Reputed for her brilliant portrayal of some of the most powerful black women, real-life icons – Tina Turner, Betty Shabazz (twice), Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, undeniably one of Hollywood’s in-demand actresses, reportedly the highest-paid female actor of color ever for a TV drama, the 63-year-old isn’t done and yes, she’s taking on new responsibilities – Producing, aiming for even greater heights.
In a recent chat with the Irish Times, the start actress discusses success, fairness, salaries, why acting is still her first love and so much more.
On any roles left the ageless beauty would like to play, “I used to say I wanted to play a queen, because I thought it would be really good for audiences to see a Black queen on their screens, you know, for people who grew up looking at queens not looking too much like me.”
Her Master of None co-star Lena Waithe couldn’t agree further with the star power and brilliance of Bassett, a few years ago she was quoted as saying; “Angela Bassett is a freaking legend. Without Angela Bassett, there is no Viola Davis. Without Angela Bassett, there is no Halle Berry. She’s the one who came in and did things Meryl Streep was doing, as a Black actress.”
Over the course of her 35-year career, Bassett seems to have done it all: stage, television, movies; drama, action, comedy, horror, sci-fi, documentaries, animation, from civil rights icons and the rest and this is what she has to say on that experience; “I guess I am every woman, as Chaka [Khan] sings, it’s all in me,” Bassett laughs. Coming from just about anyone else, this would seem like an immodest boast; with Bassett, it is almost a statement of fact.
Currently midway through filming the sequel to the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, in which she reprises her role as Ramonda, queen of Wakanda, she says so far it is going well, although moving on without Chadwick Boseman, who died of colon cancer last year, has been tough.
“Everyone felt, the first week of shooting, the presence of Chadwick and missing him on that throne,” she says of her on-screen son. “But we all came together and just paid homage to him before we began, which was wonderful … everyone just speaking beautiful words about him and expressing how much we care and how he informed and inspired us.”
Recently news made rounds that Bassett, many thanks to 9-1-1, her hit emergency-services drama, created by the TV supremo Ryan Murphy, was racking in a fee “north of $450,000 [£325,000]” an episode. According to Deadline, this “could be the highest ever for an actress of color on a broadcast drama series”. She won’t confirm or deny it. “You journalists, you say a lot of things,” she laughs.
But surely it must feel … good? “You know what? One of the things I said early in my career is: ‘I want to work consistently and I want to be paid fairly.’ I think that’s what all of us longed for and, if and when that happens, it’s a good day. And I hope that it paves the way for equity for others. That’s my desire.”
On white counterparts earning more in the film industry, she says;
“There’s a saying that I like: all in the bed or all on the floor,” she says. “If we’re in it together, we all sleep on the floor in lean times. But when we’re doing better, let’s all have comfort, all in the bed.”
Bassett has earned her reputation, working her way to the top, she recalls her journey. In her own words, she was “a little girl who came up through the projects in St Petersburg, Florida, with no one to point her in the right direction, but a mother who was a little on the dramatic side herself”. Her early childhood was marked by several changes of address and her parent’s divorce, but her mother set high standards for her. She went on to study African American studies at Yale, followed by a master’s at its school of drama, where she met her future husband, Courtney B Vance.
As an actor in New York in the 80s, she landed only small stage roles and soap operas. Seeking bigger roles, she moved to Los Angeles in 1988 where she landed a role in John Singleton’s seminal Boyz N the Hood which opened the door. More work followed: as Betty Shabazz in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X; as the put-upon matriarch Katherine Jackson in the hit TV miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream (Michael Jackson requested she be cast). “The plan was to be in LA for six months, see how it goes. And I’m still there, so it went pretty well, I guess.”
Her real breakthrough came in 1993, as Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It?. Turner was largely supportive, Bassett says, taking her through photo albums of her life, teaching her the dance moves. “She wasn’t there day to day, but her presence and her support was there. She’d tell my choreographer: ‘Michael, let her learn Proud Mary without the heels first!’ I’ve never done anything as hard as What’s Love …”
“Probably a big part of my career is offers and opportunities that come to me, as opposed to me consciously seeking them out – ‘I want to work with this person,’ you know. I guess I’m not as proactive as that.”
On switching roles from the highly revered powerful woman, she says “Sometimes, the not-so-highly esteemed can be more fun,” she says.
In her latest project Gunpowder Milkshake, an action movie led by Karen Gillan and directed by Navot Papushado, Bassett plays leader of a top-secret society of female assassins, and she opened up on stepping out of her comfort zone. “I enjoyed the stunt work, you know, the physicality. I haven’t had that in quite a while, maybe since What’s Love … But it was very hot, in Berlin, in the summertime, to be doing action sequences in a wool jacket and pants … in heels … in the dark.”
“We’re telling stories from historical and Black perspectives,” she says. “That’s our mission: interesting, dynamic stories, whether historical or fictional. And behind the scenes to empower those who are trying to get a foothold or who might need an opportunity.”
But performing seems to be its reward for Bassett. Her enthusiasm is evident when talking about it; “That’s still my first love, that’s still where I get most excited,” she says, eyes lighting up. “And, as someone who’s result-oriented, it’s something that happens far quicker than trying to get a project off the ground as a producer.
“As an actor, I say yes to something, I buy into whatever dream that is, if I think it’s something that will help me grow and it’s an idea I would love to get out in the marketplace, in the world, in the ears, in the heart, in the eyes of audiences. So, whichever way the mop flops in terms of if it’s successful or not, I glean something from it as a human being.
“So yeah, I still find a great deal of personal satisfaction on the acting side; I don’t think I will ever give that up. As long as I can remember my lines and hit my mark.” She is always looking for the next thing. “I gotta find a new queen I wanna play.”
Gunpowder Milkshake is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 17 September.