It’s been a busy year for Alfre Woodard, starting off in January, when the indie drama, written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, Clemency debuted at Sundance to critical acclaim, winning the Grand Jury Prize. Although the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning actress has had a number of noteworthy performances this year — from a dramatic rendering of the Mueller Report, to voicing Sarabi in The Lion King remake, and losing her sight in the new Apple TV Plus sci-fi series, See — none have made as much of an impact as watching Woodard play Bernadine Williams, a woman trying to keep herself from unravelling, after decades of dutifully carrying out her job overseeing state executions.
This interview first appeared on Deadline.
Clemency debuted at Sundance in January, and after traveling around the country, playing at various festivals, it’s opening on December 27th. What’s it’s been like for you to travel with this film and see how it’s resonated so far?
[After Sundance], we really started to get it in front of people who we knew had some sort of connection to the justice movement, in the Summertime, and then all kinds of audiences — of defenders, of prison workers, people who have been incarcerated, social workers, all kinds of people that we think have been having this conversation or who are related to people that this conversation affects. And then we’ve had journalists with the National Association of Black Journalists [see it], and a lot of other people, young and old, from different parts of the country.
And people just sit. They don’t jump up right at the end of it. It’s not the kind of film that people are weeping or they’re aghast. People are just stunned a little, and when Bernadine takes a breath, she inhales, at the end, they realize they’ve been holding their breath for a while too and they just want to talk about it. That was the point of doing it — to put into the mix of conversation a critical element, or a vital element, that I think [writer/director] Chinonye [Chukwu] thought was missing. People have talked for decades in the States about capital punishment, and whether they’re pro or con. What happens to us when we pay money to have this happen? We say we’re a spiritual nation, but nobody has ever looked at the people that we charge to carry out our wishes. And they’re not some breed of people unrelated to us. They are our cousins, our church members, our temple members or our book-club people, and they experience a PTSD rate comparable to our troops that we send in for multiple deployments.
We finished it a year before we got to Sundance, and I was being really impatient. I know how long it takes to do a film, and post-production and distribution all that. But when you realize how many people still were put to death in the meantime, since we finished, you just want to say, ‘okay, get it out there’ so that people can have the conversation, maybe reflect. [You’re] not trying to steer how they will feel or what they will be motivated to do one way or another, but just knowing that you can’t make decisions and take actions where lives are in the balance when you don’t have the whole truth. So I was a little impatient for it to get out there. I’m so excited that we’re able to bring it to people, and my dream is that we bring it to every day cineplexes like the small ones and in all of the malls across the country.
How did you begin to understand your character Bernadine, who is grappling with a slow-burning PTSD of sorts. I know you did research and met prison wardens, but what was your “in” to playing her?
My “in” was meeting those women. Because it still was theoretical. It’s a good script and you could act it because you’ve got the facility and the writing is good. But you can’t put flesh and a smell onto a character. The character is a human being. You can’t turn them into a human being if you haven’t rubbed shoulders with that human being or are able to put yourself in in their footprints. You always have to find the person — the way the person looks out of their eyes onto the world. That’s your job as an actor, not to perform. It’s not to show yourself at all.
And so, because I’m an educated woman, I’m over 60, I have been politically active and socially active since I was 14. For me not to have any idea of people’s lives who run the facilities — and I knew that the vast majority of people in the country and around the world had no idea of who they were and what they experienced — I had to go there. It’s like me trying to do a Chekhov play in Russian and I don’t speak Russian, and I don’t go to St. Petersburg and try to get the flavor, you know? So yeah, it was my contact with about four women wardens: a deputy wardens, a director of corrections, a former warden who has probably overseen more executions than anybody in the world. So it was not just meeting them and talking to them, but actually having meals with them, and having the privilege that two condemned men gave me their time to talk. So all I had to do was just stay present and remember what, why. Be present, stay observant, stay open and take it all in. So when I got back, it was just ‘point me to the set’ and my job is to stay focused, stay relaxed because, like I said, lives are in the balance. And so it forces you, it demands of you, an honesty that you don’t have to conjure up as an actor.
It took writer-director Chinonye Chukwu 10 years to get this made, where the lead character is a warden who’s a black woman — are you finding these kinds of roles are coming in to you more now than they were in the past?
You know what? I have had a stack of remarkable women characters, a stack of scripts, the entire time I’ve been in quote unquote “Hollywood.” The material has always been there. And not just me. All the other people that have been in the trenches in this business, we’ve had the material. So it’s not like the roles are suddenly coming. They were there. The people that held the purse-strings have always thought themselves so progressive and so liberal, but they had been the ones that have said, ‘nobody’s going to pay to see a film with a black woman in the lead, or a brown woman, or a yellow woman in the lead.’ They said that, and they’re our friends. There are people who said it to my face from the first moment I arrived in this town. But I wouldn’t go away.
So I found a way to still tell stories. But the reason you haven’t seen it is because those people stood between the storyteller and the viewer and the hearer. And before Netflix came along, they got to, sort of, perpetuate this hoax that the German and the Japanese didn’t want to see any black people on screen. They wouldn’t buy products from people of color. And that meant if there were two black people or two brown people and then 20 white people, they still would say, ‘oh, that’s an ethnic film.’ I lay it all at the seat of people who did not have the courage or the creative intelligence that the artists and the writers have had for decades. I remember Sydney [Poitier] and all of my predecessors, they’ve had these scripts and these characters and these stories that are human stories. They’ve been pitching them.
I’ve been in Hollywood 45 years now. They were pitching them when I got here. People think, ‘oh, why haven’t black people, brown people, or native people done this? Why haven’t they done that?’ They don’t understand how people have been daily, heroically, scaling that grease wall for them to bring in these stories. Netflix created a democratization of the internet that they can’t hide behind that anymore. Someone can say ‘oh, I want to see a coming-of-age story about a Tibetan shepherdess.’ And she might want to see a story about a New York city lesbian urban poet who rides a unicycle. Now they can’t deny us the human connection anymore because we’ve proved it. It brings money. So anytime there’s money coming in, everybody’s game to take a chance on it. [You might want to cut this part out] But before this, remember Joy Luck Club and Waiting to Exhale, and proving that a human story well told is received by a human being one at a time? And they are transported and moved by it. But then what does the business do? Oh, it’s an aberration. They think everything is an aberration when it did, the few times that the ground was broken. But anyway, I digress.
But you feel like the tide has finally turned. I mean, there’s a long way still to go, but are good strides being made in ensuring the industry is more inclusive?
Well, you know what, anytime the audience, the public, knows what’s possible, they’re the ones that’ll drive it. They’ll say, I want to see more of this. Because what they want to see is the world they live in. If they walk outdoors, they see a completely different world than they had been seeing on the large and the small screen. So you’ve got to give the people what they want. So as long as that, as long as our viewers keep watching and making known what kind of fare that they want access to, then yeah, progress will continue to happen.
What do awards mean to you? How do you deal with Oscar talk – do you ignore it? Do you embrace it?
Oh, I never ignore anything. As an actor, we train ourselves, and we practice taking in everything because we’ve got to be able to give it back. We have to keep our instruments well tuned, well oiled. If you’ve ever played a musical instrument, you’ll know. So you don’t ignore anything but you don’t hold on to things that don’t belong to you. For me, chatter right now is very practical. It’s great because we have an indie film that we want to play right next to the food court around America. So chatter is good.
But, it’s interesting about nominations. Nominations are something separate from awards. Nominations, in most of the structures of the different organizations, usually come from people who have the same discipline in the business, right? So that means actors with SAG or independent filmmakers for the Gothams. I’ve been a Gotham judge as well, before. So it’s the people that really know what it takes to do what you’ve done and that nod says, ‘okay, yeah, you hit that chord perfectly.’ And there are people that know how to play the music, how to read the music. So that’s always a big up. It’s people that speak the same language, shouting back in your language. That’s always a big bump and that’s lovely.
By the time it comes to declaring somebody’s best, better or better than anything else, I liken it to a baby contest. We used to have those baby contests. I just thought of this last week. In the South, they actually had contests where you’d judge babies from as soon as they get set up. So they’d be anywhere from six months old to two years old. I’ve been in baby contests before. It’s like, okay, so the baby can’t do a talent or anything, so they just kind of judge them like you do livestock – ‘oh this baby’s plump,’ ‘oh, look at this one’s cheeks!’ and decide which baby is the cutest baby. Which is not only futile, it’s kind of funny. But it’s lovely to be in the baby contest right now.
You’ve also had a good year with a great variety of roles?
Right. I am just so grateful. I’m so grateful that I’m getting to grow all my different muscles, all the muscle groups.
What fills your well, what keeps you creatively full? You have such an incredible range – you can go from something like Mariah in Luke Cage to something as devastating as this?
Oh my God, I love Mariah. Oh, I was sad to see her go. For a while they were talking about, ‘we don’t want you to go, what if Mariah gets rehabilitated?’ I said, ‘no, she’s got to go down.’ Otherwise she’s not an epic character. For me, we’re in the people business and I am interested and moved by people, to the point that sometimes I have to pull myself away from everyday people just on the street, strangers. I have to watch my empathy level because you’ve got to stay healthy. You can’t take on people’s stuff. But it intrigues me. Once you train and you think of your whole self as an instrument, everybody wants to play their Strad! It’s like, ‘hey, everybody want to do some chamber music today? What can we do today?’ Because it’s our way of breathing and expressing ourselves and making ourselves feel alive and whole. So one thing I do is I just make sure that I never do anything that I’ve done before. And I never do anything that I know I already know how to do to the point that I’d have to really watch myself to keep from phoning it in. I like discovery. That’s why you’re an actor. It requires that you keep learning all the way through.
It’s fun to be in a relationship with your co-conspirators, with your cast and your crew, and your director and your DP. It’s tribal. We’re the people that understand each other. More than anybody else understands us.