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'12 Years' Star Alfre Woodard: 'You're Never Too Young For The Truth'

Sep 23, 2013
Originally published on September 23, 2013 7:40 pm

Alfre Woodard has been a familiar face on television over the course of her three-decade career. She was up for an Emmy Award on Sunday for her role in the Lifetime remake of Steel Magnolias. She didn't win that one, but she still has on her mantle previous Emmys for programs like The Practice and L.A. Law. Woodard is also a powerful presence on the big screen, as evidenced by her Oscar nomination for the 1983 film Cross Creek and roles in acclaimed features like Primal Fear and Love & Basketball.

Now she returns with a disarming and provocative role in 12 Years a Slave, which opens in theaters next month. It's the highly anticipated film by director Steve McQueen, based on a true story about a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in the 1800s.

Woodard spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about the beauty and brutality of 12 Years a Slave, and how she's not always the serious actress people may see her as.


Interview Highlights

On the hard truth in 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen, he is a very truthful storyteller — not judgmental, not commenting, presenting a truthful situation. And when you do that without blinking, without hedging your bets, that is the thing that people are arrested by. The toughness is that you have no place to go from it. He does shots where he won't pull away. ... I just want people to know that it is the truthfulness that we don't normally get in cinema that makes it uncomfortable. And the violence is never gratuitous. It is the fact of the violence that is a part of our history.

We were a slave economy longer than we've been anything else. But yet, black people don't want to hear about it. They feel shame or anger. White people don't want to hear about it. They say, "We didn't have any money. We didn't own anything. I don't even know these, you know, who the plantation people were." And all the new arrivals in the past 50 years are like, "I don't even know what you all are talking about." So as Americans. we want to be balanced and successful as a nation, as individuals. But we want to deny that we ever had a childhood. What I love about this is this great gift that Steve has given us: It fills that anxious void of us not having any roots, any balance. And so, once we accept it, black people, white people, brown people, everybody will be able to say, "Oh, OK. That's what it is." It's like having a great family secret that was awful and beautiful at the same time told to you when you get to be 11 years old, you suddenly feel, "OK, I'm real. I get it."

And we also watch Solomon [Northup, the film's main character], who we have identified with, go through hell. And he's able to persevere because of his love for his family. That's what he's getting back to. I think it is a triumphant film. And I think when Americans watch this film, we'll have a common language to even have a dialogue, so when things happen like Trayvon [Martin] being murdered, we can actually hear the other person better, and get it that a hoodie means something so comfortable to certain ages and certain parts of our culture, and it means something so dire to another.

On letting children watch 12 Years a Slave

My children are 19 and 22, and when they see it, I want to sit next to them. But I think children are ready to see this at 11. ... Just think back when you were 12. You knew a lot more than you let on to your parents, to people around you. And our kids are exposed to so much more. ... And you're never too young for the truth.

On playing Mistress Harriet Shaw

I live on an adjacent plantation, and I do have my freedom. She is a woman who, like all women during this period, whether they were field slaves, house slaves, white mistresses of households, whoever they were, women had a very tough road to hoe. And you get to see how little actual power they had in the society. But they all figured out a way to use the personal power they had as women to make their lives livable.

On how she chooses roles

The essential thing you have to have as an actor in film, in television, and stage as well, is the ability to process rejection. Because no matter how big you are, you're rejected every day. And you only know us from what we chose from what was offered to us. And so the only power you have as a person who has to wait to be chosen, is to say yes and no. When I pick up a script, if I can get through it engaged and having had an emotional experience just reading as my character, I feel touched by that, and they didn't do something that would insult another human being or their dignity, then I'm in. I don't even discuss the money. Of course that makes my agents and my managers nuts. It was like, "I don't care if they have $50,000 for the whole movie. I'm in if the script's there."

Being a fan of "stupid and wrong" movies, and finding humor in everything

"Wrong" can be really smart as well. So my son has had me sit and watch Jackass with him because he wanted to have what he called quality time, so we'd understand each other [laughs]. And he'll tell me really blue, crazy jokes that he makes up, and I'll guffaw. And then I'll say, "Duncan, you know, I'm your mom. You shouldn't tell that to your friends. You shouldn't tell that to me." And he goes, "Yeah, but I know you'd laugh, Mom." So I do have a rather low sense of humor. But people get out of a piece of material a lot, depending on what they bring to it. So those people who think of me as an incredibly serious actor, those particular things speak to them. ... Actually some of my favorite roles have been, you know, a little wacky. My favorite character to date is Popeye Jackson from Miss Firecracker.

Even when you play a serious person, dramatic person, you have to find the humor even in the tragedy. It is the humor that makes a person real and believable. Because everybody is trying to smile. Everybody wants to feel good. And so, hopefully, I bring a sense of humor to my villainous characters, to the sad ones ... to the questionable ones. But anybody that knows me personally knows that I'm actually bawdy and a little bit profane.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we speak with people who've made a difference through their lives and their work. Now that certainly describes Alfre Woodard. Over the course of her three-decade career, she's been a familiar face on television. She was up for an Emmy Award last night for her role in "Steel Magnolias." She didn't get that one, but she still has, on her mantel, her previous Emmys for work on programs like "The Practice" and "L.A. Law."

And she remains a powerful presence on the movie screen, as evidenced by her Oscar nomination for the 1983 film "Cross Creek" and roles in acclaimed features like "Primal Fear" and "Love & Basketball." Now she's back with a disarming and provocative role in "12 Years a Slave." That's a highly anticipated film based on a true story about a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in the 1800s. Here's a clip from the trailer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

MICHAEL FASSBENDER: (As Edwin Epps) You come here.

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Mr. Epps, I...

FASSBENDER: (As Edwin Epps) I said come here!

EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Days ago, I was with my family and my home. Now you tell me all is lost.

MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: (As Robert) If you want to survive, do and say as little as possible.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) Our soul are are arising...

EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) But I don't want to survive.

ACTORS: (Singing) ...For the healing joy.

EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) I want to live.

PAUL DANO: (As John Tibeats) I thought you know'd (ph) something.

EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) I did as instructed. There's something wrong, it's wrong with the instruction.

SARAH PAULSON: (As Mary Epps) Master brought you here to work. Any more, it'll earn you a hundred lashes.

ALFRE WOODARD: (As Mistress Harriet Shaw) I know what it like to be the object of Master's lashes.

NYONG'O: (As Patsey) No!

WOODARD: (As Mistress Harriet Shaw) In his own time, good Lord will manage them all.

MARTIN: And Alfre Woodard is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

WOODARD: I am so happy to join you.

MARTIN: The new film is already drawing raves at the Toronto Film Festival and other places - people who have seen it. In fact, I cannot think of one negative review of the film, and I'm just wondering, what is it you think people are reacting to so strongly?

WOODARD: First of all, Steve McQueen is, probably - I love him - so I'm going to say the top filmmaker in the world, right now, alive. One of the things that he does with this picture is that he paints such a full landscape of what life was like in a slave economy. And we get snatched into slavery with Solomon Northup, who's a free man living in Saratoga Springs, New York, who gets kidnapped into slavery, and that's the entrance that we, as viewers, take.

MARTIN: It is based on a true story. There is in fact a man named Solomon Northup who was a free black man. He wrote a memoir about it after his escape, and I'm not sure that a lot of people know about this part of the story, that there were free black people that they were in fact kidnapped and sold into slavery. And also, your character is based in historical fact. There were characters like your character, Mistress Harriet Shaw. Could you talk a little bit about her?

WOODARD: I play Mistress Shaw. I live on an adjacent plantation, and I do have my freedom. She is a woman who, like all women during this period, whether they were field slaves, house slaves, white, mistresses of households, whoever they were, women had a very tough road to hoe. And you get to see how little actual power they had in the society, but they all figured out a way to use the personal power they had as women to try to make their lives livable.

MARTIN: This film is very brutal, but there is no doubt that what is being described is real. It is attested to. It's part of historical fact. Do you think that people have an appetite for this?

WOODARD: Steve McQueen, he is a very truthful storyteller, not judgmental, not commenting, presenting a truthful situation. And when you do that without blinking, without hedging your bets, that is the thing that people are arrested by. The toughness is that you have no place to go from it. He does shots where he won't pull away. If you were there with Solomon in real life, there's nowhere to go. So I just want people to know that it is the truthfulness that we don't normally get in cinema that makes it uncomfortable, and the violence is never gratuitous. It is the fact of the violence that is a part of our history.

MARTIN: But isn't that what makes it hard to bear?

WOODARD: We were a slave economy longer than we've been anything else, but yet, black people don't want to hear about it. They feel shame or anger. White people don't want to hear about it. They say, we didn't have any money, we didn't know anything. I don't even know these - you know, who the plantation people were. And all the new arrivals in the past 50 years are, like, you know, I don't even know what you'll are talking about.

So as Americans, we want to be balanced and successful as a nation, as individuals, but we want to deny that we ever had a childhood. What I love about this is this great gift that Steve has given us. It fills that anxious void of us not having any roots, any balance. And so once we accept it - and so black people, white people, brown people, everybody - we'll be able to say, oh, OK, that's what it is. It's like having a great family secret that was awful and beautiful at the same time told to you when you get to be 11-years-old. You suddenly feel, OK, I'm real. I get it. So there's something very settling about it at the same time. There's a beauty in that. And we also watch Solomon, who we have identified with, go through hell and he's able to persevere because of his love of his family. That's what he's getting back to. I think it is a triumphant film, and I think when Americans watch this film, we'll have a common language to even have a dialogue.

So when things happen, like Trayvon being murdered, we can actually hear the other person better and get it that a hoodie means something - something so comfortable to certain ages and certain parts of our culture, and it means something so dire to another.

MARTIN: We're speaking with Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated actress Alfre Woodard. We're talking about her latest role in "12 Years a Slave." Can I ask you this, would you let your own kids watch this film?

WOODARD: Oh, my children are 19 and 22 and I - when they see it, I want to sit next to them. But I think children are ready to see this at 11.

MARTIN: Really?

WOODARD: Yes, they should be. And I also think...

MARTIN: Beatings, whippings, lynchings, rape.

WOODARD: Just think back when you were 12. You knew a lot more than you let on to your parents or the people around you, and our kids are exposed to so much more. So yes, they are. And you're never too young for the truth.

MARTIN: We spoke to you several years ago about your role in "American Violet," which was in 2009. It was a film that was also rooted in truth, in a real situation. You played the mother of a woman who's wrongly jailed on suspicion of drug crimes. It just - it pointed up a big issue, which is what a lot of people feel is like excessive incarceration for minor drug crimes, and so there was that. And then, a lot of movie fans still love you for your role playing Sanaa Lathan's mother in "Love & Basketball," which is one of those kind of beloved films passed from hand to hand. I just want to play a short clip so that, you know, your fans won't be mad at me. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LOVE & BASKETBALL")

WOODARD: (as Camille Wright) Yes, I think decorum is important. And yes, I'd rather bake a pie than shoot a stupid jump-up shot. If that makes me too prissy for you, then that's just too damn bad.

SANAA LATHAN: (as Monica Wright) So that's why we can't get along because I'd rather shoot a stupid jump shot?

WOODARD: (as Camille Wright) You the one who's always turning your nose up at me.

LATHAN: (as Monica Wright) No, I don't.

WOODARD: (as Camille Wright) Oh, yes. Female, superstar athlete whose mother is nothing but a housewife.

LATHAN: (as Monica Wright) That's not it.

WOODARD: (as Camille Wright) Oh, don't tell me you're not ashamed of it because I know.

MARTIN: Rather different. Rather different role than the one you just finished here. What do you love - I mean, what are you drawn to in choosing these roles?

WOODARD: We're still storytellers, and so it has to be the story that grabs me. And I think the writer is queen or king.

MARTIN: Do you like to write yourself?

WOODARD: You know, I've tried writing. It takes me a while to move my plots along because my discipline is specificity as an actor. And so, yeah, I can get kind of bogged down. I enjoy writing political speeches because, first of all, I was a rabble-rouser and I was a cheerleader, so I know how to write those kind of things. But I love good writing.

MARTIN: How do you figure out if a roll is right for you? I mean, given that - just people who know your work, know that the breath of your work - I mean, there's "Private Practice," "Desperate Housewives," "True Blood." You were on "St. Elsewhere" with, you know, another guy who's done pretty well - Denzel Washington. So how do you decide a role is for you?

WOODARD: The essential thing you have to have as an actor in film and television and stage, as well, is the ability to process rejection because no matter how big you are, you're rejected every day. And you only know us from what we chose from what was offered from us.

And so the only power you have, as a person who has to wait to be chosen, is to say yes and no. When I pick up a script, if I can get through it engaged and having had an emotional experience just reading as my character, I feel touched by that and they didn't do something that would insult another human being or their dignity, then I'm in. I don't even discuss the money. Of course, that makes my agents and my managers nuts. It was, like, I don't care if they only have $50,000 for the whole movie. I'm in if the script's there.

MARTIN: You grew up in a time when there weren't as many roles for actresses like you. And does the world feel different now? Does it feel as if it's more expansive, more inclusive than it was when you started out or not?

WOODARD: Certainly, it's more expansive than when I started out. And maybe if I had known that I couldn't be everything that my contemporaries could be - the Caucasian ladies that were my age - I actually believed that it would be the same if we were prepared. So maybe if I knew that, I wouldn't have gone into it. But I thought I could be the princesses that they were. Rude awakening. But certainly, but then - again, talk about women doing what they have to do to make their presence known. So I wanted to - I went away to train.

My orientation was for film, that's why I joined this whole circus. But I found that if that door wasn't opened, I had to check the windows, check the back door, and if necessary, walk through the walls. And that's when I realized, what is it that you want? You wanted to do film for what reason? And I realized it was to tell a story, to have people come home, sit down after a long day and sit in their drawers and give them something that would make them feel good, make them laugh, make them cry, make them reflect, whatever it is. And so then I understood, it didn't necessarily have to be on that particular screen. It could be another screen. I could be - and now I know it could be held in their hands. So that's when I understood deeper, your dreams mature as you know more. I got to have the whole banquet. I got to taste the whole feast because of that limitation. But now, as things have gone on, I love seeing all my little young nieces and sisters doing all kinds of things, even making mistakes. You know, living for the cover of some things that have to be put in the back of a store.

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm afraid so.

WOODARD: You know.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that.

WOODARD: I love the fact that we can be everywhere like everybody else. But let me tell you something, Michel, that I'm waiting to see is - this will really tell us where we are - Lupita Nyong'o is so full of grace and beauty and talent and skill. And this is a - talk about a role to launch somebody. And she is chocolate brown. She's Kenyan. We will know where we are to see where Lupita is - this launch goes for her. Then we'll know.

MARTIN: If things have really changed.

WOODARD: Yeah.

MARTIN: One of the television writers said that your presence on the credits is a kind of seal of quality. Your work is beloved, but I - you're beloved as a figure who brings always many layers and great dignity to a role and seriousness. But I wonder, do you ever wish that you could've done "Jackass" or something like that, or just something totally stupid and wrong?

WOODARD: Well, you know, I'm a fan of stupid and wrong, as well. Wrong can be really smart, as well, so. My son has had me sit and watch "Jackass" with him because he wanted to have, what he called, quality time, so we'd understand each other. And he'll tell me really blue, crazy jokes that he makes up and I'll guffaw. And then I'll say, Duncan, you know, I'm your mom, you should tell that to your friends, you shouldn't tell that to me. And he goes, yeah, but I knew you'd laugh, mom. So I do have a rather low sense of humor. But people get out of a piece of material a lot depending on what they bring to it. So those people that think of me as an incredibly serious actor, those particular things spoke to them. I have played roles - actually, some of my favorite roles have been, you know, a little wacky.

My favorite character to date is Popeye Jackson from "Miss Firecracker." She's closer to my sense of humor and the kind of friends I like. I have lots of very intelligent friends, but Popeye is - that's who I am. Even when you play a serious person, dramatic person, I always - you have to find the humor, even in the tragedy. It is the humor that makes a person real and believable because everybody is trying to smile. Everybody wants to feel good and so, hopefully, I think I bring a sense of humor to my villainous characters, to the sad ones, like "Miss Evers' Boys," to the questionable ones. But I'm really - anybody that knows me, knows that I'm - knows me personally - knows that I'm actually bawdy and a little bit profane.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, do you have any more wisdom to share? You've been dropping some knowledge throughout our conversation. Do you have any more wisdom that you want to share today?

WOODARD: You know, I want to say, when you said wisdom, I was thinking, uh-oh, what am I doing here? I think, again, this film "12 Years a Slave," it gives us our family history. I was saying with a friend the other day, "Roots" was, like, the world discovered that the Africans in America had families. And "12 Years a Slave" puts pictures on the pages of that family album, and it puts our faces inside those pictures, no matter what color you are or what your economic status.

MARTIN: Alfre Woodard's latest film is "12 Years a Slave," and she was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Alfre Woodard, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.

WOODARD: Thank you. I enjoy you so much.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.