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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis on Lovecraft Country’s premiere and the fear of living while Black

HBO’s long-awaited adaptation of Lovecraft Country kicked off tonight, bringing viewers face to face with scores of heinous monsters—both supernatural and all too real. On the premiere episode, we got to know many of the show’s key players, but none quite so intimately as George and Hippolyta Freeman, who shook walls (and hearts) with their fervent declarations of love. Portrayed with power and strength by Courtney B. Vance and Aunjanue Ellis, respectively, George and Hippolyta are the center of their South Side Chicago universe, fixing cars, distributing mail, and even publishing a green book helping their Black neighbors find safe harbor on road trips. With George now off on one of those road trips and in some deep shit, we’re left wondering what Hippolyta’s up to at home, and who she really is, other than just George’s wife.

The A.V. Club spoke with Vance and Ellis about all of that, from how Hippolyta handles George’s absences to why George feels a responsibility to help and serve both his family and his community. We also talked about how the show’s storylines relate to Black life in the 21st century, and even picked up a few book recommendations from the two voracious readers. Bits of that conversation are in the clip above, but the full transcript is below for those interested in diving deeper into the show’s twisted universe.

The A.V. Club: When we meet George and Hippolyta, it’s immediately clear that they’re in capital L-O-V-E love, but George’s job is dangerous and every trip he goes on, he might not come back. How do you think that Hippolyta deals with that?

Courtney B. Vance: Not well.

Aunjanue Ellis: I think it’s two-fold with her, you know. I think that she loves her husband and she knows that any time he leaves out of the door… Actually, I think I relate to that right now. When my loved one leaves out of the door, I worry about him. I worry about him, and I hope that he will come back home, so imagine that in the 1950s.

I don’t have to imagine it. I know what that’s like. I live that now. I live that when my boyfriend tells me that he’s going to the grocery store after 10 o’clock at night. I’m on pins and needles until he comes home. He walks every day, and I want to tell him, “Don’t do it. Don’t walk in a park.” I’m scared to death every day. Until he comes home and until he gets back in his apartment, I’m not good. So I don’t have to imagine how Hippolyta feels. I know how Hippolyta feels.

The other part is that she is a frustrated traveler herself. She’s in a repressive situation because it’s the 1950s, and because of the community, the culture, and the marriage that she’s in. She’s an astronomer, and there weren’t that many Black woman astronomers at the time. There aren’t that many Black astronomers right now, besides Neil deGrasse Tyson, as far as I know. So, she wants to be out on the road. She is a traveler, an astronomer. Her purview is every constellation, every galaxy, every universe.

So, yes, George’s absence is fear-provoking, but it also stirs her desire for more for her life.

AVC: George is writing the Black travel guides as a way to provide for his family, but in some ways he’s also providing for millions of other people, so they can travel safely from one place to another. How did you think about that aspect of your character, Courtney?

CBV: It was about us being fixtures in the community, because that’s what we had to do in order to survive. Back in that time, there was a village. Everybody knows our house is a center of the community. We don’t just write the travel green book. We fix cars. We post letters, because everything was separated back then. You had Black water fountains, Black post offices, Black grocery stores—everything was separated. So we had to be everything to each other.

If we did it really well, like they did in Tulsa, they massacred you in 1921—or like they did in Wilmington, Delaware, as Aunjanue let us know. You couldn’t tell how white folks were going to feel. If you stayed in your place, they were mad at you because you stayed in your place and you turned your place into a business—a mecca—and then they’re mad at you that you’ve gotten “uppity” by staying in your place. It’s like, “We get our own thing and you’re mad, and if we go over to your place, you’re mad.”

That’s what needs to be understood: That there was no place for Black folks to turn with any kind of wrongdoing, or any kind of injustice. There was nowhere for Black folks to turn. I’m hopeful that Lovecraft and other shows like ours are able to give people an understanding of that feeling of hopelessness. And that even though people got to the end of their rope, they didn’t give up hope. We carried on and we supported each other and even though somebody’s uncle was killed last week, the village surrounded the family and took up collections at church and made sure that the children were taken in by other families.

Watching the village take over is something. When they try to say that Black folks are inferior and that they don’t take care of their families, you don’t know Black family. You don’t know from whence we came, and how we survived when there was no other place to turn, when nobody cared about Black folks or Black children. I mean, it took a documentary being made about 150 Black children being killed and before white people realized, “Oh, there’s some Black children being killed in Atlanta”, as opposed to one white, young girl being killed and all of a sudden she’s on the milk cartons and it’s an Amber alert.

When you really look at it, you see that’s why we feel Black lives don’t matter. And that’s why people are so upset, finally white folks are beginning to see what we’ve known for 450 years: That Black lives have not mattered. We’re at the end of our rope with it, and something needs to turn.

AVC: You mentioned Tulsa, for instance, and a lot of people are only now just hearing about that massacre almost 100 years later because of Watchmen. Is there any piece of this show that you hope people see and look deeper into? That people say, “I can’t believe this happened on that show and I’m going to go learn a lot more about it and absorb that into my life.”

CBV: I just hope people start to see different people. Trans people, gay people, Black people, native indigenous people, East Indian. I mean, people are different.

I’m always intrigued by how people got to where they are. I’m intrigued by the differences that we have, because we [Vance and Ellis] were raised to treat people equally. So I’m not threatened by it. We didn’t raise our children to be threatened by people being different. But some people are threatened by it and raised their children to be threatened by anything. So consequently, they continue to teach the hate. So the young people don’t learn, and they’re not learning anything about different cultures in school, and the hate is perpetuated.

What is it going to take for us to realize we need each other? We can’t continue to foster the hate. We’ve got to begin to teach love somewhere. Nobody’s teaching the history in the schools, nobody’s teaching it in the homes. And in the information age, the fact that we don’t know about each other is just ridiculous.

AVC: George and Hippolyta clearly love learning, and they love books. Do you have a favorite book?

AE: Oh my god, girl, you just messed up.

CBV: She messed up bad, didn’t she? She don’t even know.

AE: My colleague and I are big book nerds, so you just opened a can of worms.

I read a lot. I’m an aggressive reader. I’m in a lull right now, but I would suggest writers rather than what’s my favorite book. I think Beloved is one of my favorite books, by Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye by Toni [Morrison] is a great book. And then there are a lot of writers that I like. I like Lauren Groff. She is a short story writer. I try to read everything that she writes. I’m reading Karen Russell right now. She’s another really great short story writer. I read this really great book called Perfect Peace by Daniel Black about this Black family in Louisiana that has queer members in the early 1900s. So anyway, like I said, you opened up a can of worms. I love reading.

CBV: I love Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, and I loved Mary L. Trump’s book about her uncle. Stacey Abrams, Our Time Is Now.

I’m a huge biography reader. I loved [Ron] Chernow’s Grant and, of course, Hamilton and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. The fact that I read Chernow’s 900-page book about Ulysses S. Grant and by the end of the book, I’m weeping over this man, I mean, that’s what books can do.

But in this country, we’ve gone away from reading and how important it is to be able to let your imagination just sit and take you, or how to let another author’s experience take you. People don’t have the patience to actually sit there and not have everything done for you with the movie or with the series. They can’t just sit there with a book.

AE: Can I say one more? As a Mississippian, I’ve got to point out Kiese Leymon’s memoir Heavy. I highly recommended Heavy.

Marah Eakin is the Executive Producer of all A.V. Club Video And Podcasts. She is also a Cleveland native and heiress to the country's largest collection of antique and unique bedpans and urinals.