Alfre Woodard: ‘I love coming to Ireland, but we’re the pariahs now’
The actor on capital punishment, ‘mentally compromised’ Trump and US race relations
Alfre Woodard at the 2020 Film Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California. Photograph: Amanda Edwards/Getty
We are in mid-flow on the iniquities of capital punishment when Alfre Woodard turns and casts astonished looks towards an exterior wall.
“Oh my God, there are squirrels all over the yard,” she says. “If my grand-doggy was here … They’re usually in the trees. But they just come up and look through the window. Ha, ha!”
The weirdness of lockdown continues. Woodard, one of her generation’s most admired actors, has mixed feelings about the effects of confinement.
“I am starting my 21st week of self-isolating,” she says. “The first two months are wonderful because I realised that I hadn’t stopped having an agenda each day – striving and competing – since I was 11 years old. I might take a holiday, but even on holiday I am idling, waiting to get back to it. So at first it was fabulous.”
Now she’s itching. She’s on three political campaigns. She’s doing remote fundraisers. “I have to learn a six-page, one-person play and shoot myself doing it,” she says.
Woodard, possessed of a steady gaze and a gift for bottomless sadness, has been at this game for some 45 years. She has remained ferociously busy without quite becoming a star. An Emmy came her way for Hill Street Blues in 1983. That same year she got an Oscar nomination for Martin Ritt’s Cross Creek. Since then she has been unavoidable in films by John Sayles, Lawrence Kasdan and Steve McQueen. She surely came within a whisker of a second Oscar nomination – most tipsters had her at the edges of the grid – for her turn as a warden on death row in Chinonye Chukwu’s terrific, incoming Clemency.
This is not the first film to show us Woodard’s gift for poetic seriousness. Nobody is better at internalising angst and regret. The woman herself is a ball of fire. Looking at least a decade and a half younger than her 67 years, she positively bounces from her seat when asked about the troubled state of her nation. An African-American daughter of Tulsa, Oklahoma, she must have fumed when Donald Trump arrived in her old manor for that disastrous rally. She is, after all, a board member of the Democratic Party.
Trump can only be who he is. I mainly fault the Republican leadership
“You know, it wasn’t painful. It just pissed me off,” she says. “Every day since this guy took that office we say: ‘Are you kidding me? Yeah, yeah, nothing could be worse than this. Nothing could be more ignorant than this.’ Every single day he then tops himself. You stop getting aghast at him and you get busy building.”
She’s cross, but she’s also laughing at the absurdity of it all. Sometimes that is the only fit reaction.
“You go mad focusing on him,” she continues. “But he can only be who he is. I mainly fault the Republican leadership and especially [Senate majority leader] Mitch McConnell. I fault them because they are not mentally compromised the way he is. At first I was annoyed he went to Tulsa. Then I was glad because there will be people there to deny his racism and his white supremacist views. That’s how he was raised – with that father of his.”
Clemency, a hit at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019, could be seen as a contribution to the ongoing campaign for social justice that flowered with this year’s Black Lives Matters protest. Woodard plays Bernadine, a prison warden who lives to see best practice observed for the inmates on death row. There is great subtlety to the picture. The protagonist’s trauma is palpable, but we never quite understand what her feelings are about capital punishment. I wonder if Woodard knows. Or is that the wrong question to ask?
“There are no wrong questions,” she says kindly. “I know how she feels, because I know her. I know how she feels about the death penalty. I learnt that from meeting six wardens. They come to that work from social work, from mental health. They are public health administrators. They are so steady and calm and organised.”
Woodard feels the wardens she spoke to (most of whom were women) were, like families of the condemned, always hoping for the last-minute call that would defer the execution. That, in itself, reads like an argument against capital punishment. The process traumatises the very people who administer it.
“Yes. Look, it takes 10 years until you exhaust your appeals,” she says. You see that person more than you see your family. There’s only like eight to nine people on the row with you. There’s about three or four guards. That’s all you see. After 10 or 15 years you turn and say: ‘Okay, Bob, got to kill you today.’ ”
Woodard could riff on any of these topics for the entire evening. But there is a career to be discussed. She was born in 1952. Her dad was an interior designer and her mother worked in the home. As she noted earlier, she was as young as 11 when she discovered the enormous focus that still drives her career.
“My father was from a land-owning family My mother was from a sharecropper family. They talked about the land being a great equaliser and about honouring your responsibility to your neighbour. So I grew up with a real social consciousness.”
She credits her interest in the acting art to one of our own.
“I discovered film in Catholic school,” she says. “Br Patrick O’Brien was a film buff. Once a month they would shut down the school and bus 750 kids to the nearest cinema. We were excited. We’re going to the movies. We get there and subtitles come across the screen. What? This not a movie! But you know, you’re eating Twizzlers and, before you know it, you’re weeping. You’re identifying with a middle-aged French man.”
The film was Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybele – winner of the Oscar for best foreign film in 1963 – and it has stayed with her ever since. She remembers herself as being “kind of an odd kid”. She was into student government and dallied with cheerleading, but she had to be persuaded to perform in the school play. Overnight, she came to an accommodation with her own strangeness.
She is depressed at those who believe wearing masks to stop the spread of coronavirus is a “liberal hoax”
“It was as if I’ve been walking around on dry land all my life doing the breaststroke,” she says, laughing. “Somebody had just pushed me into the water. That gave me a hit of oxygen. That’s when I knew this was my mother tongue. Sr Rachel Ann called my parents and said: ‘You’ve got to come see what we’re doing. Alfre is quite an actor.’ ”
Her parents reacted as if they had received encouraging explanation for a baffling medical complaint.
“ ‘Oh, she is? That’s great.’ I was constantly being taken to a doctor and being checked for worms. Ha, ha! They were relieved to find out I was an artist.”
Desire for diversity
Politics were wound up with her art even then. There was no avoiding that connection in the 1960s. She talks about the assassinations of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Bobby Kennedy. While she was enjoying first encounters with Citizen Kane and The Red Badge of Courage, the Stonewall riots were radicalising gay culture 1,200 miles away. Her dad happily paid for her to attend acting school in Boston, but he worried that, as member of a precarious profession, she’d be “living off beans” for the rest of her life.
There were particular challenges for an African-American actor in an industry that still wanted to tell white stories. Viola Davis recently explained that, though people are always calling her “the black Meryl Streep”, she doesn’t get the same opportunities or comparable pay cheques.
Has that situation improved?
“The difference is marginal,” Woodard says. “What has given more opportunity is the streaming services. I have been here 47 years in LA at this and, no, no, no, that hasn’t changed for me.”
As a member of the Actors Executive Committee for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, Woodard is eager to increase diversity in film and television.
“I’m not in the awards business. I’m more interested in the people who greenlight the product,” she says. “You’re going to see plans come forward for how Hollywood can move forward. It’s not about just saying: ‘Oh, yeah, I believe black lives matter’. And this is a way that we can make a change – because the reason black people are treated a certain way is that the population is seeing stories that do not allow them to understand that this human being has a life and a history.”
Woodard has been married to the writer Roderick Spencer since 1983. She lives comfortably in the relaxed Santa Monica enclave of Los Angeles. She stumped for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. She will stump again. Like so many sensible Americans, she is depressed at those who believe wearing masks to stop the spread of coronavirus is a “liberal hoax”. But her spirits remain high.
She is hoping to get back to Ireland soon. Fascinatingly, her husband lived in Glin Castle, a 19th-century pile in Co Limerick, as a child, and decades later the couple returned there to visit Dominic West, an acting chum of Woodard’s, and his wife, Geraldine FitzGerald, daughter of the last Knight of Glin. Life ties together in the oddest ways.
“And I have friends in Derry too – the Dohertys,” she says. “I love coming to Ireland, but we’re the pariahs now. Nobody wants us to come. We’re the pariahs.”
Clemency is available to stream from July 17th on Curzon Home Cinema and other platforms