It’s Still a 24-Hour Hunt for Juicy Roles, Despite Acclaim

Ed Leibowitz is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Marianne Jean-Baptiste is tired of too much sweetness and light.

Ever since her memorable Oscar-nominated debut performance in 1996 as Hortense Cumberbatch, the wise-beyond-her-years adopted daughter in Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies,” what roles she has been offered have been for kind and sympathetic characters--not much of a stretch from Hortense.

“Come on, please!” the petite British actress says with a laugh beneath an enormous blue knit cap as she holds forth in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont. “Let me play a villain! Let me be a crackhead or a drug pusher!”

The 31-year-old actress is in town to promote her star turn alongside Rosie Perez in Nancy Savoca’s “The 24 Hour Woman,” which opened Feb. 12. In the largely low-budget independent films and television dramas she’s appeared in since “Secrets,” Jean-Baptiste has played fine, upstanding citizens with few discernible flaws.


“Just racially, I think there is a fear in filmmaking about negative roles, that there will be some kind of backlash,” Jean-Baptiste says. “So you create these other human beings who are just so positive, they make you want to puke.” The actress chuckles. “If they’d let me play a lunatic, or some gun-crazed female, then I would have some fun. I’ll play the baddie cop! I will!” In “24 Hour Woman,” Jean-Baptiste does get to handle a gun, albeit a very demure one, which surfaces after the airing of a “Ladies and Lugers” segment on a fictitious schlocky variety show. Savoca’s film presented the actress with other challenges--within, of course, the confines of her essential on-screen goodness.

As Madeline Labelle, a mother of three just reentering the work force, Jean-Baptiste provides the requisite pillar of support as Perez’s volatile producer weathers an on-air pregnancy. But during the filming in New York, it was Jean-Baptiste who was actually pregnant with her first daughter, Pascale; it was she who was paying strange visits to the food table, craving steamed broccoli as a morning snack.

And not only did the British actress have to simulate total hormonal calm, but Queens slang as well. On fact-finding trips to New York’s outer boroughs, she mastered the local car-honk intonations as well as the inquisitive swivel of the head that accompanies every question or smart remark.

Arriving at the Academy Awards ceremony two years ago in a designer gown and dripping borrowed jewelry, Jean-Baptiste anticipated the deluge of studio offers soon to be surging her way. “I was told this was it,” she says. “ ‘This is your ticket. You will be offered certain things and roles will be flying in,’ which obviously they didn’t and they haven’t.”

It’s not that she’s not working. She’s appeared alongside Cuba Gooding Jr., in the straight-to-Cinemax “A Murder of Crows,” with Eric Stoltz in “Mr. Jealousy,” and with Halle Berry in the Oprah Winfrey-produced TV movie “The Wedding,” as well as in a few British television programs. But no breakout starring roles, despite the Oscar nomination.

She offers a theory why so few black actors are entrusted with carrying a dramatic feature--and why they seem to get so many more major comedy roles. “It’s nonthreatening,” she says of comedies. “It’s not real. It’s like not we’re not allowed to exist in reality. And when we do, we’re not human because we’re just perfect.”


Rare for an American movie, “24 Hour Woman” has two lead roles for women of color. But race is merely a passing fact about Perez’s and Jean-Baptiste’s characters, not a glaring social issue or source of conflict. And yet, as director Savoca acknowledges, there are still doubts in Hollywood that a universal story can be told by minority actresses.

Asked why Jean-Baptiste might not have been offered big-budget roles that other Oscar nominees have been given, Savoca says, “I think race is a part of it. . . . Certainly, I think we’re not very creative when it comes to casting in film. But Marianne’s talent is undeniable.”

Jean-Baptiste has proven herself multifaceted as well. At London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she began writing a one-woman show, which premiered in 1991. “Ave Africa” is about a successful black businesswoman who “felt she was not accepted by black society and equally not accepted by white society. She has a nervous breakdown and goes into a hospital,” Jean-Baptiste explains, “and when she comes out she has multi-personality syndrome.

“It’s a battle between the two for self, basically.”

Two years ago, Jean-Baptiste, the daughter of a construction worker father and psychiatric nurse, began writing another play, about infanticide, but then she became pregnant with her now-10-month-old daughter Pascale. “You can imagine why I stopped,” she says.

She collaborated with Leigh again in “Career Girls,” his follow-up to “Secrets & Lies,” not as an actress but as a co-composer of the film’s jazz-laden score. “I knew enough about film to know what I didn’t like,” says Jean-Baptiste, who also sings. “I don’t like being told what’s going to happen by the music, when it indicates to the audience that it is time to get emotional.”

While in Los Angeles, Jean-Baptiste and her husband, ballet dancer Evan Williams, are exploring the possibility of setting up a home here, where she hopes roles will be more plentiful.


When she returns to the U.K., Jean-Baptiste will begin shooting “New Year’s Day,” with director Suri Krishnama. At first glance, it seems she has finally been offered a part in a feature edgy enough for her tastes. The film is about two boys who, after surviving an avalanche that kills the rest of their class, enter into a suicide pact for the following New Year’s Day. But first, they must fulfill such unhinged tasks as robbing a bank, trying heroin and killing a large animal.

Jean-Baptiste was particularly taken with the role of the mother of one of the boys, “who’s neglectful and really not together.”

“She’s a bit of a mess,” Jean-Baptiste says. “She swears at the kids and smacks them around the head. I really wanted to play that part. I just thought that was great.”

But she got another, yes, nicer, role instead: “I have to play the counselor who saves the day. The perfect human being who gets kidnapped, and who one of the kids decides is the large animal that might be killed.”

Although she has been cast with the familiar glimmer of goodness in “New Year’s Day,” Jean-Baptiste vows to rub a little tarnish on the role. “I’ll dirty it up when I get home, I assure you,” the actress says, letting out another large laugh. “They won’t know what hit them.”