You're not going to want to miss the Queen Latifah-starring Bessie Smith biopic, Bessie, when it premieres on May 16 on HBO. And not just because Latifah gives one of the most powerful performances of her career in this project that's been 22 years in the making — for rock and roll fans, you'll be anxiously waiting for Bryan Greenberg's character, music producer and civil rights activist John Hammond, to take the screen. "I don’t think they would be making a movie about Bessie right now if it wasn’t for John Hammond," Greenberg tells me about his supporting role in the HBO film, "John was the one who introduced her to a wider audience."
By no means, however, does this mean Greenberg is the star of Bessie — "It’s Queen Latifah’s movie," the actor says, "I’m just happy I got to be a part of it." Greenberg, who previously starred in the HBO series How to Make It in America, was drawn to Latifah's project because, he says, "I just want to be involved with good work — that’s always been my agenda." The fact that Hammond played a very pivotal role in many music careers, especially Bessie Smith's, that helped inspired Greenberg to become a musician himself.
"I play rock and roll and rock and roll is based on the blues so, I knew Robert Johnson — who is like the grandfather of the blues," Greenberg tells Bustle, "And the only reason I know Robert Johnson is because John Hammond." The actor — who's released two albums and announced earlier this week that his third album, Everything Changes, will be released on May 26 — explains that Hammond rediscovered Johnson's music and released it into the mainstream. "It was really just cool to pay tribute to this guy," Greenberg says of playing his first historical figure.
Another huge draw to this role came from Hammond's relationship with Bessie beyond the music. "They had a real fondness for each other," Greenberg says, "I met Bessie Smith’s granddaughter at the premiere and she said that John was the only white guy she ever trusted." So, naturally, Greenberg didn't take preparing to play the little-known 1950s producer lightly. "You want to pay tribute to him, but at the same time no one is really going to know," the actor says, "So, I found some video footage of him and he had a very specific way of speaking so I would try to get his cadence down and listen to him. He was extremely charismatic."
Many of Greenberg's scenes as Hammond featured the actor watching Latifah sing, so will he be taking the stage again anytime soon? "I want to get back out there," Greenberg tells Bustle, which is why he's releasing his album without waiting to plan a tour. "I've been tinkering with it for four years and now I’m like, 'Alright, it’s time to put it out'," the actor says, and we can probably thank John Hammond's ripple effect for that.
Image: Frank Masi/HBO (2)