Entering into its 15th season, the Louder Than a Bomb poetry festival is holding a benefit and celebration this March. Bringing in big names to raise awareness of one of the largest youth culture gatherings in the world has the talented Alfre Woodard attending an all day event.
She is not only an award-winning actress but a producer and political activist as well. In movies, her career spans from Spike Lee's Crooklyn to the recent 12 Years a Slave, with Golden Globe nominations along the way for roles in films such as Passion Fish. Television roles include Desperate Housewives and St. Elsewhere, with wins for HBO's Miss Evers' Boys ( racking up Golden Globe, Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild awards ).
Woodard called Windy City to talk about her upcoming trip to Chicago and stellar career.
Windy City Times: Hi, Alfre. I just read that we are both from the same birthplace, Oklahoma. Congrats on your Oklahoma Hall of Fame induction last year.
Alfre Woodard: Thank you. That was pretty cool.
WCT: How does that compare to winning an Emmy?
Alfre Woodard: They don't compare at all. One is something for my work and one is just the luck of birth! ( laughs )
WCT: Do you go back to Tulsa very often?
Alfre Woodard: I do occasionally because my brother and his family are there.
WCT: Did you always want to be an actress growing up in Oklahoma?
Alfre Woodard: No, but when I was four years old I told my mother that I was going to live in southern California. She asked me, "Why?" I said, "Because the sun comes up every day and you can go to Disneyland whenever you want!" I knew then but was not interested in performance at all. I didn't start acting until I was 16.
WCT: Did you have an Oklahoma accent?
Alfre Woodard: I did because when I went to Boston University to train with a class covering speech for the stage they rid you of your regional dialect. The whole process is called "freeing the natural voice." I remember my teacher telling me if I wanted to play Medea one day I needed to lose my accent!
WCT: Well you showed her with all of these roles. How do you pick a project?
Alfre Woodard: If I start reading something and feel emotions or act it in my head when I am reading it then it strikes something organically in me. I keep reading it and pray that nothing stupid or offensive happens where I would I have to turn it down.
WCT: Do you have a part in particular project that you are proud of?
Alfre Woodard: Most of my work I feel that way about. The work I am doing is really channeling. I am telling other people's stories so my job is to stay out of the way as much as possible. That is why you train so when it is time to do a role you find that person's dialect, timbre in the voice, and sensibilities. Training is getting to that neutral point so when I tell their story so it's about them and how well the filmmaker puts the piece together. I watch it then as an audience member because I enjoy the moving image.
WCT: You have had such emotional roles that must be hard to perform sometimes.
Alfre Woodard: No, because I am an actor and you want the big symphony. You want to play Bach and Mendelssohn because that is what your instrument is tuned for.
Also, Jerry, I have done some pretty hilarious bullshit stuff, too, like Beauty Shop and Miss Firecracker, I like to have a good time as well!
WCT: You must have had a blast playing Ouiser in Steel Magnolias.
Alfre Woodard: Oh my GodI had so much fun!
WCT: You got to bond with all of those women in the cast.
Alfre Woodard: Yes; it was forced bonding because Lifetime didn't exactly "make it rain"let's just put it that way. They make it hail quarters and nickels, hitting me in the head! So we had to share this one big van all of the time with six grown professional women trying to get them all to the set at five in the morning was tough but we checked our egos at the door.
We would shoot until really late at night20 yards from an active railway line so they had to stop every five minutes to let the whole jiggle thing happen. We would shoot until two in the morning and the young girls wanted to stop at the Krispy Kreme. In the spirit of solidarity, Phylicia Rashad and I would agree to stop. Some panhandlers would be there screaming our names. I said, "Grab the doughnuts and go!"
WCT: You have been a constant supporter for the LGBT community throughout your career. Do you have a gay family member or friends?
Alfre Woodard: Of course I have family members. I've had boyfriends, best friends that were all gay but the bottom line is I was just raised right. When LGBT issues came up in my life, it fell right in sync with how all I look at all human beings.
One of the things I remember the most from when I was a little girl was my father saying, "Don't you ever look up to any man and don't you ever look down on any man. We are all the same." I believe it. That is the way I live my life. Whatever differences a person has that just makes it that much more colorful.
I believe in the real gospel of the radical Jesus who only taught love and not this bullshit that is flying around.
WCT: Amen. Jesus didn't say a negative thing about gay people.
Alfre Woodard: He also didn't say anything about the draconian laws with dancing or anything else.
WCT: You have given back to the gay community, performing in movies like Holiday Heart.
Alfre Woodard: Yeah, and when I read something I am not only looking for my character to not say something offensive but also if there is something someone else would be offended by.
WCT: Were you thinking about Obama when playing a Black president on State of Affairs?
Alfre Woodard: No; I have been a social activist since I was 14 even before I decided I was an actor I already had that sensibility. I have been in Washington frequently for the last 30 years chanting, and shouting around at the building. I wanted to change some minds in there. I have been involved in five campaigns actively. I have done a lot of work in congress about the issues that were important to me.
I loved that I could join the thing that I am interested in not as a hobby but as a citizen. You don't grow up a little black girl in Oklahoma and not feel the drive to be politically aware and involved.
WCT: Do you think the president watches that show?
Alfre Woodard: I doubt that after a long day of ISIS, the president wants to sit down and watch fake terrorism.
WCT: Talk about this benefit that you are hosting here in Chicago.
Alfre Woodard: It's a slam. It's turbo poetry to tear things wide open. I am on the President's Committee on Arts and Humanities that has a project called Turnaround Arts that integrates art and education into academic curriculum within classes. It turns around test scores. I met people from Louder Than a Bomb at one of the training sessions for administrators. Their presentation made me bounce and get up out of my seat. They are great.
We are discovering that, every day, kids that may not even be poets have poetic expression when they are talking from their heart. Most American kids are locked in no matter what economic status because that is where we are as a culture now. It is cool these days to not look around and be only on social media. To encourage these kids to what I see as a liberation to have a voice and matter is important. We want to see their hearts and minds. Once they open up it is so beautiful, tragic, purposeful and funny. We realize our youth are smarter and more compassionate than even we are. We didn't know that because they had on their headphones! Not only are they alive and kicking, but they are laying a new course for everybody. It is amazing. That is why I am there to come in and support them.
WCT: This is a rare opportunity to see you in Chicago.
Alfre Woodard: Yes; I don't get to Chicago a lot. I am usually flying back and forth from LA to New York and don't get off the freeway, so to speak, to see Chicago. I'm excited about being there, even in the dead of winter.
WCT: What projects do you have coming out?
Alfre Woodard: I have a movie coming out called Mississippi Grind. I am also working to get a television miniseries about [civil-rights leader] Fannie Lou Hamer that will hopefully shoot in the spring.
Alfre Woodard, along with actor Alec Baldwin and A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad, will host a brunch at Soho House, 125 N. Green St., have an onstage reception with Chicago chefs and perform at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark St., throughout the day on March 1.