If your Netflix queue is anything like mine, you probably spend a little too much time watching TV, but you will also have likely seen Aldis Hodge grace your screen at some point. Having started his acting career at two years old, the now 32-year-old actor from North Carolina has guest-starred in an impressive array of TV shows (Friday Night Lights, Black Mirror, Underground, Leverage) as well as having supporting roles in several critically acclaimed movies, like the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures and 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. Now, he stars as the lead in Brian Banks, a biopic based on the wrongfully convicted football player turned NFL-pro and advocate Brian Banks. His IMDB page runs long, but that’s not why he met with Revolution on a brisk day in Breguet’s Fifth Avenue boutique in Manhattan
Walking into the immaculately designed boutique, the first thing that’s striking about Hodge is how casually he wears the Breguet Tradition 7097 in 18-karat white gold with a newsboy flat cap, Beats by Dre headphones, and a navy long-sleeved shirt. A watch that easily retails into the five figures, it would typically demand a suit, but Hodge makes it work and wears it with as much ease here in the boutique as he did days earlier at the premiere of Brian Banks in LA. The second thing that’s striking about Hodge is, easily, his breadth of knowledge on watchmaking, which he’s been fervently cultivating since he was 19.
“I’ve always been an artist, but I wanted to be an architect, and for me watchmaking was architecture in its tiniest form,” he explains. “I started learning how to design by studying brands for certain specificity, and Breguet was one of the first brands I started studying because of what Abraham-Louis Breguet contributed, in terms of the tourbillon and the resounding effect that he had, which still plays out today in terms of efficacy and significance.”
Looking at the dial of the Tradition 7097 on his wrist, he continues: “[With Breguet], the DNA in the guilloché is like you’re writing a coded language. It’s like coding is today in terms of zeroes and ones — to me, the guilloché is the mechanical version of coding. It’s such a specific and iconic look and no one else has done it in a way—and I don’t mean to down anybody — but in a superior way. It’s absolutely an artform.”
Coming from an artist’s background — he playfully recounts how, as a toddler, he drew on his mother Yolette’s furniture and walls with her lipstick — watch design lured Hodge for both its aesthetic and scientific leanings. “[Watchmaking is] science in its rawest form that is measured down to art,” he states. “I started designing watches randomly, and [watchmaking] kind of paired these things for me: it was architecture and also art, but then there’s also a scientific element there that serves everything. In its truest form, horology is literally physics, chemistry, metallurgy, and micro-mechanical engineering all mixed in one. I had to associate some degree of knowledge in all of these fields in order to achieve what I wanted to achieve.”
It’s knowledge that has certainly served him well in many respects of his life — and Hodge continues to be a student, following his mother’s adage: “They can take everything in the world from you except for what you know.”
Part of that pursuit to continually learn and grow stemmed from his, as he calls them, “meager beginnings.” Growing up in Trenton, New Jersey, life started with expectations Hodge wasn’t willing to accept: “Most people assumed that I was either going to grow up to become a basketball player or a rapper.”
He’s quick to say that there’s nothing wrong in aspiring to be either, and explains that his issue wasn’t what society expected him to be, but rather that it was all it expected out of him: “It really perturbed me that most people did not openly or widely associate intelligence with my black skin. Part of my interest to become an engineer was purely scientific interest, but it was also rebellious of sorts, a way for me to say, ‘I’ll show you guys.’”
It explains the roles he’s taken, from playing Noah, a driven and perceptive slave looking for freedom in Antebellum, Georgia, in Underground, to Levi Jackson opposite Janelle Monáe’s Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, a civil rights activist navigating how to best support his wife’s efforts to become an engineer in the ’60s. “As an actor, I selfishly would like to fill my resume with roles that have some meaning and some depth that reach beyond my personal benefit,” he explains. “That really zoned in for me when we were on the promo tour [for Hidden Figures], and you would see these rooms filled with little girls, watching the movie, talking about how they always wanted to be an astronaut or an engineer, and realizing they can do it now because they see it.”
His intent to show people he is more than meets the eye (and encouraging others to do the same) manifests itself in the many talents he possesses: acting, painting, designing, and watchmaking. When I shamefully admit my surprise at finding out the extent of his passion and knowledge for watchmaking, he smiles, and it’s clear this isn’t surprising to him: “When I can go into the specifications of what makes a watch unique or relevant, I am quite proud because most people do not expect it. I don’t necessarily look like the consummate watch guy.”
And, clearly, subverting people’s expectations of him has only worked to Hodge’s benefit. His unique approaches to his work spring from his ability to empathize wholeheartedly with others: “Acting allows me to engage different personalities and understand the root of someone’s intentions, because as an actor the job is to build on these characters and focus on really defining their intent. Why do people do what they do and what motivates them? And in terms of horology and design, I feel like as a designer, our primary responsibility as makers is to set the tone for new experiences for people. How are you going to engage this product that you think you’re familiar with in a very new way? And how can I give you something that is familiar enough that you instantly connect and that it immediately resonates with you?”
As we get up from our seats, the conversation circles back to the Tradition 7097 he’s wearing and before I know it, Hodge is going from display to display in the Breguet boutique, peppering the boutique’s manager with insightful questions and studying each model closely. And he’s right: he doesn’t necessarily look like the consummate watch guy. But his poise combined with his eagerness to learn echoes that of the most studious watchmaker seated in his workbench in Switzerland’s La Chaux-de-Fonds. With such a sincere enthusiasm for his crafts, there’s no doubt that there is only more to come from this former Trenton kid who once drew on his mother’s white walls.