— LOS ANGELES - Dressed in a form-fitting black pencil skirt with an off-white silk sleeveless blouse, Angela Bassett, star of Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns” still looked fresh and fetching even after a full day of interviews.
If she was at all weary it never showed. The ensuing conversation about her new film that hits theaters on Friday, her career moves, upcoming projects, her kids and approaching 50, was all light and lovely — even when we had some slight issues with semantics regarding the way she goes about her work.
Some folks might call her picky but Bassett, who is an undercover comedienne, was slightly taken aback by that notion.
“Really? Do I come off that way?” she said with a hearty laugh. After a little discussion it was determined that perhaps she had just been more “selective” in the past.
“Hey, there you go,” she said. “That is a better word.”
Regardless of the wording, the truth is that Bassett, best known for her Oscar-nominated turn as Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to do With It”; as the cradle robber in “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” and as the scorned wife in “Waiting to Exhale,” has had to be less selective because she knows what time it is. When you’re an aging African-American actress working in a town that’s ready to wrap your still warm remains in yesterday’s newspaper, you can no longer afford to wait on those roles that will have critics comparing you to the last great thing.
“In the beginning I didn’t want to do the wrong thing and you want to get a little further up,” she said. “But then you start to think about how many more years of opportunity do I have, especially in this country. We’re not Paris or somewhere that reveres the wise and mature woman (laughs). Yeah, I’ll come over and do that with you. Just tell me that I’m wonderful!”
Saying ‘yes’ to Tyler Perry
That’s exactly what Tyler Perry did when he first met Bassett backstage at the L.A. production of “Madea Goes to Jail.” “I told her she was the most wonderful actress out there and that I had to work with her. I just had to. I cannot tell you how happy I was when she said yes. It was like having been rescued by Noah and his Ark in the midst of the storm.”
Although Perry’s films have been financial goldmines, they haven’t been very well received by the critics. Bassett knew this going in but agreed to play Brenda, a struggling single mother with three kids who recently lost her job, anyway. Considering that Bassett is a Yale-trained thespian who has rarely appeared in low-budget, critically panned movies, one has to wonder why she might consider doing a Perry movie at this juncture in her career. Perhaps she noticed that Perry has been providing opportunities for several other aging African-American actresses including: 1972 Oscar nominee Cicely Tyson, Lynn Whitfield and Irma P. Hall.
You don’t have to be a Yalie to realize that it pays to be in a Perry film.
“He said before I signed on that it’s going to get panned,” Bassett said with a laugh. “I’m looking for opportunity and I’m looking for experience. C’mon let me have this experience. If there’s some value that I see or if I have the opportunity I’m going to bring the best that I have and I can to the moment and see how I can add to it.”
One of the things Bassett found most appealing about working with Perry is the respect he has for African-American women. He paints them in full tapestry and let’s them roll.
“Those women in his films and plays get to chew up scenery, I always like that,” Bassett said. “Black women get to chew up scenery and then have someone tell her she’s beautiful and fabulous and phenomenal and worth everything! I was like shoot, why didn’t I hear about that? So, it was great to hear he was doing some more — that wasn’t the first and the last.
“So when it came to (‘Browns’), I was willing, ready and able.”
Juggling work and twins
In “Browns,” Bassett’s Brenda is a vintage Perry victim. She’s so mentally battered, bruised and burned that she can’t recognize a good thing even when it’s slapping her in the face in the form of Harry (Rick Fox), a high school basketball coach who takes a special interest in Brenda’s son Michael (Lance Gross) and Michael’s mama. Will Harry break through the veneer? Well, if you’ve ever seen a Tyler Perry movie or play you already know the answer to that.
Even in her nonfiction world, it’s tough for Bassett to keep it all together these days. She and her husband, actor Courtney B. Vance, are the parents of two-year-old twins Slater and Bronwyn. Bassett said the hardest part about mothering twins is that they want “your time and attention simultaneously.”
“They’re like, ‘Pick me up,’” she said while moving her hands in a sweeping motion. “Well, you have enough strength to pick one up, but two? Getting them to understand a little patience. They want your attention. They own everything. They’ll take your glasses off your head and say ‘my glasses.’ Everything belongs to them, quiet as it’s kept. And I guess it does in a way.”
Fortunately Bassett and Vance have a pair of nannies and grannies to help them out — especially when they’re working. Bassett has three other films scheduled for release this year — “Nothing But the Truth,” “Of Boys and Men” and “Gospel Hill.” She was a little vague when asked if she were happy about her current workload.
“It’s alright, it’s good, it works out well,” she said. “I did like four films this year but still you’re like, I could have done like three more (laughs). It’s never enough. Maybe if you’re some somebody you can say woo, woo, it’s more than I’ve got days for in a year. I’d like to do more — different types of things like maybe an animated film or guest starring on whatever or maybe a documentary or maybe a little independent.”
War movie? No women need apply
In today’s Hollywood Bassett’s age and gender work in tandem to limit her opportunities, perhaps more so than the color of her skin. And it doesn’t help that Bassett can’t pick up a semi-automatic weapon to fight this ongoing battle on screen or with studio heads.
“I just get sick every time it’s a war movie,” Bassett said while rolling her eyes. “Just ugh! You all just love G.I. Joes, ugh! I just get nervous in my stomach thinking about it. Here’s the scene, you get to go home and the guy is all broken up and then there’s his wife and little children who have been there waiting. But usually women aren’t too involved, so it’s bad all around.”
Other than the preponderance of pesky war movies curtailing her work options, Bassett really has no complaints about her life or career. She’ll be 50 in August and looks 30. She loves the fact that she feels free to be who and what she is. “You’re a little more confident about what you know because you’ve lived it,” she says. She’s also thankful that the business has been as good to her as she’s been for it.
Bassett has been one of the actresses who has set the bar high. She’s made her imprint and has already gotten the opportunity to see its impact on the industry.
“Oh, I think I’ve been great for Hollywood,” Bassett said wistfully. “Hollywood’s been good for me. Dreams have come true and I’ve met and worked with the most amazing people and outstanding talent that have inspired me. I’ve brought my talent and my love for the craft every day to the set and to the characters that I’ve been blessed to be able to portray. To have them resonate with the public and across time has been a blessing — that people recognize it and remember it.
“People have been kind.”
Miki Turner is currently co-executive producing a documentary on girls and gangs with actor/director Bill Duke. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.