Alfre Woodard has long been known as a Serious Actress — capital S, capital A — thanks to films like “Extremities,” “Passion Fish,” “Miss Evers’ Boys” (winning one of her four Emmy Awards) and “12 Years a Slave.”
But she’s flaunting her funnier side in the title role of “Juanita,” a new lighthearted film about a nurse who’s fed up with her life (and her troublesome grown kids) and hits the road in search of something, anything, new. Premiering on Netflix March 8, the film features TV heartthrob Blair Underwood as, well, “Blair Underwood,” albeit a wackier version of himself who exists in Juanita’s rich fantasy life.
Woodard, 66, has been married to Roderick Spencer (“Juanita’s” screenwriter) for more than 30 years and they’ve raised two adopted children. She’ll be heard as the voice of Sarabi in this summer’s “Lion King” remake, and is currently in Vancouver shooting “See,” an upcoming web series set in a future when the human race is blind. She spoke by phone with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.
I love the premise of this movie — just picking a point on a map and saying, “There! That’s where I’m headed.” Without knowing what you’ll find.
I love maps, I have since I was five.
Ever done anything like that?
I’m in the process of doing that now. I’ve been in Vancouver since August and will be here through April. I haven’t had much sun, so I’m looking in the Southern hemisphere. I travel a lot so I know some great places where people know me, kind of like (and she starts singing the theme to the old TV series “Cheers”), “Where everybody knows your na-a-ame.” But (now) I’m feeling like Juanita — point to the map and see where it lands. We always say, “I can’t wait till I’m grown, and I’m gonna go….” But then we spend our grown-up years conforming to what’s expected of us — or what we imagine is expected. There’s no sense of freedom to say, “You know what? I can go anywhere I want.”
We make a lot of excuses, don’t we?
We do. The first step is just going somewhere within reach … even if it’s just the next borough, where I’ve heard they have good … Uzbek food, or something. People don’t have to go far. Most of us don’t venture far outside our comfort zones. And you don’t need two weeks, or a month. All you need is two days. Or a day, if that’s what you’ve got. Hop on that train — count your quarters and see how far you can go.
How brutal was it shooting with Blair Underwood in his underwear?
Haaa ha ha ha! When we put the trailer out (with that scene in it), Twitter lit up. We thought of keeping Blair a secret, but marketing said, “No. Blair in his tighty-whities? We’ve got to put that in.” I’ve loved Blair, gosh, since he was a puppy on “L.A. Law.” My husband wrote this because he said, “People have no idea how wacky you are. They think you’re so serious.” Blair’s wife, Desiree (DaCosta) said something similar, that everybody thinks Blair’s so suave — but he’s a crazy man. So we’re both getting to play in this arena where our personalities actually live. It was so much fun. We were cracking up.
Must be nice to have a husband who writes movies for you.
I’ve badgered him to write things for me. This is about the sixth major piece he’s written for me and through the years we got told — in these words — “Well, we can’t have a black woman be the lead of a film.” We got told that as late as, you know, eight years ago. So the tide has changed.
I’m also eager to see “See” when it comes out.
It’s set 600 years into the future, and 400 years without the history of sight, so we’re not going blind. It’s the flip of our world — for 400 years there has not been sighted people born. I play a sage and keeper of traditions for this tribe we follow.
What kind of research did it require?
We got training in being non-sighted. For a month, before we started, all the actors — and all the background actors, a couple hundred of them — got training with Joe Strechay (a blindness consultant), on how to do everything we do in the world, but without sight. It’s like having a dialect coach on set. To keep it true. And this production has more vision-impaired actors than any in history. We’ve learned so much. I like to do things I don’t know how to do, or haven’t done. That’s the point of being an artist. You’re in constant discovery mode.