Henry Simmons On Working With Ava DuVernay On Cherish The Day - Exclusive Interview

What would you do if a superstar producer asked you out of the blue to star in her latest production — in a role that you would have considered totally out of character for you? For Henry Simmons, the answer was simple: He was in, 100%. For Simmons, best known for portraying tough guys in ABC's "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and "NYPD Blue," the role of Ellis Moran in Ava DuVernay's romance anthology series "Cherish the Day" on OWN was a welcome stretch for his acting skills. 

The shift from portraying a comic book superhero to portraying a soon-to-be-divorced father of two who re-encounters his high school sweetheart was a rewarding challenge that he was happy to take on. "It was an opportunity to be vulnerable," he said in an exclusive interview with The List, "and I'm extremely attracted to that."

Just as exciting, however, was the prospect of working with industry superstars Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey, who produced and backed the project. "Let's be real. When Ava DuVernay, when Oprah Winfrey want you for a project? You are going to say yes. I don't care who you are," he said. In this interview, Simmons shares what it was like taking his first romantic role and working with a groundbreaking cast and crew.

Playing a romantic lead was a new and welcome experience

Can you talk to me a little bit about your character? You play half of a high school couple that drifted apart and came back together. Can you tell me about the dynamic that attracted you to the project? What was challenging about it for you as an actor? 

I got a call from Ava DuVernay, and I was told that she wants me for this role. I was like, "Really? Ava DuVernay? I'm listening." And the second thing was it's a romantic lead. I had never played a romantic lead before in my life. Most of the things I've done have been men that are strong, using their fists. They're aggressive, things like that. I've done comedy, but I've never done anything [that] was a love story. It was an opportunity to be vulnerable, and I'm extremely attracted to that. So I was like, "Absolutely."

Let's be real. When Ava DuVernay, when Oprah Winfrey want you for a project? You are going to say yes. I don't care who you are. That's what I did. I went into this with an open mind, and I loved it.

The challenging part of it was, most of the characters I've played [have] so many layers of dimension, and there's not a darkness but a complicated nature with a lot of the men that I play. There's a lot going on underneath. 

This character was a little bit different. The way the story is formulated, they want to have the story more about the love story and moving forward with that. So this character was not quite as layered in that way, where there was a lot of complexity and a lot of angst. It was very different, a very [much] lighter note for me to play. And in a way, for me, it's more challenging to play an individual like that than it is to play someone who is wrapped up in a lot of dimension and complexity and layers. So it was quite interesting, and I loved the challenge. ... It was a lot of fun.

Working with a mostly female film crew was inspiring

I'd like to talk about the amazing diversity at the heart of "Cherish the Day." It's got a 50% female crew [and] 18 female department heads. What was it like for you, knowing that you're contributing to that kind of gender equity?

I was so happy. I actually prayed for an opportunity like this. I prayed to work with not just people of color but women of color. I wanted to work with Black women, and I wanted to work in an environment that was extremely diverse. [With] many projects that I've been on, when I walk onto set, there's maybe one or two other Black people. There aren't a lot of Black people in Los Angeles on the crews, for whatever reason. It's very hard, I guess, to get in crews. I don't know what the deal is. In the sound department, there's always been a person of color and women, but in the other departments, I don't see that much diversity.

What Ava has been able to do is to say, "Don't tell me it can't be done because it can be done." It can be done with people of color, with women, with all these people that you say, "Well, we don't have anyone." Yes, there are people. And not only can it be done, it can be done at an excellent level. So my prayers were answered in that regard.

I was extremely ecstatic when I walked on set and saw everyone. And [seeing] all of the directors that came on to direct the episodes, [I was] extremely ecstatic. [Ava] confirmed everything that I believed, that there are people out there. It's just that they're not being used as often and as much.

Henry Simmons was thrilled to work with Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey

You touched on this before, but there are some big names involved in this project: Ava DuVernay and Oprah, being part of her network. Can you take a moment and reflect on that experience? What it's like contributing to this bigger discussion of race and gender and expanding visibility?

If I say the name "Ava DuVernay" or "Oprah Winfrey," you think of excellence. You think of champions in terms of diversity. You think of women who are trailblazers. You think of women who pull other people up. So it was an honor to work with both of them, to be the helm of a project, and also have them see me — have them see me and believe in me [enough] to helm one of their projects. [They're] women of such pursuit.

Watch "Cherish the Day" Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on OWN.

This interview has been edited for clarity.