Angela Bassett: Grounded--and Soaring as an Actress : After Vampires, Strange Days, the Film Star Can 'Exhale'

NEWSDAY

If there were a Goddess of Gravity, one imagines she would resemble Angela Bassett. And it's not just because of such supernal physical attributes as her taut, regal cheekbones, sleek, symmetrical physique and expansive, penetrating eyes. It's something less tangible, yet somehow more palpable: a magnetic field of serenity, coated with steel yet warm to the touch. It's easy to think she was born encased in the element that keeps things connected to the earth.

What's both ironic and potent about such imagery is that Bassett, 37, has become one of Earth's hottest film stars by playing characters pitched into emotional free-fall who, somehow, survive the ordeal.

One thinks foremost of her Tina Turner in 1993's "What's Love Got to Do With It"--a bolt of pure electricity onstage whose body and spirit prevail over vicious assault offstage.

That role gave Bassett her first Oscar nomination. Her second could very well come for her performance in "Waiting to Exhale" (opening today in Orange County and throughout Southern California), the super-hyped adaptation of Terry McMillan's best-selling novel about the turbulent romantic lives of four middle-class African American women: worldly, glamorous Savannah (Whitney Houston); impulsive, swashbuckling Robin (Lela Rochon); generous, grounded Gloria (Loretta Devine); and passionate, vulnerable Bernadine (Bassett).

Of the quartet, Bernadine has the harshest dues to pay. Her husband, a prosperous businessman, has abandoned her and their children for his white bookkeeper. Bernadine's immediate response to his betrayal is to jam the entire contents of his wardrobe closet into his BMW and set the whole thing on fire. The surreal, near-operatic grandeur of this scene is both offset and magnified by the narrative of agony, rage and devastation making its way across Bassett's face. No words are added. Or needed.

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This moment is so consummately realized that one imagines Bassett, a product of Yale Drama School, preparing detailed notes diagraming Bernadine's tumble into the abyss. Apparently, it was nothing of the sort.

"I just went with my gut as opposed to building the role from the inside out," she says one recent afternoon in a Manhattan hotel suite, her voice trickling over some contemporary gospel music like a mountain brook over a pile of stones. "It was just a matter of taking that which you've observed and getting at the emotional essence as intuitively as you can."

Having actor Forest Whitaker in the director's chair helped a lot, she says. "We speak the same language, Forest and I. He was like my third eye, which was what you like to have backing you up. He kept me honest and focused at the same time."

Whitaker also helped create a comfort zone in which the four lead actresses could establish their own collective solidarity. Bassett says they all got along so well that she's, at best, mystified by gossip here and there about on-set tension. One published report portrayed Houston as keeping to herself, off in a corner, away from the other three.

"Off in a corner?" Bassett counters incredulously. "Unless she was in a corner with her daughter when she needed to be . . . that was the only time I was aware of."

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Things were just fine, Bassett recalls. Better than fine, in fact, when they were rehearsing Gloria's birthday party scene, in which several bottles of champagne are consumed. Not during rehearsal, Bassett says. The four got drunk on one another, not on the champagne.

"Yeah, we were four lively women," Bassett practically sings, rocking gently to the music's beat, snapping her fingers. "We had experiences to share. [Snap, snap.] We were talking about all kinds of stuff. [Snap, snap.] After we finished rehearsal, it was like, 'Oh, yawl gotta leave? [Snap, snap.] You don't wanna go to sleep? . . . Well, where we gonna go to afterwards?' . . . Heey! [Snap, snap.]"

That's what can happen when you talk to Bassett. You're moving at a nice steady hum, conversing about matters of art and the spirit, and then she takes an unexpected turn to Planet Angela, where it's cool to riff on one's memories and let the imagination have its own little party. So long as you don't get far away from reality.

It's not that different from when she was growing up in a housing project in St. Petersburg, Fla., keeping her grades up while dreaming about boys and maybe even about singing with the Jackson Five. ("I mean, that was the age, right?" jokes Bassett, who played mom to Michael, Jermaine and Tito two years ago in the ABC miniseries "The Jacksons: An American Dream.")

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Such dreams didn't acquire a focus until a class trip to Washington, where she saw James Earl Jones' heartbreaking portrayal of Lenny in a production of "Of Mice and Men."

"It was so pure, so honest," Bassett recalls of the performance that moved her to tears. Of such moments are lifetime commitments forged.

A National Honor Society membership helped Bassett get a scholarship to Yale. That was the good news. The bad news was that she would have to wait four years before she could be admitted to Yale's storied graduate school for drama--whose director, Lloyd Richards, would give her career-sustaining advice like "Don't wave the rubber chicken!"

Say what? "He meant don't telegraph too much to the audience. Let them do some of the work."

There was little that Richards or anyone else could do to prepare Bassett for her first years of playing professional acting roulette in New York. But Bassett, like the Martha Pentecost character she played in several mid-1980s productions of August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," has the 23rd Psalm grafted onto her soul. God, she says, is "the greatest casting director and agent there is."

Bassett's faith has kept her focused through several transitions, including her move to Hollywood. "Oct. 11, 1988," she says. "That was the date I moved. I guess I remember it because it was almost like starting over again. Like being a freshman. You're back at the bottom. They have to get to know you. Learn to trust you. Make that climb all over again."

Why put herself through all that again, especially after she'd established her reputation in the theater? "I had to. I wanted to act in movies, in television. I wanted to do that. It made sense to me. And if it didn't work out? I could go back home if I wanted. I could go to business school if I wanted, even with a drama degree. But it was something I needed to do."

From the start, the movie roles she received tended to be tough paragons, like the mother in "Boyz N the Hood" (1991) and Betty Shabazz in "Malcolm X" (1992). With the latter movie, especially, critics and producers began taking note of an intensity and magnetism that made a supporting role seem like something larger. Tina Turner--and breakout stardom--followed.

"Exhale" is the third major feature this season with Bassett in a starring role. The first two--"Strange Days," Kathryn Bigelow's nightmarish, hyperkinetic thriller about L.A. at the millennium's edge, and "Vampire in Brooklyn," a Wes Craven-directed horror-comedy starring Eddie Murphy--came earlier and went quickly, middling-to-mediocre reviews and dismal box-office results in their wake.

No one blamed Bassett. In fact, she was regarded by many critics as the saving grace of both films--especially "Strange Days," in which she played Mace, a resourceful, karate-kicking security specialist often pressed to rescue the movie's mopey antihero, played by Ralph Fiennes.

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If anything, Bassett showed in "Strange Days" that she could pull off the action-hero stuff with convincing dynamism. "Which is so funny," she says, "because phys ed was my worst subject in school. They'd say, 'Oh, she never wants to play fair.' No! I didn't! Not if I couldn't win!" As for "Vampire," all she'll say is, "I wish it were done better, but I had fun doing it."

After such a prolific run, she can weigh her options, take her time before committing to the next project. Right now, "Exhale" promises success, and maybe controversy--over what some see as the film's depiction of African American men, with the notable exception of Gregory Hines' upstanding carpenter, as trifling, weak-willed dogs.

Bassett sighs. Controversy again. Didn't we go through all this before? "I never expect controversy. I really don't. It sounds funny, but, I mean, come on! When I did 'Malcolm X,' people asked, 'Is there going to be any trouble?' Like, where does that come from? I tell [journalists], 'No, I don't expect riots from "Strange Days," and why are you even putting it out there?'

"I mean, look, I'm a reasonable person. I go to a movie. I pay my $7. I enjoy it. Maybe I think about it. Essentially, it's all entertainment. . . . I don't know. We need to take these things less seriously than we do."

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