Four-time NAACP Image Award winner Kimberly Elise comes to TV this week in the Hallmark Movie Channel original movie Hannah's Law, playing the stagecoach driving BFF to the bounty hunter of the title (Sara Canning), a role she relished for its down-and-dirty fun and the uniquely western challenges it posed. In an exclusive interview with BET.com, she talked about playing a real-life Black frontier heroine, her future projects, favorite roles and empowering young women.
Hannah’s Law is your first western. Is that what attracted you?
The western aspect was really exciting and different. I was looking for something lighter that challenged me in a different way. I got to be creative and free. I play Stagecoach Mary, who is historically factual. She’s famous for being a Black cowgirl. She’s badass — strong and funny and brave. But we don't know a lot about her — there are only a couple of surviving pictures — so I got to fill in the blanks with my imagination. I had to invent a walk and a talk and a whole personality.
It's certainly not a glamorous role. How much grime did you have to wash off every day?
There was soot and dirt and horse smell and sweat and all of that. The end of the day shower was a nice treat. But I loved it, the western gear and the rifles and the dust. I don’t have to be glamorous all the time. But it still took three people to dress me. Mary had so many layers that going to the bathroom was a big production. I needed to stay hydrated but I felt so bad every time I had to go.
Were you a western movie fan?
I watched westerns from the time I was a girl. My dad was a big western fan. I always loved Clint Eastwood movies and Westworld, where the guy gets trapped in a western themed amusement park. The western motif was fascinating to me.
What kind of training did you have to prepare for the role?
We shot in Calgary and I was trained by real cowboys, rodeo stars. I’d shot guns for films but these were antique shotguns and rifles. It’s a whole different technique. Mary's very skilled and fast so I had to master all the steps and be quick, swift and smooth. I'd ridden horses before but stagecoach driving is a whole different thing. They started having me walk behind the horse on a range, to get the feel of using the reins, and slowly moved me up to small carriage, bigger carriage, small stagecoach, and full stagecoach with four horses, until I was really comfortable and competent and safe because I had to shoot while doing it.
The way Hannah's Law ends leaves things open for a sequel. Might there be one?
I hope so. There’s talk about the possibility of Hannah and Mary going on more adventures. We’ll see what happens.
Danny Glover's also in it, and while you don’t have scenes with him you do co-star in Highland Park together.
Yes. It's an ensemble comedy drama about the staff at a school who play the big lottery and win. I play a guidance counselor with secret dreams of being a singer. It's about what happens to all our lives.
Do you ever play the Lotto?
Occasionally. I can get caught up in the hype. $200 million? Why not?
What else is coming up for you?
Ties That Bind is a film I shot in Ghana. It’s the story of three women from different walks of life, dealing with different issues. I did a pilot for VH1 called Bounce, a dance drama set in the world of basketball dancers. It’s something completely different — if I do another series I want to stay out of the box, use different skills. I did Close to Home for two years, and a series really dominates your life. This is cable so it would be a shorter commitment and would allow me to do other things in my life that are important to me.
You have two daughters of your own. Do they want to act?
Yes, 13 and 22. They have their own ambitions and dreams. The oldest spent two years in school in Paris and she's spent her last two college years in New York studying French, writing and psychology. She’s been by my side as an actor-performer since she was born so she feels like she's lived the actor’s life. I want my 13-year-old to be 13 and not really worry about what she's gonna be when she grows up.
Looking back, what are your favorite roles so far?
Making Beloved was an awesome experience. It was like we were on our own magical planet. I only have a few characters on my wall in my house and Denver is one of them. Helen from Diary of a Mad Black Woman was really fun because it came at a time when I’d done a lot of really heavy stuff and wanted to do something lighter and fun and romantic and playful, and Diary came. This little film we were making down in Atlanta became this huge sensation and set off a whole corporation, Tyler Perry Productions. I’m really proud of being a part of kicking that whole thing off and having a really fun experience making something that nobody believed in but us.
If you could pick your own next project, what genre would it be and who would be your costar?
A romantic comedy with Adam Sandler. I love him.
Hannah's Law premieres June 9 on Hallmark Movie Channel.
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(Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)