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The easy route, or part, isn’t for her

Special to The Times

Actress Kimberly Elise has long defied expectations on screen, whether as a put-upon single-mother-turned-bank-robber in her debut film, 1996’s “Set It Off,” or as Denzel Washington’s nurturing yet questionable companion in this summer’s “The Manchurian Candidate.” But after years of supporting roles, she’s finally anchoring an entire film -- the new indie drama “Woman Thou Art Loosed,” opening Friday.

In “Woman,” Elise plays Michelle Jordan, an ex-con whose lifelong struggle to come to grips with a childhood rape by her mother’s boyfriend has tragic consequences. Based on a story and popular gospel play by preacher and televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, who appears as himself in the film, “Woman” takes pains to avoid sappiness and proselytizing.

“I’m not doing propaganda,” says Elise about the film’s religious underpinnings. “What drew me to this girl was the opportunity to put a face and body and voice to victims of abuse who have been silenced. There’s a preconceived idea that you’re going to hear church stuff, but it’s not that at all. It’s about the level of havoc that abuse can wreak on a soul. That’s human experience. [The movie] doesn’t sugarcoat it or make it sweet and easy.”

Throughout her career, Elise, 33, has tried to avoid films that take the easy route, or that elicit a case of filmgoer amnesia: “You can’t remember what it was, but you devoted 2 1/2 hours of your life to it?” she says. “That doesn’t interest me. I love a film that resonates with you.”

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Such selectivity has meant a succession of unflashy, powerfully felt supporting roles for Elise, including Oprah Winfrey’s melancholic daughter in “Beloved” and the pained mother of a sick child in “John Q.” Now, with “Woman,” she has a chance to bring her brand of emotional vigor to the fore.

Jakes, whose oratorical wizardry and counseling skills have made him a Christian phenomenon, admits that he was intimidated by having to act with Elise.

“Kimberly talks with her eyes,” says Jakes, whose scenes with Elise take place in a tiny death row cell. “There’s a line in the movie where I say I have to believe anybody can overcome anything, that it’s not over. She waits about 20 seconds and then says, ‘It is for me.’ It’s the way she looks before she says it, it’s so intense. This woman deserves leading roles.”

“Woman” director Michael Schultz says Elise is “the next Cicely Tyson, in terms of stature and nobility and acting chops. If she doesn’t get nominated for an Academy Award, I’ll be shocked.”

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It’s tempting to peg Elise as humorless, based on the dire circumstances in which many of her characters find themselves, but she makes jokes easily in conversation, shows off a bitter wit in “Woman” and has the comedy “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” out in January (“I play the mad black woman,” she deadpans). Her Minneapolis origins are another excuse for quipping. Says Elise, “People are always like, ‘There’s black people in Minnesota?’ And I say, ‘Well, now that I’ve left, no.’ ”

With two parents in the education profession, Elise doesn’t know where her desire to act came from, but it was an early calling. So was an appreciation for artistic control. In the fourth grade Elise asked teachers if she could perform her own stage adaptation of “Free to Be You and Me.”

“The teachers said, ‘Yeah, you can do it, but we’re not helping.’ They thought that would turn me off. I was like, ‘Fantastic!’ It was a big hit.”

A national Wendy’s commercial helped bankroll four years at the University of Minnesota. Though she worked steadily in local theater after that, what moved her to Los Angeles were her behind-the-camera skills. A short film of hers spurred filmmaker Carl Franklin to suggest that Elise apply to the American Film Institute’s directing program.

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She was accepted, and suddenly Elise, her photographer husband, Maurice Oldham, and daughter AjaBlew were dragging a U-Haul across the country, paying no heed to incidents such as nearly driving off a mountain in Colorado and getting robbed of their possessions in Las Vegas.

“I said, ‘Well, I guess we didn’t need that stuff!’ I knew there was this internal compass, and I was following it like a duck,” she says.

Winning a role in “Set It Off” started her film acting career, but she concedes that the experience is something of a fog now: “Sometimes my husband and I will drive past locations and he’ll say, ‘That’s where you shot the bank scenes!’ and I’m like, ‘Really?!?’ It was all so fast and so huge.”

Since then she’s worked with and won the support of director Jonathan Demme, who has cast her twice; two-time screen partner Washington; and Winfrey, who’s devoting an hour of her show Friday to “Woman.” (“She was absolutely born to act. She really has my heart,” Winfrey said via e-mail.)

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Elise and Oldham have added daughter Butterfly to their household, and the pull of family-oriented Minnesota is such that she still calls it home. Next year she’ll star in a movie there from her own script, but she’ll leave the directing to music video director Sanaa Hamri. Is acting, writing and directing a project next up, then, for Elise?

“Not in the same thing,” she says, laughing. “I’m not so egotistical I have to have my name all over something. There’s so much opportunity, let’s spread it out!”


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