Sam Hennings

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Memphis Beats in the Heart of New Orleans

Sam Hennings has spent a good chunk of the summer working outdoors in the sweltering Louisiana heat while donning a coat, tie and shoulder holster, undeniably bolstering the sweat factor for himself – not that he’s complaining too much about it! The effervescent actor was here to film the second season of Memphis Beat – TNT’s hit series, thanks to its original storyline, which centers on quirky Dwight Hendricks (played by Jason Lee), a detective with an intimate connection with his beloved city of Memphis, a musical passion for the blues and a tight relationship with his mamma. And he’s highly protective of his fellow citizens. Hennings co-stars as Detective Charlie “Whitehead” White, Hendricks’ seasoned, hypertensive and good-guy partner who prefers to keep things old school and work at his own pace, to the chagrin of boss-woman Lt. Tanya Rice (played by Alfre Woodard) and her no-nonsense, by-the-book, den mothering ways. Rife with drama, humor, bluesy music and a cast that brims with chemistry and honors the traditions that make Memphis unique, it’s no wonder Memphis Beat has become a new favorite contender in the genre of cop show television.

Born in Macon, Georgia, and spending much of his childhood in Athens, Georgia, before living in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Hennings’ healthy and illustrious career has included roles in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator with Leonardo DiCaprio, Havoc with Anne Hathaway, Supernatural, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, ER, 24, Star Trek: The Next Generation and a slew of other projects in film, television and stage. Hennings has proven to be a serious natural for Memphis Beat, which is produced by Warner Bros., TNT and Smoke House (George Clooney’s production company) and airs on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. CST in the New Orleans area. New Orleans Living magazine had a great chat with Hennings and discovered that even with its unrelenting and cruel heat, this city is a delight for this cool southern gentleman, and that the future looks pretty bright for a Season 3 of Memphis Beat to be made here next year.

Hey Sam! How are you today?

I’m absolutely terrific! Whenever I get a little time off I’m like a kid at Christmas. … I feel like my parents have left town and I can have a party. By the way I LOVE your city!

Awesome! Tell me what you love about New Orleans.

Absolutely everything that I’ve experienced so far, outside of the heat in June, which gets a little worse in July and a lot worse in August. We were here last year for Season 1, and we started filming in April, none of us knowing what we were headed into. This year we started earlier in March, so we’re beating the heat a little bit this year.

Maybe when Season 3 rolls around y’all can start filming in November.

Well, I had dinner at August here in New Orleans with two of the TNT guys and they’re shooting for maybe sometime in January, even though they haven’t officially given us the thumbs up for Season 3. You know this business that we’re in is kind of like a poker game: Everyone keeps their hands close to their chest so nobody knows what’s going on, you know (Laughs). But anyway, your city is just such a treat to live in, even though I’m only here for five months. I’ve kinda adopted it as my home. I’ve adopted the New Orleans Saints, the Hornets and all that jazz; it’s quite nice. I bought a bicycle and any chance I have to ride, I do. I live by Audubon Park and it’s easy to bike to Whole Foods and La Petite Grocery and all those little funky places that are just great. Magazine Street is my favorite hangout, not that I’ve had a lot of time to hang out, and it’s hard to beat the beauty of these oak trees, old homes, bumpy streets – it gets in your blood.

Yes it does. And with the influx of filming here in the past years, the film industry has discovered other interesting sides of the city they’ve never heard of before, not just the Bourbon Street sort of stuff they’re used to.

I’ve always compared our lives to circus people; these people gather together for months in Madrid, Spain, or New Orleans or wherever to make a movie or a television show. We live, laugh, cry together and all that stuff, then all of a sudden we have to go somewhere else. Fortunately for us, as cloudy as our crystal ball is, it looks like we will be able to come back to New Orleans. It is such a joy to work here; the people are so, so nice and giving in every way. Across the board, we go to restaurants and people tell us, “Hey, if you guys wrap late, here’s our card – we can maybe stay open a little later for you.” People are just so dear and you just don’t find that everywhere.

That’s so nice to hear. You’re from the South too; you easily relate to people here.

Yes! And it’s exactly why I took this project. Clark Johnson – who was the director of our pilot – and I had worked together before, and he told me, “I’m going to send you this pilot and you have to promise me you’ll do it.” At the time it was called Delta Blues and I read it and it was like opening up my family album in regards of what I envisioned I could bring to it from what I love about the South, and that’s the tradition, the character, the work ethic and the commitment to family and community that I don’t think you see in television, because people don’t write for it, you know?

Right. And Memphis Beat does epitomize that Southern cop show sort of thing …

Yes! And Jason (Lee) and I from the get-go committed to each other that we are going to stick to our guns and make this thing work the way we envision it. Thank God we get along so well; we’re like brothers. It’s just like my memory from my childhood, with my grandparents sitting on their front porch saying hello to people as they walk by on sweet little streets like you see all through New Orleans. So when I got here and got my validation as to “Yes! This is exactly what my vision was!” I was like a kid at Christmas. It’s been quite sweet. But regarding the heat, my guy, Whitehead, wears a coat, tie and a shoulder holster and that just adds to the misery (Laughs).

Well, that misery doesn’t reflect over into the show! So what’s going to transpire on Memphis Beat and with Detective Charlie “Whitehead” White this season?

Well, there are all new writers on the show this year. And all 10 of our directors are A-list directors. They wanted to be involved in Memphis Beat and they wanted to come down and hang out in New Orleans and all this stuff, so it brings a whole new level of finished product. And Keb’ Mo’ does our music. Keb’ is just a sweetheart and so well-known and liked down here. They’ve opened up the palate for more jazz and blues music, ’cause last season the show was pretty much bulls-eyed with Elvis Presley, because Dwight, Jason’s character, loved Elvis all his life. They relaxed Dwight’s look; he’s not dressed in just black and he doesn’t just sing Elvis songs, so that brings more color to the bouquet. As far as the characters are concerned, they’re going to show you more about where these people come from and what their lives exist of that they bring to the table when they come to the 7th precinct of Memphis Beat. You’ll see where Whitehead has come from that Dwight was not even aware of; you’re going to see a bit of confrontation and head-butting going on between Lt. Tanya Rice, played by Alfre, and Whitehead, which is just a kick and is so dear, because you find out that these are two people who are really good at their job. The back story is that our station commander had died and they brought in a new one, and Dwight and Whitehead had been pretty much free reign because they were very good at what they did and they did it with kind of a Cowboy style, but this female commander comes in says, “Hey guys, there’s a new sheriff in town, and you’re going to straighten up and all this jazz,” and we were like “What? We don’t need a babysitter.” Whitehead is the old-school coat and tie guy; he’ll humor Rice but most certainly never open the door for her, or if he did it would be with great reluctance! And Sutton comes into my life, which is DJ Qualls, the little skinny guy. He’s brought in reluctantly by me at the suggestion of Dwight for something I need to advance, and Sutton and I have an arc over a few episodes of creating something that’s really funny. I think the hook is set a little deeper in the sense of the charm of these people that make up the 7th precinct at Memphis Beat.

So we’ll get to know the characters and the story on a deeper level this season …

Yes. I’ve always been obsessed with showing the subtleties of a character. We’re all human beings, on this planet together, and no matter who we are, we’re looking for joy and peace in our lives. Issues come up, and I think as storytellers we owe a duty to the audience to show this, because when they see perfect situations on television that are always solved then they reflect on their own lives – “Well, why is my life so screwed up?” And it’s just not true! These young girls today see these airbrushed, slimmed down photos of celebrities they admire and then they try to emulate that – that’s not even who they are. We set up such a train wreck for everybody, so I’ve always said to producers, “Let’s don’t let the audience think this character doesn’t have issues.” The audience is smart; you don’t have to paint everything. Like showing sex on the screen; there are some great movies from the ’40s and ’50s that you just love and you don’t have to see all that. The audience has a brain; you know what they are going to do when they go into a room together and close the door with a candle burning.

Right, probably not studying together for a science exam (Laughs) … It’s so great that you’ve had so many cool opportunities as an actor.

And I’ve enjoyed them all. I’ve gotten to work in Italy, the Philippines, Mexico, St. Martin. I’m still surprised that I’m doing what I love. I feel so privileged to do this, and I don’t mean that arrogantly at all; I mean, thank you God! It’s like a kid at a playground; there are so many toys out there I’m shocked that they’ve asked me to play with them, you know? I’m expecting my mom or dad to say, “Get back to the house” (Laughs)!

What have fans of the show told you they like about your character?

I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback. I was at a fund-raiser in Las Vegas, and I was walking through the casino where this thing was, and I was shocked at how many people hollered out, “Hey Whitehead!” People come up to you and tell you, “Hey man, that show was really cool.” And for some reason people feel that Whitehead is their friend, which is exactly what I wanted. I’ve wanted people to think that Whitehead is who you’d like to have as your best friend, because you can always rely on him, he’ll never lie to you and he’ll do anything in the world for you unless you screw around with him. If you screw around with him, beware! Be careful! Because guess what – there are not many people like that. I want people to think about that and think, “Am I like that? Do I have this integrity?” Because I truly, truly believe that you get back what you put out there.

What do you think sets the cops on Memphis Beat apart from cops you’d find on other cop shows?

They listen, they care. I think the way we’re playing these guys and the way the show is written, there is not just one objective. Going from A to B doesn’t really work. Maybe when you go to your car, perhaps you have to find your keys, the dog gets out, the car battery is dead, Triple AAA comes, and by the time you get to the office, your attitude is tainted by what you just went through. I’m speaking for Jason and I, and I think it’s kind of bled over into everybody else. We try to let you taste a little bit of what we go through. When you see Jason and I on a stakeout, we aren’t talking about the victim or the person we’re watching; we’re talking about the barbecue we had last night, or we might be talking about how Anne Marie – my wife’s name on the show – wants me to paint the house, and then we get interrupted by our mission and go on that mission. I’m hoping that the audience goes, “Yeah, that’s real!” That’s our obligation as actors, to bring some different color to the show, or it’s the same old BS we’ve all been watching. I think of Hill Street Blues, The Rockford Files and Barney Miller. These were shows that were in America’s homes and didn’t give you indigestion. That’s the food that we’re trying to make. I’m hoping that after it’s all said and done, people say, “That’s pretty damn good.”

By Christine Fontana