In Praise of the One-Scene Performance: An Interview with Alfre Woodard

Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has been garnering massive—and much deserved—acclaim for a host of attributes: its unflinchingly veracious portrayal of slavery, the surprisingly breathtaking cinematography that contrasts the narrative’s many horrors, and, of course, the astonishing lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Accordingly, the film’s Oscar buzz is at fever pitch, not only for Ejiofor but also newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, whose Best Supporting Actress win has likely been solidified in the minds of just about every person who has experienced her screen presence.

However, there’s a sly competitor who may very well sneak in and also receive some major award recognition—and in the most classic, Hollywood fashion imaginable: the legendary Alfre Woodard, a film, television, and stage fixture for nearly four decades, pops up in 12 Years a Slave for all of four minutes and simply owns the screen. While one might lazily write off Woodard’s performance as one of the film’s many cameos—McQueen’s masterful direction of his drop-ins thankfully manages to eschew the gimmick and distraction of familiar faces in an otherwise timeless visual environment—her character completely change the landscape and tone of the picture.

Woodard portrays Mistress Shaw, a formerly enslaved woman who managed to earn the love of her master and rise to a position of power as lady of the house. Shaw is almost unsettling chirpy, as she chats over tea and sweets—served by the very slaves she once aligned with—with a completely broken and desperate Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) and the deceptively demure Patsey (Nyong’o) about the compromises and patience that have led to her current standing. Shaw’s sagacity is that of a survivor, a woman who has learned to regain a new sense of control and authority where her basic human dignity had previously been stolen. Woodard’s Shaw lingers with the audience for the rest of the film, much as she casts a shadow on Northup, who grapples with a strange mix of disbelief and comfort that she exists and leads such a life just beyond the brutality of the plantation Northup and Patsey have been condemned to.

It certainly isn’t unheard of for a very brief performance to snag the gold at the Academy Awards (Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love, Beatrice Straight in Network, and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs spring to mind), and to say Woodard is overdue for Academy recognition is an understatement. Previously nominated in 1984 for Cross Creek (and egregiously snubbed in 1992 for her brilliant turn in John Sayles’ Passion Fish), Woodard has also had plum roles in films such as Spike Lee’s Crooklyn and Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon. Her enormous talents also allow her to seamlessly integrate herself into—and, let’s be real, hugely elevate the quality of—even the sudsiest of television series (Desperate Housewives, True Blood, The Practice). Woodard is constantly expanding an already diverse and lengthy body of work, unafraid to shift between mediums and leave her distinctive mark wherever her impulses as an actress may lead her.

PopMatters is thrilled to present its recent conversation with Ms. Woodard regarding contributions to the year’s most important film.

I previously asked Lupita Nyong’o how she felt about the extreme reception the film has been receiving: often a standing ovation, but occasionally a walk-out by someone in the audience who simply can’t handle it. What’s your take?

I think it signals that something is happening on the screen that’s touching people personally. And we all have different thresholds. When we see a film, half of what we see is what we bring to it. The way Steve [McQueen] does this, we get snatched into slavery with Solomon and so we experience this film in a different way than we have other times, when we can watch at a safe distance and the characters are archetypal.

But this time, a person who is like us, a free person living a middle class life falls down the rabbit hole and we go with him and Steve won’t let us out. Those shots where normally a filmmaker would maybe cut over the shoulder, Steve chooses to stay right there because that’s where you would be in life and that for us intensifies the experience. We understand more of the experience that Solomon is actually having.

I guess a few people feel like they have to take a breather, have to get out, but the thing about it is there are much more horrific depictions in cinema of man’s inhumanity to man, and they are often very sensational. But what is tough about this film is that it is just the truth and there’s a banal factor to it. It’s just life, it’s life in a slave economy and it’s not heightened, it’s just what it is and I think that is what scares us, because we can imagine it. We can imagine ourselves in many different roles within this vast landscape that Steve paints.

It took me quite a bit of time, and a lot of reflection, to understand the impact of your scene in this film. It utterly changes the tone and the context. We suddenly, as an audience, see things a little differently than we had just moments before. The way you portray Mistress Shaw, so giggly and proud and self-satisfied, and then the look on Solomon’s face as it to say, “How can this be? How that can this exist right next door?”

Right. Solomon is used to having his tea in Saratoga. And he’s shocked to get there and see Mistress Shaw. It disorients him, and it disorients us. Suddenly we’re back on this train. Once we get to the Epps plantation, it’s just in full steam. Steve still won’t let us off the hook. Mistress Shaw’s world had to be so full and complete that when he pulls us away again, if he’s going to pull us away somewhere else, the wheels can’t come off the track. So we had to establish her and her world within one scene to be full and balanced and take that weight so when you leave again you understand that life is going on next door.

The other thing it is does is it gives us a sense of place further than both of those plantations because it opens up the possibility of what’s going on in the county? We run up on those two guys being lynched, and then here’s Mistress Shaw, the lady of the house, sipping tea. You’re right to feel twisted by that scene, because that’s exactly what it’s doing. It’s changing how we think about everything we’ve seen, and we hold onto it when we see what comes next.

I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to share a memorable moment from Passion Fish.

[laughs] Funny, because I am actually about to work with John Sayles again. He’s writing and directing a four-part television event with me about Fannie Lou Hamer around that 1964 convention. We are in partnership with Sony Pictures TV and we still need a production network entity but we are close to that. Anyway, an interesting thing I can tell you about Passion Fish is that I had just come from doing this movie The Gun In Mary Lou’s Handbag and as I came onto set Mary [McDonnell], who had just come from doing Sneakers, shouted for me to come and see her in her trailer before I left. So I said sure, I will, and I went to sit down to prepare for this scene, I think when Chantelle first arrives and she’s weeping and all that, which ended up being this long tracking shot from a distance.

What’s hilarious is that I was sitting there, thinking I was just practicing my scene, and then I hear John say, “Okay, go change for scene 46” or whatever it was. And I said, “Wait, what? But I didn’t do this scene yet, John”. And he said, “Oh, yes, you did it” and I said, “What? No!” and he said, “I got it, go change your clothes”. He only did one take! And I had no idea he was filming me. So I ran into Mary’s trailer and she’s in there, laughing hysterically because she already knew what I was going to say. She told me, “Shut the door, shut the door” and we were howling, and we said this is either the end of our careers or it’s going to be really great. And all along, for that whole movie Mary and I only did one take.

But when the soap opera actresses came in for their parts and someone would say, “I need to go again” he would let them have more takes! So Mary and I said, “All this time we think we should get more takes and you are giving them more takes?” He just looked at us and said, “They need more takes”. And as an actor, trying to do the best you can on a film, you think, do I say thank you or fuck you?

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12 Years a Slave is now playing in theaters.