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BU to Hollywood: When Desperate Housewives Isn’t Enough

Part four: Alfre Woodard (CFA’74, Hon.’04) still hasn’t done what she set out to do

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“You know that the work is the thing, not the parade,” says actress Alfre Woodard (CFA’74, Hon.’04). Photo By Michael Tran/Film Magic

Alfre Woodard can go on a tear, and when she does, you’ll want to listen closely. Or step back.

One of her best rips is directed at the industry she’s been a part of for more than 30 years. “This business is like organized crime,” she laughs, when asked to describe the challenges of being an actor in Hollywood. “It’s like the sacred and the profane. They take something sacred — your artistic sensibilities — and they turn it into, ‘Let me see your teeth. Oh, you need some caps on those teeth. Lift up your skirt — let me see your butt.’ If you’re a guy, it’s, ‘Take off your shirt so I can see your pecs before I decide if you can play this psychotic serial killer.’ It’s insane.”

Charismatic, unafraid, and flat-out funny, Woodard (CFA’74, Hon.’04) is a rarity: a mainstream Hollywood actress who remains passionate about her craft and confident about who she is. In an acclaimed career in which she’s brought a commanding depth to parts large and small, Woodard has made a case for herself as one of her generation’s most soulful and deeply committed actors, in work and in life. She is a founder of Artists for a New South Africa, a nonprofit dedicated to combating the AIDS pandemic and advancing democracy in South Africa, and she’s given almost a year of campaign appearances to the presidential run of Barack Obama.

Woodard’s success is evidenced by her accolades, her longevity, and her enviably full docket. She has won four Emmy Awards, for work on Hill Street Blues (1984), L.A. Law (1986), the HBO miniseries Miss Evers’ Boys (1997), and The Practice (2003). She’s been nominated many times, most recently in 2006 for her turn as the comically mysterious Betty Applewhite on Desperate Housewives.

She was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in Cross Creek, in 1984, and has worked in films as varied as How to Make an American Quilt, Passion Fish, Star Trek: First Contact, Scrooged, Crooklyn, and Take the Lead.

In a cutthroat business, that track record is remarkable. Woodard says she’s grateful for the steady work but not dazzled by it, and she’s far from complacent. “People think they have an idea about me from the roles I’ve done, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says. “You have to remember, those are the roles that I chose to do out of what was offered to me. I’ve been in L.A. 34 years, and I still feel I haven’t done what I came here to do. It’s like being a really inspired violinist and being told, ‘OK, that’s great. Now don’t touch the other three strings, just use this one.’ ”

It was a hard concept to process coming out of a theater conservatory like Boston University’s, where playing all four strings was not just encouraged, but required. At the College of Fine Arts she learned that the most important part of creating a character is letting go of your own. Acting, she says, is about “getting back to the point of neutrality, so that when you step into a character, you don’t carry your own gait; you find that character’s gait and timbre of voice.”

Her training made her feel skilled, she says, not just gifted or blessed with charisma and great eyes. And skill is an important talisman, even in a whimsical industry. “What having the training does is that when you get the job, you know what you’re doing,” says Woodard. “You know that the work is the thing, not the parade, the endless reels of everybody living their life out loud fabulously. So when they aren’t focusing on you, it doesn’t devastate you, and when they are focusing on you, well, good for them, but you already know who you are.”

And, more than many people in the industry, she does. “I have a full life because I have kids, and I do a lot of political work, a lot of social activist work. That’s why I’m not crazy. I’m not sitting by a pool or a phone waiting for someone to want me. I’ve never done that. It’s like, call if you have something for me to do, otherwise I’m going to be busy living.”

It was the same way in college. “I wasn’t the typical theater student who hung out only with theater people,” she says. “They were my friends, but my college experience was with the nursing students, the theology students, the undeclareds. I’ve never been an artiste.

“I was a sort of a black nationalist hippie type,” she laughs. “We used to say ‘freaks’ back then, and I was a freak. We would get together and put on wild plays in the rec room at 700 [Commonwealth Avenue]. It was like theater of the people.”

It’s a long way from Warren Towers to Hollywood, but she’s as alive now as she was then to the joys of her work and to the overriding importance of a good story.

But at 56, Woodard is growing impatient with Hollywood’s limitations. “I’ll tell you, I won’t grow old in this business if certain things aren’t opened up for me to do,” she says, heading for another tear. “They started putting my Caucasian girlfriends out to pasture at 40. We don’t get interesting before 40. I’ve had friends who were playing the mother of the guys who they were the love interest of when they started in the business together. It’s smarmy.”

Now she’s laughing again and switching into higher gear. “Men with the gold chains and their shirts open lusting after young girls . . . I don’t want to be 65 and not be able to say, ‘You are stupid, and forget it,’ while they’re talking about whether somebody’s butt looks right for them to play Susan B. Anthony. I don’t want to do that, not when there are so many books to read, so many people to talk to, so much to learn . . .”

Check back tomorrow to read part five of “BU to Hollywood.” Click here to read part one, about screenwriter Krista Vernoff (CFA’93). Click here to read part two, about actor Michael Chiklis (CFA’86). Click here to read part three, about actress Emily Deschanel (CFA’98).

Bari Walsh can be reached at bawalsh@bu.edu.

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