Waiting to Excel

Whether she's setting her soon-to-be ex-husband's car ablaze in Waiting to Exhale or strutting her stuff with an uncanny resemblance to legendary performer Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It, Angela Bassett always brings the right balance of toughness and vulnerability to her characters. Her passionate portrayals of women surviving incredible odds—strong women who are nonetheless visibly human—have defined her as one of acting's greats.

As Bassett explained, she has often drawn from her own strength when bringing these women to life. "I think it's part of my nature or part of my makeup, my upbringing," said the actor in a recent interview. "And I'm glad that there's a sense of vulnerability."

While proud to have played such passionate, potent women on-screen, Bassett told Back Stage West that she wishes she were considered for a greater variety of roles. Believe it or not, it gets tiresome always playing the strong type. "I can fall apart at the drop of dime," remarked Bassett.

A comedy would also be welcome—something she's never been offered. "I say that, but when the opportunities come you always go back to what's comfortable—what's you, what you want to say about life. I guess part of what I want to say is that women are empowering, wonderful, strong, bright, vulnerable, and emotional."

Sayles' State

Bassett has been doing variations on this strong woman in extraordinary circumstances throughout her career, most recently as one of the leads in Sunshine State. John Sayles' latest film offers an indelible portrait of two women (played by Bassett and Edie Falco), two families, and two communities standing on the brink of change as a local real estate development plans to transform their modest beachside Florida community into an upscale, manicured town. Sayles examines how race, politics, and land grabbing divide the film's Floridians. Bassett, who grew up in St. Petersberg, Fla., stars as Desiree Perry, a frustrated actor who returns to her fictitious Lincoln Beach hometown—an African-American community formed during the period of segregation. Desiree wrestles with the sometimes overwhelming weight of family, history, and family expectation and struggles with the uncertainties of love, duty, and responsibility.

"To be offered a role that is uplifting and luminous is really a treat. It's a fortunate occurrence to work with John," shared Bassett. "I'm just blessed to be an actor in his company that he works with from time to time."

For Sayles, Angela Bassett and Edie Falco were the only two actors that he had in "big text" as he was writing the script.

"What Angela brings is, first of all, she's a really good actress," said Sayles. "She can handle that kind of heavy drama stuff. Also, there's a part of her that is glamorous. We needed someone who you could believe could get a job being on an informercial where it's very presentational and you basically just have to look great. That combination really brought her to mind." Sayles said he also felt that her background as a Florida native would only serve the story.

This is the actors' third collaboration with the independent writer, director, and editor. The first came in his 1991 drama City of Hope, followed a year later by Passion Fish, with Alfre Woodard and Mary McDonnell.

Said Bassett of working with Sayles, "He's just a consummate artist. They throw around the word genius like it's birdseed, but you really feel that's applicable to him. A lot of times scripts are flawed or you see problems with them and [the producers] promise to get them right by sending them to various script doctors. Sometimes it improves in one place but then it falls off somewhere else. But with John's scripts, he's so acquainted with the situation, with the environment, and how they each affect the other. It's really three-dimensional, multi-layered; he weaves this tapestry seamlessly. You don't have any issues with the characters that he has written or how he has developed them. It makes sense."

Sayles also knows how to write great female characters—women who prevail over obstacles and who are central to his stories. For Bassett, these types of high-caliber roles sustain her in this difficult profession.

"I love bringing a character to life and affecting an audience, causing them to think," she said. "That's something you do with a piece like Sunshine State. What attracted me to the character of Desiree is dealing with the issues of a fractured relationship and what goes into making us whole and how we run away from those issues. But you always have to deal with it if you really want to progress. I want people to come away with a little of that."

Training Ground

Bassett's love for acting manifested itself during an 11th grade field trip to Washington, D.C., during which she saw James Earl Jones perform in a production of Of Mice and Men at the Kennedy Center. So inspired, Bassett knew from that day on that she wanted to be an actor. She immediately set about realizing her goal, taking roles in school plays and church productions.

An extremely bright student with an overwhelming passion for education, Bassett—with encouragement from a schoolteacher—applied to Yale and won a scholarship. She earned a B.A. in Afro-American Studies, then remained at the university for three post-graduate years, receiving a master's degree in drama under the tutelage of Lloyd Richards. The renowned stage director and frequent collaborator with August Wilson later cast his prize student in two powerful Broadway dramas by Wilson: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Today when Bassett talks about her years at the prestigious acting school, you can spot the seeds of the dedicated actor she has become. The most important things learned, she recalled, "were my melding passion with a technique; knowing how to assess a character, whether it's by voice, dress, body, or emotion; having a technique so you don't just show and do whatever you feel today."

Bassett continued to work on Broadway and put in her time on a soap opera before winning a small part in the cult favorite F/X. She has since graced the screen in numerous films: John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood, Spike Lee's Malcolm X, Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Contact, Music of the Heart, The Score, and more recently the TV movies Ruby's Bucket of Blood (for which she was nominated this year for a Screen Actors Guild Actor Award), and The Rosa Parks Story, in which she exemplified the heroic title character.

What's Oscar Got to Do With It?

Bassett is perhaps best known for her breakthrough role in What's Love Got To Do With It, in which she captured Tina Turner's terror and tenacity offstage and her ferocious star quality onstage. In service of authenticity, Basset trained vigorously to emulate with perfection Turner's signature moves. It was, said the actor, the hardest thing she has ever had to do, in terms of physicality. You sensed that she was disappearing into the role, not just beefing up her muscles.

Though Bassett earned an Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe for her performance in the film, she found it difficult afterwards to break out of the image she had created—that of a strong woman defying the odds. "I actually worked more before the nomination, and I was able to do all kinds of things. After a nomination or high-profile work in which people learn your name and your face, it's interesting; you can't do any- and everything anymore."

Still, Bassett appreciated the acclaim and hopes to earn what has eluded her thus far. "I would like to win that Oscar. It's good to have goals," she said with a smile. Her plan? To continue to find rich and engaging characters and "the kind of work worthy of thought."

Bassett was ecstatic about Halle Berry's Oscar win this year. When asked whether she thought the industry wasn't ready for two African-American actors to win Best Actor and Actress when she and Lawrence Fishburne (her co-star in What's Love Got To Do With It) were both nominated in 1994, Bassett responded, "It obviously wasn't ready. I think, by and large, the world continues to grow. Hopefully it moves forward and not backwards. It still feels sluggish, for a lack of a better word. But, hey, it's always not enough or too slow for actors."

In every respect Bassett is the personification of grace and dignity on- and off-screen. Her acting style sets the paradigm—not only for African-American actresses (Berry, in fact, acknowledged Bassett in her Oscar acceptance speech), but also for actors of all ethnicities.

For those who aspire to a performing career, she advised, "You need to seek out opportunities where you can work. It's not going to all be starring roles in the next Steven Spielberg picture, but work when you can. Keep that muscle pliable. Also I think if you keep a positive, upbeat, hopeful, anticipatory attitude, it translates when you walk into a room. I think it says something about your work ethic. Work hard to be a professional at whatever situation it is, whether it's big or small, whether you're working on a monologue up the street or on a $50 million set. Always maintain a professional attitude."

Passion and professionalism have few better exemplars than Angela Bassett. BSW