Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard spoke in separate interviews about their roles as South Africa human-rights activists Nelson and Winnie Mandela in HBO's "Mandela," but their words were almost the same: Both believe that when an actor takes a role, he or she also makes a political statement.
"I don't think you can separate politics from living and working," Woodard said at the Century Plaza, sounding as impassioned about the issue as the character she plays becomes about the liberation of South Africa. "People in our society have convinced us that we hire the politicians to do that for us, so they've convinced us to give away our freedom, and a lot of people are very eager to say, 'Here, take it!' "
Woodard's most recent projects have included such issue-oriented fare as the television movie "Unnatural Causes," in which she portrayed a government worker seeking justice for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange, and for which she received an Emmy nomination; a supporting role in the feature film "Extremities," about a woman seeking revenge on a man who stalked and attacked her; the two-hour pilot for "L.A. Law," in which she played a cancer patient trying to put the men who raped her behind bars, and a continuing role as the crusading Dr. Roxanne Turner on "St. Elsewhere."
Although she says the controversial nature of so many of her projects is somewhat coincidental, Woodard likes it that way. She calls the airwaves "the fire of society," and believes it is her responsibility to use them wisely.
"Those projects that I've taken in the past few years are the kind of projects that you can't turn down--not if you think the way that I think, not if you work the way that I work," she said. "It's a very special opportunity to put your art, which can sometimes seem so benign, into a place where life is streaming from right now, on which things depend."
Glover, in a separate interview, agreed that the roles he selects have the power to influence people. And "if it's anybody's role to do that, it certainly is the media and the arts'. An artist is supposed to lead in that.
"Unfortunately, there aren't a whole lot of leaders out there."
Glover, whose acting career has included roles in the Athol Fugard plays "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and " 'Master Harold' . . . and the Boys," as well as the feature films "Places in the Heart," "The Color Purple," "Silverado" and "Lethal Weapon," believes that his acting projects do not have to be overtly political to carry a political message.
" 'Lethal Weapon' could be considered a message piece," said Glover, who starred as a world-weary, middle-age police officer who becomes partner to the force's most volatile misfit (Mel Gibson). "I was a black actor playing a role that could have been played by any actor. That's a political statement; that's a social statement in itself. Those things change attitudes--and however slightly they do it, they do it."
Glover and Woodard hope HBO's ambitious "Mandela" will serve to make more people aware of the Mandelas and their role in the struggle against apartheid. "It (the movie) makes a contribution," Glover said. "The real sacrifices are being made by the South African people, and they will continue to make those sacrifices. You want people to see this and say: 'I want to make any contribution I can.' "
Woodard at first was disappointed by the simplicity of the "Mandela" script--filmed mostly in Zimbabwe--because it focuses as much on the couple's romance and the basic chronology of events as on the complicated politics of the era. "I know about South Africa; I've been involved in the struggle. I said, 'Everybody already knows this; this is like the public record!' " she exclaimed.
Then Woodard began to discover through conversations about the project that many people, both black and white, knew virtually nothing about the Mandelas or their struggle.
"And then I realized that it couldn't get too simple right now, as the first (Mandela) project," she said. "Then I began to get into it in a different way. I hoped it would spark something rather than attempting to be a definitive piece on South African liberation."
Glover thinks the movie's focus on romance will make the story more accessible to a wide audience. "The main objective is to reach people, not to make a documentary," he said. "You want people to personalize the story in some way."
Besides, Glover added, the achingly romantic relationship between the two in the movie existed in real life. "I think what is so strong about their relationship is that they loved one another--that immense respect and love," he said. "When he put his arm around her, (friends) said he embraced her like a dove.
"That love story is only the extension of their love for freedom, for dignity, for African people, for South African people. When you read any of the letters these two wrote, they are very passionate and poetic letters." Glover read those letters in Winnie Mandela's 1985 autobiography, "Part of My Soul Went With Him."
Glover said that his challenge as an actor was to make the larger-than-life Nelson Mandela into a believable human being. He bristles at the notion that Mandela as protrayed in the movie appears to be flawless, launching into a description of evidence he uncovered that the young Nelson struggled to overcome a fiery temper and at times hid details of his political activities from his wife, even when they meant his leaving home."I'm sorry if I seem defensive about this," Glover said.
"He (Mandela) can communicate on some levels, but not personally," he said, "To me, that doesn't look like a man who is playing Jesus Christ; that sounds like a man who can't say 'I have to go' because it is too painful for him. All he can say is, 'Pack my suitcase.' "
Glover believes that Mandela was an ordinary man whom history forced into becoming a leader. "If you read other people's accounts of Mandela, he always wanted to be in the background," he said. "Assuming leadership was a thing he was pushed into doing. He would rather have been a theoretician, or sit back as part of the group.
"I just assumed Mandela's spirit lives in all of us, in a way. Leaders just give voice to what what we all think. There comes a point in time when we are challenged by a situation, and we have to take responsibility for it."