News Column

Alfre Woodard is committed to fighting injustice

November 13, 2013


Nov. 13--Alfre Woodard was just 10 years old when she started precinct walking with her parents in their Tulsa, Okla., community. It helped fuel her lifelong commitment to fight injustice and make a difference in the world.

Today, the award-winning actress is co-founder of Artists for a New South Africa, a nonprofit working to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. She also directed and produced the audiobook of Nelson Mandela's "Favorite African Folktales."

On Thursday, Woodard visits Houston for the Anti-Defamation League's "Houston in Concert Against Hate" with the Houston Symphony and rapper Bun B at Jones Hall. She'll provide the narration.

"I love the orchestra, and the couple of times I've gotten to do narration, I stand in such a sweet spot. You just get ensconced in the music and vibration. It is a transcending thing. I got so excited when they asked me to do it."

Woodard currently stars in the film "12 Years a Slave" in the real-life role of Harriet Shaw, a privileged slave of a New Orleans plantation owner during the mid-1800s.

We talked with the actress about her commitment to justice, her acting role choices and why she dreads the red carpet.

Q: Why do projects like "Concert Against Hate?"

A: I just have an intolerance for injustice and a passion for justice. In my household, my mother's people were sharecroppers in Texas. My father's people were landowners in Oklahoma. When people work the land, it is a great equalizer. Everyone helps each other through the bad times. Both of my parents instilled a responsibility to make sure the people around you are safe and protected.

Q: How did you learn about the world around you as a child?

A: My father would make us watch the TV news for 30 minutes after we played outside. Then he would ask us what we thought. He said we should always have an opinion. I still do.

Q: When did you discover your acting talent?

A: I went to a Catholic school in Tulsa that encouraged involvement in the world. I discovered film at the same time, and I realized what a powerful tool it was. At 14, I could sit in the dark and watch a movie. That's when I discovered I wanted to be an artist.

Q: Do you make a point to pick roles portraying strong women?

A: I'm working on a four- to six-hour television program on (civil rights activist) Fannie Lou Hamer because that means a lot to me. But I've got an absolutely irreverent, poignant and hilarious independent film that I want to do. I've never done anything I didn't want to do. It's not that the characters I play are strong women. It's that they are doing what they are capable of.

Q: Your role in "12 Years a Slave" is small in comparison to your other films. Why did you do it?

A: Steve McQueen. He's just one of the most masterful filmmakers today. It's a small role, but it's pivotal to the story.

Q: What do you say to viewers who say the brutality in "12 Years a Slave" is difficult to watch?

A: This story and the film are brutal because slavery was brutal. It's beautiful at the same time because life is beautiful. It is essentially a story of family love and how we persevere.

Q: Is this film for a younger audience?

A: This film should be part of the course and curriculum in every high school in America. You cannot teach American history without having an honest look at slavery.

Q: You grew up in a black community in Tulsa. How did your family feel about you marrying a white man?

A: I lived a much more integrated life in Tulsa than many people know. My parents also told me everyone was equal in the eyes of God. By the time I brought Roderick home, I had brought home some characters -- a hippie, a guy who was a bit of a gangster. My parents could tell Roderick adored me. It is so rare to find true friendship, trust, love and loyalty. You embrace it when you find it. (This year, Woodard celebrates 30 years of marriage to Roderick Spencer. They have two children, Mavis, 24, and Duncan, 20.)

Q: With talk of Oscar buzz for "12 Years a Slave," do you feel pressure on the red carpet to dress a certain way?

A: Well, if I could almost fit the cookie cutter of what they wanted, I'd feel pressure. But I'm so outside of the cookie cutter, I don't feel pressure because I can't do it. I get dissed on the red carpet, but I get myself reasonably dressed, and I'm comfortable. And I have to remind myself my job is an actor, not a model.


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