Most of the time, taking a role is a matter or business for actor Lance Reddick. The tall, otherworldy man has come into his own in such TV shows as Fringe and Lost, and especially critic-darling The Wire. He does steady work in Hollywood and has earned the right to consider a part with an eye to if he wants to play the character and how it will build his career.
Won’t Back Down, a story of parents fighting to save a failing school, was personal.
Reddick’s life wasn’t always Hollywood glamour and big roles.
Back in the days before The Wire, Reddick was just another struggling actor and musician living in Baltimore, raising a son and a daughter with his wife. The schools where they lived were failing. They couldn’t afford to move into the ritzy school districts, nor could they afford private school.
He had grown up in Baltimore. The son of two teachers, although his father later became a lawyer and public defender, Reddick was raised with an appreciation for education. However, his mother, who taught music in the public schools, knew the schools too well to send him there. He attended the Friends School of Baltimore and went on to study music at the Eastman School of Music and drama at Yale.
So when it was time for his daughter to go to junior high, Reddick dutifully filled out the financial aid forms for a private school, he told me when we sat down recently in DC. The process was complicated, they missed deadlines, and their application was refused. He kept calling, he kept trying. Eventually the school stopped taking his calls.
“It killed me to have to send her to the local junior high,” Reddick said.
She was lucky to have a father who cared. In fact, when Reddick landed a dream role in a Broadway play, he commuted three hours a day until he could move the family to a home in a good New York school district rather than move in to an easier but less academic district.
His story has a happy ending. He was able to get son and daughter into specialty high schools where academic success was expected and both went on to college.
“But I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t made it in,” he said.
In Won’t Back Down, Reddick plays the husband to Viola Davis’s Nona. Nona and Charles moved to a failing district full of big dreams of making a difference. Nona still teaches at the local elementary, but life and an uncaring system have almost extinguished the fire inside of her. When single mother Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal) approaches her with a hairbrained idea to take over the failing school, Nona cannot imagine anything changing. But for both Nona and Jamie, their children are trapped in the school. Private schools are out of their reach. Precious slots in a functional school go to someone else in an excruciating lottery.
It’s make the school succeed or fail their children.
Anyone who is a parent knows that there is really no choice there.
So when Reddick was approached about playing the supporting part, he had some qualms. He usually likes bigger roles. But the quality of the script and the subject matter won him over.
Not that it’s easy. In the movie, as in real-life controversies about schools, the teachers’ unions take a lot of heat for protecting teacher benefits over kids’ success.
This portrayal makes Reddick a bit uncomfortable.
“Look, I am able to make a living because I’m in a union,” he said, referring to the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG-AFTRA) that negotiates for actors’ pay scales and working conditions.
Still, something has to change, he says. As a son of Baltimore and a black man, it makes him angry that so many failing schools are in African-American communities. It’s not just an ethnic issue, he says, but it certainly has ethnic overtones.
Most of all, he hopes the movie will inspire people to hope again, to believe the system can be changed. After all, the kids being left behind can’t wait.