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As a prison warden in ‘Clemency,’ Alfre Woodard wanted to honor the lives involved

Actress Alfre Woodard
As a prison warden overseeing executions in “Clemency,” Alfre Woodard took that responsibility deeply.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Alfre Woodard enters a hotel suite resplendent in a white dress. Then again, she’s always resplendent. The renowned actress is apparently unable to do any less than her best; over four decades of acting she’s accumulated a Golden Globe, an Independent Spirit Award, several SAG and Emmy awards and an Academy Award nomination, along with nods just about everywhere else.

Just a few of her recent roles include the ill-fated Aunt Josephine in the darkly comic Netflix show “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” the voice of Sarabi in “The Lion King” remake and the duplicitous criminal Mariah in “Luke Cage.” “I think that was one of my best turns ever,” she says of the last, with evident glee.

Her latest role is Bernadine Williams in the Neon film “Clemency.” As warden of a prison with inmates on death row, Bernadine enforces the law down to the smallest detail, no matter the effect it has on her own psyche. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the film shines a light on some of the overlooked victims of a policy that puts a human to death — those who carry out the job. As Bernadine, Woodard sinks to a fathomless place as she struggles to reconcile her spirit and her task.

The actor got there with the same approach she applies to every portrayal. “You take that responsibility so deeply,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Bernadine or Josephine. Anthropologically, I work up who that person is, where they’re from — not what state, what county in that state. What’s happened to them? If it’s not in the script, you make it up. And so you leave behind all of you. Not only your way of speaking, your way of moving, but especially your way of looking at the world. Because your opinions, and anything about yourself as a practitioner, should not be present.”

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Woodard adds that she never sits down to think a character into existence, “because people live in motion. If you sit, it’s still cerebral. You have to activate things.” She adds, laughing, that the cashiers at Erewhon Market always know when she’s working on a new role.

“I’m a grown-up woman, very grown-up, and I’m educated, and I’m politically aware, and socially active since I was a teenager, so for me to go, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know these people existed’ — I figured if I didn’t know, the majority of people didn’t.”
Alfre Woodard

When she read the “Clemency” script, Bernadine hit her “in the solar plexus,” so she had to take it on. “It was a world I was completely ignorant of. I’m a grown-up woman, very grown-up, and I’m educated, and I’m politically aware and socially active since I was a teenager, so for me to go, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know these people existed’ — I figured if I didn’t know, the majority of people didn’t. It’s always another reason to go to work: There’s something to be told. And if there’s something where lives are in the balance, you always want to honor it.” She signed on as an executive producer as well.

Woodard and Chukwu visited four prisons and met with female wardens, listening to their stories. “What we found is that their PTSD rate is as high as people we send into battle for multiple tours of duty,” she says. “They have several marriages — if they marry. They keep to themselves in a way, because nobody can understand what they do. It is not for a person who is either weak or sadistic; it is only for a person who can make decisions, take incoming fire and rest knowing that they have overseen a dozen executions. And some people will do that work for us.”

Everything must go according to protocol. “That’s why Bernadine gets upset when something goes wrong,” early in the film, “because it deprives the condemned person of their dignity.”

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Shooting was so intense that when prepping to film an execution scene, two of the background actors tasked with strapping down the prisoner couldn’t go through with it and had to be replaced. “They got triggered,” she notes.

The film is as challenging to watch. “It starts with the bases loaded,” Woodard acknowledges. “I don’t think either the characters or the audience is let off the hook. It’s a world that human beings are not meant to be in, whether it’s the incarcerated or the incarcerators. So it can bring out desperate acts.” She pauses. “I just got really sad.”

To lighten the mood, the conversation turns to her other latest project, “See,” on Apple TV+. In the futuristic series about a depleted, blind population, she plays Paris, priestess and advisor to Jason Momoa’s tribal leader.

Woodard laughs at the mention of the role. “I put out to the universe, ‘Send me something that will challenge me, that I’ve never done, something to test myself with.’ Well, don’t ask for what you’re not ready for.”

She tells of working outdoors in the British Columbia wilderness every day for seven months, “up to our calves in mud and snow and water. They would put out bear warnings every day! It was like I signed up for the Shackleton expedition, I am not kidding. It was such an adventure.”

Still, she’s ready to test herself yet again; they begin shooting the second season in February.


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