Alfre Woodard (‘Clemency’) hopes her film starts ‘a conversation that we need to have as Americans’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Alfre Woodard is earning rapturous praise and early awards attention for her performance as Bernadine Williams, a death row prison warden in “Clemency.” She recently picked up nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards and Gotham Awards. Woodard has won four Emmy Awards throughout her career and scored one Oscar nomination, for 1983’s “Cross Creek.”

Woodard recently sat down with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum to discuss the controlled nature of her character, her experience working with co-star Aldis Hodge and how her career was affected by her Oscar nomination. Watch the exclusive web chat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Alfre Woodard, “Clemency,” people will start seeing that very soon. Bernadine, your warden character that you play in this movie is a very tough lady, very composed but very by-the-book. Where does she rank in terms of tough ladies you’ve played in your career?

Alfre Woodard: I don’t think she is a tough lady in that regard. I think she is exacting. She has to be a person who is able to control her actions as well as her emotions because she is a warden in a death row facility, and one of the things that is of prime importance in a facility like that or even a medium-security prison is protocol. She is a person that understands the importance of protocol and that if you let little stitches slip, the whole thing can unravel, and that’s how she operates. I think she’s a person not unlike a military person, a combat troop. She would be a good Navy gunner. She understands that somebody’s got to do a job and because she has a sense of order and compassion and she believes in other people’s dignity, she would be the person that would man that, or woman that position. So I don’t think of her as tough as much as she is not hysterical, the way I would be or a lot of other artists that I know, emotional. The women wardens that I met, and I met probably three wardens and a deputy warden who was a woman and a couple of men wardens, I think they would be in your book club. They’d be at your church or your synagogue or your temple or at your PTA meeting. I think we imagine them as people that, when they were kids, especially a woman, you think, “What kind of kid was she? Did she line her dolls up and stomp on them? What happened there?” But they come to, the administration of these facilities, from a mental health profession, some from social work. She really is a regular person but one that is able to control emotions, to help control situations that can easily get out of hand. I have played some tough women. One of my favorites is Mariah Dillard Stokes, that I did for “Luke Cage,” especially the second season of that. She is a ruthless woman in actions and in effect, but my job as the actor is to always find the way of looking onto the world, that human being that you’re bringing to life. I can say she’s ruthless but nobody wakes up in the morning going, “How can I be an asshole today?”

GD: Nobody ever thinks they’re a villain.

AW: Yeah, everybody thinks, “I know how to do this, I know how to fix this.” And it’s those conflicting things that create drama.

GD: I guess I chose the wrong word in tough. She’s tough in terms of her resilience and she’s tough in terms of the fact that she goes by the protocols and the rules. She’s got compassion but she’s also gonna follow what she’s been told to do.

AW: Yeah, she’s got compassion because if you’re gonna take somebody out, you want it to be precise. You don’t want any mistakes. People looking on might judge that, but that’s what you give dignity, because if her job is to carry out the wishes of the state and we as taxpayers can affect the laws by the people that we put there, that’s our job if we wanted to go a different way, but since it is the law, this is how you do it. If you get touchy-feely or varying things or making special allowances, it only prolongs the misery, in a way.

GD: And we see that in the scene where the grieving couple is in front of you. As an audience member, you’re wondering, “Will she change her mind here?” Because I’m sure she gets this all the time where somebody comes in and wants something that she just can’t provide.

AW: She can’t provide and she also can’t give false hope and she also never knows what’s gonna happen. When she said to them, “I don’t know,” she can kind of tell at the end from what has happened previously in, say, 12 executions that it’s gonna go on, but she’s always waiting for that call. She’s hoping that call comes, because essentially what you’re doing, any man that’s been on the row has been there at least 10 years. Some people 15-20 years, except McVeigh. There was a whole special circumstance with him, Timothy McVeigh. But that’s a prison that she’s known for 10 years at least. When they’re on a row, say somewhere like Ohio… Our prison is in Ohio. Chinonye Chukwu, the filmmaker and I did a prison tour because she has relationships of teaching screenwriting in Ohio prisons and actually meeting people there in administrative positions. Essentially what you’re doing, say there’s nine men on a death row block. There’s the guy, there’s probably two or three officers there, one of them sits in the cage, they trade off. Those men are seeing each other all the time. The warden sees them, the major. Those are the only people that are seeing them for those 10 years, so those become your office mates in a way. Suddenly one day, you turn and say, “Okay, Bob, we gotta take you out now.” The personal devastation that you have to buck up and carry through and deal with the aftermath, you’re taking the life of someone you know all the time. They are segregated from the rest of the prison population. That’s a thing that you have to be steady to carry out.

GD: One of the themes I saw in the movie, I’m sure it was meant to be, was just the weariness that your character has, your husband has, Richard Schiff’s character, the chaplain. You’re all weary from the process and your jobs over a long stretch of time.

AW: It is a fact, people have examined this and charted it, that the people that work in those positions, they have as high a PTSD rate than people that we have sent into multiple tours of duty in battle. If they have a marriage, it is one of their many marriages. Yeah, it wrecks you, to say the least.

GD: Tell me about Wendell Pierce, because he’s one of those actors we’ve watched for a long time, I don’t think has ever gotten his due even though he works all the time. What’s he like to work with?

AW: What do people mean when they say getting your due?

GD: I don’t think he’s been nominated for any major awards or anything like that. People in the audience may not even know his name but they’re familiar with him.

AW: Well, yeah, familiar because he has been there all the while. He’s been brilliant every time out. Getting awards isn’t what we call getting our due, that’s why I ask that. He is a very successful actor because from the first time he stepped out, and he never arrives without it being a full-on human being that he has found a reality and to play it like a virtuoso. He is one of those actors you want to be in a boat with when you’re out at sea. It’s like, “Yeah, I’ll go to sea with you.” You wanna know that that person will bring out the best in you and you can trust them and believe in them and their strength and their smarts and their navigational skills. I was so excited when Chinonye and Bronwyn Cornelius, our producer, when they said, “We’re really hoping we can get Wendell Pierce,” I said, “Yes! You have to,” because I knew of the work that had to be done and you want people of like mind and like ability and having the common language of the way that she wanted to shoot. He’s amazing. I’m going to London to see him do “Salesman.” It’ll probably end up back in the States but I wanna see him do it.

GD: I haven’t seen him in anything where he wasn’t exceptional.

AW: I know! He brought so much to this. When I say brought so much, I mean even working scenes, giving us the point of view of that man that has to accompany this woman who loves her, who they have a history and he’s got an arc himself. Not a lot of it played out on-camera, but he’s been teaching in the public schools for 30 years and we see him teaching “Invisible Man.” He brought a lot into every moment that he was onscreen.

GD: We’ve interviewed Aldis Hodge a few times over the past few years. I remember the first time talking to him, I thought, “This is a really good up and coming actor.” What was he like working with?

AW: He’s definitely a trained actor but he’s got good instincts. He relies on those instincts. A lot of people don’t understand you get back to your instincts once you’ve done all of the technical work. Aldis has that. He also has said that having less dialogue actually gives you more freedom to say more with your body, your face, your intentions. That was what was true of all of us and one of the reasons we signed up, is also talking to Chinonye knowing that she wanted to pace this the way that life paces out. A lot of times in commercial films, people cut, who’s talking, we see their mouth back to back, but real actors understand that when you’re recreating a human action, which is what drama is, life happens in between the lines, not on what you say. So to have a filmmaker that says, “Okay, I want to shoot the life and I’ll stay on you, I’ll move,” we knew that was going to be the language of the film.

GD: You need those pauses in the really good projects like this because it does convey life, where everything’s not just rat-a-tat-tat dialogue.

AW: Nothing in life is rat-a-tat-tat. Even if it is rat-a-tat-tat, you wanna go to the faces that aren’t speaking, because acting is listening and when you listen, you listen with your whole self, every pore of your body, and you respond. Respond doesn’t mean you say something back. Your response is (pauses, appears to listen intently). What happens there?

GD: We’re an awards website so I wanna ask you a couple of awards-related questions. Tell me about your Oscar experience, your first nomination. We feel like there might be another one coming around the corner, but tell us about your first time at the Oscars.

AW: Let me tell you what happened. It sets the stage for my experience onward in life. It might’ve been ’84, I don’t know, but my very best friend that morning at maybe 3:30, 4 a.m., he passed on from the virus, and back then, when you contracted HIV, people just thought you were dead. People left quicker than they should have because it was a death sentence back then. So we left, Lamont, he left us and we came back to the house and within an hour, I got a phone call from my agent saying this had happened and I said, “Okay, oh, that’s great.” So I was weeping and saying, “That’s great.” And Lamont should have been there, ‘cause he was the one who would’ve known what it all meant anyway. Anyway, he was my best friend. I didn’t know where to put any of that. So I got off the phone, I was like, “Okay, this is great,” and then I said, “Well, wait a minute. Now how did I get it?” I knew it was for “Cross Creek” but I didn’t know what the Academy was, how it worked, any of that. I was a working actor. I focused on work and I wasn’t really focused that way. They said, “We’ll talk to you later about it, it’s the Academy.” And I got off the phone and I told my then fiancé, who’s my husband… actually, no we were married a few months right before that, and I lived on a walking street in Manhattan Beach and I just found myself walking down the ocean just crying and smiling and I just walked in in my clothes and I just stood in the water in my clothes and I wept.

Then I came back eventually to the house and I called my parents. My mother, she was just so supportive of her children. Everything you did, “Very good. Good for you.” (Laughs.) My sister and brother were principals, teachers and counselors and so she’d go, “Very good.” So when I said, “Mom, I got a nomination from the Academy,” she goes, “Good for you. Very good.” My father was on the other line. The first thing my father said was, “Babe, you gotta get yourself a good dress.” “Okay, Daddy.” They were supportive but my parents, I could’ve won the volleyball championship at the Olympics. That was great. Then, we went to the Oscars. We arrived, I’ve never been anything like this and it was down at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion back then, come around the corner. There were people waving, “The end is near! Hollywood scum Satan!” And it was like, “Holy shit, what’s going on?” And then there were people going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” There were fancy people in there. It was like you had arrived at Mardi Gras, the Super Bowl, the end of days. I don’t know how long you’ve been in the business, but “Day of the Locust,” it was like that. It was all at once we were in the car giggling on, like “Where the hell are we?” And we went inside and just had a really fun time.

GD: Very close to that same timeframe you won your first Emmy Award. You’ve won four now. What did that mean for your career to win an Emmy so early?

AW: Honestly, it’s been good to know by being honored with these things, because you are nominated by your peers, the people that practice the same thing you do and know what it is, what it takes. So that’s great, ‘cause you go, “Okay, yeah, the people that speak the language. My language is sharp.” But for me as a black woman in Hollywood, it didn’t do anything. The people that hired me always continued to hire me, the types of people, and I kept going because you’re meeting young people in different disciplines and positions within the industry and as they come of age, they call you up. They’re your people. It’s not like anything ever opened up. The same kind of outliers and mavericks and odd people that weren’t considered commercial, like Bob Altman, gave me my first couple of jobs. I couldn’t get arrested on network. They are the ones that kept calling and still do. I never got what you might call mainstream, maybe ’til a few years ago when I played the president on a television series. So that hasn’t been my walk at all.

GD: You set a record, I don’t know if you’re aware of this. You don’t have the most nominations. You have 18. Some people have 20 or 22 in terms of performers, but nobody is even close to you on this fact. 16 out of your 18 are for different roles. It means the producers are hiring you for these great projects and then you’re contributing on an excellent level, so 16 different roles have brought you Emmy nominations.

AW: See, this is the thing. My colleagues, my Caucasian colleagues who are women, they had a different experience than I did. One of the things that I think it helped me do is to clarify why I act, why I tell stories, because people say, “Oh, now that this happened, then this is gonna happen.” Well if it doesn’t, you’re like, “Okay, well, I’m not traveling down that road, what’s here?” So I was able to understand very early on, “I didn’t even know that existed and now people are talking about that. Why did you start this? How do you work? Who do you work with? Who do you wanna reach with your stories?” That meant, “Ah, I must follow the script. I must follow the story.” Back then, that’s when they said out loud to your face, “You know, Germany, Japan, they don’t really want any black product.” Black product meant if there are more than two people in it, it could be 20 people but if there are two black people in it…” We found out now that that was B.S. because network has blown that whole thing out of the water. We’re as interested in a shepherdess’s story from Tibet as we are in a valley girl.

GD: A good story is a good story.

AW: A well-told story about a human being touches human beings. So the good fortune is that I figured out right then you follow the story. So I’ve had these great experiences working in any medium that the story happened to be in. It could be street theater but I’m gonna follow the writing and the filmmaker. So I’ve never been bored.

GD: As we finish up, you wouldn’t know this but my favorite drama series of all time is “St. Elsewhere.” Some people say “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones” but mine has always been “St. Elsewhere.”

AW: That was before you just started to show everything, and yeah.

GD: You all pioneered a lot of things that are still used on television today, the walk and talks in the hallways and multiple dialogue going over each other.

AW: Yeah! How do you get better than that? [Bruce] Paltrow and Tom Fontana and John Masius and them.

GD: That’s the one role, Dr. Roxanne Turner that brought you multiple nominations ‘cause you got two for “St. Elsewhere” and then you played her again on “Homicide.”

AW: I did get two for “St. Elsewhere”?

GD: One lead and one supporting or guest, ‘cause you came on at first as a guest star.

AW: You know things I don’t know!

GD: And then you played her on “Homicide,” too, with Tom Fontana. If somebody came to you and said we’ve got another story for Roxanne Turner, is there any part of you that would wanna play her in another project?

AW: When you find a character and a character is a person, once you know who that is and how to look out of the world from the point of view, yeah. That’s like saying, “You do that brilliant Lady Macbeth. You’d probably never wanna do it.” You want Lady Macbeth to be in Saint-Tropez? I’ll go be in a comedy of Lady Macbeth in Saint-Tropez. If it is good writing, it becomes classic. Everybody should visit it and especially the person who established it should be able to revisit.

GD: You had a lot of scenes with Denzel Washington on “St. Elsewhere.” We talked about Aldis Hodge. I remember watching “St. Elsewhere” in my teens going, “This guy’s gonna go a long way.” Could you see that, too, opposite him?

AW: If I say no then I’m a creek! (Laughs.) No, we are friends. His youngest, the twins, I am godmother to them. I’ll tell you a funny story. I saw “A Soldier’s Play.” I had seen it in New York and then I saw it at the Taper and that’s when all those guys came out to L.A., the Broadway show came to the Taper to do “Soldier’s Play” and I was riveted by all of them onstage and I won’t even begin to name everybody but I know my good friend Eugene Lee, I know Adolph Caesar, everybody, and Denzel. When I saw him work I thought, “I’m gonna work with him.” So then about a week later I got offered this thing. There used to be a theater called the Mayfair Theatre in Santa Monica on 2nd Street. It was called “Split Second.” Director Harold, I’ll think of it in a minute, he was a Broadway director who was then out here starting to direct film and television. So I said, “Oh I’ll be in this play.” I was playing Denzel’s wife and I said, “Okay, I’ll say yes to this play just so that I can work with Denzel,” and then two weeks later I got a call, calling me in, Paltrow and Fontana, saying, “We wanna introduce a new character, a doctor. It would be a love interest to Denzel’s character and also they said, “We want a doctor who screws up because all of our doctors are making these heroic choices all the time,” so I could’ve skipped that play if I had known that was coming but I got to work with him.

GD: Listen, I hope everybody goes out and sees “Clemency” because it’s such an important subject matter, your performance is amazing in it and maybe we’ll see you back on some awards red carpets here over the next few months.

AW: You know what my hope is, my dream is? That when it opens wide, this is why I did the film, this is why Chinonye Chukwu wrote and shot the film is to have this be part of mainstream conversation. We’ve never looked at the lives of the people that we charge to carry out our wishes of having state-sponsored execution and to have whatever conversation that brings. So I want this to go to the malls. I don’t want it in the arthouses. I want it in the malls so everybody can have this conversation that is pressing, because we keep losing people. We were done with this back in early summer and since then, there have been people that have been put to death. That’s what I’m hoping, is that it gives yet another component of a conversation that we need to have as Americans.

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