Alfre Woodard has a brief but powerful appearance in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as Mistress Shaw, a formerly enslaved woman who has risen in the Southern caste system. I had a chance to chat briefly with Woodard to get her thoughts on the film and a few insights from her decades-long acting career.
SHADOW&ACT: Tell me about playing Mistress Shaw.
ALFRE WOODARD: To be able to do Mistress Shaw, not only is it somebody we’ve never met before, but I knew it was going to call upon a deeper level of my skills to pull it off in one scene. This world had to be so fully realized that when we’re not at the Shaw plantation, we can imagine what’s going on just beyond the fences. I didn’t want the train to come off the rails when we switch to the Shaw plantation and go back.
S&A: This is your first feature with Steve McQueen. Tell me about how you came onto the project.
AW: My people rang me and said, “Steve McQueen is doing a movie and he wants you to be in it.”
I said, “Okay, I’m in it.”
And they said, “Well no, you’ve got to read the script.”
I said, “Steve McQueen, right?”
They said, “But it’s just one scene.”
I said, “I’d pull cable for Steve McQueen.”
S&A: So you were already a fan.
AW: The thing that I love about him as a filmmaker is that for viewers, he assumes our intelligence. So he doesn’t have people speak their inner life or subtext out loud. He’s able to take maybe three pages of narrative and cinematically give you all of that information. So that’s what he gives me as a viewer.
S&A: And as an actor?
AW: He always tells you something you can activate, and that’s what a real actor wants. Some people sit around conceptualizing and it’s like, “You know, I can’t act that out. Give me something I can use.”
His mind never shuts off. It’s not chaotic, but images and connections are constantly occurring to him. It’s a beautiful, complex, artistic mind.
S&A: With this film, Django Unchained, Lincoln, Amma Asante’s Belle, and several more films in the works that deal with the situation of slavery, would you call it a trend, that Hollywood seems suddenly interested in telling these stories?
AW: Let me tell you this. Just because there’s about five African-American pictures out within five months, people will also say, “Oh, it’s a Renaissance.” Don’t worry, it’ll dry right back up unfortunately. All of those pictures, all those stories that happen to be placed in a slave economy, people were trying to get them made since I got to Hollywood 39 years ago. Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, everybody’s been trying to tell those stories and the stories of all the decades in between. Stories about people – not about them being black, but about people we know. So it’s not that anything has changed.
S&A: Would you say it’s just a consequence of Django’s box office success, that we’re now seeing more of these films get made?
AW: I’m sure they started going faster once one of them made some money. That’s always the bottom line. And so if this one makes money they’ll say, “Okay, let’s keep going. Let’s put more out.”
But it’s not because Hollywood is suddenly receptive. It’s not because there are suddenly some black people that are going to do the stories, because there have always been black people trying to get all of our stories done. It’s just serendipitous that it happened right now.
S&A: We hear a lot about the scarcity of roles for black actresses. The subject came up again during the OWN special with you, Phylicia Rashad, Viola Davis and Gabrielle Union. On the one hand we hear from actresses that there aren’t enough roles. But from new filmmakers, we hear that there isn’t enough access. Where’s the disconnect in your opinion?
AW: [Filmmakers] can get to any of us very easily, so I don’t buy that. But you’ve got to come strong with those scripts. They can’t be flaky or almost there. We want smart scripts just like everybody else. So maybe somebody is saying no to their project. For me, the reason I said yes to Steve McQueen is because I knew what it was going to be.
S&A: So you’ll consider all kinds of projects, studio or independent?
AW: It’s got to be on the page. It’s got to be solid. I just held up production on Copper because I promised a USC grad student, Ryan Lipscomb, that when I came back from Zimbabwe I would shoot his gun violence PSA. I knew he was smart and I wanted to work with him. My people said, “You better get your butt to Toronto. They’re waiting for you there.” But I promised him I would do it.
The other thing is, it’s not whether there’s roles written for us – which, please writers, write them and go find some money and get them to us – but the reality is that we should be castable for any of the roles that our Caucasian counterparts are castable for. If there are roles, then we should be playing them, not waiting for that one role for an African-American woman where they expect us all to dive on it like in a fish feeding tank. The only person they don’t need to call us about is the queen of England. Helen [Mirren] can have that, Cate Blanchett can have that. But for anything else, we’re just as eligible as all of our white girlfriends.
S&A: Earlier this year we learned about the Fannie Lou Hamer project you’re involved in. Any update on that?
John Sayles is writing and directing the four-hour television presentation of me doing Fannie Lou Hamer. [It deals] especially with the two years around the ’64 Convention. I’m totally psyched about that. We’re in partnership with Sony Pictures Television and what we need is our producing entity, whether it’s network or cable. With the networks, there’s not a lot of bravery happening. But we’re determined to get that done this year.
S&A: What else is next for you?
AW: I’m raising money to do this fabulous script that actually my husband [Roderick Spencer] wrote. He adapted it from a Sheila Williams book called Dancing on the Edge of the Roof. We’ve got such a great script. We hope to be shooting that by next summer, and it’s a really great, funny and poignant film. Stephanie Allain is our producer.