Angela Bassett has two opportunities to win her first Primetime Emmy Award this year. One is for her guest role on HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show” while the other is for narrating the Disney+ docuseries “The Imagineering Story.”
Bassett recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Daniel Montgomery about the fun of “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” the challenges of narrating “The Imagineering Story” and the idea of becoming the first Black woman to win an Emmy for narration. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Angela Bassett is nominated for two Emmys this year for projects that couldn’t be more different, Best Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for “A Black Lady Sketch Show” and Best Narrator for the documentary series “The Imagineering Story” on Disney+. Would I be right in assuming that these two were very different performing experiences?
Angela Bassett: Absolutely right. You would be, indeed. With “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” we filmed about four or five hours, morning ‘til about noon or 1:00. So it was a really, really, really quick turnaround. I got to work with some amazing young artists that I was just becoming familiar with, along with some that I knew a little bit of and respected greatly, that being Robin Thede, who’s one of the creators of the show and writers as well as a dynamite actress and also Laverne Cox. She came in and was a part of the whole scenario. So, although it was scripted, it had an improvised feel to the day because we would do multiple takes. But, of course, it being just high-brow and almost like walking on a tightrope, you could try different things. So every time actresses would begin to perform again, they may try something a little different. At least Laverne most definitely would. And with “The Imagineering Story,” we really filmed and worked on that over the course of, I think, about six days, six long, involved days. Of course, I’m in a studio by myself with the writer and producer and engineer in another space. So there was a lot of interaction back and forth between them and how they wanted me to approach it. And being a thespian, I can be a little dramatic trying to sort of massage your point and they really would want to take some of that emotion, that theatricality out of it, almost like, “Just the facts, ma’am.” So it was very different in that way, which I appreciated.
GD: The episode that you’re nominated for is actually titled “Angela Bassett is the Baddest Bitch,” which is the support group scenario that your character is involved in. What did you think of that concept when you first heard it and was the title part of the pitch?
AB: Actually, I don’t remember that title, initially. They must have come to that eventually, but it was the bad bitch support group and they approached me and said that I would be the lead counselor therapist in this support group and at first, I don’t know, I’m usually like, “Exactly what is this going to be?” Of course, I was a big fan of Robin from her previous late-night show that she had and also a big fan of Issa Rae, who is also one of the producers on the show. So that in and of itself is enough to sort of pique my interest and draw me in and whatever happens, happens. It’s gonna be a good time because I have a lot of regard and respect for these ladies and for their individual and collective talents and to see them come together. But I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be about. But then I got the script and I couldn’t stop laughing. I thought it was hysterical and their take on culture, on mores of certain personalities and entities I thought was kind of refreshing and of course, something that I had never seen before, and rarely do I get that opportunity to play that sort of larger-than-life, arch character. So there were very few boundaries and you had a great deal of freedom. Of course, working with Dime Davis, who was the director of all the episodes and of that one was quite a wonderful experience. She had a really strong and unique vision, along with the rest of the creative team about the show. So I felt like I was in capable and great hands.
GD: And it’s sort of a groundbreaking show in the sense that you don’t see a lot of especially sketch comedies created by and centered around Black women and as mentioned, Dime Davis, she’s nominated for an Emmy for directing. She’s the first Black woman to be nominated for directing a variety series. So what was it like getting that opportunity to do this broad comedy around this group of other incredibly talented Black actresses and artists?
AB: You said that right. To make a variety show that is created, written and starring Black women, it’s historic. But when you’re starting out on this journey, on this role with projects, you hope that they will be embraced by the public, by an audience, that an audience will find it and latch on and really fall in love with it. But of course, you don’t know. You don’t know what the flavor, the taste is going to be. But fortunately, audiences have fallen in love with the show. Being able to work with young creatives or people from different backgrounds and different experiences and crafts is really exciting for me. I have just an appreciation for what everyone brings to the table. So it was a positive experience and it was a no-brainer for me, and it turns out to be an historic venture. That’s not something that leads at the forefront of your mind. It’s just about, “Let me keep up. Let me show up. Let me bring something to the table.” But the fact that you walk away and in hindsight, you realize that you’ve done something that hasn’t been done before, it’s a really sweet feeling, very humbling.
GD: Playing a broad, bold character, part of the fun getting to that makeup for that role, did you feel like you were totally in it when you got that look down?
AB: That’s a big, big part of it. I remember going over to the office because the costume, the attire was a big part of it. So trying to find something in the line that I would feel comfortable in, and we did, we had one or two options, but yeah, the hair and makeup, glam, costume, all that is a big part, how it fits in your body, it’s tight, it’s short, it’s glam, it’s fur, all of this. The bigger the better, the makeup. All of that comes together and gives you a real window into your character. It really helps sell it and then you show up on the set, sit around these wonderful actresses and everybody’s bringing their A-game. We’re feeding off of one another’s energy. We’re excited to be there, to meet one another and then to dive in. So no one’s reticent and as soon as someone lets go, then it’s all bets are off, game has started to the finish line.
GD: And “the Imagineering Story,” of course, quite different. Narration, which you’ve done several times before in your career, you mention the process of trying to take the theatricality out for certain parts of it but I’m sure every narrating job is a little different depending on what they want. But how is it different in general, just using only your voice as opposed to everything else that you usually have in your arsenal as an actress?
AB: It’s something that many, many years ago I was interested in getting into. I remember meeting wonderful voice artist Adolph Caesar, rest his soul, many, many years ago, speaking with him and him beginning to give me a little mentorship because he did so well in that sphere. But initially, I found it very intimidating. Sometimes, a lot of us feel a little strange about the sound of our own voices. “Is that what I sound like?” But it was something I really was interested in doing. When I’m listening to, whether it be the radio or commercials or documentaries or whatever, can that voice draw me in? Can it paint a picture? Is it intrusive or does it support the pictures on the screen? So I’ve paid a little attention to that and have been forwarded some opportunity to do it, which, appreciate it. Like you said, each one tends to be a little bit different. Just when I think I got it down, then they switch it up and they want you to emphasize and give a little bit more drama and bring more personality to the piece. And then just when I do that, they want you to blend it out a little bit, but still in certain places support it and just pitch it in the right way. They hear something in their head and you’re constantly trying to hear that voice also. But I love the direction and I love, also, playing with the words and massaging it because many years in drama school, I love Shakespeare and I love that you could use words and phrases and parenthetical phrases to paint pictures and certain words are so expressive and you can use the sound of those words to paint the picture even with more clarity.
GD: And the documentary is about the Imagineers at Disneyland and Disney World and other theme parks and it’s about the people behind the scenes, the engineers and the art directors and all the people who are behind all of that that you take for granted on the surface sometimes. How much did you know about it going in, about the work they did, and what was it like getting to learn about that?
AB: So many people walk through those gates, you’re just at the happiest place on Earth. You think that it was always there. It just magically appeared. And being a Florida girl, which is interesting, I spend quite a bit of time at Disney World in Orlando there. So it was a project that, of course, was dear to my heart when it was brought to me because I spent grad night there, senior night there. I would take my kids to the park. They love it on the Disney cruise ship. I would do their narration for their Christmas season. So it is a place that brings a lot of joy to me. So when I had the opportunity to tell the story of the extraordinary creative folk behind the scenes, the answer was just, “Yes, yes.” That balance between that technique and engineering and the scientific paired with what attracts and draws people and brings up this sense of familiar and fun and endless possibility, and to marry, whether it’s from back in the day or it’s present time or future possibilities, future frontiers, how they’re able to manage that and pull that all together so that it’s a place that’s beloved from wee wee to quite mature is pretty extraordinary.
GD: And on the show, they talk about how they approach it like storytelling and not just as a theme park, creating these experiences and in a way, as an actress, in film and television…
AB: And being specific to the various cultures that they’re dealing with around the world and how something one place may not work in another and also just taking a step back and not being too proud to go back and rethink, re-educate yourself and re-present.
GD: When learning these engineers, do you feel like there are a lot of parallels with filmmaking and with the kind of people you work with behind the scenes in the various projects? Is it a lot of the same creativity?
AB: In a way, yes. They’re just so dedicated to the purpose and their own gifts. Individual gifts are on display and brought to bear to make the whole dream a reality, Walt Disney’s dream he had for his kids. So yeah, the collective driving that train forward.
GD: And this is your second nomination for narration and you and Lupita Nyong’o are both nominated. If one of you wins, you’d be the first Black woman to win a Primetime Emmy for narrating. So what would that be like if that happens?
AB: Really? Oh! Well, it’s nice to be first (laughs). That would be wonderful. I’ll take it. I’ll take it home. I’d love that little award. I didn’t know that. But that would be fantastic. Phenomenal.