Louis Gossett Jr. Interview by Josefa Salinas
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to present an interview with Oscar and Emmy Award–winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr. Louis is well known for his Academy Award–winning role as Gunnery Sergeant Foley in the film An Officer and a Gentleman. He received an Emmy Award as Fiddler in the ABC television miniseries Roots and a Golden Globe for HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story. Louis’ acting career spans over five decades in numerous films, television shows, and plays. As a voice actor, he can be heard in the video game Half-Life 2, in The Batman animated series, commercials, TV specials, and audiobooks, including Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup. Louis is also an author and has established the Erascism Foundation, a nonprofit organization that combats all forms of racism. Conducting the interview is Josefa Salinas, an on-air personality, community affairs director for Clear Channel in Los Angeles, CEO of Crystal Dragon Entertainment, and founder of Heritage Begins Within. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of Twelve Years a Slave on June 1, 2013.
JOSEFA SALINAS: Welcome Lou. Thanks so much for coming down today for this Downpour interview. It is so good to have you here.
LOUIS GOSSETT, JR.: It’s a blessing to be anywhere, but I love being here. The weather is good and you’re beautiful and we’re going to talk about a relevant subject.
JS: A relevant subject and an incredible, incredible book, Twelve Years a Slave. This autobiography happened back in the 1800s, and yet is still so relevant today. It talks about the kidnapping and the twelve-year bondage of Solomon Northup.
JS: He was a free man of color.
JS: It originally was published in 1853, and it was so impactful on the national debate about slavery and that whole time it led up to the Civil War and kind of moved public opinion in favor of abolition.
JS: So when you saw this project, what was your first instinct and why did you want to become involved?
LG: Well, of course I wanted to be involved in any possible way I could. I was very flattered that they asked me to do the audio part because that’s brand-new for me, the audiobook. Brand-new career. You don’t just say the words of a book for the audiobooks now. You have to act it. So it’s a story that I know intimately. It’s amazing how stories that were done in the 1800s and early 1900s, for certain purposes, are more relevant today. Although it started the abolitionist movement, we have a kind of pseudo-abolitionist movement today. It’s finally the last threshold if you want to call it that.
LG: That’ll go over the last hurdle until we get together. That’s the last house on the block. It’s very exciting to be alive and be participating in mankind at this particular time.
JS: It’s almost like it’s come full circle. You know how they say that history does repeat itself.
LG: Yes it does.
JS: So we’re kind of repeating some social movements and some social feeling. Maybe we just didn’t get it quite finished then, and now it’s up to us to carry the torch and take it to the finish line.
LG: Yes, and every level as you grow, you get tested with the same story. Let’s see how you’re going to do it now you’re on this level. Let’s see how you’re going to react this time. It’s basically like Richard Pryor’s dog here: “I’m gonna be chasing you again tomorrow.” (laughter) It’s the same story.
JS: Let’s talk about your Eracism Foundation. It kind of focuses on a very similar topic of planting the seeds of social tolerance with children and eliminating the stigma of racism.
JS: So talk to me about how you started the foundation and the relevancy when you see stories like this and see and hear what’s going on in society. How can you pull that all together with the Eracism Foundation?
LG: Well, if you look at it and you put yourself as a subject. I put myself as a subject. This is my sixtieth professional year. I can’t compare with anyone else, but you can look at your experiences and you react a certain way as a result of climbing a mountain and being totally successful and then getting pats on the back by your agents and your friends. And then going to the next level and the next. But the one constant is the difference between the colors of where I come from and of the people that I work for and with. It was more than subtle sometimes, even if friends were of another color. So it’s that old joke: What do you call the President of the United States today? Maybe a little bit of the n-word is still there. It’s because, only there’s no villain in the story, that’s just the way it’s been for centuries. That’s the way it’s been for generations. My foundation is established to look at that and stop it maybe in the next generation by having this center called the Shamba Center where that shadow is not there, and we are sensitive to one another’s cultures and one another’s colors of skin. We start at a young age, the way we used to before you hit the door of the house. That’s where the buck stops. And I think it’s effective when you get all these kids in one place and play these games and get these lectures and these documentaries about one another’s culture, so we’re aware of one another, the way I was when I was a child. By the time you get to that voting age, it’s just not there. Children have to be taught. We have to promise not to put any of our poisons in the next generation and make any more chaos for the planet while we’re alive, and be of service to one another and to our children. It seems like an important move and maybe more important than we realize as we’re getting this attention from people who want to say it’s about time somebody had something like this. Seems necessary.
JS: Seems very necessary, and I understand that you’re going to be giving back a portion of the proceeds from the book sales. If they go to Downpour.com and put in the keyword “Lou,” they’ll actually make a donation. And 100 percent of that’s going to your foundation.
LG: To the Eracism Foundation. That’s the EracismFoundation.org. I guess the other personal assumption that I made is I was not going to go to South Africa until Nelson Mandela came out of Robben Island. So we got fortunate enough to produce the first free film after Nelson Mandela came out, called Inside. So I’m fortunate enough to spend maybe twenty-five minutes alone in a room with him. Of course, I was tongue-tied.
JS: Of course.
LG: He wasn’t tongue-tied; he was just resting. Waiting for a time to get up and speak. Finally, I summoned up the courage and said, “Everyone was waiting for you to come out quite angry after what had been done to you.” He started to smile. I said: “Everybody was ready. Their suitcases were packed, and they were ready to see because a lot of things happened to you.” He looked at me and said, “There is a bigger picture.” And the bigger picture of course is the way South Africa is today. So it behooves me to go in that direction no matter what has happened to me or my people here in America. There is a bigger picture and the bigger picture is the elimination of that racism and that mentality. It has to do not just with color, but the way we treat women, the way we treat one another, the way we treat one ethnic group, where there’s no superiority. There’s no automatic assumption of superiority. And the world is telling us we really desperately need one another in order for our salvation. So we painted ourselves into a corner. It’s either/or. We’re gonna drop a bomb, or we’re gonna save the planet. Which is which?
JS: I vote for save the planet.
LG: I think everybody else would when it comes to that, but a lot of people don’t realize this. We’re having a war on our Earth these days, in Boston and Newtown and in different places. Surprising some people, but it’s been coming to that for a while.
JS: So what do you hope people get when they listen to this book? Because an audiobook is such a personal experience. It’s not like reading. You’re actually being told the story. What do you hope they get when they get done with this book?
LG: I hope they come back with the essence, no matter the century and the time of this story. It could be Rwanda. There’s some beautiful stories like that in Rwanda and of course in South Africa and in Paris, in England, here in America. The fact that there was a soul who was sensitive enough to rescue this man who needed to be rescued, who was sensitive enough to write this note, to understand the dynamic of slavery, to write this down on a piece of paper and get out there and tell this story. Those are the miracles of mankind. And they’re all over the place. You hear stories of people who have been imprisoned unjustifiably for thirty, forty years, and they come out.
JS: There’s lots of those now.
LG: There’s something about mankind which we should all be very proud of. We make an adjustment when we need to. During that Boston Marathon, people who didn’t think they could run and walk rolled their sleeves up to save people. They didn’t even know they had that in them. We have to celebrate mankind’s positive qualities and this Twelve Years a Slave is the resourcefulness of Solomon Northup, never to adopt or adapt the mentality of slavery. To be an observant and go through that experience and the man who rescued him is a testimony to mankind, and I’m glad they unearthed this story so that we can see it on a feature film and listen to it in a book. It’s a very important piece.
JS: Now you have won Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, so many awards and are considered probably one of the most coveted and revered African American actors. Anytime I say your name, no matter where I am, no matter what group I’m in front of, when I say Louis Gossett, Jr., people automatically say, “Oh, that’s an amazing man.” So you have the ability, because people feel that way about you, to truly say something and people will listen.
JS: What will the Eracism Foundation and you say as you step out into this next venture in your life?
LG: There really is no such thing as impossible. Our dreams are closer than we think. We’re the only ones in the way of our growth and our progress. Our fears limit our growth. Our faith makes it unlimited. God’s miracles are all over the place. We can’t create them. We just have to cooperate.
JS: Talk to me about An Actor and a Gentleman, your book. What a book. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration of the book and why you wrote it.
LG: Well, I had gone through a lot of experiences—positive and negative, marriages. I’d suffered from things of racism in the industry. That’s the level of people, and after I broke some walls down right after Sidney Poitier. Sidney Poitier was really protected by Stanley Kramer so they couldn’t get to him. Harry Belafonte split with his wife and went to New York and became a calypso singer. So here I come. Open, hippy, coming out of New York with a wonderful society, with the Barbara Streisands and Steve McQueens. And as soon as I got off the plane it was a different planet out here in Los Angeles. It was like LA Confidential. That’s the way it was out here, and they were not prepared for a free African American man to act completely evolved because that’s the way we acted in New York. Then I thought, “I better write about this.” You know, get these poisons out of my system. Otherwise, I’m going to die being angry and resentful. So a lot of things happened to me because I expressed myself. But if you win an Oscar and an Emmy and a Golden Globe and a People’s Choice, and you connect yourself with all those wonderful people, and you say or do the wrong thing for a half hour or for a day, and they point their finger at you and say, “You’ll never work in this town again,” something’s wrong with the picture. So I was getting a little resentful about that and in order to get that out of my system I had to learn my lessons and grow up. Now today, I will speak the way I want to, the way I feel from the bottom of my soul, out. It’s a saying, “Say what you mean but don’t say it mean.”
JS: Ah, there you go.
LG: The truth is the truth, regardless. And all of a sudden these young people are interested in what I have to say now. They get a lot of camouflage words from here to there for different agendas and this is a pure agenda. So I think it’s my life’s work at this age to be a mentor, and I encourage others of this age and slightly younger to also be mentors, to clear up the things that block their sunlight of the spirit, and pass that wonderful information on to the next generation. They’re all ears, by the way.
JS: Oh, yes they are. And just so hungry.
JS: Hungry for information, hungry to connect.
JS: With the generations above them. There’s been a disconnect for too long.
LG: Absolutely. There’s a natural connection, a natural reconnection you could call it. But if you don’t, you’re going to get what you get.
JS: Now when you look back at your childhood, who were your biggest influences that you could look back and say, “That person helped shape me become who I was”?
LG: My great-grandmama. Grandma Bertha Rae. She had to be a slave. And I speak about her in the book and when I speak. The Bible didn’t start until the slaves were freed, and her birth was not recorded in the Bible. And I remember her. I remember her taking care of some fifteen to twenty of me and my cousins. Her and her daughters, my grandparents and great aunts, all the women who were old enough—too old to work at a regular place—they took care of the kids. Everybody else had to work—maids, butlers, chauffeurs, porters, and sometimes two to three jobs apiece—and she was the matriarch on top of all of that. And so during the crisis of polio and whooping cough, we didn’t get it because she went out and got something in the backyard and rubbed it on the chest with the flannel or took a yam and put it in a sock. And the yam looked bad in the morning, but we didn’t feel bad.
LG: She took care of us with her hands. She loved us. She punished us. She did the whole thing. She’s a very strong influence, even today. Grandma Rae. So when she died she had to be approximately 112 years old. More or less.
JS: More or less, right.
LG: You didn’t know. The reason why she died is my youngest cousin got married and went to Long Island to live with his family and there were no known kids. So she took a deep breath, she sneezed, and she went to bed. And she didn’t wake up the next day. No trauma. But she’s on my shoulder. I’ll never forget her. She taught us, taught me properly. Whenever I make a mistake is when I forget what she taught me. So I want to be like her, for what it’s worth, for anybody who’s listening, there’s certain lessons we have to learn and school is never out.
JS: This is so true. Especially the school of life.
LG: Oh, it’s never out.
JS: It’s never out.
LG: When you hit a certain thing that’s a problem and you improve, or you go around the next time, you’re going to face that problem again. On another level. And another one again and again and again to see if you’re still on board.
JS: Now the book Twelve Years a Slave’s is going to be an incredible movie. I think it’s the third most anticipated movie of the year, coming out later this fall. But right now, people can listen to the audiobook. When they pick it up, when they hear it, when they have it on their Kindle or their iPad or their phone, or whatever they have, what do you want them to walk away with?
JS: What do you hope you have left in the sound of that book for them to take away?
LG: An indelible story. I want them to walk away with an indelible story, a true story of mankind and his indomitable spirit. It’s a great American story. But now, when you’re driving, please keep your eyes on the road when you’re listening to the book, because it can get emotional.
JS: Very good.
JS: Well, again, if they go ahead and buy the audiobook and use the codeword “Lou,” they will be donating to the Eracism Foundation. Congratulations on where that foundation is going.
JS: We so look forward to hearing more about it.
LG: And I thank you all in advance. Thank you.
JS: So thanks for being with us. The audiobook release of Twelve Years a Slave, narrated by Lou Gossett, Jr.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview of Louis Gossett, Jr. by Josefa Salinas. You can find Twelve Years a Slave and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in April 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Twelve Years a Slave
In this riveting landmark autobiography that reads like a novel, Academy Award and Emmy winner Louis Gossett, Jr., masterfully transports us to 1840s New York, Louisiana, and Washington, DC, to experience the kidnapping and twelve-year bondage of Solomon Northup, a free man of color. Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, was an immediate bombshell in the national debate over slavery leading up to the Civil War. It validated Harriett Beecher Stowe’s fictional account of Southern slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had become the best-selling American book in history a few years earlier, and significantly changed public opinion in favor of abolition. A major motion picture based on the book and starring Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, and Michael Fassbender released in 2013.
Hard working Solomon Northup, an educated free man of color in 1841, enjoys family life with his wife and three children in Saratoga, New York. He delights his community with his fiddle playing and antic spirit and has positive expectations of everyone he meets. When he is deceived by “circus promoters” who ask him to accompany them to a musical gig in Washington, DC, his joyful life takes an unimaginable turn. He awakes in shackles to find he has been drugged, kidnapped, and bound for the slave block in the nation’s capital.
After Solomon is shipped a thousand miles to New Orleans, he is assigned his slave name and quickly learns that the mere utterance of his true origin or rights as a freeman are certain to bring severe punishment, maybe even death. While he endures the brutal life of a slave in Louisiana’s isolated Bayou Boeuf plantation country, he must learn how to play the system and plot his escape home.
For twelve years, his fine mind captures the reality of slavery in stunning detail, and listeners learn about the characters that populated plantation society and the intrigues of the bayou—from the collapse of a slave rebellion resulting in mass hangings due to traitorous slave Lew Cheney to the tragic abuse of his friend Patsey, brought about by Mrs. Epps’ jealousy of her husband’s sexual exploitation of the pretty young slave.
When Solomon finally finds a sympathizing friend who risks his life to secret a letter to the North, a courageous rescue attempt ensues that could either compound Solomon’s suffering or get him back to the arms of his family.
“[Screenwriter John] Ridley said he decided simply to stick with the facts in adapting Northup’s book for the film…[and] he was helped by voluminous footnotes and documentation that were included with Dr. Eakin’s edition of the book.”—New York Times (September 22, 2013) on the making of the film 12 Years a Slave