Alfre Woodard is demonstrating a silly walk, marching about the hotel room in her above-the-knee dress, in big strides with her arms swinging, like an emphatic little girl. She’s recreating a moment, when she was about 7, when she had a premonition of her future career.
“I told my mother, ‘This is my walk,’” she says as she strides by. “And my mother said, ‘Alfre – that’s not your walk. Stop it.’ And I said, ‘No – this is how I walk!’”
Her parents took her to the doctor who gave her a physical examination and finally asked: “Would it hurt you not to walk like this?”
Somewhere around that moment, she says, she realized there was an imaginative place you could go that seemed real but could be turned off.
Since then, Woodard, now 60, has done a lot more acting, starting with plays in her Catholic girls’ school in Tulsa, Okla., on to Boston University to study drama and then Los Angeles. She arrived at the tail end of the American seventies’ auteur boom, working with Alan Rudolph, Robert Altman and Martin Ritt, earning an Oscar nomination for his 1983 film, Cross Creek.
In the past three decades, she’s been one of the most familiar faces on prime-time television, in shows from St. Elsewhere to Desperate Housewives and True Blood, where her presence on the credits is a kind of seal of quality: She’s been nominated for 18 Primetime Emmys, winning four.
Woodard only has about five minutes’ screen time in 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the 1853 memoir of a man, Solomon Northup (starring Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was kidnapped into slavery.
McQueen calls the scene the film’s “Mad Hatter Tea Party.” Woodard plays Miss Shaw, the common-law wife of a slave owner, who invites Solomon and the slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) to join her for tea, where she explains that sleeping with the plantation owner is a small price to avoid the lash and live a life of ease.
Before she was invited to take the part, Woodard was already a fan of McQueen’s previous films, Hunger, and the sex-addiction drama, Shame, which she had unsuccessfully lobbied her fellow Oscar Academy members to pick as the best film of 2011.
“I don’t want to disrespect anyone but I think he’s the best filmmaker we’ve seen in a long time – up in that echelon with my faves ever, like Bob Altman and Marty Ritt. There are other directors who you know, all the moves in that film-school way, but he makes decisions that are so specific, that places you in the scene in an emotional way.”
At the press conference for 12 Years a Slave, Michael Fassbender said his performances didn’t affect him personally.
Woodard added that there are two kinds of actors: those who keep “one foot on the dock and one foot in the boat”; the others jump into the boat, she said, and aren’t emotionally conflicted.
When I asked her to expand on that, she said: “A lot of actors are talented but very few are willing to completely surrender themselves to their creativity.”
For herself, she talks about a creative process she can’t turn off, “even at the grocery store,” but she’s learned to channel it.
“When I was young, they didn’t know what to do with me. You’re kind of the Salvador Dali of children – you’re just constantly off. If you’re not in a loving, stable situation, it can end up bad. You can have a tough time and you end up thinking you create out of torture and darkness. But I had a very loving, supportive environment, so it didn’t go that way.”
So, we come back to the meaning of her childhood walk as a performance:
“When an actor gets hold of an idea – when Michael Fassbender or a Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Lupita Nyong’o gets hold of an idea – they believe in the circumstance around it. It’s not that you’re a liar, or that you’re in a trance. But you find that place where the creativity won’t shut off, and you find a place to put it. Then you find a director like Steve who holds onto that rope and says, ‘Bring it, bring it, bring it.’”