Multiple Emmy Award–winning actress Alfre Woodard isn’t only celebrating her 30th anniversary with husband Roderick Spencer this year, she’s also causing a stir in Steve McQueen’s (Hunger, Shame) brilliantly sculpted epic film 12 Years A Slave. The Tulsa, Okla., native first captured hearts in 1983 on the TV series Hill Street Blues.
Now, the mother of two is one of the most prolific actresses in Hollywood, with memorable roles in movies like Crooklyn, Miss Evers’ Boys and last year’s all-black version of Steel Magnolias. Woodard also left an indelible impression on pop culture juggernauts Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy and True Blood. In Slave, she portrays the real-life role of Mistress Harriet Shaw, a privileged slave of a New Orleans plantation owner during the mid-1800s. Here, she shares her thoughts on modern-day slavery, President Obama and her key to a lasting marriage.
For Steve McQueen… I would go to Kabul and pull cable… I think he is a masterful filmmaker.
Slave narratives are… vital for us to have our feet on balanced ground in the future. I think it’s a chunk of our history that we are in denial about and that we don’t accept. And it is the root, I would say, of our contemporary domestic problems.
I am… an African-American woman who grew up in the South. My people are from Texas and Oklahoma, and my mother’s people were sharecroppers. And [I] always talked to the old folks. So I came [to this film] with a lot of history.
Nobody ever says… “There are too many Holocaust stories,” or “There are too many gangster movies.” But we tell three stories [about slavery] and they want us to be done.
I want my grandchildren… and great-grandchildren to know that I had a big sense of humor and I didn’t let people stand alone.
Today… there are more slaves held around the world, sexual and domestic, than even in the mid-1800s. But that’s all in the shadows, and it’s right in our suburbs and everywhere around us.
If you’re a racist… or not is absolutely off the point that the manifestation of 300 years of a slave economy is present in everyday [life]. If you’re going to deny that, you’re going to be constantly wondering why you’re anxious and off the tracks.
My philosophy is… that life is good. Good is the present, and good is the only real power. So every day I have to spin myself into alignment with good.
Barack Obama… was the most qualified person to take the helm at such a perilous time. And he’s done absolutely brilliantly with it, with one hand tied behind his back and with an absolutely rebellious Republican Party.
Post-racialism… brought the boil up. And now we just have to lance the boil, clean it out and heal the wound. People [mistakenly] thought, Now I don’t have to feel like I’m carrying the weight of something [that] happened when I wasn’t even alive. We are now forced into conversations. If we don’t have them, we’re going to be really sick.
Django Unchained is… to 12 Years A Slave [what] the Atlantic Ocean is to the Pacific Ocean. We need a lot of oceans. One does not negate the other, and one occupies a different territory. And [they are] fed by different rivers. They’re absolutely different genres; they’re absolutely different filmmakers. And they’re different stories.
Solomon Northup… wrote 12 Years A Slave and published it five months after winning his freedom back from being kidnapped and sold into slavery. All of us have a story to tell. All we want is to be understood as human beings.
I find it odd… that although millions of black people have been born, raised, worked, toiled, prospered, flourished and passed on in this country we can only think of a handful of stories that has been made into films. We never see [these] stories on the screen the way we see dominant culture stories, whether they’re high or low comedy or whatever.
It’s absurd… to think that this [time] is some new awakening. But then again, if [films] address black people twice in a year, it’s a renaissance! [Laughs]
Pictures like 12 Years a slave… give us a common language, a common emotional experience, whether you’re British, West African, West Indian or American.
We haven’t… moved forward, because everybody is fussing over and accusing each other of being racist or not. And it has nothing to do with reality.
Love… will demand things that are impossible. Marriage is about putting both feet in the boat and rowing out in the middle of the lake…. [It] is a partnership that you continue to grow.
Oscar buzz… That’s what Oscar does—it just buzzes. It is great to have it because people will be more prone to go see the film. Some are saying, “It’s so hard to watch.” Well, it’s about perseverance and love. It’s beautifully tough.