The actor: Since garnering an Oscar nomination for her role in 1983’s Cross Creek, Alfre Woodard has gone from deep space in Star Trek: First Contact to Desperate Housewives’ Wisteria Lane, where she spent most of her time trying to keep others from discovering the man chained up in her basement. But she has made the greatest impression playing a succession of strong, independent, sometimes fatally flawed women, from the substance abusers of Down In The Delta and Holiday Heart to the matriarch of a bohemian family in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn. In American Violet, currently in theaters, she plays the mother of a Texas woman who is unfairly prosecuted by a racist D.A., in a story based on real-life events. She also played the boss of schizophrenic spy Christian Slater on the series My Own Worst Enemy, now out on DVD.
American Violet (2008)—“Alma Roberts”
The A.V. Club: What attracted you to this movie?
Alfre Woodard: It was the subject matter. I have longed to get out into the public a project around the drug war gone berserk. My husband, Roderick Spencer, and I and Arianna Huffington, for three years we were trying to get made the Tulia, Texas story.
Desperate Housewives (2005-06)—“Betty Applewhite”
AVC: Before you joined the cast, Desperate Housewives was publicly criticized for not having more actors of color. Did that factor into your decision to do the show?
AW: No. I had never seen it before. They had to send me some episodes so I could see what it was. But that wasn’t the reason Marc Cherry asked me. There was a shortlist when he came to me, and the other two actresses on that shortlist were Caucasian. So I asked him, “Why’d you think of me for this?” And he said when he was a teenager, he saw me on Hill Street Blues, “…and I was so riveted watching you do that, I thought, ‘Great, good people get recognized.’” I said, “You were thinking all this when you were 12?” That’s why he asked me, he had liked me since a very early role. That’s how it turned out to be a black family, just because he wanted me.
AVC: It’s in that soapy register. Do you picture a performance in that way, or do you just play the character straight and trust the writing to take care of the tone?
AW: This is a sticky subject. I knew what he wanted after I got there, and what they were going for. But what they did, and they realized this early on, is they painted themselves into a corner with me and Mehcad [Brooks]. It’s like trying to surf an ocean that’s not doing what an ocean is supposed to do. I was getting confusion from them. I did stay on the board, but the currents were going different ways. They did this whole thing of keeping us in the house to hide the big secret, but then there’s no way to get us outdoors to interact with the other characters. I signed up for a year, because it sounded like fun, and because all my nieces and nephews said, “You’ve got to.” I have an aversion to commitment, but Marc said to me, “The arc is just a year. Don’t worry, I’ll kill you. I promise.” And he didn’t kill me. He just let me drive away.
Beauty Shop (2005)—“Ms. Josephine”
AVC: Is it just a coincidence that your character is prone to shouting Maya Angelou poetry, given that Angelou directed you in Down In The Delta?
AW: I had to call Maya to ask if I could say her poem, so it must not have been in the script. I do a lot of tweaking with dialogue with my characters, let’s just put it that way, and a bit of improvising in most of the things I do. You build a character, and by standing that person up and making them live and walk and feel, you find out, in partnership with your writer, a different reality of what that person would say. Directors and writers trust you in that way. I’m not one of those people who says “I would never say that.” Yeah, you wouldn’t, because you’re not that character.
AVC: It’s a wonderful character. She feels very specific and very real. Was she drawn on anyone in particular?
AW: No, it’s just knowing people. I observe people all the time. You know how your mind takes pictures, hundreds of thousands of pictures per day? I think for an observant person, an artist, not only are you getting those pictures, but you’re getting energy and emotion off people. That’s why artists get nutty sometimes. That’s why you have to do all that breathing and relaxing. You have to exorcise all the stuff that’s coming into you; you’re like a sponge, subconsciously filing it away. Part of your training as an actor is learning how to get your voice to a natural state, to take on the cadence or the dialect of someone else, the accent and the timbre of a particular person’s voice, and working the body to get it to a place of neutrality so when you start to work, you build, muscle by muscle, that person and the way they move in the world. Most people think that training to act is taking on stuff, but really, it’s getting rid of all the stuff that you yourself as a human being have learned, the way you move about. And then you build a character. You’re flexing emotional muscles the way a dancer does. When I do a jeté, I know exactly where my foot is, because I’ve stood in the mirror and watched it and I’ve rehearsed. I know when my foot is curving, because I can feel it.
All of that’s to say, sometimes I’ll have a person in mind, or a couple of people, but it won’t be for the whole character, it’ll be for a jumping-off point. I will remember how somebody I know or somebody I’ve seen, they might have a habit of throwing their left hip all the time, or however they do. All those little mannerisms. It might be somebody who, when they laugh, instead of a little sniggle hung in your throat, it comes up like somebody throwing up. It won’t be because I heard somebody laugh that way. It might be that combined with remembering a friend in college throwing up, and if you add the sound to that, you can get a different laugh. There’s all kinds of ways you do your homework.
Dana [Owens, a.k.a. Queen Latifah] wanted me in the film, so she had asked me to play the mom. And I said, “You know, I’d rather play Josephine.” On paper, she was kind of a stodgy older woman. She was supposed to be in her 60s. But I said “No, she thinks she’s sexy and she likes having a good time. Why would she be dull and a weight in a beauty shop?” So I went the other direction.
Every beauty shop I’ve been in, especially in the South, it rocks. I go to a very fabulous salon, Janet Zeitoun, in Beverly Hills, and her clients are Janet Jackson, Debbie Allen, Cookie Johnson, all these really incredible businesswomen who fly in to see her. It’s very high-end, but it rocks, the same way that a beauty shop down in the hoody-hood-hood does anywhere in the country. It’s lots of laughter, lots of emotion, everybody talks. Doesn’t matter whether somebody’s coming in with catfish or with caviar tasters, it’s all about the food and the company.
[Beauty Shop director] Bille Woodruff was so lovely. He let us improvise. It was so funny, so political, and so naughty. And MGM, every time, they’d go, “You can’t have that, you can’t say that.” So we would do one take the way it was [written]. That was something that was missing that I wish could’ve been included. You didn’t get a real look at what women talk about in the beauty shop. It would make a barbershop blush and hide its privates.
AVC: You were going to say something about playing moms?
AW: It’s so boring. I’m not even going to talk about the pedestrian writers. I’m only going to talk about the really good writers and scripts. Americans have a hard time writing moms. I’ll get a script and everything’s really great, everything’s well-drawn, but the mom is like this character, like stock footage, they go and get that out. They plug it in, this idea of “mother.” You could lift moms out of any script, no matter what the culture, what the neighborhood, what the economic status, even if it’s a period mom, and you could switch them around, and they’d be the same person. I think it’s because most people don’t really have a human idea, a specific life that they attach to who their mother was. Their mother was there for them, so it either gets deified, or the opposite. That Mommie Dearest kind of thing. We love them or we don’t, or we rebel, but we can’t see who they are. That they are a person in life with taste, with sexuality, with opinions, who is pissy also, who has a right to not be the big tit for you every time you want something. And then we leave, and we go off to college or off into the world to work—you really appreciate your mom then. But there’s that big chunk when you don’t know your mom’s faults, desires, wishes, distastes.
It’s tough, because you’re always going to be playing moms. You really have to work to find the person, because they’re not really written a lot. You’re a device in a person’s life, a device in that story. In real life, most people I know are moms, but writing them, I could never reduce them to “mom.” It’s like, she does this and this and this—oh yeah, and she’s got kids. They’re interesting, vital, crazy, fucked-up, wonderful, awful, really attractive, and also repulsive people doing wild things and mundane things. And we never see them on film or on television.
Crooklyn (1994)—“Carolyn Carmichael”
AW: I loved her. I was working of course with Spike, but I got to have a lot of conversations with Joie [Lee]. Spike was saying “This isn’t autobiographical personally, just autobiographical for a neighborhood and for a time.” But Joie, it was a remembrance for her. So she was writing in a different way. She wrote the mom fully enough that you could stand it up. I don’t know if when I was waking people up in the middle of the night and telling people to get their ass downstairs—I don’t know how her mother did that. She never talked about it. I have a feeling her mother’s much more genteel, a learned woman. When I woke them up, I was waking them up with my mother on a bad day—my grandmother talking to my cousins. I loved that, because people would be afraid to put that into a story because, “Oh, it’ll make them not like the mom.” But you love your mom because she’s the one who will tell you, “You have lost your g-d mind.” Even though she loved you more than anybody on earth.
AVC: Acting-wise, it’s at a high pitch a lot of the time. It’s pretty frenetic—the camerawork’s either handheld or swooping around. Did you worry about it being too much?
AW: I love the style of acting that Vanessa Redgrave and Mary Alice have, and the braveness of Geraldine Page. She came into the frame already in motion, at pitch, and she left the frame that way. A lot of acting on film, I don’t think people act that way in real life. But my job is to bring it, because people live life fully. I feel like, “You got all dressed up, we got all this stuff here, why are you being safe?”
People just live a lot freer in their body and their voices and their moves than people act onscreen. I once said to Marty Ritt—this was after we had done Cross Creek—“I feel like I want to go back to class. I want to work on how to act normal onscreen.” And he turned to me and said, “Why the hell would you want to do that?” So when I do something like Chantelle for John Sayles, it’s an intention and an action, it is the way she keeps her bridle tight in life, so that she doesn’t fly apart. The minimalism becomes her action.
Passion Fish (1991)—“Chantelle”
AW: A good writer—and I think it’s this way with actors too—even if you have two lines, you have to do the same complete work as if you’re number one on the call sheet. If you get in an elevator and somebody gets on, rides two floors and gets off, that person has a reality that goes back to when they were born. They have memories, they have people, they have a life. They are doing something right now that the camera is on them in their space. We live in our own close-up all the time.
I liked Chantelle, because you usually see people of limited income onscreen having certain kinds of problems because, “Oh, they’re depressed and do the drugs because they live in a blighted neighborhood, they do the drugs because their husband beats them,” whatever the thing is. But Chantelle is an upper-middle-class Chicago girl, and I know what that means. The black middle and upper class has just started to be depicted onscreen in the last maybe five years, and those are my people. I haven’t recognized any of the people that were in that whole 20-year spate of black movies. They would be a fringe person as opposed to the majority of people in your life.
Down In The Delta (1998)—“Loretta Sinclair”
AW: The ones I love most are the people who the flaws show. I like doing characters that we see the total person. If people get afraid to show the flaws because they think, “Oh, then nobody will like them,” then you end up with a lot of products, and everybody wants to be frigging heroic all the time—not what people are trapped in every day, like your skirt being in your panties after you walk out of the bathroom. Being human. Sometimes when people are drawn to your work, they’re drawn because they recognize themselves or their loved ones or their neighbor in it.
All that’s to say, I love the fact that Loretta was so screwed up. She lives with her mom, she’s got children, and she hasn’t grown up. Although she’s a 30-year-old woman, what I’m playing is a petulant teenager. That determines her gait, how she acts, how she pouts, how she moves about, how she rolls her eyes. I’m thinking about the petulant teenager. Teenagers really piss you off, they really do crazy stuff, but everybody loves them anyway. You just go “That’s a teenager. That’s who they are right at this moment.”
I have this as a lot in life and I’m so blessed to have it, being in a situation that becomes a gift because you get something you didn’t know you were missing. You’re perfectly fine, perfectly happy, could have lived forever without it, but things happen, some event, some moment between you and another person, other people, and you’re put in a place, and it gave you something. That’s what happens to Loretta. I love that story for that reason. A whole lot of times with a script, people want to end it well, but they don’t know how to end it. It gets a little pat and sweet, and it makes you a little disappointed at the end. It’s like, “You brought me all this way, and now you’re going to treat me like I’m in Bible school?” [Laughs.] Vacation Bible school.
Holiday Heart (2000)—“Wanda”
AW: I love Wanda. People do drunk with broad strokes, where they say “The character is a drunk.” No, people drink too much. People are who they are, and they have an addiction problem. So I wanted to make sure that I built a character. This isn’t part of her character, this is part of her physical situation, and what is fucking up her body and her life is that she is on crack. But who is she? She wants to write. She’s a writer who hasn’t got going yet. I had Wanda imagine that she was Terry McMillan. She just hadn’t got a chance to sit down and write her thing out, send it off, and get it published.
Her physical muse is Mary J. Blige. She goes to the 99-cent store and she goes, “I’m going to do Mary J’s look.” That’s what I like about Wanda—she was unapologetic about her life. She just lived out loud, and you see the love that she has for her daughter, the protection and all of that, and it says more about that broken moment, when just for a hit or a little chip off a rock, she’s willing to turn the child over. That’s the human tragedy. But you love her all the same. I wouldn’t have done this if she didn’t die, because she was too far gone. I like the fact that it didn’t punk out on the ending. It didn’t play cheap or bring it up short.
Cross Creek (1983)—“Geechee”
AW: I just had a really good time. It was really making a film. Sometimes now you feel like just a hired gun. They’ll bring two or three people from L.A., you get shipped off to Canada, and then they hire all locals, when that whole call sheet would be filled with your colleagues in L.A. who have moved here, who have trained, who came to the place you come to make movies and television. The crews are lovely people, and I’m not putting them down at all, but the soul of making film does not lie in the hinterlands. I don’t care how many tax breaks you get, and I don’t care how the public will watch it anyway. The public will watch, because the most seductive thing in the world is a screen. But the quality has gone down. You can tell you’re not where you’re supposed to be. You can tell the location is fake. You can tell that those people aren’t the real people, because their dialects are off, and because they don’t learn from growing up in their acting. They’re not wired that way.
Again, it’s not to put them down, but when people used to want to make the best movie they could, there was a mogul at the top, and even if it was just their ego, they had a sense of pride and responsibility. They could take a chance on something. They would hang with something. For a while now, it’s become all corporate, and the people at the top are answering to their parent company: “How many biscuits did we sell last year? How many sprockets did we sell? How many video cameras did we sell? What about the TV series?” It’s impossible, frankly, for something to be really a good film the way it was possible in the past. If it costs you $50 million or up, it is not a good film. I don’t care how much money it makes, what ground it breaks, because telling a story does not cost that much. Look at me, I’m railing. [Laughs.]
But I got on this because Cross Creek, when I got there, it was like, “That’s what I ran away from home to join the circus for.” This set, these people: John Alonzo, a DP who stands in water with poisonous snakes up to his neck with his camera on his shoulder shooting up at Mary [Steenburgen] because that’s where the shot is, and he’s not going to ask his cameraman to do something he wouldn’t do. The AD is standing with a .44 shooting snakes out of the tree so they don’t fall on us. When you came onto a set, maybe there might be about five new people on a crew of 75 or 100 people. So you learn something just by being there. Now it’s like you’re the one who knows the most on the set, because it is a hydroponic industry in all these other locales.
For 80 years, people said, “I want to be a property manager.” They’re in Buffalo. “I’m moving to L.A.” They would move for the films, so when you came here, there’s already a tradition and a conservatory, if you will. You learned when you went to work, because that’s where all the masters were. But now the Toyota factory has moved to town. If Oklahoma suddenly gave a tax break, then all my relatives would be in the film industry. My brother could run the sound: “I have a tape recorder. I’m interested in sound.” I don’t care if you make movies there for the next 10 or 20 years, it still is not—it’s so frustrating. It diverged.
AVC: So many of the people who carried on that tradition are dead, or at least not working anymore.
AW: There are people my age, directors and writers and actors. We carry that. Those people, they’re not going to do stories. They’re not going to do films. They get shocked and surprised like, “Oh my God, that’s a brilliant film!” It’s like, “No, that’s a really good film, and all films should be made that way, and that film had a tough time getting made. Our directors are all coming out of the accounting office and the lawyer’s office, and the people at the top work for the corporation, and it’s like a committee. There’s no place where the buck stops. They’re all trying to validate why they’re there, so they put their two cents in, and it’s like too many people trying to do one person’s job, make a decision and think.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)—“Lily Sloane”
AW: I’m not a Trekkie, but I had a lot of friends who worked on Star Trek. Jonathan Frakes is my godson. I think he’s a year younger or older than me, but we first got to L.A. years ago and I was talking about my godmother, and he said, “I never had a godmother.” I said, “I’ll be your godmother.” He’s called me “godmommy” since then. LeVar [Burton] is a dear friend. So I knew they all did Star Trek, and they knew I never watched it or anything, but we’re close friends, family friends. So when they were going to do the movie and Jonathan got the chance to direct, he said, “I want you to be in the Star Trek movie.” I said, “Okay, give me the script.” I read the script, and it was an action picture. I couldn’t put it down. And I said, “Oh God, I’m so there.” Plus, I was going to work with all my friends, and he was going to direct me.
But I was the kind of person that—it would say on the call sheet, “Lily, in Jeffries tube.” I said, “Who’s Jeffrey? I didn’t see anything about Jeffrey in the script. It says I’m in Jeffrey’s tube.” He just goes, “Never mind. Just come over here and say your line.” I constantly had questions, and they would just go, “You don’t need to know. Play this scene.” He said it worked because I was from a completely different time, so you don’t need to know that anyway. I remember this one thing we set up, it took a couple of days, because there were all these explosives and probably 50 or so extras. They were all stunt people. It was me and Jamie Cromwell, he’s really drunk, we’re coming out of this bar after a lot of apocalyptic things have happened.
AVC: It’s right after World War III, I believe.
AW: See? You’ve seen it. I haven’t. We had to walk in a straight line and go over here because there were explosives wired everywhere. Jonathan said, “When you come here, you’re standing talking, the explosives will go off, and I want you to fall and end with your faces out, because I’ve got a camera right here on the ground.” So we literally had to jump in midair, turn around in midair, and land with our faces in the shot. We walked through it a bunch of times, because we could only do this once with all these explosions. It was so intense that it knocked me over. It was all I could do to keep from bashing my teeth in the ground, but we managed to fall into the spot. Then I raised up after the dust cleared and everybody was looking around, and they said, “Okay, we got it. Cut.” I go to Jonathan and—I have these marks on my forearm still—and I said, “My forearms are bloody.” Just bloody and scraped, and my costume was torn. And I said to Jonathan, “I’m bleeding all over, darling,” and he said, “That’s okay. We got it.” And he walked away. [Laughs.] I loved being her. That was a lot of fun.