With a brief but powerful appearance in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave”, Alfre Woodard’s role as a slave-turned-plantation mistress is one of the more memorable scenes in the epic film, which chronicles the true story of a 1800’s free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped into slavery. The multi-award winning Oklahoma native known for her serious roles, such as in “Miss Evers’ Boys,” “Love & Basketball,” “Desperate Housewives,” “The Family That Prey’s” & most recently “Steel Magnolias” discusses her latest role.
Q: When you first read the part of mistress Shaw, what did you think of her and what did you want to bring to the screen?
A: I immediately knew her. She is a woman who, like all women during this period – whether they were field slaves, house slaves, white mistresses of households - 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. One of the many things that the film brings out for me is how women have always done whatever they needed to do to have a life that they feel is comfortable for them, is decent for them, and provides for their children.
Q: What do you remember about being raised in Texas and North Tulsa during segregation?
A: There was a vibrant African American community, a strong middle class, and the working-class people all had jobs and houses and daddies. I was a Girl Scout. I remember every teacher. They cracked the whip in their pumps and suits every day. People looked at you and expected things from you, and when that happens in life, you deliver. I saw millionaires driving to work. I saw entrepreneurs and shopkeepers and lawyers. Black kids back then got to see every kind of life and make their own choices. Now we are economically segregated. And generations of kids are growing up without seeing people in their neighborhoods succeeding. Yes, our country was segregated. But I didn’t know that as a child. Our communities were these enclaves where amazing things happened all the time. I wasn’t called “the n word” until I was in college in Boston.
Q: How do you choose your roles?
A: When I pick up a script, if I can get through it engaged and having had an emotional experience just reading as my character, if 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. I don’t care if they have $50,000 for the whole movie. I’m in if the script’s there.
Q: What are the challenges?
A: 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.