When Alfre Woodard was 22, she drove from Boston to Los Angeles, only stopping in her Tulsa, Okla., hometown. The four-time Emmy winner, now 67, has been acting ever since. Woodard’s career began in theater, despite her inability to sing or dance, with help from late choreographer Lester Wilson. An early play, “So Nice, They Named It Twice,” earned Woodard her first Variety mention on April 21, 1976. Woodard continued with the 1977 off-Broadway breakout role in “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.” Her film debut came in 1978 with “Remember My Name.” Woodard has appeared in over 90 films, her latest as the leading actor of Neon’s “Clemency,” a drama about a death row prison warden.
How did “So Nice” influence your early career?
Rosemary Tischler, the head of casting at The Public Theater, would see me at the TCG (Theatre Communications Group) and remembered me. I told her, ‘My show “Me and Bessie” is closing, so I’m going back to L.A. because my dream is film. She said, “Why don’t you stick around, we have this play coming up.” It was “So Nice, They Named It Twice.” I auditioned for Joe Papp. They kind of perked up when I did my thing. I think they’d never seen anybody like me. They were like, “Cool, cool, could we possibly cast this?” I ended up getting a lot of roles like that, even now.
Did your Oscar nomination for “Cross Creek” (1983) affirm your dreams of film?
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I should correct myself, I don’t have dreams that way. I put out in the universe what I want to experience. I cherish film, but I wouldn’t call it a dream. It’s more like my orientation. Film is how we can change the world; the moving image is powerful. What I discovered then was that, as an artist descended from griots, you tell a story.
How have your roles evolved from nabbing whatever part possible to creating a filmography that reflects your desires?
I’ve never done anything I was not passionate about. It doesn’t matter whether I have a pot to piss in. How I feel about my work and honor that feeling has to be there from the beginning. That’s the thing that fuels and sustains you when nobody is looking at or hiring you.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
My second play ever — I was a junior in high school — I became a believer in Federico Garcia Lorca. I started reading more about how he was living under fascism in Spain and his persecution. I keep one of his poems at the top of every script I have, with my grubby turkey bacon stains on it. “The poem, the song, the picture, is only water drawn from the well of the people, and it should be given back to them in a cup of beauty so that they may drink — and in drinking understand themselves.” That focuses me and puts my feet firmly on the ground.
What do you make of Hollywood’s shift toward more quote, unquote diverse films?
Long ago, Hollywood decided to cater to what they imagined white peoples’ taste was. White people aren’t crazy; if they go outside and their world looks different than the world on the screen, they’re going to go, “Wait, this story isn’t real.” They used to say product with people of color doesn’t sell internationally. We found out that that was BS. You want to see sheepherders from Tasmania and beat-box guys in Brooklyn and lesbian love stories. If it’s a human story, a human being will be transformed by it. Netflix was the first to blow out of the water the hoax that people only wanted to see stories with people like them.
For “Clemency,” how did you approach Bernadine’s complex characterization?
Every time Bernadine speaks, my solar plexus starts to melt. Her character is connected to me organically; she ignites my emotions. When I read the script, I thought, “Oh my God. I’ve never heard of this.” If I haven’t heard of it, and I’m an educated woman and I’ve lived for six decades and I’ve been politically active since I was 14, that means this is something nobody really knows about. The taking of human lives by the state is a conversation that we’ve had in this country for generations, but the conversation is missing a critical component. Who carries this out? How does it affect them? I was introduced to a new class of Americans.