'Clemency' Star Alfre Woodard Talks Grown Folk's Love And The Anxiety Of Working In Prisons

"Clemency" takes a look at the people society tasks with warehousing and executing the condemned.

Clemency is a timely tale that sheds light upon the lives and sensibilities of a warden at a correctional facility who is a stickler for rules and regulations. When it is revealed that a convicted cop killer on death row may be innocent, Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) is caught in an emotional and psychology whirlwind that turns everything she believes upside down.

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Directed by Chinonye Chukwu and also starring Aldis Hodge and Wendell Pierce, Clemency takes a look at the people society tasks with warehousing and executing the condemned in a manner unfamiliar in modern cinema.

Recently, BET spoke with talented actress Alfre Woodard regarding her part in the film that won the Grand Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival.


BET: This is a unique role from a historic perspective and from a cinematic one. What made you want to do it?

Alfre Woodard: I’m always interested in doing things that I haven’t done or things that I don’t know how to do. That way, you get to discover. One of the great offshoots of being an actor is that it demands you stay in a constant state of mind. Even if you’ve been doing this for decades, you’ve got to learn something to be the person turning into a human being.

I wondered, what is going on in there? Are they pulling the proverbial legs off of frogs or something? Because you just have this romanticized, horror idea of what happens in a prison. But the real horror is how mundane the whole thing is, but it’s taking people’s lives! Even if you’re just being warehoused there, it is taking the life, the air and oxygen out of you.

BET: Was the research hard considering the placing you had to go and the people you had to meet for the movie to be authentic?

Alfre Woodard: The women who I met that were wardens came into it from the mental health field, they were therapists and psychologists. They came to it from social work. So there were people that that was their business, dealing with people in trauma and people who had inflicted trauma. So, they’re the type of people you want in a situation where everything has to stay balanced, nothing can get out of hand and they have the ability, especially women, of filling that role, but with a sense of compassion. Not compassion as I would do it, but by sticking to the rules. Protocol keeps it all going to hell in a hand basket. Because if you cut a stitch, the whole thing unravels. 


BET: Some in contemporary society don’t understand why Black people work within the prison industrial complex.

Alfre Woodard: Yes, they work inside of the prison industrial complex, which will exist with or without them, but you want people who have the training to deal with explosive situations.

BET: The warden reminds me of some of the strong Black women that I grew up with. While they were forced to be hard and authoritarian at times and put up this veneer, they are people. The same for your character. What was the emotional catalyst for your character, or did you decide ahead of time?

Alfre Woodard: Oh, honey, that’s just bad acting to decide how you’re going to be. People do it, and it’s baaaaad acting. I had the privilege of spending a couple hours with two condemned men.  So you’re just there. You’re meeting people where they are. You just listen. You say, "I’m here because this what I want to do, and I want to know you, see you." 

You get a feel for how everybody moves in that system, what time is like, how they talk to each other, how they deal with each other. You come back and you have your plot, but you’re not making decisions while you’re acting. Once you become Bernadine and you stand in her stead, then you’re listening and responding as Bernadine does. But, because you have empathy, the situation should be enough. But you say certain things and it evokes emotion in you. Like the last shot of the film, it was not even scripted. It wasn’t even planned.


BET: Some of the most powerful scenes in the movie were with yourself and Wendell Pierce, who plays your husband in the film. What was that experience like for you?

Alfre Woodard: Wendell and I are both mature adults who have been in mature relationships. I’ve been married for 38 years now. We know what it means, and how a marriage worked. The ones that do work aren’t always rosy, but you have to work at it. You can just say, "You don’t understand me anymore. I’m going somewhere else." Or, when that person checks you, you leave and say, "I’m going to go get somebody young who won’t check me and who doesn’t know that I need to check myself." 

So one of the things I liked about it is we were able to find mature love, partnership and commitment. That’s the kind where, whatever happens, you stay and you work it out. Yes, there are professions where people can’t talk about what they do. First of all, some don’t even know themselves well enough to try to explain to someone.

A lot of people, even if they’re a warrior, they come back and don’t know how to put that into words to express to a loved one. I love that fact that we go into their home. They’ve got a strong marriage. By strong, I mean it’s not bullsh*t.

We’ve found that not only do some correctional facility workers have PTSD rates similar to those deployed overseas in the military, but, if they’re married, they’re on their third marriage. But it was important for me to see. While people are waiting to decide whether they’re pro-death penalty or con-penalty, look at the people that we say, "You do it! You do the dirty work." What does it do to their lives? That’s what we wanted to bring forward.

Clemency is in theaters December 27!

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