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Months of Meryl: THE RIVER WILD

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Interview: Alfre Woodard on Her Favorite Roles

Alfre Woodard has been an American treasure on screens large and small since the early 80s when she first broke through in a big way with her Oscar nominated supporting role as "Geechee" in Martin Ritt's Cross Creek (1983). Yesterday we learned that Alfre will be co-starring in a new series pilot "State of Affairs" starring Katharine Heigl as a CIA Operative. Woodard is tapped to play none other than the President of the United States who Heigl counsels.

That'd be shocking given how slowly American politics moves toward inclusiveness, were it not for Woodard's natural gravitas. Last year, that formidable screen presence was put to uncommonly good use as the fascinating Mistress Shaw, a slave who married her master, in the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. We recently celebrated that small but pivotal role right here in our own awards.

With 12 Years now on DVD and the announcement of her new role, it seemed like a perfect time to look back on her career beginning with that amazing cameo and working our way backward to her favorite roles. They might surprise you...

Alfre Woodard in Cross Creek (1983)

NATHANIEL R: The first time I saw 12 Years a Slave I was waiting for you to show up the whole time and then you're only in one scene!


But you're so great in it. It's one of those scenes that people are going to be parsing for a long time, because there's so much that's implied in it, and it's an atypical scene for the movie, too.

ALFRE WOODARD: I think one of the reasons that Steve asked me to do it was that he -- man, that train was rolling, it builds up to get to Epps' plantation. If we're going to take a shift and leave that plantation, it's going to have to be solid enough that you believe it existed this whole time, it was happening over there, and then when we go back, that it's still existing. Especially since it sets up a pivotal scene for Patsey and Epps and Platt.

So I think he trusted that I could weigh that scene with its proper weight and sense of reality in one fell swoop! [Laughter]

So how much preparation do you do for something like that -- you just have a brief moment to sell it.

Well I need to know --  I need to absolutely find the person, the human being. I can't act it, I can't just say a line. I have to find a person, I have to find Mistress Shaw, and have her be alive for myself before they come over. And so that's a matter of taking what's written, thinking historically, thinking culturally, thinking regionally, and finding her voice, the tempo of her voice.

The fact that she is the mistress and it's an unusual situation. Thinking about that, knowing that she doesn't have -- nobody else is going to invite her over for bridge. And you know she has to be above the people that she's lording over now so, other women in the house, she can't sit down and have tea with them. She could choose somebody else, maybe the housewoman for another plantation? But she recognizes Patsey's nobility and Patsey's … the specialness about her. She has a way of finding her own elite. But because she sees this brutality that's happening, she wants to pass on to Patsey the information about the good life. 'You don't have to do this, you've got power, I can see it. Everybody sees your power,' although she's the lowest person on the totem pole. 

She doesn't know anything about Platt, about his whole history, but she senses 'he knows more words than my husband and Master Epps' and so she wants him there. 

It's a fascinating scene because it lays bare hierarchies within heirarchies which is also depressing because of the inhumanity, all the layers.

Gather more than two people and there will be persons above you, you'll aspire to be a person above that. But meanwhile, let me see who's below me so I won't feel that bad. It's all about hierarchy.

Your career has been amazing and long - an Oscar nom, you've won a few Emmys. What do you think is the secret to your longevity?

Well... I'm going to say I don't know.

But you've been working steadily since the 1970s 

[Thinking] I've never been really accepted commercially. I've never been embraced by the commercial establishment. I get awards and nominations, I get recognized, but in terms of casting -- Did you know, I'm the only black person over 45 who was in town and was not in Roots? They never asked to see me! So when I say "not accepted" [Laughing].

So, people like Bob Altman gave me my first job. And so it's always been those kind of people like Steve McQueen.

Real artists.

So that's why it was so exciting when I recognized him. They're the ones that brought me in. And once regular people saw me, they felt my work. So they would say, 'Where's Alfre Woodard? Why can't Alfre Woodard be in that?' That's how I've gotten and stayed present. But also I've always made choices about, when I'm offered something, I don't [just] take it. I still make the choice about whether to do it. I have never taken a job just to have a job, even though sometimes I needed to financially. But then, every three or four years in the past twenty, I'm conscious of choosing things to introduce myself to the next generation. So the people 15 to 25 know me and the people 25 to 35 know me but for certain things. I always make sure I do something that introduces me to the next generation. 

Alfre and Mary McDonnell were a dynamic pairing in "Passionfish"

Someone told me to beg you to do a sequel to Passion Fish, which made me laugh but got me thinking about Chantelle. Do you ever revisit your characters and your work?

I never, ever -- when I see a film, in a cast and crew screening, I never go back and watch it again. The only thing is in the past couple of years, I screened Crooklyn in Nairobi with some film students I was working with. I hadn't seen that in years. So I don't go back and see my things, it's very interesting.

BUT I have, right now, John Sayles is going to write and direct a Fanny Lou Hamer four hour tv project where we're talking to people, we're trying to find the network. So I will be with John again! 

That's awesome. One more question, if someone were programming an Alfre Woodard film festival, what three things are you most proud of that you would love to be shown? 

Oh god! My character I did in Holiday Heart, "Wanda", I loved that character. Um, god, I don't know. It could be any number of things. I can't do just three. Okay. Miss Evers' Boys, um, um, um, Passion Fish, Bopha, that Morgan Freeman directed me in with Danny [Glover], Miss Firecracker.

Yes! Nobody talks about that one anymore but it's such a fun movie.

That's my favorite character I've ever done, "Popeye Jackson". Oh man! Now that I've named someone, I always feel like so and so reads it and theirs isn't in there it'll be awful.


Thanks, darling! 

Alfre Woodard and Mary Steenburgen in "Miss Firecracker"

Previous Interviews
Best Cameos 2013 

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Reader Comments (19)

My favourite Alfre Woodard is in Heart and Souls :)

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterIan

Still flummoxed that she didn't get Oscar attention for Passion Fish. That film is so so great, one of the best of the '90s for sure.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

I love Alfre Woodard. But very disappointed she selected Holiday Heart as a film to highlight work she's personally fond of. The film is bad and my resentment towards it is primarily how her character goes from a recovered addict to a prostituting relapsed addict who is murdered by her pimp when he runs over her in his car.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I love Alfre! I think my favourite Alfre performance is opposite Patrick Stewart in Star Trek First Contact. 'Blow up the damn ship!!'

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterchoog

Loved her for years. I remember when I first saw her on St. Elsewhere, she wasn't on for long but she made such an impression on me. The fact that she doesn't have an Oscar and Halle Berry does makes my head hurt.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

She's an actress I always love seeing in whatever films she pops up. "Heart and Souls," which Ian mentioned above, is a favorite of mine from my youth. She has such a warm presence in so many of her films.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Great interview! I love Alfre Woodard. She should have won the Oscar for Cross Creek. And I agree with everyone that she should have at least been nominated for Passion Fish. Such a great performance and movie. Another great film she was in is Love & Basketball. She has a pivotal scene in that one too.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

Now I finally get why she did that thankless role on Desperate Housewives.
To introduce herself to a new generation.

Poor Alfre. Nobody pays her the attention she deserves.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJay

Nice interview! She's so good in Miss Evers' Boys.

I guess you all realize that our beloved Marisa Tomei took her spot back in 1992.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I love her work so much, one of those rare actors that whenever they are on screen you feel like you are in safe hands and can just relax and enjoy the performance.

March 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRami

Popeye is definitely my favorite Alfre Woodard character; I'm thrilled to know it's also hers!

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRyan Crowe

This is wonderful for so many reasons, not the least of which being that now I have a whole list of must see Alfre Woodard films. Miss Firecracker here I come.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

No, Peggy Sue, it was Catherine Deneuve/Michelle Pfeiffer/Susan Sarandon who took her spot back in 1992. The fact she was black and playing a nurse/maid to Mary McDonnell's white, rich employer didn't mean her role was in any way, shape or form a supporting one. Both her and McDonnell should have been nominated together as leads, the way Sarandon and Davis were the year before.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterUA

UA -- Not at all :)

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

UA -- but in Oscar parlance, even back then, she was considered supporting, as untrue as that maybe was.

March 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

That's what I meant. Also: Susan & Pfeiffer were (rightfully) locks.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Woodard was campaigned supporting for Passion Fish. She received a Golden Globe nomination (her first of three) and later won the Independent Spirit award.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Yeah-it was Tomei who took Woodard's spot. I am sure Vanessa Redgrave and Judy Davis wish she had been nominated too.

March 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Passion Fish was the first time I was really aware of her beauty as a talent. The scene at the side of the road with her daughter and father is stuck in my mind and I have ever since gone out of my way to see projects she is in. I even watched Memphis Blues to see her (she was terrific and very believable). I also loved her judge in Primal Fear. I think I would watch her read a phone book.

March 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

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