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Insight Hollywood

Won’t Back Down’s Lance Reddick has something to say, on- and off-screen.

Oct 15, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 05 • By KELLY JANE TORRANCE
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Halfway through what feels like the usual interview with a Hollywood entertainer in town to promote a new work, I’m stopped short. 

HBO

Lance Reddick on 'The Wire" (second from left)

HBO

Lance Reddick had discussed the television work that made his name—roles on the gritty HBO series Oz and The Wire, then the mind-bending cable shows Lost and Fringe—and his longstanding desire to move into film. He noted, like many actors before him, that he became a producer to create the parts no one was asking him to play. Then, explaining why he thought his latest movie so meaningful that he accepted a modest role in it, Reddick mentions Aristotle. 

I can assure you that Hollywood actors don’t typically cite Greek philosophers. Lance Reddick is not your typical actor. But then, Won’t Back Down, which stars the Oscar-nominated actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as a parent and teacher trying to wrest control of their failing elementary school from an unconcerned bureaucracy, isn’t your typical feature film, either.

For example, movie critics don’t ordinarily find themselves targets of a propaganda campaign. But this reviewer received multiple emails from interest groups attacking Won’t Back Down in the weeks before its release. The president of the American Federation of Teachers wrote that “the film contains several egregiously misleading scenes with the sole purpose of undermining people’s confidence in public education, public school teachers and teachers unions.” And the Center for Media and Democracy warned: “The emotionally engaging Hollywood film Won’t Back Down [promotes education reform supported by] two controversial right-wing organ-izations: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Heartland Institute.”

It is, indeed, emotionally engaging: This gripping drama presents an unflinching portrait of the sad reality of American public education. More gratifying is that it suggests, with the help of its skilled cast, how unlucky children might be offered a happier fate.

Won’t Back Down has provoked the sort of protests normally reserved for religious dramas directed by Mel Gibson. Twentieth Century Fox screened it at both political conventions, sparking a demonstration at the Democratic gathering in Charlotte. The New York premiere last month featured protesters carrying signs reading, “Won’t Back Down, get out of town.”

Lance Reddick, talking to me before the film hit theaters, wryly predicts that it will “get people talking.” But, he adds, “At the end of the day, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. I don’t know that one film is going to change things.” Spending resources in an election year to influence movie critics signals that the nation’s largest teachers’ union thinks it could, and Reddick admits he holds out hope it will. That’s why he signed on: “The way the system is set up now is not working.” 

Reddick, who struggled as a young actor to get his own daughter out of public schools, is proud to play a part in Won’t Back Down. “I thought it was an important film,” he says. “Because of how controversial the subject was and the head-on attacks, I was surprised that it was getting made.” Reddick plays the husband of Viola Davis’s teacher, who is worn down by the system but is finally inspired to fight it. “I’ll be honest with you: I did question whether I wanted to do the role, because it felt so peripheral.”

But it was Aristotle who persuaded him. Reddick believes that film and television can change hearts and minds. “You can kind of trick people,” he says. “Like Aristotle said, you can entertain and instruct.”

Reddick has an impressive pedigree: The 49-year-old son of Baltimore teachers, he studied music composition at Peabody and Eastman and drama at Yale. “I wanted to major in philosophy, but I was afraid I wasn’t smart enough,” he says. He was exposed to Aristotle outside the classroom: “I stumbled upon Ayn Rand when I was 18 and she changed my life.”

Like Paul Ryan, Reddick is quick to note that he doesn’t agree with everything the author of Atlas Shrugged wrote, but her obsession with Aristotle stuck with him. “I don’t want to go off on a tangent about her stuff,” he says, but her “Romantic Manifesto completely changed my idea about aesthetics. .  .  . One thing Ayn Rand was trying to say over and over again was learn to think for yourself. And trust what you think. It’s part of what gave me the courage to finally leave music school and say I don’t want to be a classical composer.”

Reddick doesn’t seem to have mentioned his affinity for Ayn Rand in earlier interviews. Have I found a rare conservative—or at any rate, a libertarian—in Hollywood?

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