Actor Aldis Hodge, who plays Janelle Monáe’s husband Levi in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures,” isn’t one to hold back. When asked if he ever thought he’d be attending Sunday’s ceremony, he said, “At the risk of sounding a bit presumptuous, yes. My goal is to continue to grow. That’s not to say that if your film’s not nominated that you have not grown by any measure, but it is a big flag that says you’re doing alright.” While Hodge also received notices for roles in “Straight Outta Compton” and WGN’s “Underground,” acting is not his only love; he also paints and designs watches for his own company, Basil Timepiece. Hodge chatted with WWD about his long road to Hollywood (he’s been acting since he was three years old) and what else makes him tick.
Did you ever think your career would lead you to being involved in an Oscar-nominated film?
Aldis Hodge: The Oscars are a big achievement, a milestone, eventually it was going to happen. I didn’t know when, I didn’t know how, but it was definitely one of those milestones. I’m so happy to now be involved in a film as impactful and important as this.
Have you always had confidence to know that you would hit your goals?
AH: As an actor you have to get to a point that you know what you do this for. It’s not for the awards; it’s not for the recognition. However, speaking on the world of entertainment and what we do, these honors and awards are absolutely fascinating. It says a lot about your career [and] what you’ve accomplished to be included in this space or even be mentioned with the name the Oscars or the SAG Awards. It says that I’ve grown. To be included in this company, to deal with people that are working at this caliber, it shows that I have grown in a different way in my craft. I’ve learned something along the way; I’ve elevated my game. It’s a constant reminder of that. Award or not, stature or not, that’s not really the goal. My goal is to continue to grow. Now that’s not to say that if you’re not nominated that you have not grown by any measure, but it is a big flag that says you’re doing alright. So you have to have confidence. I have confidence in myself. The business can sway you because there are ebbs and flows and it’s not always in favor. However, you as an individual always have to be confident in what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
What was the most memorable moment on the set of “Hidden Figures”?
Aldis Hodge: Definitely, getting to work on a scene where we’re all at the barbeque at the church. That’s where the majority of the cast that I worked with all culminated for the first time. Another memorable time on set was when I played a trick on Taraji [P. Henson]. She was walking past the craft service table and she saw these honey buns and she said she wasn’t going to get them because she was dieting and working out. So when she walked away, I snuck about two or three of the honey buns in her chair. When she saw them she was like, “What? What are you trying to do?” And I was like, “Hey, I’m just trying to support a black actress.” We had a little fun with that.
What was it like playing alongside Octavia [Spencer], Taraji and Janelle [Monáe]?
AH: It was fantastic. It was my second time working with Octavia. The first time I worked with her, I was 14 years old on a series called “City of Angels.” We had Octavia, Viola Davis [and] Gabrielle Union. We had a stacked deck. To experience such a grand time in my career with someone I worked with so long ago reminds me that nothing is a coincidence and eventually you’re going to meet up later. It came back full circle and now we’re at the Oscars together. The girl’s are a ball of fun. They had so much fun; so much respect for everyone on set and so much respect for the story that we we’re telling which is why we were able to produce the quality that we did.
Were you nervous at all to work with them?
AH: No. I don’t get nervous because being in this business for so long, since I was three years old, I have to assert my idea of who I am and where I am. Whenever I’m on a set, it’s because I’m supposed to be there. If I’m on a set with someone who has accomplished so much it’s only because I’m of that caliber. Maybe I don’t have the same accomplishments, but I’ve been put there for a reason. It’s by design. So I have to really engage my confidence of where I’m at and know my value and my place so I can do my job. If I’m worried about who’s around then I’m focusing on the wrong things. It’s not that I’m walking around as the big man on campus, it’s just looking somebody to my right and my left and saying, “You know what? We’re here because we’re supposed to be so let’s get this thing done.”
Do you have a stylist for the Oscars?
AH: I don’t have a stylist, because I do like to shop. I’m not sure who I’m wearing yet, but I am going through choices. It’s weird because this is the big one. You do not want to make the wrong choice. I do love interesting tuxedos. I think fashion is a language. You wear what you’re trying to say from a distance. I guess what I’m trying to say, is ‘I’m here. I’ve arrived and I’m supposed to be here’ in a very subtle way. I think I might do a tuxedo with a little bit of pop that has some color on it.
Do you have any designers that you’re eyeing?
AH: I’m a big fan of [John] Varvatos. 99.9 percent of the time you see me on the red carpet I’m in Varvatos. I love his cuts, I love his colors, I love his fabrics. So that is definitely a strong option.
Men have more freedom these days when it comes to indulging in beauty. Are there any special rituals that you’ll be conducting on the big day or that you do daily to keep your looks up to par?
AH: I’m rough and scruff. I wash my face, brush my teeth, take a shower and I’m out the door. I probably should do a little more maintenance. I’ll get a hair cut, but that’s about it. And I should get a massage, but I don’t like people rubbing my shoulders like that so I’m probably just going to keep it really simple and hang out with my family and soak up that energy. That’s how I prepare.
Last year’s Oscars, there was a bit of an outcry because of the lack of diversity. Now we have a 180 with “Hidden Figures” receiving nods along with other films. What does the recognition mean to you personally?
AH: I think it’s a lack of inclusion. There were specific groups that were not included. Now that we’ve seen a world of inclusion it means that Hollywood and our critics have started listening. The audience is key and the audience is the boss. Our job is to reflect the audience that we’re selling to, that we’re speaking to, that we’re trying to connect to. If they don’t see themselves reflected in our work you’re going to have an outcry like last year. I’m happy people started listening and acknowledging other cultures that make up American culture. It’s a long time overdue. I’m happy that it’s happening and at this point I’m hoping that it continues.
Day-of, is there anyone that you secretly want to meet?
AH: I’ve already met and shook hands with Denzel [Washington] at the SAG Awards. I think the only person left might be Meryl Streep. I’d definitely like to go say hi to Meryl and get a little face time there.
We already discussed your interest in fashion, but what’s your personal take on style?
AH: It’s weird. I like avant-garde cuts. I don’t like anything traditional. Too traditional is boring, it’s not interesting. I’m a painter so when I see fashion, I want to see art. Art walking down the street is how I would describe my fashion or the fashion that I typically respond to.
And do you ever have casual moments?
AH: Casual moments are still opportunities for art. Art is my language; it’s in everything I do. It’s how I understand and see the world. It’s how I communicate with people.
The 60’s were definitely a golden decade for fashion. Did you learn anything about clothes while on set for “Hidden Figures”?
AH: The wool t-shirts were very slim. I could barely squeeze into one and I’m not a big guy. Besides that, suits were not tailored back then. Pants kind of rose up a little before the ankles at times. Now, it’s a specific fashion choice that seems avant-garde. And what was considered proper for women was different back then. They were regulated. Skirts and dresses had to be a certain length. In today’s culture people are still very judged based off of what they look like. Their perception was based off of care. Back then I don’t think they were allowed to take risks because perception was integral in terms of acceptance culturally.
Outside of fashion, you have a few hobbies, but can you tell me about watches. When did that passion being?
AH: Watches started around 18 or 19 years old. I found watch making through product design courses at school. I just became engaged in learning the intricacies of watch movements. So I started designing and for five years I was a concept designer and realized if I wanted to learn how to design well I had to follow the main rule which is form follows function. I had to learn to build them and make them work. That’s when I decided to become a true horologist and I’ve been studying ever since. I’ve always wanted to build a company to pass down to my children as legacy whenever I do have kids and I’ve always wanted to establish a venue for charitable contributions and also create a hub for American employment.
Do you remember the defining moment when you knew you wanted to start your own line?
AH: I think I was around 22 or 23 when I was pitching the watch company Hamilton on a couple designs that I created. They told me they didn’t have the capacity to make what I was designing and they had to explain to me why. They asked me how much I wanted to sell one of these watches for. I said, “I wanted 10,000 or 15,000 starting in the luxury market.” And they said, “No, you’re going to have to start at 150.” I said “150 dollars,” and they said, “150,000 and here’s why.” I realized I needed to start my own. Again, I was a concept designer for five years and designing around pre-fabricated movements. My ideas were restricted in terms of design. I had to take someone else’s movement and design around that. I couldn’t create freely. That was excruciating. That was like death to me. Around 22 or 23 Hamilton said, ‘Look you have to go be an independent.’ They introduced me to a couple of people and set me on my path and around 25 is when I started my own company. It was really about being able to do this and be happy doing it.
In the future, do you ever see Basil Timepiece evolving into anything else?
AH: No, purely watches. There’s so much that goes into watches and watch making. I do other things. I’m in the middle of designing a car right now with a great team of friends who have various histories in the car design business. I still run into architecture here and there. But as far as my watch brand, it will evolve as necessary. However, in terms of what we make and provide we will always maintain ourselves as a horology brand.
You also collect them. What’s the most expensive watch that you have in your personal collection?
AH: The most expensive watch that I have in my collection is probably a Gérald Genta Bi-Retro Jump Hours watch. He did what I aspire to do in terms of being a designer. I really respect him. To have an original piece with his name on it means quite a bit.
You seem like you’re a very curious person that likes to learn. Where did your inquisitiveness come from?
AH: Here’s where my love and passion of learning comes from. When I was younger, my family was homeless three times. We used to live in our car. Dealing with poverty it’s not something that you think about when you’re in it because it’s the only reality you know. But, my mother told me, anything I ever wanted in life … she said, ‘people can take away everything from you except for what you know.’ So my value to myself is basically based on what I know. In terms of what I wanted it wasn’t like I ever believed it was going to be handed to me. So, I said if I want something I have to make it. For me, learning how to make things offers me a different education culturally. It opens doors to different sorts of people and it helps me to appreciate things. I look at things very differently. When I walk into a room or building I’m immediately looking at the open space, the use of space, the walls, I’m counting square footage; I’m evaluating things and breaking it down artistically. When I go to museums I used to look at paintings and study the brush strokes. That’s how I learned how to shade, color, paint and all that stuff. It affords me a different perspective, which I really love.
Since you love fashion, do you ever plan to learn how to make clothes?
AH: I used to take jean jackets and distress them and do all that stuff for fun. People actually liked them. I was propositioned to sell them. I just didn’t have the time to mass produce by hand. It could be a fun project. If any anyone wants to team up and run out a collection I wouldn’t turn it down.
And back to acting, are there any characters that you’re pining to play next and why?
AH: When it comes to characters I’m pretty open, as long as the character has depth and some solid reason for why they’re there. I don’t like playing characters that aren’t really fully formed. I need them to mean something. I need to continue to be apart of projects that are meaningful. I have my eye on a comedy. People forget that I come from comedy. I used to do stand up for a couple of years. So I would love to get back to that. Aside from that in terms of characters, I want to see the characters that I’m developing right now with scripts I’m writing to materialize on screen.
A version of this interview was originally published for WWD.com