When Harry Lennix first signed up to appear in Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman film “Man of Steel,” he thought he was playing General Swanwick, the U.S. military’s primary point of contact with Henry Cavill’s Kryptonian superhero. In Snyder’s follow-up, 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Lennix returned as Swanwick, who’d been promoted to Secretary of Defense.
It wasn’t until Oct. 2019, however, that Lennix learned Snyder’s real intention was to reveal in 2017’s “Justice League” that Swanwick was actually J’onn J’onzz, a.k.a. the fan-favorite DC superhero — and eventual Justice League member — known as the Martian Manhunter. In the comics, J’onn is the last surviving member of his species; his abilities to change his appearance (normally, he’s green, bald, and has red eyes) have allowed him to live as a human on Earth.
In a series of social media posts, Snyder revealed storyboards for a scene between Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that ended with Martha transforming into J’onn — and then into Swanwick. “I was able to shoot all of it except for the Harry Lennix side,” Snyder wrote. “Was my intention to do that in LA.”
That shoot, of course, never materialized: Snyder left “Justice League” in the spring of 2017 and was replaced by Joss Whedon, and much of Snyder’s vision for the film — including Martian Manhunter — was cut out. After a massive grassroots campaign to #ReleasetheSnyderCut, however, WarnerMedia announced last May that Snyder was reconstructing his version of the movie into a four-hour epic. Over the summer, Lennix finally was able to shoot his side of Martian Manhunter’s introduction, using motion capture to embody J’onn’s massive green frame.
It’s the first time Martian Manhunter will appear in a live-action feature (David Harewood plays the role in the CW series “Supergirl”), and with “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” finally set for release on HBO Max on March 18, Variety reached out to Lennix to ask him about his unusual journey to the role.
Lennix is a busy guy: He’s currently shooting the eighth season of NBC’s “The Blacklist,” and in December, he announced plans to create the the Lillian Marcie Center and African American Museum of the Performing Arts in the South Side of Chicago. He’s worked for over 30 years as an actor — he’s set to voice a role in Snyder’s upcoming animated Netflix series “Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas” — including two seasons on Whedon’s 2009-2010 Fox TV series “Dollhouse.”
So when Variety asked the 56-year-old to comment on the allegations by Ray Fisher that Whedon engaged in “abusive” and “unprofessional” behavior while working on “Justice League,” Lennix had a few things to say.
Did you first learn that Zack Snyder wanted to make Swanwick become Martian Manhunter when he posted that storyboard of the character in Oct. 2019?
I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what I found out. I don’t think there was any sort of advanced word. There are a lot of people who intuited it somehow, like fans bouncing that idea around. So I don’t know if somebody knew about it outside of Zack before that. But I did not know until I saw that storyboard.
So Zack didn’t give you any indication before he dropped that news?
No, he did not. From time to time, you know, Zack will text me things or email me things. I’ve certainly done projects with him, such as “Army of the Dead,” and I knew that was coming. But he likes to surprise me, and I think I’m not unique in that way. But, you know, there was no time that I could have found out about it that would have been a happier time.
After he dropped that news, did he call you to say, “Oh hey, by the way, I was gonna do this”?
No. The next call that I had from Zack was, “Hey, when can you come in and shoot?” So that was great. I found out that it was a possibility, or at least that Martian Manhunter was going to be in it, when he revealed through the storyboard that Martha Kent is coming by visiting Lois, and then after she leaves, she reveals herself to be, in fact, Calvin Swanwick, or the Martian Manhunter. That’s how I knew about it.
There’s a moment in “Man of Steel” where Swanwick asks Superman why he won’t reveal his identity as an alien that now feels very pointed in a way that obviously you hadn’t intended.
Yes, that’s true. And I think to some extent, that is what has sort of started the speculation [about Martian Manhunter], that Swanwick didn’t shrink away after Superman rather nonchalantly takes his handcuffs off and walks up to the window. This is now getting on to about nine years ago that we shot that scene. I think I asked Zack the question, “Am I going to shrink back here?” Because I’m a general, I’ve obviously faced danger.
And, he said, “No, in fact, you stand your ground, maybe even you move forward a little.” Perhaps that’s what got those wheels turning, that at least gave the suggestion that that might be a plausible reveal.
How much did you know about the character of Martian Manhunter before this became a thing?
Not much at all. I only knew that there was such a character. I’d heard through the fans of the DCEU that there were a couple of members of the Justice League that were not represented in the movie, and vaguely that one of those people was Martian Manhunter, J’onn J’onzz. I didn’t know much about him at all.
How much do you think that he’s going to be in the movie?
I don’t know what’s going to be left on the floor, if any, but I didn’t shoot an inordinate amount. My work is not central, as it were, to the movie. It may be to a plot point. But I don’t think you’ll start talking about that character more than, say, Superman.
You said elsewhere that you would love for there to be a Martian Manhunter movie. Have you heard anything at all from Warner Bros. on that on that front?
Not one thing. I haven’t heard anything moved that needle toward an actuality. But why not?!
The reason there’s a Snyder Cut is because Zack was replaced by Joss Whedon on the movie. As you know, Ray Fisher has alleged that Joss engaged in misconduct during the shoot. You worked with Joss on two seasons of “Dollhouse,” so I wanted to ask if you had any thoughts on the matter?
I wasn’t there during the time in question. I am sorry that anybody had to experience what it was that was described. Obviously, there’s one side of the story that we’ve heard. I don’t know that Joss has made any comments. As you point out, I worked with Joss fairly closely for a couple of years there. I didn’t see that behavior, and at the same time, as an actor, my heart goes out to anybody that had to endure that kind of treatment. We get treated as a second-class citizens frequently. But I did not see it, and I would be curious as to what [Joss’s] response to this has been.
I just hope everybody can move on with their lives, to be honest with you. As a former seminarian, and as somebody who has made mistakes, I’ve been on either side of that equation. Directors sometimes are insensitive to the needs or the feelings of actors, and sometimes actors are needy, and sometimes they are oversensitive. I know I can be. So that said, I hope whatever it was that happened, that people could move on, and — outside of some unforgivable thing — that people can forgive, not just each other, but forgive themselves. To say, “Look, I may have made this mistake in the past, now I know better, and I’m going to do better.” This was a different time. What was tolerable, five years ago, a year ago, is no longer, and we have to adapt to that. I think there’s some of that going on, that this is generational in some way. I know that Ray has it in himself to be better because of this, to be stronger, to have survived it. And I also hope that Joss can, too, that he can survive it, be the writer and creator that that he is and we can all be better because of it.
You’re looking at this with more empathy than I would say many observers have in light of what Ray has alleged, and what actors on “Angel” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” alleged about Joss on Wednesday. Were you experiences with Joss purely professional?
Yes. Utterly professional. I didn’t see any of that kind of behavior that I’m hearing about. But I’m in a different place. That kind of thing is not likely to happen to me, just cause I’m a big Black guy from the South Side of Chicago, that people are a little more circumspect in however they might think about treating me or talking to me. I think maybe we should give [Joss] another chance to respond, to see what his side of the story is. Not minimizing anybody’s story, not minimizing the experiences others had in any way. But I believe that we must learn to reconcile. And we must learn to move on.
We wouldn’t be able to take this into a court, per se, not really. What I’ve learned over the years is that two people could be telling the absolute truth from their point of view, and disagree on what those salient points are. Whatever those salient points are, I think that everything that I have heard so far — and that’s not everything — is recoverable. And so to the extent that it’s recoverable, let’s recover from it and keep moving.
Joss hasn’t commented, Ray hasn’t gone public with almost any details about what he says happened on “Justice League,” and WarnerMedia hasn’t revealed what the company learned in its investigation. So figuring out how to move forward is complicated in the absence of detail.
I agree, 100%. What I’ve been able to glean from the stories and the back and forth, such as it is — mostly the forth — is that nasty things were said, mean, insensitive things were said, that made certain people uncomfortable. That’s certainly something I’m familiar with actors having to endure. Indeed, that’s part of the process. People say “no” to us for any number of reasons, or tell us to lose weight or gain it or get taller or shorter or younger. That’s just the nature of the business — it’s a personal business. I am of the opinion that this is entirely fixable, and that really what needs to happen is a dialogue. I mean, the old standard in American jurisprudence is you have a right to face your accuser and to respond. I think that people have the right to present both sides of the case. In fact, it’s not just a right, I think it’s an obligation. I wonder what’s going to happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.