment of the other. Let’s say we can co-exist, partner in the struggle together,” he explains, which is another reason why this character spoke to him.
“Real men still exist. Men can stand up straight, look you in the eye, conduct themselves justly and appropriately and not be afraid. That’s what I want,” says the 2018 AAFCA award winner. “Men need to share and be open and more malleable. That’s what you’ll see with this character,” Hornsby reveals.
“Ezekiel is malleable. He and his wife are going to be going through trials and tribulations and issues but he’s still valuable and willing to learn. They are still partners. Those are the men I saw. That’s what empowers me to portray the kind of characters I play.”
“Proven Innocent” airs on FOX, Fridays at 9 p.m. EST. Check local listings for channel information.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is entertainment and culture editor for NNPA/BlackPressUSA. A film and media scholar, Dr. Burton is founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning news blog The Burton Wire, which covers news of the African diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual or @TheBurton Wire.