Exclusive: Ernie Hudson on his favorite roles, Twin Peaks and how Ghostbusters didn't change his life

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Apr 24, 2017, 6:30 PM EDT

Ernie Hudson is a prime example of the importance of journeyman actors. They're the performers that have never reached the Clooney or Streep levels of fame, wealth or recognition, but damn if they don't make just about everything they're in that much better.

For more than 40 years, Hudson has been practicing his craft from back in his MFA days at the Yale School of Drama to current roles in the television series APB, Grace and Frankie, and Graves. At 72, there's no retirement in sight, just refinement in his choices these days. Hudson's embodied a triple-digit number of characters, yet he's still looking for that one role that's going to stretch and challenge him like no other.

In a recent exclusive interview, we sat down over tea with Mr. Hudson to talk about what motivates him most, some of his favorite roles and the realities of being a working actor for four decades.

Back in the day when you established the Actors' Ensemble Theatre, writing looked like it was going to be your career path. Why do you think you pivoted into acting instead?

I guess it was never really me. I always imagined, especially at that time, that I had the choice. But the truth of the matter, as I get old, I think maybe it wasn't a choice. A lot of things I think I could have done, and you know what? You can't. (Laughs) I couldn't have known that at the time. I think I'm doing exactly what I need to be doing.

You have an M.F.A from the Yale School of Drama, which many would assume was preparing you for a life on stage, but that's not the case?

I did a lot of theatre when I was in college. I never really identified with theatre actors. I did a play on Broadway a few years back and I love the work, but I don't necessarily feel a part of that community. No disrespect. It's just not me. As I get older, I realize it's more about my enjoying and feeling good about who I am and what I do. If not, then why am I doing it? And I'm taking the time to be here. I'm where I need to be.

After 40 years as a professional actor, what's the criteria now for what's worth your time?

I've been working a long time and I still feel it's finding that role that gives me a chance to bring everything I have to the part. I work a lot, but not a lot demands a lot of me. There are always three reasons [to take a role]. One, a lot of money. I've never been offered so much money that I'm just doing it for the money. Then there's the part itself. And then the project and the people. I might not get paid as much, but that's okay if I like the idea of working with someone. But at this stage in my life, it's really about is this character really worth me investing my time, because we have a limited amount of time. I've become more aware of that after losing a number of friends last year. This ain't forever and you need to value even a day.

Right now, you're playing Ned Conrad on the cop drama, APB. What about it feels worthy?

I love this show, APB. I wasn't sure where the character was going as I was going into it, but as we've moved forward into the series, it's a lot of fun. It gives me a sense of being fulfilled because sometimes I've done things where it's been just the opposite. (Laughs)

I'm actually loving your role as Jacob, the dependable suitor to Lily Tomlin's neurotic Frankie in Grace and Frankie. How's it playing with those two grande dames of Hollywood?

I did a Bosom Buddies years ago with Tom Hanks. I love him and I always thought I want to do the things that Tom does because I always saw myself as the guy next door. But I don't think people see me as the guy living next door to them. (Laughs) I've become sort of this authority figure, in general. So I just like being a guy and not having to be this extraordinary head of something. What I love about Grace and Frankie is that I'm working with people at the top of their game. I just show up and try to be honest. I wasn't sure how it would go playing Lily's boyfriend but I met her and I just be there and enjoy.

He's certainly a different sort of character on your resume these days.

Yes, I do this series called Graves and I'm still trying to figure this guy out who is a political fixer. He always has to be maneuvering, compromising and cleaning up things so it's a very different head space. My character on ABP has to make sure that things don't get out of control and he is where the buck will stop. But with Grace and Frankie, I just gotta be there and love. He did well in life so he's not hurting for money. For him, it's just about him loving who he loves.

Do you feel like you've been able to play the breadth of characters you've wanted in your career?

Sometimes you don't get a chance to express yourself in characters that you want. For me, it's been very difficult. If you become a big star, they maybe tailor things for you but I'm still a guy getting things off the rack. (Laugh)

Which ones stand out to you then?

There are a few. The valued roles everyone wants, but it's about getting people to see you a certain way. I remember when I did The Hand That Rocks the Cradle - which I loved - after Ghostbusters, it was very difficult to get people to see that I can be a guy who is vulnerable and has warmth. So that was an important role for me, and I had so much fun doing it because it wasn't in conflict with any other character. Sometimes you are in a show and the leading guy has to be the macho guy or the lover, so it's maneuvering to make sure that happens instead of letting it happen naturally. And then in trying to make it happen, I'd get pushed to the side. (Laughs) Early on I would have to reassure everybody that I wasn't here to steal a scene.

Do you have fond memories of The Crow?

I loved The Crow and Sergeant Albrecht. I loved Brandon [Lee]. I feel about him like I do about Justin Kirk on APB. They are just good, good people and it comes through in their work. I'm so glad I got to do that role. I haven't seen it in a long time.

What else stands out?

I loved the character in Congo because it was something that I hadn't had the chance to do, to be the guy who leads the safari. It was just straight up fun. And Sugar Hill didn't do a lot of business. It was with Wesley Snipes but it was nice to play a full-out bad person.

Can you say there was a role that ended up being the biggest door opener for you?

Honestly, I kept hoping. When I did Ghostbusters, I kept thinking when this movie comes out. As actors, we do that a lot. But there hasn't been, at least in my mind, any door opener. Every time I think it's going to open, it doesn't open. From my position, I'm looking at the other guys like the Sam Jacksons and the Denzels and think that's the role. But I've been blessed to work. But fans come up now, which is a little surprising, and they say they admire my choices in roles. I go, "I didn't have a lot of choices, man. This was the only thing on the table." I go do it and do the best I can. But now maybe it's accumulated, so I'll be at the airport or other places where they mention something I honestly have forgotten.

With the new Ghostbusters last year, is it surreal to see your own resume getting recycled by Hollywood and earning cameo status?

Yes. Someone sent me a clip of one of the animated shows and a guy says his wife is going through "the change" so she's getting a mustache and it's like kissing Ernie Hudson. (Laughs) I always find that a little odd when my name pops up on shows, like Hot in Cleveland used to mention me until I did an episode. So I see the work has made an impression but because I haven't had that "big thing," I always feel like I'm just starting out.

Do you still feel compelled to play the Hollywood game of getting yourself out there?

I was invited to do a lot of parties and such but I'm not going there so someone can see me. Whatever that's about, I'm not doing that anymore. I can't. It's about the work and if it's not the work, then it's about my life.

Coming up this year, you are playing a character in the new Twin Peaks revival. How was it working with David Lynch?

It was great! He gave me a great compliment about some of the work that I did that he announced to the crew. There are some people you really admire and really want to play with.

Did you seek a role in it?

It came out of nowhere! I just wanted to work on it. They said I couldn't talk about it but then they announced in the trades that I'm in it. (Laughs) It was fun and they said I couldn't tell but I was on it and I still don't know what I'm doing so there's nothing to tell. (Laughs)

You've been frank over the years about Ghostbusters not being the experience for you that it was for fans. How do you feel about it now?

It's certainly been a bit of love/hate but now it's at the place of just love. I've got nothing but love for it. It didn't change my life like I hoped. Until then, I thought as an actor the thing was to get into a major feature film from a major studio and when it comes out, the world will change. And the world didn't change in any way I expected it to change. But it's lasted for over 30 years. The fans are amazing. I don't understand it. (Laughs) But I appreciate it, and I appreciate them. I don't think there is a day when I'm in public somebody won't come up and mention it. And as I said, I don't quite understand it because I'm not a fan of anyone that way. But I appreciate that people are, and it's from the spectrum: young, old, you name it.

With last year's take on the franchise now less of a lightning rod, any thoughts on the end result?

I was really happy they were going to do something more with the franchise because fans were waiting a long time. I saw the movie, and was in the movie, and thought it was very entertaining. In hindsight, I had hoped they would have done 30 years later so we could have made those cameos as the [original] characters as opposed to way they were done.

In 2017, is there a type of project or role that Ernie Hudson still wants to make or put into the world?

Yeah, I was looking at the movie Lion, set in India. Most of these movies about almost every part of the world, you see the struggles people go through but the humanity. But it seems to me only when it comes to Africa, you lose the humanity. People are so crazy and so extreme. I would just love to tell a story, or be part of a story, about the African American experience that wasn't so rooted in the violence. I have lived my life and it hasn't been a part of my life. Not taking anything away from it, I saw Precious and I think people see that as the reality of the total and that's how "they" are. I hope to find roles where the character has struggles but also their humanity.

How about your writing? Is that back in your life again?

With writing, I've stopped beating myself up about it. I had to let that go. But I'd like to focus on it a little more and get back to it. The nice thing now is not to make everything so important. (Laughs)