Actress Alfre Woodard is no stranger to trophies. A former track star, she’s won more Emmys than any other black actress – four. To add, she has three SAG statues, nine NAACP image awards, one Golden Globe, and has been nominated for an Oscar once. Her latest film, 12 Years a Slave, seems to be also headed toward awards, being favored for Oscar nominations in the best picture, actor, and director categories. On a breezy fall day, ready to discuss her tiny, yet overwhelmingly disturbing role as Mistress Shaw, a white slave owner’s wife, Alfre allowed The Shadow League to enter her personal space and ask three main questions. What follows is an honest, yet brief discussion on acting, healing, and needy black people.
Raqiyah: In 12 Years a Slave, you play a woman ─ a former slave ─ who marries the plantation owner, her former rapist. But she happily embraces it. As an actress, what did you need to do to exude the emotions of Mistress Shaw?
ALFRE: The only time that I was [on set] was about 5 days. I wouldn't go to set until it was my house, at that day, because I did not want to be effected by the life that they were living. And having to recreate Mistress Shaw, I needed her to be happily oblivious. She lives in oblivion. She has her own reality. And I knew I had a very short moment to establish a world so complete that when Steve [McQueen] switches away from Solomon, the story is in full scheme. I didn't want the wheels to fall off the train. So it had to be complete enough that it makes it work switching, so when we go back we feel like Mistress Shaw's world is still going on next door. And I really had to be weighty enough. When I say weighty, I just mean grounded enough, so that the pivotal scene with Patsey and Epps, it had to be able to inform that. So I had to find [Mistress Shaw], completely flesh her out, and know who she was, so I could lock right into her and her desires.
RM: Some actors drink and medicate, others meditate when they need to remove themselves from a role. How did you do that, after making a movie like this, with a role like that? How did you find solace?
AW: [While watching the film] the only time I wept or I sobbed is when that woman says, 'Go down to the river.'
She starts mimicking sobbing.
That's what gets me and I think it's because I know that voice. And whether I am religious or not, whether I went to school in Boston, whether I didn't grow up on a farm or not, it is in my DNA that is the bond. That's the solace for my people, from my mom, grandmother, all the way back. Especially my mother's people, because they were sharecroppers. And so that's when I lose it. Through the beating, the sexual attack. My sobbing comes with that song.
RM: Music can definitely soothe the soul and bring out emotions.
AW: Because sometimes when you're feeling emotional or you're feeling something… I bring out Walela. Do you know Walela? W-A-L-E-L-A.
AW: Get their first album. Walela is Rita Coolidge. Rita, her sister, and her cousin. They're Cherokee and they do their rock and roll ladies album. And whenever I'm feeling certain things, I put that album on because it makes me weep. It makes me weep in a way of strength gathering and honoring the past. And I'm gonna want to see this film when I'm low about something else. Because in the end, it is about… There's a reason we are sitting here and how black people try to feel ashamed about slavery. Slavery is the most triumphant fucking thing, excuse my language, it’s the most triumphant fucking thing in modern history that as African-Americans we are walking around being who we are, doing what we want to. When that was the place we found a way out. I mean, it’s like you can’t possibly fail! Look at the people you are descended from? Get real ya’ll! But we don’t look at it, we go, ‘Oh, I don’t want to hear about slavery.’ And white people go, ‘I wasn’t there, don’t blame me.’ But it’s like that’s all of our history, it’s a family story.
RM: A dysfunctional family. But we are all connected.
AW: Not just connected, we are all blood relatives.
RM: True. So, let me ask one final question. There’s Oscar buzz on this film. And you’ve been nominated before. You’ve won numerous awards. But there are some African-Americans that are like, ‘Oh, are they gonna give another Oscar to someone who played a slave?’ And whether Chiwetel Ejiofor wins or not, he deserves that nomination because he killed it. We know this. But when you hear that criticism over the types of characters that win black people acting awards, what do you think?
AW: Yeah, we are so needy as a people. And we are needy as individuals of color in this country because we just never get what we need. And so we put our desires and needs and expectations on our artists, on our athletes, on our financiers who screw up and we’re like we feel bad when they fail. It’s like that was our daddy or that was us. We are all so needy of images and success and validation in modern culture. But yes, all those people that are complaining, what I want them to do… We’ve got tons of scripts and stories to tell. I’ve been in Hollywood for years, everyday running into Sydney [Poitier], and everybody in town, telling these great stories. Not even historical, but about the people we know and just how complex we are. You tell all those people that don’t want somebody to get an Oscar because they deserve it, because they are the preeminent performance of the year, tell them to pool all their money together and come talk to us because we got scripts about all kinds of people. But if they’re not going to help us raise money to do our scripts, then they get what people are willing to put their money on. And how dare they do that with this?! This is like saying, ‘I’m now 18, I’m moving to New York, and I’m gonna be fabulous, and I’m gonna make myself up from here.’ What about from 1 up to 18? Are you going to deny your childhood? And that’s what people want to do, black and white people. If they don’t want to open the family album, they want to be embarrassed or ashamed, then they’re never gonna be balanced and healthy. And their success is gonna be hollow and they’re constantly going to be out of sorts because they’re in denial of our family, of our childhood. And there’s nothing but triumph in our brutal and beautiful childhood as a nation.
(SEE THE REVIEW ON 12 Years a Slave: REEL TALK: 12 Years a Slave)