‘The Big Cigar’ Star André Holland On Why He Was Hesitant to Play Huey P. Newton (and Why He Ultimately Did)

The unimaginable but very true tale of Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, and his escape to Cuba in the 1970s comes to life in the new series The Big Cigar.

On October 28, 1967, Newton was involved in an altercation that left one police officer dead and him charged with a felony crime. While out on appeal, Newton fled to the country with the help of Hollywood producer Bert Schneider, who fabricated a movie project to give Newton a reason to travel. 

André Holland and Alessandro Nivola in The Big Cigar, premiering May 17, 2024 on Apple TV+.
André Holland and Alessandro Nivola in The Big Cigar. Image: AppleTV+.

“I didn’t know anything about that, and honestly, I was a little bit reluctant to take on the part due to that particular part of the story,” André Holland, who plays Newton in the series, confesses to EBONY. “I was a little bit concerned that maybe this would come across as a white savior thing, which I did not want it to be and, I’m like, terribly allergic to.”

But with a real-life plot too irresistible to resist, Holland dug into the part. “We all tried to build a relationship between the two of them that felt believable because the research revealed that they really did have a friendship,” he continues.

“Bert was an ally to Huey, along with other people in Hollywood who supported the Panthers. I don’t think it’s fair or possible to completely ignore those contributions. At the same time, I think it’s about how you position that point of view, making sure that their relationship feels earned for the audience.”

Holland speaks more about his personal knowledge of Newton before stepping into the role and his favorite onscreen outfit!

André Holland stars in “The Big Cigar”
André Holland in The Big Cigar. Image: AppleTV+.

EBONY: What did you know about Huey P. Newton before becoming part of the project?

André Holland: I was familiar with the famous images of him in the wicker chair and then on the top of the car with a shirt off, and I knew he was the co-founder of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. But I didn’t know much about his personal life or interpersonal relationships, particularly with the women in his life. I didn’t know about his relationship with his father or about his childhood. I learned a whole lot about him along the way.

How did you capture the essence of Newton in your portrayal?

I’m glad you use the word “essence,” because that’s what I was hoping to do: to tap into the essence of him. I didn’t want to mimic who he was or create a caricature or idea. What I chose to focus on first was the research: the historical context out of which the movement grew, the original principles of the party and what they were after and responding to. I learned what was happening in the world when he was born: what was he coming into? His sensitivity is something that I learned and found instructive and valuable.

What do you think Newton would think of today’s political climate and how it should be handled?

I think the party was about building global multiracial coalitions. He probably would have been on the side of poor and oppressed people all over the world. That’s my sense.

What was your favorite outfit on set?

I had this pair of custom-made khaki bell bottoms. I really liked those a lot. I wore them with different shirts, jackets and other things. I don’t know if I can fit into them now, but, at the time, they fit like a glove!

The Big Cigar premieres May 17, 2024 on Apple TV+.

Updated: May 17, 2024 — 12:01 pm