Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Angela Bassett is an intimidating force before you're even in the same room with her. Although she's been in a bad movie or two, I think it's fair to say that she has never turned in a sub-par performance. Like most of America, I first took notice of her as the mother in BOYZ N THE HOOD, the first of three films she made with Laurence Fishburne, including the groundbreaking Tina Turner biopic WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT.
In addition to Turner, Bassett has played some truly iconic roles in her career, including Betty Shabazz in both MALCOLM X and PANTHER, Katherine Jackson in THE JACKSONS: AN AMERICAN DREAM, Rosa Parks in THE ROSA PARKS STORY for T.V., and the Notorious B.I.G.'s mother, Voletta Wallace, in NOTORIOUS. She's worked multiple with directors as diverse as John Sayles and Wes Craven, and has been working steadily on T.V., stage, and the big screening for more than two decades.
A sampling of her work includes PASSION FISH, INNOCENT BLOOD, STRANGE DAYS, CONTACT, VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, MUSIC OF THE HEART, WAITING TO EXHALE, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK, SUPERNOVA, THE SCORE, RUBY'S BUCKET OF BLOOD, SUNSHINE STATE, MR. 3000, AKEELAH AND THE BEE, MEET THE BROWNS, and an extended run on "E.R." She was also called upon to play Michelle Obama's voice last season on "The Simpsons," and she'll have a small but important role in GREEN LANTERN as Dr. Amanda Waller (a role also played by Pam Grier on "Smallville").
The movie that brought up together is the surprisingly effective JUMPING THE BROOM, about two very different African-American families coming together for a wedding on Martha's Vineyard. Bassett plays the matriarch of the Watsons, a well-off family that clashes with the Taylors, led by Bassett's old friend Loretta Devine. Everything about Bassett in person screams class, intelligence, beauty, and dignity. Not to mention, she's an extremely nice lady. Hope you enjoy my chat with Angela Bassett…
Capone: Hi, it's great to meet you.
Angela Bassett: Hi Steve. Thank you.
Capone: Watching the movie last night, it occurred to me there were a lot of theater veterans in this movie.
AB: Yes, Valarie Pettiford, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Loretta Devine.
Capone: And you. Were any of those people people you had worked with on stage before? I know you have worked Loretta in films before…
AB: No, no not on stage. I had just worked with Loretta and Brian.
Capone: What did you work on with Brian?
AB: RUBY’S BUCKET OF BLOOD.
Capone: Oh right, on Showtime. I loved that. That actually played at the Chicago Film Festival before it was on Showtime.
AB: Oh, okay. Yeah, so I had a great time. When they were casting this and looking for my husband, I was like, “I know the guy.”
Capone: So you actually recommended him?
AB: Well actually, to be honest, as the breath of recommending him was leaving my lips, they came up with his name, so all I had to do was concur and I did. “What about….” “Yeah!” “Oh, yaw'll know what yaw'll doing, this is going to be alright.”
Capone: Can you sort of explain the title and explain the tradition of jumping the broom?
AB: It's an African American tradition that dates back to slavery, when slaves were not allowed to marry. So, in order to make family they would “jump over the broom,” or I guess over the threshold or whatever it might be, but the broom symbolizing the threshold, that they were a union.
Capone: Is there a significance of having it be a broom? Did it have something to do with it being sort of a tool of the trade at that time?
AB: Maybe. Now that specifically, I don’t know, so I don’t want to tell any tales.
Capone: Okay. I think you are one of the best actors on the planet at playing a character with pent-up anger.
Capone: Yeah. What do you conjure to get to that place?
AB: When did I do it?
Capone: In this movie?
Capone: I just feel like your layered with it all of the time, but especially in the scenes with you husband.
AB: Just all the time? [laughs] Oh, okay!
Capone: Maybe “anger” is the wrong word, but there is definitely an angst in her life. No, I think “anger” is the right word.
AB: Pent up. Yeah, you're right. I think of it as righteous indignation. “We ought to do better than this. [Angrily yells] “Than this!”
Capone: The film reminds me of a soap opera that’s got this cast of wonderful actors that you don’t usually see in a soap opera, because there’s a lot of melodrama.
AB: It was a great gumbo, just a great stew. You're familiar with these actors, maybe you have seen them in other things, but this was just a very… I don’t know, just a great stew. Their various strengths brought to bare their humor, their charm, their talents. He was a wonderful director, Salim Akil, and he saw something in each of us I guess that he wanted to highlight.
Capone: How did he find you, because I know this is his first feature film that he has done, although he’s done a lot of television.
AB: We met over coffee, because I had not met him. I have met a lot of people, but I had not met the wonderful Salim Akil. I'd seen his name on the credits of the projects that he and his wife did, the television show "The Game," and stuff like that, but I hadn’t watched "THE GAME," maybe an episode or something like that, but then I’m usually watching an actor maybe. So when I got a call, I said “Sure, I would love to meet him,” and we sat down over a cup of coffee, and you just vibe, just get a vibe off someone, and he was a very decent, collaborative, smart guy. So if you are going to take a chance take a chance on a decent, collaborative, smart guy, and it might turn out all right and it did.
Capone: Well when you work in an ensemble like this, what do you get from that? Are you still someone who is still learning from others in terms of acting?
AB: I’m always watching. I’m always watching others, watching the work, and I’m always trying to finesse the work. I’m always trying to make it better, better myself and always trying to feed to the actor that I’m working with, whatever it is. Just seeing it in the kitchen between the daughter and the mom, just trying to work, just trying to hit some for-real notes, you know?
Capone: Loretta Devine is one of my absolute favorite people on the planet; I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her before, and you've worked with her before. In fact, watching this movie, I could not help but think of that scene in WAITING TO EXHALE where you said “Don’t get fucking married,” and you're saying it to her, which I think is the funniest thing about it.
AB: [laughs] That's right, right.
Capone: And I’m just thinking, “This is just sort of an extension of that thought pattern.” What do you get from her? What do you learn from her when you work with her.
AB: With her it just seems to be ease, just ease and comfort in her skin you know, and I love the musicality in her voice, in her rhythms, just rhythms.
Capone: I love hearing her laugh too. She has a great laugh.
AB: Yeah, almost like a little girl.
Capone: That’s right. It upsets me seeing her play such a nasty person like this.
AB: [laughs] Oh, but she did it with such relish. You know what, I like the casting of her. I remember that and I was like asking him, “So who are you going to get for Mrs. Taylor, because it can’t be someone…” Because it’s on the page, but it can’t be someone that is so strident. And we love Loretta. We have a history as an audience with Loretta and we adore her, so she can get as mad as she wants, and we're never going to turn away from her, we're still going to find something delightful in her.
Capone: Did you actually shoot this on Martha’s Vinyard?
AB: No, they shot one day there with the ferry and stuff like that, but actually Lunenberg, Nova Scotia stood in. And that was at this beautiful compound and actually that was the only residence in Lunenberg that looked like that. So it’s not like there was one next door that looks like that. No, they are tiny little houses that look nothing like that.
Capone: What was that like just being in that environment with all of these people when you sort of had down time?
AB: Very relaxed. We were all in one of the bedrooms and laying on the people’s bed.
AB: And Gary Dourdan was playing the guitar, and Romeo on the iPad showing us stuff on the computer, and Loretta getting ready for her one-woman show, and someone else would come in, and T.D. Jakes would come in, and then we would have a conversation about people and passions. It was wonderful.
Capone: Every scene that Julie Bowen is in, I think you're in with her. What was that like with her?
AB: Honey, she was the right one. She was the right one, baby. That was my first time meeting her, and of course that was with "Modern Family" being a success, but I hadn’t really watched a lot of the show. But I was like “Who is this girl? She is so hip.” She’s kind of hip. She’s kind of manic. She knows what’s going on. Yeah, but she knows what’s going on and she is kind of like that.
She improvised a little bit there and riffed on her lines like when I say, “Bring those things and just set them right there and dump them.” And she’s like, “Hey, your sister is kind of light mocha…” and you know at the end she would just go there. That’s just who she is. She has fun and she is going to do a whole verbal essay on the different colorations of black people, the different tones and colors that we’ve got, just a little bit, but that’s who she is. She is very observant that way. She’d be around comedians, whether it’s Mike Epps or DeRay [Davis] and just talk junk right along with them. Just match them word for word. Yeah, she's quick like that.
Capone: I know that you are in GREEN LANTERN and you play Dr. Amanda Waller who is a very familiar figure in that DC Comics universe. Can you say anything what you're up to in that movie?
AB: [long pause] It just comes out a month later, that’s all I can say and I’m looking forward to seeing it, too. [Laughs]
Capone: Have you gotten any indication, because she certainly is somebody that could pop up in other films based on DC comics characters.
AB: Right, right. That’s what I’m hoping, but no, no indications as of yet.
Capone: So you haven’t signed on for multiple or even the option of multiple...
AB: Oh, I’m up for the option, most definitely. But I think that’s if this does well.
Capone: It does depend on that, sure. Then you're also in a movie with Reese Witherpsoon after that?
AB: Oh my God, yeah I forgot about that. Yeah, THIS MEANS WAR.
Capone: Right, with Tom Hardy, Chris Pine? It’s a great cast.
AB: People will ask “What are you up to?” And I totally forgot about that one. My scenes were with those guys. I work for the FBI and I’m their boss, so my scenes were with those two guys and they were delightful.
Capone: The men? Okay.
AB: Yeah, the men doing their thing and falling apart.
Capone: What’s the general story there?
AB: They're operatives and as FBI spies, they have a whole arsenal of talents and they use them for the sake of winning the woman. They both fall in love with her, so they're both using their skills from FBI world to get this woman. It’s pretty cute.
Capone: Fairly recently, your country called upon you to do the voice of Michelle Obama on "The Simpsons." What was that like?
AB: I know it’s animation, but can you believe it. I was just honored to be asked.
Capone: Did you feel like you had to get permission to do it or did you just do it?
AB: I thought it would be okay. I’ve met her and I think I read in something her husband say that I was one his favorite actors. So I thought it would be okay. Then it was like, “Okay, let me go to YouTube and see if I can catch some of her rhythm.”
Capone: I did want to ask also about a couple of directors that you have worked with a few times, especially John Sayles, who is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers, and he has written some wonderful parts for you. Can you just talk about the relationship you have with him, because you worked with him fairly early on in your career?
AB: I sure did. I just got a call and an offer. That’s during the time when you are a young actor and you are auditioning for everything. You’re working, but I got an offer for CITY OF HOPE, and that just let me that there are people who are watching you. I knew his work, but you have no idea that they have some familiarity with you, so I was honored and maybe a little intimidated, because you are like, “Am I giving him what he wants?”
He is so brilliant and so talented. I remember, he sent me the script and then the first movie I worked with there was a whole one-page, single-spaced, typed biography [for my character]. [Laughs] He did the work for you and for the character. It was just amazing, and you would think that he would really be on you about your line readings, but he totally leaves you alone and lets you bring what you bring and he trusts you.
Capone: And for many years, he was considered one of the preeminent writers for women and of female roles, and PASSION FISH definitely proves that. The other person you have worked with was Wes Craven, in two very different movies, but in MUSIC OF THE HEART, that was a real nice role and that was a really great movie that I think is still under-appreciated. Can you tell me about that?
AB: It was really different for him too and almost the same thing. I don’t see a lot of SCREAM and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, because I’m that audience member in a scary movie, the one that hides and screams and peaks and then can’t sleep at night, that kind of thing. But the first thing we did was a show he was doing called "Nightmare Cafe" that we shot up in Vancouver. I was like “What?” You're always so surprised when people are aware of you and want to work with you and then after that we did MUSIC OF THE HEART.
Capone: Well, you did VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN first.
AB: Right VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN, and then to get a call with MUSIC OF THE HEART with Meryl Streep. It was like [Breathless], “Thank you!” It was a different movie for him, I guess, and then to work with Ms. Streep was like “I’m in some kind of heaven” and in New York City. I enjoy working with him. He has that sort of rye sense of humor and he’s like [mumbling] quiet sort of stuff. I would say “Wes?” And he was always thinking with little things coming out, but not like a loud director, always just sort of a sly little wink, little nod, a sly guy, but a great sense of humor and a decent guy. He is sweet as he can be and to do all them scary movies…[laughs]
Capone: You spent many years in Yale Drama, both undergrad and grad, learning the craft of acting. Do you remember specifically about when it was when you actually thought you had the business part of acting figured out, how things worked in the real world when you came out of the schooling environment?
AB: I’m not sure. I do remember getting out of school and going on auditions and thinking, “Let the work speak for itself,” you know? “The work should speak for itself,” so you would go into auditions, and they would say, “Do you have any questions?” “No, I'm prepared. I’m here. I’m on time.” After a while, I realized, “Maybe you ought to have a few questions for them, so they can tell you something. They can adjust you and see that you are malleable, and it’s about relationships also. So I remember that being one of the early lessons, that it’s not just in the audition, but it’s what happens before your conversation and maybe after and seeing if they can work with you.
Capone: Perfect, thank you so much. It was really wonderful to meet you.
AB: Good meeting you. Thank you.
-- Capone firstname.lastname@example.org
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