Alfre Woodard has had an amazing career in film, TV and on stage. She’s been nominated for 18 Emmy Awards (winning four) and an Oscar (yes, only once), but more importantly, she’s been an omnipresent actor for the last forty years, bringing to life a variety of nuanced characters in culturally vital works.
She began her career doing DC theater and made a splash in the seminal off-Broadway play, For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, in 1977. It was in this production, that Robert Altman may or may not have seen, but was made aware of her talent and would go on to cast her in his little-seen but prescient film, HealtH. She made her film debut in Altman protege Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name, in 1978, and has appeared in films such as, Martin Ritt’s Cross Creek (her sole Oscar nomination), Extremities, Scrooged, Grand Canyon, Passion Fish, Crooklyn, Primal Fear, Mumford,” and the Oscar-winning, 12 Years a Slave.
Her endless list of TV credits includes, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere, L.A. Law, Mandela, Miss Evers’ Boys, Desperate Housewives” and an all-black version of Steel Magnolias, where she played Ouiser.
Woodard is also an activist fighting to combat AIDS in Africa as well as being a vociferous supporter of LGBTQ rights and gay marriage. In addition, she founded Alfre Woodard’s Sistahs’ Soiree, a celebration of women of color working in Hollywood, which takes place in conjunction with the culmination of Awards Season.
Her new indie drama, Clemency, bowed at Sundance earlier in the year and won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the film is a searing and uncompromising look at death row executions and the toll it takes particularly on a prison warden, Bernadine Williams (Woodard). The film begins with a botched execution and is unrelenting in its intricate depiction of the psychological and emotional turmoil that the job inflicts. Woodard has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Lead Actress for her role. And her precise and complex performance has justly place her in the Oscar conversation.
Awards Daily had the pleasure of speaking with Woodard while on a publicity tour for Clemency.
Awards Daily: Usually when there’s a movie that takes place in a prison setting it’s about the convicts –whether they’re guilty or innocent—even with death row films. We rarely see a film about the people in charge and the toll it takes on them. Was this a factor in your wanting to do it?
Alfre Woodard: That was absolutely the reason to do the film. It was a side of the story that, not only had I never considered, I didn’t know it existed…I’m an educated woman and I didn’t know there were woman wardens…And then to know that the story was going to be told looking out from this person’s eyes…One of the pluses of being an actor is that all of your life you’re in a constant state of learning…We’d been debating the death penalty, the pros and cons, for generations. We just crossed into a period where the majority of Americans are against the death penalty for various reasons, from its morality…we keep screwing up…So it’s in the atmosphere that something is wrong. We are probably feeling the soul stain of it as well because so many people are exonerated. After they’ve been put to death we find DNA evidence revealed to us that they didn’t do what they were put to death for…
And I just thought, this is a critical element, what it does to the people that we charge with carrying it out. That they have a PTSD rate that it is sometimes equal to people on multiple deployments, militarily. That is something people need to know. That’s a truth. And when lives are in the balance, you want all the facts to be able to make a judgment that your soul can sit with.
AD: Can you speak a little bit about Bernadine, who she is and her journey in the film to near-devastation?
AW: She’s good at her job. And her job is to keep order, keep everything running well with respect and dignity across the board, for the incarcerated and the incarcerators. She has come to it from the mental health profession…who better to administrate or regulate this very unnatural situation of housing—caging—human beings. And just like the animals that we are, caging an animal does not portend well, it only heightens the anxiety. So having a person whose business is learning how to work the psychology, to keep balance and to keep a structure going–they’ve seen it all working in those professions so Bernadine is balanced.
Her compassion comes out because that is what she can give to the situation. It’s going to go on with or without her. You don’t want somebody volatile, somebody shaky, somebody who can be talked out of protocol in that position because everything goes off the rails then. She’s confident in her ability. She makes that contract with each person that she sees through the process: I’ll take you all the way through with dignity. Every warden I met—I met with three women wardens, a deputy warden, the director of corrections for the state…They said they never took somebody through the process who didn’t thank them. People need to know that. That’s how complex this situation is. That’s how intimate that relationship is because when people are on the Row they’ve been there for at least ten years–sometimes up to twenty years before they exhaust their appeals. (Timothy) McVeigh was a grandstander so he wanted to go out right away. So it’s basically turning around one day and saying, ‘Okay, Jim, we gotta take you out.” That’s how traumatic it is. That’s why they wait for that phone call as intensely as victim’s families and as the families of the condemned. So we see her at a moment where she was able to keep all that together and be able to be balanced with that in her own mind, her own soul…We find her at a moment of crisis and then it spirals from there.
AD: I got the feeling the inmates were like her children.
AW: I must say something that I observed in walking through medium security prisons and maximum and medium men’s security prisons and the Row and I brought it to Bernadine is that I saw the girl in each one of those inmates. I saw the boy. No matter if they were 40, 50 years old or 20, I saw that youth, that abandoned youth. That youth without art in their school, without a teacher that insisted that you learn how to read—all the places where we breakdown…So as I was playing her, a woman who has been in the mental health field, I recognized—she recognizes—first of all, a human being. And she recognizes the damage.
AD: Clemency sometimes operates as a silent film where you convey everything to the audience via expression and body language. Was that something you realized going in?
AW: Well, I saw the script and it was not full of chat and chatter. And one of the things that I believe as an actor and I observe it in life, is that life happens between the lines. And a lot of directors and filmmakers don’t trust that. Somebody’s talking and they cut to the person talking. But the most interesting thing is how somebody receives something. Acting, at its core, is listening and responding so [the camera] being on a person while they’re listening tells you much more than being on their face while they’re talking.
I knew that Chinonye wanted to pace this in a way that really reflected the sense of time. Everybody’s serving time. The people that come to work every day have to check into so many levels of security that when you go inside your breath starts to shorten, even as a visitor…So they’re serving time. She used that time. And also we watched the clocks a lot because that’s a lifeline. When the governor might call. Everything is protocol so we have to note down to the minute when certain things happen. So I knew that and I believe in silent speaking and I certainly believe that you learn more watching a face that is not speaking than you do watching one that is verbal.
AD: I have to ask you about working with the great Robert Altman on HealtH, which is one of my favorite films.
AW: (bursts into laughter) Oh my God, I love it! I love HealtH! I met Bob—I had done for colored girls down at the Taper and Bob said he saw it—I don’t even know if he saw it, it might have been Scotty Bushnell (Altman’s producer). One of them saw it and they called me in.
I remember sitting in the dressing room, we had different colored dressing rooms, and we’d sit in our underpants in between shows just chatting and Beverly, one of the girls, said, ‘I really wanna do commercials, that’s my dream.’ She was a very pretty girl. And then Candy Brown was a Broadway baby and she had danced with Gwen Verdon and Shirley MacLaine, she was very bubbly and she said, ‘I wanna do a sitcom.’ And I said that my long-range goal is to one day work for Robert Altman. And they said, ‘who?’ And I started to click off the list of [his movies] and nobody knew what I was talking about.
Six weeks later I got a call to come and meet Bob.
Lionsgate then was Altman’s company…I walked in and I saw this kind of crumpled up man, his clothes all wrinkly, he had on a fishing hat. I thought he was a street guy. He turns around and it’s just the bluest eyes that frankly pierced my vision when I looked into them. And it was Paul Newman! I had my hair braided and he said, ‘Can I touch your braids.’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And he asked me, ‘Do you think I could get my hair done like this?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, my girl can do anything. ‘I went home and said, ‘I am never washing my hair again. Paul Newman touched it!’ He was there arguing with Bob about money he owed him because it was the World Series. I was there about three or four hours. They fed me. I was hanging out and all of a sudden Bob says, ‘So, do you wanna work with me or not? You wanna be in a movie?’ My heart was just—it exploded–but I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And he said, ‘Okay, I didn’t know if you were one of those theatre snobs that didn’t like movies. And I said, ‘Oh no, I’m good.’
AD: That led to your first feature…
AW: It was Alan Rudolph’s first or second film called, Remember My Name with Geraldine Chaplin, Tony Perkins, Berry Berenson and Jeff Goldblum! And after that you get pulled into the troop. I remember Bob calling me and saying, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ And he said, ‘Come down to Florida. We’re shooting a movie. I got something that might just be a glorified extra role but let’s see what you can do with it.’ And I went down there and it was Betty Bacall, James Garner, Glenda Jackson, who I got the joy of seeing onstage in the past couple of years because she went into Parliament up until a few years ago, and Carol Burnett!
And there was a health convention, this is a precursor to all that came after, our obsession with health food and trends…But he would yell, get dressed, everyone come down to the ballroom. And there would be a scene happening and he would say, ‘Go in the scene and just don’t let Willow (Diane Stilwell’s character) out of the room.’ That’s how he directed, by throwing people in. Oh man, I loved him. He also directed me in a [play] called Two By South. Frank South wrote these two one acts that worked together and mine was called, Precious Blood. He’s my hero, my cinematic godfather. I loved having him as a person, an influence and an adult that I could spar with when I came to town.
AW: Your Oscar nomination came in 1984 for Cross Creek. Can you tell me about that experience?
AW: I’ll tell you something, I didn’t even know what the Academy was when I got a nomination in ’84. I’d done [Cross Creek] with Marty Ritt, my other anchor and godfather in the business and that morning, at 4AM, my best friend passed on from AIDS. I had just come home from them unhooking him. And I got a call from my then agent, David Eidenberg. And he said that I got a nomination. I said, ‘Oh great, now, how did I get it? I knew there was such a thing as the Oscars but we didn’t have that need-to-know thing that Americans have now. They want to know EVERYTHING. So he told me about the Academy. I got off the phone and…I didn’t know where to put any of that. I was excited about it. I was mourning the loss of my best friend after watching him, just, disintegrate. I lived in Manhattan Beach about five blocks up from the water. So I ran down and I jumped in the ocean in my clothes and I cried.
When I went to the Oscars, it used to be at the Dorothy Chandler [Pavillion]. It was like being… there’s this film called, Day of the Locust, where all hell is breaking loose in Hollywood. It’s a great film. It was like you were at Cirque du Soleil, the Super Bowl, the opera and Mardi Gras–at the same time. It was just crazy! And there were people with signs, jumping in front of your limo, saying, ‘Hollywood Scum, you’re going to burn in hell…it was just crazy, fun and wild!
AD: What are your thoughts on the Awards Season today?
AW: You know the best think about being in the buzz this year? Independent films depend on buzz. We don’t have the money. We don’t have the muscle of studios and big production companies behind us…So just that buzz that you get from film festivals and thank God for social media…you get the word out that way. So having buzz is gold for you because it keeps your film and the discussion of what it’s about in the atmosphere. So…buzz away!
Clemency opens in theaters on December 27. 2019