Actor Alfre Woodard has played some memorable and iconic mothers in her veteran career: Winnie Mandela in Mandela (1987); Carolyn in Crooklyn (1994); Loretta Sinclair in Down in the Delta (1998); Wanda Dean in Holiday Heart (2000); Camille Wright in Love & Basketball (2000); Alice Pratt in The Family That Preys (2008); Oiser in the 2012 remake of Steel Magnolias. Just last year, she played Cookie Lyons’ mom, Renee, on Empire, and returned to her role as the notorious Mariah Dillard in Netflix’s Luke Cage.
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The Golden Globe and Emmy winner expands her work with Netflix in her latest project, Juanita, where she plays a single mother of three grown children who take her for granted and have her wishing for some time to herself, if only to figure out who she is and what exactly she wants from her life. Juanita was written by her husband, Roderick M. Spencer, but it pulls no punches in exploring her sexual desires.
BET spoke with Woodard about the movie and her co-stars, Blair Underwood and LaTanya Richardson Jackson, as well as her husband’s involvement in the project as screenwriter and the viability of a streaming platform like Netflix moving forward.
BET: It takes a lot of courage for someone to admit that his or her life is just not working, but that’s exactly what your character, Juanita, does. Have you ever found yourself wanting to change the narrative of your life? And if so, how did you go about it?
Alfre Woodard: When Juanita says, “I’m a ghetto cliché," it’s a comment on how people look on her situation. She is not having a tragic life, it’s just mild annoyance that most moms, no matter what ghetto you’re in, even if you’re in a fancy apartment building or an upscale part of town. It’s just that it builds, and that’s what happens to her. It’s taken her a lifetime of people ignoring her needs and her satisfying other people’s needs outside of the home and inside of her home, and it finally just one day snaps. And we see it actually happens to her when her friend [Ms. Berman], the woman that she cares for and gets high with at the medical center, when she passes on, it’s like, you gotta do it.
To Juanita, it’s like, I gotta do something for myself, and you see her scrape her little money together. I’ve never had to change the narrative of my life, because I’ve had dreams since I was 5 years old – actually, 4 years old. I’ve had dreams and I’ve gone for them. It keeps changing because, you know, you’re a 5-year-old, so there’s not one [dream] you want to keep sticking to when you’re 20 or 30, but I’ve always had something in front of me and moved towards it. I thank God it’s never happened the way I wanted to because it forces me in different directions, which has given my life a lot of spice. But no, I believe in constantly making a move and mixing it up.
Being able to be open and flexible, as well as having the ability to pivot and shift in one’s life, is an important life skill to have, isn’t it?
Woodard: I think it’s instinctual. It’s kinda like – I ask myself this a lot – what do I feel like eating? What do I have a taste for? My mother used to do it, so I do it, and if I can’t get what I have a taste for, I don’t eat, even if I’m hungry. And my husband goes, “I just can’t believe that, why won’t you just eat?” And I say, “No, that’s not what I have a taste for,” so I think it’s instinctual.
The thing about Juanita that I love is that once she does make a move,she discovers she’s an agoraphobic. That’s how closed off from life she is right in her neighborhood and right where she’s been for probably high school, work, and everything has been in the neighborhood. She hasn’t seen a landscape, so she didn’t even know she had trouble with open spaces. So it’s not that she heads off to discover herself, but she heads off, and she opens up, to all kinds of things. So you get the inconvenience with the possibility of adventure, and romance, and deepened spirituality. And even the romance and the good sex, it’s like, yeah, all that’s good but she still knows… that sense of satisfaction coming from within isn’t complete. That’s why she says I gotta keep moving. We think she’s coming back because we know she knows where life is good, and it feels good and you feel respected and taken care of in a partnership, but that’s still a partnership. She’s got to be OK with just herself. Not OK. She’s gotta be satisfied in a deep way with herself.
Juanita has a hot and steamy love affair – at least in her fantasies – with Blair Underwood in the film. On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable were you being that up close and personal with scantily dressed Underwood, and how did you two prepare for your on-camera “love” scene?
Woodard: First of all, you know my husband wrote this for me, right? So Blair Underwood is not in Sheila Williams’ book, Dancing on the Edge of the Roof, which this is based on. But Robert, when he was writing it, he deeply knows all of my women relatives for the past 40 years. I say he knows the way the words fly out of their mouth, the way their hips swing and no matter how professional they are, the ones that work as nurses' aides or the ones that work in corporations, they still have that thing, and I knew he knew how to clock it. So, I knew he could find Juanita and her voice, and the first thing he said was, “OK, the world is looking over this woman, looking past her, and so, every woman needs a fantasy life, so… Blair Underwood!” But, even her fantasy lover is trifling – ain’t that something! So, he said, the only way that this is going to work is that Blair will do it, it has to be him, because nobody can play Blair, and he said, every time she says his name, it’s Blair Underwood, because that’s the full fantasy. So we called Blair immediately, and Blair loved it. Robert told him this is what I’m writing, and Blair said go for it. Blair’s wife said, I’m so glad Robert wrote this for Blair. She said, “Blair is a fool! He is just crazy!”
Blair and I shot some even crazier stuff. You know, I’ve known Blair since he was a puppy. L.A. Law was his first [show,] and I did the pilot of that, and we’ve worked for 25 years on "South Africa" together – New South Africa, Free South Africa and The Artist Floor, so I know him well, so it’s fine being enthralled with people you know. It becomes a competition to make sure people go like, "Oh yeah, that was hot!" So it’s a lot of fun doing that. You know, actors, we train together, you bare your butt and your soul to each other when you’re training, so that’s what we do. Most people are afraid to show those parts of themselves, but an artist can’t live without showing those parts of themselves.
Your best friend in the film, Kay-Rita, is played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, wife of Samuel L. Jackson, and you two have some great onscreen chemistry and seem quite connected as well. Are you friends in real life?
Woodard: She is my girlfriend forever! We didn’t even practice. They had to stop us yapping between scenes about other stuff and we’d be talking about [their children], Zoe and Mavis and Duncan, and would hear Clark say, "Action," and keep on talking about the kids in our scenes, but yeah, she is my sister. She’s not my S-I-S-T-A-H, she is my S-I-S-T-U-H. We were just honored that she came and did that work with us.
Another great moment in the film is your conversation with the character Peaches about the plight of Black boys in Juanita’s neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. Why was it so important to address the epidemic of disproportionate incarceration of Black men in this film?
Woodard: Because my husband is Caucasian and his children are blended children, which means they are African-American children. So his son is now 25, Duncan, but Duncan got put on the curb outside of our house at 12 o’clock in the afternoon at 16 years old! Came out of my house, we were all inside, from playing videos, and on the steps he got put on the curb because he looked like somebody. So it’s in there because it’s a part of everybody’s life.
People are like, "Why are all these Black boys sitting on the curb?" – because it is designed. And you know, it’s in the movie now because it has always been in our lives.... Don’t bring up a story if you’re not going to tell every aspect of it – the whole truth. Also, Juanita gets into unlikely alliances – the alliance between Juanita and the indigenous community; the alliance between Juanita and the lesbian…To be able to acknowledge the fact that, alright, don’t be looking at me, you’re not my type, and be honest and have a laugh about it and know that we’re there together, and we’re going down together, because look at everybody here looking at us – it’s just lots of ways of people understanding that they are stronger in their alliances, even one to one, than they are on their own. I love all of that.
How do you feel about the push to change the rules for streaming services being considered for awards consideration?
Woodard: Right now, with filmed entertainment, the playing field has been thrown up in the air and we don’t know how it all is going to land. Everybody is scrambling. Let’s call it a chessboard or a game board. All the pieces are up in the air and everybody is scrambling for a place of power when it lands. But the truth is, we are going to have even more of our entertainment on different platforms, different devices. I knew I was nuts when I said, "Oh my God, nobody should watch a movie on a smartphone. You can’t see the cinematography, for God’s sake," and all those things, but you know, time moves on.
So I think it is a conversation worth having. Roma is not a TV movie – it is a film. We know what is TV and what is films that are made and streamed on a monitor in your home called a TV, and I think that you can’t hold back that tide. I think it is a purism that will not be able to hold. It’s also that when Juanita drops, it drops in 150 countries. They dubbed the heck out of it, so people in the highlands of Tibet can walk around quoting Juanita.
What’s coming up next for you in terms of projects?
Woodard: I have Lion King coming out this summer. I’m playing Sarabi to Donald Glover’s Simba. And right now, for the past seven months, and I have another month to go, I’ve been shooting SEE with [Jason] Mamoa up in British Columbia, so that’ll come out probably in the fall.
Juanita is streaming now!