Alfre Woodard: Beauty Shop

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The youngest of three, Alfre Woodard was born in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on">Tulsa</st1:City>, <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:State w:st="on">Oklahoma</st1:State></st1:place> on November 8, 1952. A cheerleader and track star in high school, she studied acting at <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:PlaceName w:st="on">Boston</st1:PlaceName> <st1:PlaceType w:st="on">University</st1:PlaceType></st1:place> before being drawn to the stage. After appearing both on Broadway and in productions of Shakespeare, she headed to <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Hollywood</st1:City></st1:place> where she got her first break in 1978 in Remember My Name, an otherwise forgettable feature film.

From there, Alfre went on to land an Academy Award nomination in 1984 for her memorable performance in Cross Creek. Since she has remained ever in demand, appearing in such movies as Brown Sugar, Radio, K-Pax, The Core, Mumford, Scrooged, Love & Basketball, Bopha!, Crooklyn and The Forgotten. The versatile actress has met with even more success on the small screen, where she has been nominated for a dozen Emmys, winning four times. The kudos came for her handling of the title role in the HBO movie Miss Evers' Boys, and for her work in three dramatic series, The Practice, <st1:Street w:st="on"><st1:address w:st="on">Hill Street</st1:address></st1:Street> Blues and <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">L.A.</st1:City></st1:place> Law.

Woodard has also won seven NAACP Image Awards, a couple of Screen Actor's Guild Awards, a Golden Globe and a Cable Ace Award over the course of her illustrious career. Plus, she was once named one of People Magazine's Most Beautiful People. Alfre resides in L.A. with her husband, Roderick Spencer, who teaches directing and screenwriting at Emerson College, and with their two children, Mavis and <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Duncan</st1:City></st1:place>. In her latest endeavor, Beauty Shop, she plays Ms. Josephine, one of the colorful regulars found at Queen Latifah's neighborhood salon.

BSN: How much input did you have into your character's personality in this picture?

AW: "What was written in was that I was prone to spouting Maya Angelou's poetry, and that I was Afro-centric. And that I was the oldest person there. It kind of stopped there."

BSN: So, who did you base the rest of Ms. Josephine's personality on?

AW: "I made her up. I think they expected something a little more sober. But I figured that if someone breaks into Maya's poetry in the middle of a raucous beauty salon, who could she be? Well, I decided she was country, first of all, and that her Afro-centricity didn't really have to be from Senegal, it just had to remind her of Senegal. So, when she says, 'You're rockin' the Motherland,' it could be from Dillard's, as long as it had a leopard print. Or had some palm trees on it. You know how country people are so unselfconscious? How they're exuberant, and they take whatever and they make it theirs? She's very practical, so when she takes up poetry, she's like, 'This is my Bible! I don't quote the scriptures. I quote Maya Angelou. Look at us. We fine! Everybody just show your breasts. We're goddesses!' She's that kind of person."

BSN: What made you choose to play her like that?

AW: "I wanted the oldest person there to be the most comfortable in her skin, and to have the greatest zest for life. I also came up with the idea that I was a Tarot Card reader. But like everything else, she's homemade New Age-y. I didn't have the instructions for the cards, so she just made up what they meant. She'd throw down a card and go, 'Okay, Queen of Cussin'. Have you been drinkin'?' I would go through the deck like that. So, she's just made-up."

BSN: Wasn't that hard when you have an ensemble cast all working off a script?

AW: "A lot of times, you could sort of put things in. Like after that mean line about Oprah eating Krispy Kreme donuts. I thought, that ain't funny, Oprah's slim. So, I improvised the line, 'You know honey, you ain't got a pot to piss in. And Oprah's pot is platinum, baby."

BSN: What makes visiting a beauty salon so special, the pampering or the people?

AW: "We go to get our hair done, but we stay, because it's an oasis. It's the modern-day red tent. It's the only place where you can be with other women and just talk, and not necessarily with friends. Whatever you got on your mind, any opinion, you lay it on the table. It goes back and forth. You can talk about life, death, sex, politics, practically anything, even talk honestly about somebody who's right there. You can be there when you're hurting; you can be there when you're really loud and out of control. There's a wonderfully heightened sense of hysteria there sometimes. Your boss can't tell you nothin'. You don't have to deal with children or men like you would have to at a restaurant, or a bar, and other places."

BSN: Because Ms. Josephine was so crisply defined, I still wonder whether you patterned her after someone you know?

AW: "I patterned Ms. Josephine after a particular type of black woman. She wasn't necessarily a stylist but, like I said, that person you wouldn't dare wear what they're wearing about whom people say, 'She don't need to be in that.' They'll have no butt and then wear a skintight thing that's supposed to show-off the butt. It's like, 'This is my flat butt! I like it!' Yeah, living out loud."

BSN: You're known for dramatic roles. Were you at all uncomfortable with this brand of comedy?

AW: "No, I'm a pretty raucous person. That's where my sense of humor lies. Actually, I have to go somewhere to do drama. I'm not a drama queen. I don't have drama in my life. It's interesting how people develop a perception and can mistake you based on what you do. I can only do what I've been asked to do. If Ms. Josephine had been written the way I played her, they would never have cast me to play her, because they want me to be who they think I am."

BSN: Who do you mean by they?

AW: "Producers, studios, directors, whatever. So, my entire career has been a matter of slippin' it in when they don't know it's coming. I'm here because I didn't try to come through a door. I came in through the window. Because they weren't going to let me in through the door. Ever! [laughs]"

BSN: Sounds like having to overcome obstacles has contributed to your creativity.

AW: "Yeah. The one thing about obstacles, is that they make you more inventive."

BSN: How hard is it for you get a project green lighted?

AW: “No matter how many accolades you get, it’s still a crapshoot. Even though I have an Oscar nomination, I still can’t get a movie green lighted, even when I have other actors like Ed Harris on board. The people that we work for maybe keep their jobs for maybe three or four years at the longest. So, they’re not making decisions based on their better judgment but on how to stay there. The corporations that own the studios now are selling transmitters, microphones, cars, biscuits and making movies. It comes down to the dollars. If I could sing and sell a hundred million records, then I could play anything I want. I could get you and me in a movie together.�

BSN: Is the influx of rap stars taking away work from legitimate actors, like Samuel L. Jackson has suggested?

AW: “They’re not taking anything away, the people making the movies are giving it to them. I don’t fault those being hired. I just don’t know how any of the young actors, who’ve spent a lot of time training themselves are going to have a career in film when they can’t get roles now because you have to have made millions of dollars in the record industry or somewhere else to get a lead in a film. It’s sad that the only reason that some of these brilliant brothers and sisters aren’t having film careers is because people in decision-making positions aren't looking to appreciate the differences among us.�

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