The actor: CCH Pounder, a Guyana-born, British-raised actress who began her career on the stage before making the transition to movies and television in her late 20s. Pounder has recently taken her commanding voice into the virtual realm, as the spiritual leader of the Na’vi in Avatar, now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
All That Jazz (1979)—“Nurse Blake”
CCH Pounder: That was my first film experience, and I was very naïve. I considered myself “an actor from the theater,” and I thought [the director] Bob Fosse had lost his mind in trying to cast a 26-year-old as a 53-year-old. I had just gone there to show him a potpourri of Caribbean accents, and then out of nowhere he said, “That’s it! That’s it! Okay, you’re going to do it!” I was like, [Haughty voice.] “Excuse me. I’m from the theater. I don’t do film.” I was kind of an idiot at the time. [Laughs.] But it was a life-changing experience, because it did give me an introduction into film. It also gave me a SAG card, which I didn’t use for many years, but I kept up the payments because Mr. Fosse told me to.
AVC: Was Fosse at all like the Roy Scheider character in the movie?
CP: No. The Roy Scheider character in the movie was dying, and the Fosse I worked with was in his creative peak, having a fantastic time. I wasn’t there for everything, but from what I could see, he was really having a very, very good time.
AVC: Was it easier to transition from theater to film on a film about theater?
CP: No, because I didn’t have any experience, so the transition was completely different. Mr. Fosse was a hand-holder for me. The reason I have so many close-ups is because he’s sitting right below me, literally walking me through it. I was completely clueless as to cameras and lighting, and he was just a wonderful teacher, giving raw talent some kind of form and shape. Thank goodness there weren’t a lot of seams, and not too much seepage.
Prizzi’s Honor (1985)—“Peaches Altamont”
CP: I met [the director] John Huston when he was tanked up with oxygen in his trailer, and it was intimidating not in the sense that he was this huge director, but because it was a man I thought was at the end of his life. Of course he survived through Prizzi’s Honor and went on to do another film before he passed away. There was a kind of reverence on that set. I remember in those days, people smoked all the time, and when someone would yell, “Mr. Huston’s coming! Mr. Huston’s coming!” it would echo down the set, and all the cigarettes would go out. The air would be freshened up, because they didn’t want any cigarette smoke in his presence. It was also my first experience where… I didn’t realize how insignificant I was until the moment where I was flown in for my scene with Jack Nicholson, and he wasn’t there. I was like, “Oh, where’s Mr. Nicholson?” I was so completely naïve, I was like, “Don’t you act together?” It had nothing to do with ego. Coming from a theatrical background, I was just fairly clueless. “No, you don’t even have to be in the room, kid.” It was sort of like, “Oh.” It was a big eye-opener. [Laughs.]
AVC: You did get to act with Nicholson at some point, right?
CP: Sure. When they spliced it together. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you a big enough movie buff to have that sense of, “Oh my God, that’s John Huston I’m working with”? Was that impressive to you?
CP: I’ve got a really slow roll when it comes to people of greatness. I don’t know what happened to me. At that time, the thing that impressed me was the illness of the man, not the greatness of him. Even now, all our pictures are retouched and refined, and the reality of what you see in print and when you actually see it in person don’t always gel. To see John Huston as a man suffering and with age on his back was far more impressive than John Huston as The Great American Director. Real life came into play really fast.
Bagdad Cafe (1987)—“Brenda”
CP: Yeah, I’ve got a soft spot for that one. A great film, I think. I was really lucky to be in it, because it was meant for Whoopi Goldberg. And she wouldn’t do it—I guess her people didn’t notice the script, or maybe they read the script and said, “Who is this director? We’ve never heard of him. Goodbye.” So Percy [Adlon] ended up opening the role to auditions, and I got it. It was an innocent experience in the beginning, in the sense that it was just another audition for me, and then I got all the backstory later, about Whoopi. It was also the most spoiled I’ve ever been on a film, because it was done completely in sequence. [Lead actor] Marianne [Sägebrecht] was still learning English, so it had to be done in sequence so as not to confuse her.
I also saw how a director can be really compassionate and a real force, because I also saw an actor refuse to work with another actor. Jack Palance was supposed to shoot a very intimate and sweet scene with Marianne, but he wouldn’t do it because he found her unattractive. It reads in the final cut just so beautifully, the scene where he’s painting her, and yet those scenes were actually done with the director. The magic of filmmaking! [Laughs.] I got to see all the complications in a film that I thought really transcended its story. It’s one of the films where people rarely say to me, “Oh wow, you were great in that film!” They say, “When I saw that film, I decided to become…” I loved the fact that you could actually make a film that could influence people to move ahead in their lives. So it was thrilling for me.
Women In Prison (1987-1988)—“Dawn Murphy”
CP: Eight Is Enough behind bars. [Laughs.] It was touted as being like Cellblock H, because it was supposed to be really tough, but with biting humor. And it ended up being a kind of a “girls dorm” series. It kept getting more and more silly and ridiculous. I actually felt that it was going to fail maybe around the fifth or sixth episode. And while everybody was shopping, I was saving my dough, because I knew there was no way this would last. I made 13 episodes, and I think what I remember most is the cast photo at the end where everybody looks fairly somber, and there’s a picture of CCH Pounder with this giant cheesy grin like, “It’s over! Yay!” [Laughs.] I hope I can dig that up if I ever write a memoir, because it was the craziest look. Everybody was like, “How could you? This is terrible.” I was like, “No, we get to go do something better. Yay!”
AVC: When you’re in a project like that, do you have to crank up your professionalism? Hit your marks and cash your checks?
CP: Oh yeah. Or maybe that’s when you actually do 190 percent, and really make an effort to bail the water out of the sinking ship. To me, the greatest acting lesson that you can have is when the job is at it’s worst, and you still try to make it work.
If These Walls Could Talk (1996)—“Nurse Jenny Ford”
CP: I remember taking that, because I thought the subject matter was really important. That was a social-activist type of series where you do something you could share with a lot of women. I remember Cher had something to do with that and… who else? I don’t remember it very well. I wasn’t there for very long. It was one of those participation films where you gather as many friends and colleagues as you can who you know would be interested in showing these stories of women. I know that’s why I participated.
AVC: Is that a factor in the roles you choose? If you have a chance to advance a cause you believe in?
CP: It is a factor, but it’s not the factor. A good script is still the top factor in everything, even if the role might not be a star turn. If the script is fantastic, I’d like to be a part of the team that makes it.
Face/Off (1997)—“Dr. Hollis Miller”
End Of Days (1999)—“Detective Margie Francis”
Postcards From The Edge (1990)—“Julie Marsden”
CP: John Travolta is a lovely, lovely, lovely man. I was so grateful to be working with him. John Woo was a man… Well, I felt like I had to clean my ears out to figure what direction he’d just told me. I was constantly saying, “Did you just say that? Am I gonna do this? Let me just rephrase that.” I had a hard time understanding him. [Laughs.] And I definitely felt at the time like, “Oh. I’m suddenly in this big action picture.” It was lots and lots of fun. I had a really good time. I also got to learn about egos and what a star sometimes needs and must have. Y’know, the star perks. The personal gym, the big trailer. When I say that stuff out loud, I realize it’s like, “Eww.” So it was a learning curve for me, Face/Off. It was the face-off of “He who has the most toys, wins.”
AVC: Are you referring to yourself?
CP: I’m talking about the two male stars, Nick Cage and John Travolta. Seeing not necessarily what they do, but how people create a mystique around them. How they go from “John” or “Nick” to “Mr. Cage” and “Mr. Travolta.” Or everybody’s ready on the set and the star hasn’t arrived, or is half an hour late, and you’re still waiting to do the scene. That was a very interesting lesson for me in terms of what Hollywood could create. There was also great prosperity back then, and therefore great waste.
AVC: Was it a similar experience on End Of Days?
CP: No. End Of Days was, from my point of view, pretty tight. There was lots to get done. There was a lot of action, and it was fully testosterone-driven, but behind the scenes, it was more like a sports team—a lot of working together. Not quite the same sense of isolation, where you go in and do your thing and then we come in and take over from there. That one felt like a team effort.
I think the greatest team effort I was ever involved with was working with Mike Nichols on Postcards From The Edge, where we actually had a giant table and a full sit-down reading of the script, right down to the person who only had three lines. I think what it did was put the whole film in perspective. I always like to give this example, because when you do that, the person with three lines doesn’t spend his entire time looking in the mirror, not connected with anything, reciting his lines, like, “She went over there! She went over there! Over there!” as opposed to just saying, naturally, “She went over there.” When you get to hear the whole thing read out to you, you get to see how you fit into this fantastic, giant puzzle that makes a wonderful framed picture in the end. And I think that was such a great thing to teach. Regardless of the fact that all you have to say is “She went over there,” and that’s it, it’s still an integral part of the show.
The Shield (2002-2008)—“Detective Claudette Wyms”
CP: Oh boy. I don’t where to begin with this. I love the fact that, first of all, we were on cable, and I had never known what cable could be. So just the fact that in hindsight, yes, we were part of putting a whole new outlet on the map was really terrific. It was also an exploration of gray, as opposed to black-and-white, “That’s the good guy, that’s the bad guy.” You can tell by the black and the white hat, you know? Shawn Ryan muddies things up. Life is what’s lived between the lines of black and white. Horrible people can be exquisitely kind to certain people and not to others. It was one of those fantastic lessons of life lived on the edge that seemed remarkably real. The reaction of the police in uniform to me and the other members of the cast when we were out and about in the world told us that we were spot-on, doing the right thing. Particularly when we were in different areas. We’d have the same reaction from a police officer in New York City as we would in Titusville, Florida, which is a small town with a third of the problems of an urban city. The same code runs through that profession, everywhere.
AVC: You didn’t always paint law enforcement in the best possible light, but real policeman responded to it as being true?
CP: Yes, and I think that’s probably because we dealt a lot more with the human condition. I think it broke down a lot of stereotypes and it became stories about real people.
AVC: As an actor who has to prepare and work up backstory and all that, do you still have in your head what Claudette is up to?
CP: No, I do move on. I do cut the cord. I never live with regret on things that I think were really successful. I really forget about them. Now the things that I did not think were successful are still kind of, “Boy, sure wish I could have done that this way.” And when you see it the next day or on a plane or something, you kind of go, “Hmm I wish I had more time to have done this or that.” If I’m walking away from a good job, I can look back on it, but I don’t run stuff back in my head, I don’t run the machinery over and over again going, “I wish I could have done that or this.” Because if it was good, it was good. Done.
AVC: How about the social angle? Do you stay in touch with the cast, or do you have to move on with that, too?
CP: I know almost from the beginning the people I’m going to stay in touch with, and the people who are, “We’re just here to work, and we’re done.” The breakdown of The Shield kind of falls in real life as it did on the show. I speak to Michael Chiklis only occasionally, and we tend to talk about big things. I speak to Jay Karnes quite a bit on other matters: kids and family. His wife is Julia Campbell, who I did Women In Prison with. [Laughs.] We’ve got history. And Catherine Dent lives near my gallery, so seeing Catherine is just like picking up where we left off when I run into her. And Walton Goggins always calls me when he’s back from a trip, because he knows I’m a big-time traveler, and he’s like, “CC, I just came back from India!” I’m really fascinated by world travel and what the rest of the world is doing. Walton Goggins is a seeker, so he always checks in with me.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (2009)—“Andrea Curtin”
CP: My take on The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is that Anthony Minghella sent a memo from his next life to kind of go, “Can’t you all do something about CCH Pounder?” Because when I went to see him originally about being on the show as one of the leads, I walked into the room and I told him how much I loved this work, and I said, “But I gotta tell you, I’m not fat enough to play one, and I’m not skinny enough to play the other. I’m stuck in the middle.” So basically, he goes, “You’ve dropped yourself out of the role.” And I went, “Well, yeah.” Because you really do want it to be the fat person and the thin person. You have to have those two fantastic opposites. You have to have a woman with a traditional body. It’s really a major part of the books. And I said, “But I love it so much that if there is any part I can do, small or large, I’d love to participate.” And that was the gist of our conversation, and then we talked about other stuff.
Then out of the blue, a white Texan woman had to drop out of an episode, and they gave the job to CCH Pounder. And I had one of my best experiences in one of the great locations. Because a lot of the time, my work is down in the swamps, lying in the dirt. And here I was in a very exotic place and having a really terrific time and meeting Jill Scott at a fantastic time in her life. I got to witness a fantastic singer becoming a great actress. It was like, “Wow, renaissance woman.” It’s great to see. So I was in fantastic company. I had a great time, and I’m really glad that that particular episode got me an Emmy nomination.
CP: A great experience for a veteran actor. It’s that wonderful feeling of… okay, we’re going from silent pictures into talkies, but you’ll still get cast if your voice is okay. You may look fabulous, but… [Adopts squeaky voice.] if you actually talked like this… [Resumes normal voice.] it wouldn’t have worked out. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was it comparable to a lot of the other voice work you’ve done? There was a physical element to it too, right?
CP: There was a complete physical element to it. It was not comparable to voice at all, because with voice, you’re alone in a booth, and somebody might feed you the line of the other character, and you go from there. In performance capture, you’re interacting with other actors in the same situation. You put on this black suit, get a helmet on your head with a camera in your face, get covered with electrodes, and you get into a giant imaginary gray box and perform. Rocks rolling down the hill might be giant pieces of foam catapulted at you. Your imagination has a huge part to play. It was quite fun.
AVC: How does it affect your performance, knowing that what you’re doing is going to look entirely different when it goes up on the screen?
CP: Not at all. Because I wasn’t able to project that far. And we did have a version of instant replay where you could see the environment that your character would be in. You saw yourself moving as the character. We saw it at its most primitive, so you kind of look like a stick figure in blue, and sometimes your hands, would no longer attach to your shoulder, and they’d have to stop and fix some part of your body that didn’t have the electrical wires reading right. Instant playback for me was of no interest, but it was a great deal of interest for the technical people there.
AVC: How does it feel to be part of what is now the biggest moneymaker of all time?
CP: I’m not sure that the moneymaker part is really going to be the benchmark for me. But I certainly felt like I was part of a new technology, and that there’s going to be a change in the way films are viewed in the future. I think that’s already started, even though it’s as simple now as everything has to be in 3-D, so you chuck the 3-D in after you’ve actually made the film. But I think it’s going to move on from there and become probably a fully sensory experience at some point. When I’m dead and gone. [Laughs.]