Film Miss N

Alfre Woodard on Clemency

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?

Alfre Woodard:
[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.


  1. Thank you for sharing superb informations. Your web-site is very cool. I’m impressed by the details that you?¦ve on this website. It reveals how nicely you perceive this subject. Bookmarked this website page, will come back for more articles. You, my friend, ROCK! I found just the information I already searched everywhere and just couldn’t come across. What an ideal web site.

  2. If you are going for finest contents like me, only go to see this web page every day
    as it presents feature contents, thanks

  3. You could certainly see your expertise within the article you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who aren’t afraid to say how they
    believe. Always follow your heart.

  4. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox
    and now each time a comment is added I get four e-mails with
    the same comment. Is there any way you can remove people from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

  5. Very good blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m
    a little lost on everything. Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There
    are so many choices out there that I’m totally
    overwhelmed .. Any suggestions? Thank you!

  6. Simply wish to say your article is as astounding.

    The clarity in your post is just cool and i
    could assume you’re an expert on this subject. Fine
    with your permission allow me to grab your
    feed to keep up to date with forthcoming post.
    Thanks a million and please keep up the enjoyable work.

  7. Thanks for another fantastic article. Where else could anyone get that type of information in such an ideal way of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.

  8. I loved as much as you’ll receive carried out right
    here. The sketch is tasteful, your authored material stylish.
    nonetheless, you command get got an impatience over that you wish be delivering the following.
    unwell unquestionably come further formerly again as exactly the same nearly very often inside case you shield this hike.

  9. That is very fascinating, You’re an excessively professional blogger.
    I have joined your feed and stay up for in the hunt for extra of your wonderful post.
    Additionally, I have shared your web site in my social networks

  10. I used to be recommended this website via my cousin. I am no
    longer sure whether or not this put up is written by
    way of him as nobody else realize such certain about my problem.
    You are wonderful! Thanks!

  11. Hello I am so excited I found your weblog, I really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Google for something else, Regardless I am here now
    and would just like to say many thanks for a marvelous post and a all round interesting blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to go through it all
    at the minute but I have book-marked it and also added your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back
    to read more, Please do keep up the excellent jo.

  12. I’m really inspired together with your writing abilities and also with the structure in your blog.
    Is this a paid topic or did you customize it yourself?
    Either way keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare
    to look a nice weblog like this one nowadays..

  13. Quality posts is the crucial to attract the users to pay a
    quick visit the web site, that’s what this web site is providing.

  14. Yesterday, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested to see if it
    can survive a 25 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My apple
    ipad is now destroyed and she has 83 views.
    I know this is completely off topic but I had to share it
    with someone!

  15. This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.

    I have joined your rss feed and look forward to seeking more of
    your great post. Also, I have shared your site in my
    social networks!

  16. Hi there i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting
    anyplace, when i read this piece of writing i thought i could also make comment due to this sensible piece of writing.

  17. Hello there, I found your site by way of Google whilst
    looking for a comparable topic, your site came up, it seems to be good.
    I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.
    Hello there, just turned into alert to your weblog thru
    Google, and located that it’s truly informative. I am gonna be careful for brussels.

    I will be grateful in the event you proceed this in future.
    Lots of other people will be benefited from your writing.


  18. I wanted to thank you for this good read!! I certainly enjoyed every bit
    of it. I’ve got you book-marked to look at new stuff you post…

  19. Greetings! Very helpful advice within this article!
    It is the little changes that make the biggest changes.
    Many thanks for sharing!

  20. Spot on with this write-up, I actually think this amazing site needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read through more, thanks
    for the advice!

  21. Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to determine if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.
    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  22. wonderful issues altogether, you simply received a brand new reader.
    What could you suggest in regards to your post that you just made some days ago?
    Any sure?

  23. Hello, constantly i used to check website posts here early
    in the morning, for the reason that i love to gain knowledge of more and more.

  24. Fantastic beat ! I wish to apprentice whilst you
    amend your web site, how could i subscribe for a weblog website?

    The account helped me a appropriate deal. I were tiny bit
    acquainted of this your broadcast provided shiny transparent

  25. A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment. I think that
    you should publish more about this topic, it might not
    be a taboo subject but typically people don’t discuss such issues.
    To the next! Cheers!!

  26. Everything is very open with a really clear description of the issues.

    It was really informative. Your website is extremely helpful.

    Thanks for sharing!

  27. dfg
    Nice blog here! Also your website loads up fast! What web host are
    you using? Can I get your affiliate link to your host?
    I wish my web site loaded up as quickly as yours lol

  28. You ought to be a part of a contest for one
    of the finest websites online. I most certainly will recommend this blog!

  29. Usually I do not read article on blogs, but I would like to
    say that this write-up very forced me to take a look at and
    do so! Your writing style has been amazed me.
    Thank you, quite great article.

  30. That is a great tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere.
    Simple but very accurate info… Thank you for sharing
    this one. A must read post!

  31. I think this is one of the most vital info for me.

    And i am glad reading your article. But should remark on some general things, The
    web site style is great, the articles is really nice : D.

    Good job, cheers

  32. Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog loading?
    I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.

    Any feed-back would be greatly appreciated.

  33. I think the admin of this site is in fact working hard in support of his
    web site, as here every material is quality based information.

  34. Do you have a spam problem on this blog; I also am
    a blogger, and I was curious about your situation; many of us have developed some nice methods and
    we are looking to trade solutions with others,
    be sure to shoot me an e-mail if interested.

  35. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great.
    I don’t know who you are but certainly you’re going to a famous blogger if you aren’t
    already ;) Cheers!

  36. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your site.
    It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often.
    Did you hire out a designer to create your theme?

    Fantastic work!

  37. Have you ever considered writing an e-book or guest authoring on other websites?
    I have a blog based on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information.
    I know my audience would enjoy your work.

    If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

  38. Howdy! This is kind of off topic but I need some help
    from an established blog. Is it very hard
    to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick.

    I’m thinking about creating my own but I’m not sure where to start.
    Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.