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hat do black women want? And what does Hollywood want black women to be?” Hilton Als wrote in The New Yorker, in 1996, contemplating the singular career of Angela Bassett. By then, Bassett had exploded into movie stardom with roles in John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” and Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X,” and then had really blown up playing Tina Turner, in “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” for which she was nominated for Best Actress at the 1994 Academy Awards. Bassett lost, to Holly Hunter (“The Piano”), but she went on to star in “Waiting to Exhale” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” both groundbreaking films that chronicled the love lives and friendships of middle-aged Black women. It was a mini-genre that seemed to revolve around Bassett, whose innate strength, diamond-sharp beauty, and depth of feeling made her a totem of empowered Black womanhood in the nineties.

Still, that Oscar loss seemed like a debt waiting to be paid. In 2002, months after Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win Best Actress, for “Monster’s Ball,” Bassett told Newsweek that she had turned down the role because it exemplified a “stereotype about black women and sexuality.” She didn’t “begrudge Halle her success,” but added, “I would love to have an Oscar. But it has to be for something I can sleep with it at night.” More than two decades later, Bassett, at sixty-four, is back in the Oscar race, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Queen Ramonda, in Marvel’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” The performance taps into Bassett’s thunderous regality, but also the real-life grief surrounding the death of Chadwick Boseman, who left the franchise without its hero but rife with heroines. Bassett is the first actor to be nominated for a Marvel film, and she may well win—after all, shouldn’t Angela Bassett have an Oscar already?

When I spoke to Bassett recently, she was at her home, in La Cañada Flintridge, in Los Angeles County, where she lives with her husband, the actor Courtney B. Vance, and their teen-age twins. She wore a shimmering purple dress with loose sleeves, and, as she recounted her eventful career, her hands danced before her, as if her long, pointy fingernails were casting a spell. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

I’ve been rewatching many of your movies, and you have the most incredible voice: perfect, crisp articulation but also this depth and pain. Are there things you picked up from vocal training at the Yale School of Drama or elsewhere that you use, or vocal exercises you do?

I don’t do a lot of vocal exercises for television or film, unless maybe it’s a really cold morning, or I’ve lost my voice. Then I’ll hum up to as high as I can go, until my voice breaks, and then go past it. That seems to break through that stagnation, that grip on your throat. [She hums from a low tone to a piercing squeak.] I learned that little technique when I was in South Africa doing “Boesman and Lena.” I was so far away from home and completely lost my voice. When I’m onstage, which is regrettably not very often—I hope to remedy that. Once the kids are off and in college, then I can do

whatever, whenever.

Please! I saw you in “The Mountaintop,” the Katori Hall play. That must have been the last time you were on Broadway.

Yeah, that was the last time.

But you were saying you have different techniques for stage?

Yes. Just coming in, making peace with the stage. Before the audience would come in, I would go, “Bay, bee, bi, bo, boo!” All those vocal exercises, with the articulation of the plosives—the “B”s, the “P”s, the “T”s—hitting the back wall, because we weren’t miked.

I’ve heard you say that being in the “Black Panther” movies feels like theatre acting. In “Wakanda Forever,” you have these big speeches, like the one to the U.N. Are there particular genres of theatre, or roles you’ve done, that you were thinking of? I know early in your career you played Antigone.

I was thinking of that, most definitely. Antigone, Greek drama, Sturm und Drang. I was thinking of Shakespeare.

For Marvel movies, I imagine that there’s a lot of green-screen work. When I interviewed Anthony Hopkins, he had been in the “Thor” movies, also playing a monarch, and he basically said, “You just sit on a throne and shout.” How do you act against some background that isn’t there, maybe talking to someone who isn’t there?

Well, here’s the thing. It was there. The throne room was there, the floor of red clay, the elevation with the Dora Milaje flanking around, the grand doors that they walk through. So maybe you don’t see the world of Wakanda, but we had that. When Shuri and I went out into the wild, we had trees and bushes and water for yards and yards and yards, and Namor came up out of the water and flew to us. We had the entire ship, and the attention to detail inside of it was just magnificent. So I had it much better than Anthony Hopkins. I’m sorry for him.

Well, he was in outer space somewhere.

We were in Wakanda, and we know Wakanda is special. We had Shuri’s lab. We had the elevator opening up. We had a fake elephant and her baby come in. Of course, they made the generated elephant later, but at least we had an elephant to respond to.

Did you get along with your elephant co-star?

You know, elephants are about family.

How did you develop the accent for this imaginary nation? Did you have accent coaching?

We absolutely did. We had Beth McGuire—she’s a coach at Juilliard now, but during the first “Black Panther” she was at Yale, my alma mater. With this one, we had time to do six or eight sessions with her, just leisurely, before we arrived in the city to start filming. I would grab maybe three key phrases that I found on YouTube, of Winnie Mandela or certain wives and certain women, South African women. Maybe a worker. And before a scene I would recite them. One of them was very close to Mandela. [She speaks in an accent, rolling her “R”s.] “He didn’t want to play arrrround. He just wanted to marry me.” That would get me in the zone.

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You are the first actor to be nominated for an Oscar for a role in a Marvel film, and I’m sure that was not what you envisioned as part of your legacy. But Marvel has attracted an incredible number of great actors: Glenn Close, Robert Redford, Cate Blanchett. What is the appeal for actors to be in the Marvel universe?

Well, it’s so modern. We try and stay current, and they’ve got a winning formula. You just want to be in the mix there, working with wonderful filmmakers. Both times I have been with the same filmmaker, Ryan Coogler. But the attention to detail, the support, the money that they have to really support the filmmaker and the process is astounding, as opposed to “Hurry up and rush, rush, rush.” It’s been a great ensemble of folks. A couple of years ago, we did a photograph of the Marvel actors—it was just a stage filled with actors who’ve been in the Marvel movies. Of course, I was a little late, so they had to Photoshop me in, but it was pretty amazing. So you want to be part of a good club.

The last time you were nominated for an Academy Award was almost thirty years ago, for “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Now that we’re in the thick of awards season, what about Oscar campaigning has changed since the last time?

Oh, my gosh, it’s completely different. You need a lot of energy to run this race to the proverbial finish line. You need your energy and your wits about you, because there’s just a lot now. I don’t remember so much three decades ago. Of course, there was the Golden Globes. I maybe even did my own makeup. I remember the N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards, and I remember the Oscar luncheon. But I was never invited to film festivals or anything like that. I had a lot of time to myself. So it’s a lot different now. You have studios behind you, and producers who’ve taken this very seriously, who shall remain unnamed. It’s become quite a campaign, as opposed to: You did the work, it’s on the screen, it was seen by the voting members, and they voted. That’s what I thought, in my naïveté.

Your husband, Courtney B. Vance, recently told Essence, “I always tell her that the world is waiting for her Oscar, so that we can lift her up thirty years past when we should have.” Do you believe him when he says that?

Oh, Lord, I think that I sit there and I look at him. You need somebody in your corner who believes in you, in those moments when you don’t believe in yourself. You can just hang on to their faith until yours comes back. I don’t think I necessarily believed. I didn’t want to disbelieve, though. But I didn’t see any evidence of it for thirty years.

What do you mean by that?

Well, it’s just been that long since I’ve had a role that would allow me to really showcase what I’m capable of. I’ve had a marvellous career. I stay working. But that particular role that grabs the attention of the audience and takes them on a journey? As our mothers would say, I can make a dollar out of fifteen cents. But it’s not that transformational kind of experience, or one that electrifies a group to vote for you. So, yeah, I didn’t really believe. And I’m sixty-four years old—it’s, like, “O.K., when?” It’s been thirty years now. Time’s a-ticking! We’re burning daylight! When’s this gonna happen? As a woman, you’re always looking for complex roles, whether you’re twenty-eight or sixty-eight.

I want to go back to the beginning. You grew up mostly in St. Petersburg, Florida. Can you tell me about your first instincts toward performing?

I grew up with my sister and my mom, and it was the time where you would listen to the radio every day. Your mother bought albums, and you’d grab your brush, standing in for a microphone, and you would perform your favorite song. I guess it’s early karaoke. My mother loved theatre when she was a teen-ager. So I’ve been told by her sister.

What songs would you sing?

“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Midnight Train to Georgia”—something that tells a story. Or Nancy Wilson, “Guess Who I Saw Today.” I guess that was the first foray into acting. And then I was in a little church choir, and every fifth Sunday they would let—insist—that the kids run the service. So we would sing, we would bring the Word. We would put on little skits. I’m sure they were terrible. Later, when I was in an education program, Upward Bound, at Eckerd College, we would have talent nights, Miss Upward Bound or something like that. I couldn’t sing or tap-dance. But I loved poetry, so I found an album of Ruby Dee’s, where she did the poems of Langston Hughes. And it was more than just reciting the poems. She stirred something in there with it, some fire, some heat, some excitement, and it just—ping!—opened up my whole imagination. So I took about three of those poems and strung them together.

Then I would get more opportunities to perform James Weldon Johnson poems, when our churches would get together and there would be a talent night. I did this poem called “Final Call” [by Langston Hughes]. It’s a long poem, and it’s got this repetitive thing going on: “Send for this. Send for that.” It just goes on and on and on. “And, if nobody comes, send for me.” And the audience just stood up and clapped, and my knees got very weak. It was just the first recognition for me, at fifteen, that drama, that theatre, that words, that passion from one human being could move another, and maybe I had a gift for it. It was a big audience of hundreds of people, and it was just a thunderous ovation. It almost scared me.

That was one very lucky audience, seeing the young Angela Bassett discover her thunderous abilities! One of the things that you’re known for, right up to “Wakanda Forever,” is playing strong mothers. Do you draw on your own mother, Betty? What was she like?

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I do think about her. She’s a big part of me. It was tough for her as a single mom. She worked all day, and then she had a second job at night, where she cleaned up doctors’ offices. If she was too tired, she’d drop off my sister and me and we’d clean them. Or, if she was cleaning, she’d drop us off at the library till it closed, or she’d drop us off at the roller rink to babysit us till she got back. But she always liked to do things excellently. She wasn’t one to throw something together. I wish I had more of that ability, to throw together a party. I just cogitate on things, because I want them to be perfect, and I think I get that curse and that blessing from her. I remember getting a C. That was below her standard, so I came up with my argument to persuade her that a C was average, and average was fine. And she retorted, “I don’t have average kids.” So I began applying myself in a different sort of way, even still to this day. You want to go beyond just giving your average. Give it a bit more effort, time, attention,

That push toward academic excellence must have worked, because you wound up at Yale. I read that you were originally majoring in business and then switched to theatre studies?

I didn’t quite know what my major was when I got there. My aunt told me, “Angela, please, don’t waste a Yale education on theatre.” That wasn’t practical for the generation before us, wanting to be an actor. “No one down the street does this. We’ve never seen this. It’s some land far, far away!” I didn’t take that as an affront. Then I attempted to major in business, until I was not doing well in statistics. I tried to do business, theatre, and African American studies. I said, “Oh, the business of Black theatre!” I sort of made up my major, I guess. I went to Skip Gates, who was the head of the Afro-Am Studies Department. African American studies was always of interest to me, even in high school, just reading about Crispus Attucks or the Negro Ensemble Company. So I went to him and wrote a thesis, but I was also talking to my theatre teacher: “I want to marry these five theatre courses with something that you don’t have on the list.”

I had no idea that you studied with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. So, you stayed at Yale for the Yale School of Drama, which back in the day people called the “Yale School of Trauma.”

That’s right!

Did you find it traumatic? Drama school can be a pressure cooker, with a lot of egos, a lot of people competing for parts. Was it like that?

It was like that, although I don’t know if you were competing. You would just look at the list, and there’s your name next to a part. You are observed for your skills in the class by the professors, and at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the professional theatre there, they had smaller roles that someone our age would be perfect for. So that’s one long audition.

When you were there, you founded an affinity group called Folks, for the Black students in the drama school. Was there a kind of support that you felt was missing there that you wanted to create through that group?

Absolutely. I mean, just coming from Florida to Connecticut was a culture shock. Snow! All right? That was the first shock. I bought yellow rain boots. I thought they were boots, but they were very thin. I wondered why I was almost frostbitten! I was laughed at all the time, just clomping across the yard, crying because I’m so cold. I didn’t have any money. I’m calling my father in New York: “Can you send me money for socks?”

[When] I arrived at Yale [for undergrad], they had a program, blessedly so, where Black and brown students arrived on the campus two weeks before everyone else. You’re trying to navigate this land. This Gothic architecture can be imposing. We would take classes for two weeks, and they’d give us a stipend. So the confidence was within you when everyone else arrived, folks who had gone to Exeter and Andover, folks whose fathers were lawyers and doctors and heads of corporations. We also had what we called “the House,” which was the Afro-American Cultural Center. And we had the Yale Gospel Choir, and we would sing in New York and around Connecticut. But I remember saying to myself, “They should give you every degree they have here after two years!” It’s a lot of late nights, burning the midnight oil. There were times that I would stand in front of a mirror crying, giving myself a talking to: “You can do this. Do you need to cry? How long do you need? You want ten minutes to have your pity party? Then you’re gonna get up, wash your face, comb your hair, and get back to that paper.”

When I continued on [to drama school] at Yale, it was going through this transition period from Robert Brustein to Lloyd Richards as the head of the theatre school. It was a big transition, with those who are pro the new guy, pro the old guy. You know, they’re pushing the old guy out. He landed at Harvard, so it’s not too bad.

Robert Brustein did all right!

Don’t cry for him, Argentina. And the new dean is this Black man, and I was just happy to see this man who looked like myself. I could walk by his plate-glass window and see him at his desk. I would just wave, because I was too intimidated to go up and have conversations. I knew he was one of the founding members of the Negro Ensemble Company, directing on Broadway with “A Raisin in the Sun.” So it was, like, “Oh, my God, he’s awesome! And I get to study with him.” I didn’t have the nerve to call him Lloyd, like all the other students did.

Didn’t he end up directing you in August Wilson plays on Broadway?

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He sure did. “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and I went into “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” He invited me up to the National Playwrights Conference, in Connecticut. That’s where he had discovered this young playwright August Wilson, along with other people—Wendy Wasserstein and on and on. I went up about five summers, and it was the chance of a lifetime.

Well, I graduated from school, and about a year later got cast as an understudy in a bus-and-truck tour of this play called “Colored People’s Time,” which was from the Negro Ensemble Company—this theatre that I had done one of my theses on at Yale. Sam Jackson was in it. Carol Lynn Maillard, who’s a member of Sweet Honey in the Rock. I was understudy for the women. Carol’s part is the only one I went on for, and I had to sing these two Billie Holiday songs—me, who does not sing! I was just weak in the knees. I was serviceable.

I’m sure it was better than that.

I was serviceable. So, yeah, I was a nurse in a soap opera. There wasn’t a lot of television in New York at that time. There was “The Equalizer” and “The Cosby Show.” That seemed to be pretty much it. I got a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. I was happy—“I like Kentucky Fried Chicken!”—until about the fourth hour. Then I hated it.

Did you have day jobs? I read that you worked as a receptionist at a beauty salon.

Yeah, Georgette Klinger salon. It was a challenge, because I’m trying to do this thing that I’ve studied for, that I have these loans for, and I’m trying to feed myself and keep the lights on with this survival gig. I’m in this little hallway, answering the phone and booking appointments for facials with Miss Katrina and Miss Jocelyn and Miss Whoever from Europe. But we would have forty-five minutes off for lunch, on Madison Avenue. And so, to get downtown to the Public Theatre or to someone’s casting office, it took you at least forty-five minutes. You get there and go, “I can’t get in at my appointed time?” Because everything runs behind! “Work with me, people!” So I would run in, blurt out the audition, and then try to run back uptown. And then I would get reprimanded for being ten minutes late. It was just so stressful. I knew I couldn’t give my best in the auditions, because I was worried about getting back to work on time and hearing this lady’s voice in my ear.

So I heard about another job. It was for U.S. News & World Report [as a photo researcher]. I gave my notice at the salon. They wished me well, I wished them well. And I went to Rockefeller Center to start working for this one gentleman. He would send me to the Associated Press and different places, to their photo departments. And I’d say, “Oh, I have an audition at two.” He’d say, “Well, it’s twelve! Go get ready!” He knew that this job was a means to an end. Sure enough, I was there maybe two months before I got my first acting job, because I could go in and audition and my mind was free. I was really sad to leave him. I think I even cried. He was, like, “Don’t cry. This is what you want.” I was, like, “You’re right! Bye! I’m outta here!”

You eventually moved to L.A., and I’d say most people would point to “Boyz n the Hood,” in 1991, as a real turning point in your career. You had these great scenes with Laurence Fishburne, as your ex-husband. He was still going by “Larry Fishburne,” and was later your co-star in “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Was “Boyz n the Hood” your first encounter with him?

It wasn’t. I had been doing theatre, and I got an audition in L.A. for this movie that was to be made, entitled “Dessa Rose,” based on the book by Sherley Anne Williams. We show up in Charleston, and Laurence Fishburne was my love interest. Cicely Tyson was sort of a mother figure. Maybe forty-eight hours before the first shot, we were having a good time, but something happened. I think United Artists fell apart, or something a long, long way away from Charleston. And it wasn’t to happen. It was a filmus interruptus.

The early nineties was such an explosive time in Black indie cinema, with directors like John Singleton and Spike Lee, who directed you in “Malcolm X.” And there were great actors, including yourself and Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson, coming out of this scene. Did it feel like a golden age at the time?

Oh, absolutely. Dreams were coming true. There was opportunity. There was a chance to work throughout the year. There wasn’t a lot of idle time. We were doing miniseries, dramas. I was, like, “I am Everywoman!” I was doing a lot of bio-pics at the time.

That’s right. You’ve played a number of icons over the course of your career: Betty Shabazz, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, of course Tina Turner.

Katherine Jackson, Voletta Wallace.

Is there an extra pressure when you’re playing someone so well known?

I put that pressure on myself. “Don’t be average.” Study what you can about them, talk to who you can about them. Whatever footage you’re able to observe. You just want to be credible, respectful. Vulnerable, yet compassionate. Show the part of them that’s resilient and special, which is why we’re telling this story.

Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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