As Jim Gardner on ABC's Commander in Chief (Tuesdays at 9 pm/ET), Harry J. Lennix plays a White House chief of staff caught in the middle as he protects the legacy of President Mackenzie Allen's (Geena Davis) late predecessor occasionally even lending his ear to her arch enemy while still serving the highest office in the land. TVGuide.com spoke to the actor about Jim's dilemma (and jettisoned love life), as well as the thrill of watching Ray Charles come to life.
TVGuide.com: People who have seen The West Wing and/or The American President probably wondered how Commander in Chief could be much different, and yet it is. How do you see the show?
Harry J. Lennix: Well, I think that the obvious difference is one of looking at a female that is empowered with the highest privileges and responsibilities of the land, and seeing that she is capable of handling all those pressures. And, of course, I believe that looking at some of the nuances that a woman would bring to the office is also very compelling. In those ways, we're not covering the same ground. We're asking, "How would a woman handle a crisis situation? A hostage situation?" That's what's really interesting looking at somebody, be it in reality or fantasy, handling the great issues of the day.
TVGuide.com: How was the role of Jim first presented to you?
Lennix: Well, Rod Lurie, who created the show and is a brilliant man, approached me. Of the available parts that the script talked about, the one that I was actually most intrigued by was this Jim Gardner character. He was presented initially as just a man, and then Rod layered in the fact that he was a black man and he was a Republican, which is pretty interesting (Laughs) because there's not a whole lot of black Republicans, and those who are, I generally find myself fascinated by. I wonder how they arrived at that. So from the onset, I found the character intriguing.
TVGuide.com: Why do you think Jim opted to stay on as Mac's own chief of staff? Is it solely to keep her in check, or does part of him also believe she is a president who can make a difference?
Lennix: I believe there's a little bit of both, and both of those things are important. I think Jim initially was shocked by the death of his friend and commander in chief, President Bridges, and when it appeared that Mackenzie Allen was not going to follow the wishes of the president [to resign from office], he wanted to protect the legacy of this man whom he had served. That was something of a noble or divine cause for him. Jim is probably an old-school Republican, somebody who believes in empowerment, and I believe that he sees in Mackenzie Allen a lot of that same independent spirit. I think if you look at the type of Republican that Colin Powell is, or the type of Republican that Michael Steele [Lt. Governor, Md.] is, you see somebody who really would be classified as an independent. These guys really aren't Republicans, they're conservative radicals, and I don't believe that Jim is like that. I think he has a lot in common with this president a same lone-wolf mentality that is actually going to keep America's and Congress' feet to the fire. He is loyal to the office of the president, and that is an even bigger responsibility than the one he had before Mackenzie Allen took over.
TVGuide.com: Is it as entertaining to watch Donald Sutherland do his thing there on the set playing Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton as it is for viewers to watch him at home?
Lennix: [Laughs] Yes, absolutely. The strange thing is I don't really watch the shows, but the other day I wanted to look for something and in the course of doing so, I got caught up looking at Donald Sutherland doing what he does. It was great watching a master, and he is a master. But it's even more nuanced when you look at it on film. He knows that camera, and he can manipulate and romance it. He's an amazing craftsman. It's sort of like being able to listen to Rachmaninoff at a rehearsal. Both are equally fascinating.
TVGuide.com: Sometimes you must say to yourself, "I can't believe that Jim actually sides with this guy!"
Lennix: [Laughs] I don't, actually, because Templeton is smart and he knows the game. Sometimes, of course, he's completely outrageous and inappropriate, but other times he's right on the money.
TVGuide.com: What's the status on whatever was going on between Jim and Natasha Henstridge's assistant to the speaker of the house?
Lennix: Well, they're taking her away from me evidently, so who knows? I don't know if they're going to revisit that territory, but once she became a lobbyist, Jim thought it more prudent to just be friends and see if he could help her that way.
TVGuide.com: That's a shame. Last I saw, he was fresh out of the shower, cozying up to her.
Lennix: Yeah, well, it wasn't my call. I don't think any man in America would make that decision, to say no to Natasha Henstridge. She's tremendous and I hope that territory will be reexamined.
TVGuide.com: Jim often butts heads with Mac's husband, Rod. In real life, which first spouses been known to clash with chiefs of staff? Or is this a special circumstance, being that it's two alpha males?
Lennix: Again, it's a little bit of both. The chief of staff really didn't start until [President] Eisenhower, who kind of created that position, but the one most noticeable incident of a chief of staff clashing with a first lady was Donald Regan, who clashed with Nancy Reagan and he got fired. [Laughs] Nancy Reagan, though, was never given an official position or title [unlike Chief's Rod], so to that extent I think Jim Gardner has a good point. "Who is this guy interrupting the smooth flow of how things should be going? It looks like we have copresidents what's that about?" It makes for interesting story lines.
TVGuide.com: Do you follow real-life politics more closely since starting Commander in Chief?
Lennix: No, I'm from Chicago, so I've always been keenly interested in politics. I'm good friends with Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois.
TVGuide.com: The guy who spoke at last year's Democratic convention? He's exceptionally dynamic.
Lennix: Yeah, he's a rock star. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Playing Ray Charles' longtime manager, Joe Adams, you had some nice front-row seats watching Jamie Foxx create his Oscar-winning portrayal. At the time, did you sense Ray would be something special?
Lennix: We certainly sensed that Jamie was going to deliver something very special it was creepy how he channeled Ray Charles, and simply remarkable to watch but we didn't know how people would respond to it. We were just proud of the story we were telling and how we were telling it.
TVGuide.com: Having played a part in ER's late-1990s HIV-positive Jeannie story line, do you consider that your big break?
Lennix: No, not really. I don't know if I've had a big break yet! [Laughs] I'm still striving and there still are some things I want to accomplish, and it's not easy. [Commander in Chief] is a great thing to do every day, and I couldn't be happier, but I've got to keep my eye on the prize. [I want to] tell relevant stories that are important to the people who need to hear them.
TVGuide.com: To that end, do you have any work lined up for the summer hiatus?
Lennix: I've got some possibilities, stuff that I can't necessarily refer to yet because they're not in stone, but one of them is a play, and there are a couple potential movies if they get greenlit.
TVGuide.com: Is there another actor out there that you come against repeatedly at auditions? Your "arch rival" of sorts?
Lennix: I don't know who my "arch rival" is, or if I even have one. I think at the moment, it seems to be circumstance!