As a child in Alabama, André Holland was attracted to storytellers. “My grandfather was a preacher, so I grew up hearing his stories and watching his performance,” says the 36-year-old actor. “I was also always around a lot of old-school Southern storytellers, so telling stories was important to me. But I didn’t realize it was something you could do for a career.”
It is, and he has. After standout performances in “42” and “Sugar,” Holland broke through with his blistering turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Cinemax drama “The Knick,” in which he played Dr. Algernon Edwards, a brilliant physician fighting for respect at the turn of the century. It was his work on that show that paved the way for his current high-profile projects. He’s now appearing on season six of FX’s “American Horror Story: Roanoke” as a loving husband who moves into a dangerous home with a past. And come Oct. 21, he’ll be seen on the big screen in “Moonlight,” the festival hit that focuses on three pivotal time periods in the life of a young, gay black man in Miami.
After falling in love with acting while an undergrad at Florida State University, Holland attended grad school at New York University. He imagined his career would be limited to the stage.
“The dream was to travel the world doing the classic plays,” says the actor, who still resides primarily in New York, where he can stay close to the theater scene. “Part of that was because there weren’t a ton of examples of people who looked like me who had those film careers, so it just felt too far away. But then I began to take film classes and meet filmmakers, and it became more of a reality. And a challenge — like, why can’t I do this?”
It was his first feature — 2008’s “Sugar,” about Dominican baseball pitcher Miguel de los Santos — that allowed Holland to believe he may have a future in film. After a couple of auditions, Holland had yet to land the role of ballplayer Brad Johnson, so he took it upon himself to fly to the Dominican Republic to meet with directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. He ended up testing opposite Algenis Perez Soto — the actor who ultimately landed the role of de los Santos — and got the part of Johnson.
Seeing himself on the big screen was a pivotal experience. “I could have done better, but I also didn’t look like a troll,” Holland jokes. “I thought, OK, I can do this. Now I just have to work at making it even better.”
Supporting roles followed, including a turn as sportswriter Wendell Smith in “42” that caught the eye of Soderbergh’s producing partner Gregory Jacobs. Holland put himself on tape for “The Knick,” though he had no idea how prominent the role of Dr. Edwards would turn out to be.
“In the first episode, there wasn’t a lot on the page. But I had a sense he would be an integral character,” Holland says.
In addition to working with Soderbergh, Holland was thrilled to be starring opposite Clive Owen, an actor he had long admired. “I should have been more intimidated, but Clive instantly put me at ease. He’s a gentleman and a great actor and a wonderful scene partner,” says Holland. The two became friends. “I owe him so much. He’s been a huge ally and friend to me.”
Their on-screen chemistry is also obvious. “Firstly, he’s a great actor,” says Owen. “We also have similar sensibilities in that we prepare thoroughly and are both aware that playing a scene is the most important thing and not two actors ‘doing their thing.’ I loved working with him. I have a huge amount of respect for him as both an actor and as a guy.”
While rumors have swirled about a third season of the show, which last aired in early 2016, Holland has heard nothing official. “I really miss playing the guy,” he says. “Of all the things I’ve done, it ranks up there as one of the most complex and interesting.”
“The Knick” wasn’t a ratings sensation, but it has passionate fans, including Barry Jenkins, writer/director of “Moonlight.” He came across “The Knick” while writing his screenplay and was drawn to Holland. He was thinking about the character of Kevin, who in the third segment of “Moonlight” is a cook who reaches out to the lead character of Chiron, with whom he shares a complicated past.
“Right away, there was something magnetic and charming about him,” Jenkins says of Holland. “And I said, ‘We need that for Kevin.’”
But even before that, Holland had a long history with the character. The film is based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who he had known for years.
“I’ve done probably six of his plays in the last seven to eight years,” Holland says. “We’ve been close collaborators, and the world he writes about is very familiar to me, even though he’s from Miami and I’m from Alabama.”
Jenkins didn’t know of this connection when Holland auditioned for the part. In fact, the director regrets that the actor auditioned at all. “I feel I should apologize to him until the day I die, because I should have been on my knees begging him to be in the film,” Jenkins reveals. “But he put himself on tape for the part. He said he wanted to audition.”
Holland simply wasn’t taking any chances after reading Jenkins’ script. “It made my mouth water to read it,” he recalls. “There was no way I was going to let this go or leave any doubt.”
There was none. Jenkins says Holland brought qualities to the character even he didn’t imagine. “There’s a gesture he makes when he brings out a photo of his son, and it wasn’t in the script,” Jenkins recalls. “It was a small thing but showed how he manifested this character. He’s a trained actor, so he’s very skilled and technical, but he’s also empathic. Most actors use one kind of language — he speaks both.”
When Jenkins learned of Holland’s friendship with McCraney, he was thrilled. “In addition to being amazing, he brought a history of Terrell’s prior work,” says the director. “It was important for me to keep Terrell’s voice on set, and André was the physical embodiment of that.”
Audiences eager to catch Holland’s work can tide themselves over with the current season of “American Horror Story.” The actor scored that role because “AHS” creator Ryan Murphy is a fan of “The Knick.” One hitch: Holland couldn’t tell anyone, even his family and friends, that he was doing the FX show.
“I’m good at keeping secrets,” Holland says. “You can tell me anything.”
In “American Horror Story,” Holland plays a man recounting his tale, documentary-style, to the camera; he is played in re-enactments in the show-within-the-show by Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr.
“Cuba and I had met each other before filming; we ran into each other around town,” Holland recalls. “But we were all sworn to secrecy. We kind of gave each other a knowing look, like, ‘See you soon!’”
Up next, Holland will return to the stage in August Wilson’s “Jitney,” in its first Broadway production, which begins previews in January. He’ll play Youngblood in the production, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.
After that, he’s unsure. “There are a few things I’m looking at for the spring,” he says. “So hopefully these current projects will open some doors.”
They likely will, for him and for other actors of color. Holland says that attending this year’s Toronto Film Festival with “Moonlight,” he was thrilled to see films representing a diverse swath of people. “It feels like the tide is turning, and we have to keep making stuff and keep the pressure on,” he says. “But it definitely feels like things are moving in the right direction.”