The Sunday Conversation: Alfre Woodard, an activist who acts

Alfre Woodard, a four-time Emmy Award winner who in recent years has had recurring roles in hit TV series such as "True Blood" and "Desperate Housewives," returns to television Sunday night as the curmudgeonly Ouiser in Lifetime's remake of the stage and film classic "Steel Magnolias."

So let's talk about "Steel Magnolias."

I'm going to meet all the Magnolias in a couple of hours. We haven't seen each other since the last day we were all weeping when we left each other. So we promised ourselves that we would get together for dinner and just scream and eat and have fun.

What was it like working with two generations of Rashads — Phylicia and her daughter, Condola? Did you know her when she was a kid?

No, I didn't. I remember when she was born, remarking that she looks like such a great combination of the both of them [Phylicia and retired pro football player Ahmad Rashad], but she's got her dad's eyes. She was just blowing up Broadway and the New York stage for the past few years, so I've been hearing her name. So it was really cool to be able to work with them. Phylicia and I have wanted to work together for a long time and never had.

The shoot sounds like it was fun.

It was so much fun. The only times we were behaving was when [director] Kenny [Leon] said, "Action!" We were yakking and laughing and cutting up. I'd worked with [Queen] Latifah before in "Beauty Shop" and madly love her and jumped at the chance to work with her together. We all love each other and admire each other, so when we got together in the room for rehearsal, "Oh, my God! I love you!" "I love you too!" It was happy girl camp.

It sounds like the cast was as tight as the characters.

The story of "Steel Magnolias" is just this deep, underlying — a place in the world where there's just trust and you know that if you fall, you're going to fall into somebody's arms. There was something very unique about how they identified with each other, almost spiritually, across economic lines, across generational lines, and that's one thing that was very powerful about the story.

I know you worked for the president's election in 2008, and you attended the Democratic National Convention.

I'm a surrogate again. I've been sleeping in lumpy beds all across the country, and really nice people grab me and hug me. We shout together, we knock on doors. We tell people to get their voter I.D.s.

You've literally been knocking on doors? How do people respond to a celebrity knocking on their door?

Whenever you leave New York and L.A., everybody you run into everywhere is surprised to see you. They have the idea that it's some kind of magic that you appear on a screen. Of course, reality TV is debunking that whole thing. Anybody can get on there. Everyone is very serious about the election. I've done North Carolina. I just came in from Pennsylvania, then Virginia, I'll go back to Iowa, Florida I'll do a stint in, back to North Carolina and Ohio and then back to Colorado. Thousands of people are expressing their sense of being a neighbor across state lines to encourage people to vote, to remind people of the progress that's been made and how important it is to protect that progress. Everybody's in the trenches together.

You were recently in Louisiana, sent there by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. What was that about?

Two years ago we started a study, gathering tons of data that arts education makes a difference in the life of students. This year we decided to put our money where our mouth is, so we chose 10 schools around the country where they were really at the bottom in terms of achievement. So we committed for two years to infuse those schools with six to eight professional arts curriculum people. I adopted two schools. One of mine is the Batiste Cultural Arts Academy in New Orleans and the other one is the Noel Community Arts School in Denver. Within months, you see the culture of the school change.

What did adopting the schools involve?

I work with the administrators and teachers there. It turns things around in months. I talk to the kids, the whole school. As the first lady said, they just need to see that you can get from here to there, so I reminded them that "I was once sitting in a desk just like you. There was no reason for anybody to think, 'That woman is going to be on the screen and travel the world.'" For me, I just go and I love them. I gave a little acting class for K through second grade and drama class for eighth-graders, just talking to them and expecting things of them.

What else do you have coming up?

I have a "Private Practice" coming up [in November]. That was great fun. I play Taye [Diggs]/Sam's mother on that. [Woodard's producer-husband] Roderick [Spencer] and I are working with Sony Pictures Television on bringing a four-hour [miniseries about civil-rights leader] Fannie Lou Hamer to the screen, and John Sayles is writing it for us. And we also have a picture we're working on called "Dancing on the Edge of the Roof," which is an independent film based on Sheila Williams' book.

So with our empty nest, we've got plenty to keep us busy. [Our son] Duncan went off to college five weeks ago. He's such a cool, fabulous, irreverent, big-hearted guy, so there's a big void there in the household, in the neighborhood. [Our daughter] Mavis drops in and out of Columbia. She's also a professional equestrian; she travels the world training horses, showing horses, buying horses, being a professional horse person.

You don't sound like you're sitting at home twiddling your thumbs.

They [the children] were my first and last thoughts for 21 years now. So thank God it's important for us to make sure the president gets to keep pushing forward the progress. I don't love the business that much that I would fill my days with the business. If a role is so obvious, I'd rather see someone else do it. I go to work when I feel like, "There's something about this character that might get overlooked." That's when I'm excited to go to work. There's plenty to do; it's just that my raison d'être is morphing.

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