*He’s been acting for more than 30 years, but Hollywood actor Courtney B. Vance says that his multiple-award-winning performance as Johnnie Cochran in the FX series The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story has opened up a whole new world for him.
Starring opposite global superstar Tom Cruise in Universal Pictures’ highly anticipated release of the action/adventure/horror franchise The Mummy, directed by Alex Kurtzman, Vance appears alongside co-stars Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis, and Jake Johnson. In the role of Army Colonel Greenway, Vance is charged and challenged with keeping Cruise’s character Nick Morton in line. Shot in various locations, including Oxford, Surrey, and London in the United Kingdom, the film wrapped production in Africa. The Mummy opens in U.S. theaters on June 9.
Vance says working with Cruise and the cast has been one of his greatest experiences on set. “Tom Cruise is one of the most wonderful, kind, and generous men that I’ve ever met,” he says. “He took care of us on the set in London. Everybody had organic food, coffees and teas—on the set, we didn’t do the traditional lunch and dinner breaks. During the production, there was continuous shooting, but you’re [also] continuously on a break. So, you can go and get an organic pizza slice or organic juice; healthy and organic food is brought on the set all the time. When we went to Namibia to finish the final month of shooting, [Tom] brought that whole team [catering] out there for the entire time. When your tummy is full—even while shooting for long hours—you feel good.”
Currently featured on Oprah Winfrey’s critically acclaimed HBO movie The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Vance portrays Sir Lord Kennan Kester Cofield, a slick Southern con artist, who perpetrates as a lawyer representing the Lacks family in various legal matters. Directed by Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe, the film is based on Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times’ best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The movie also stars Winfrey, who plays Deborah Lacks, the youngest daughter of Henrietta, and Rose Byrne, who plays Skloot, a journalist and author.
Vance says he was grateful that he had the opportunity to be included in the project. He says he made himself available immediately when he got the call from Wolfe, who directed him and Tom Hanks in the Broadway production of Nora Ephron’s Lucky Guy, for which Vance received a 2013 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play as Hap Hairston.
“When that man calls me, I jump,” Vance says of the famed director. “I said, ‘George, I’m so jammed right now, but when do you need me? Tell me where I’m going.’ I had a day or two to get my stuff together and go down there.”
The story of Henrietta Lacks had a profound effect on Vance. “The movie is devastating, because—once again—this is another situation where black folks were experimented on,” he says. “We’ve heard about it time and time again, The most famous being that Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, which was well-documented, but there are others that people don’t know about.”
“The whole world was operating under the fallacy that people of color were inferior,” Vance continues. “It’s interesting that they were getting the blood from black folks, and found out that these cells—these strong, amazing, immortal cells—were from a poor black woman with five kids. Why weren’t they doing it for white people? If we were so inferior, why take blood from us?”
Vance recalls a particular scene with Winfrey, as Deborah Lacks, becomes distraught after discovering what they did to her mother. “I was destroyed. That scene, on the screen, devastated me,” says Vance. “The abuse that our people have taken for so many years [is devastating]. And when the credits roll, and [the audience] realizes that still—to this day— the family has not been compensated in any way, it’s a double tragedy.”
A devoted husband, father, and son, Vance and his actress wife, Angela Bassett, are both experiencing a well-deserved upsurge in their careers. However, nothing comes before family. The couple’s twins are now 11 years old. The husband-and-wife team work closely to coordinate their work schedules to make sure someone is home to raise and care for them and for Vance’s mother, who is battling Amyotrophic Laterals Sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. For nearly four years, she has been bedridden and receives nursing care around the clock.
“It’s a horrific disease, and we’re blessed that our mother is with us,” says Vance. “She can spend her remaining days with us, surrounded by family, and not in a nursing home. We can see her on a daily basis, and the children can see her and see the cycle of life. It’s a terrible disease where you have no control over your muscles, the main muscle being your diaphragm. So, she has a ventilator that breathes for her, but she’s still got joy. We all have our rhythm with her. Friends come by and spend time, too. So we’re just grateful.”
Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She is a contributor to BlackEnterprise.com, Black Enterprise’s BE Pulse, Huffington Post, EURWEB.com, and Medium.com. Quinn is also a contributor to Souls Revealed and Handle Your Entertainment Business.