It’s been a good year for Aldis Hodge — and he knows it. But as much as he wants to contain himself, the actor can’t help but be giddy. “I’m trying to reserve myself,” he tells EW. “But… f— it, I’m having a drink tonight!”
Hodge has reason to celebrate. The Showtime series City on a Hill, which he fronts with Kevin Bacon, has just been renewed for a second season, and he’s preparing for the Friday release of Brian Banks, his biggest and most important film role yet. And let’s not forget his other two upcoming movies: the Sundance award winner Clemency and the highly anticipated thriller The Invisible Man.
“This is my 31st year in the business, and this is the best year I’ve ever had professionally,” the soon-to-be 33-year-old says. “It took a while to acknowledge and realize that I actually am successful. I was afraid to admit it because I don’t want to get complacent or comfortable. At the same time, I can’t disregard the value of the beautiful things I have. So I’m trying to find that medium, that happy compromise between enjoying the fact that I am successful doing what I choose to do and knowing that I’ve still got a lot of work to do yet.”
For Hodge, his idea of success is “being able to help someone else facilitate their dreams the way you’ve been able to facilitate yours.” But facilitating his own dreams has been a long process. As Hodge says, he’s been in the industry almost his entire life, making his film debut at age 9 in Die Hard With a Vengeance. He would act regularly from there on, scoring small movie roles and TV guest appearances (most notably on Friday Night Lights) before landing TNT’s Leverage on his 21st birthday.
Despite his series regular role as hacker geek Alec Hardison, Hodge continued to pursue his passion for writing, studying under Leverage co-creator John Rogers and even trying to become a staff writer between seasons. “People were like, ‘You’re a lead on a show, you’re insane,’” he recalls. But that didn’t stop him from writing on his own, whether it was a fantasy epic he’s been working on since he was 18 (“I’ve been lazy — well, technically not lazy, I’ve been working,” he says) or spec scripts (he’s particularly proud of one for The Office).
When Leverage wrapped after five seasons, Hodge consistently found more work, appearing in hits like Straight Outta Compton and Hidden Figures while also starring in the short-lived but critically acclaimed series Underground. But the past year saw his biggest breaks yet, landing both City on a Hill and Brian Banks. While City on a Hill is fictional account of real events in 1990s Boston, Brian Banks tells the true story of a teenage football star with NFL dreams whose freedom was taken over a false rape accusation.
“I knew the story quite well, because of the juxtaposition between Banks’ case and Brock Turner’s case,” says Hodge, referring to the controversial sexual assault trial of a Stanford swimmer. “I hate to seem like I’m campaigning against Brock — it ain’t about Brock — but I knew the way they were treated was very different just because of what they looked like, who they were, how much money they had — and it pissed me off. Even though I’m an actor, that doesn’t matter. My job, my profession, my accomplishments mean nothing when it comes to encountering a police officer or the judicial system. I’ve been in those positions and been made to feel like nothing before.”
After spending five years in prison, Banks was released, but struggled with life as a registered sex offender. His accuser soon contacted him, and he secretly recorded her admitting to making up the assault. Then, with the help of the California Innocence Project, Banks earned his exoneration, which allowed him to finally pursue an NFL career. (He briefly played for the Atlanta Falcons.)
“For me, it was important to try and tell [Banks’] story in a way that honored his path and journey, while at the same time something that exemplified his purpose, because we are an asset to his purpose — he’s still doing his thing,” says Hodge, who, after being cast, went to Banks’ apartment to speak with him and see if he “believed in him as a human being.” The two quickly found a “brotherhood,” and Banks would serve as an everyday asset to Hodge, whether it was through training or talking about his lowest moments. To further get into his new friend’s mindset, Hodge even spent a month wearing the ankle monitor that Banks had to wear during his parole. The experience, Hodge says, gave him a “renewed sense of gratefulness.”
And that gratefulness extended to another, more unexpected person: Morgan Freeman. The legendary actor has an uncredited role in Brian Banks, but he still managed to bring Hodge to tears. The duo had only exchanged brief greetings before it came time to start filming Freeman’s lone scene, which features a mostly silent Hodge. After a few takes, Freeman leaned over and whispered something to director Tom Shadyac, with whom he’d previously worked on Bruce Almighty.
“Tom pulls me over and says, ‘So Morgan told me, That kid over there, he’s got it,’” remembers Hodge. “I was like, ‘What? He hasn’t even spoken to me.’ But he said, ‘He’s got it.’ It meant so much to me in the moment, because at this point I didn’t know if I was really pulling my weight. It was so important to me to get this right, and that sort of validation from that kind of legend, I ain’t gonna lie, all the thug tears came out. [Laughs] It was so simple and subtle. But damn, that was a day.”
And a year.