Q&A: ‘London Has Fallen’ star Angela Bassett is always up for the challenge

Angela Bassett

Angela Bassett

(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Angela Bassett was tucked into a fluffy white hotel bathrobe, but she held the space inside her suite with the self-possession of a royal. She’s a petite woman of striking beauty who waits a beat, holding eye contact, before answering a question. At one point, she raised her voice, shouting at the mirror to make a point, unleashing that palpable volatility that has served every one of Bassett’s portrayals from Tina Turner to the vampire Ramona on the latest season of FX’s “American Horror Story.”

In “London Has Fallen,” the action-thriller that opened March 4, Bassett plays a no-nonsense U.S. Secret Service director struggling to survive a massive terrorist attack. It’s a film that no doubt will play big with pro-military audiences this election year, but Bassett herself is a loyal Democrat, whose picture with Hillary Clinton dominates her Twitter page.

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Here, the Yale alum talks race and #OscarsSoWhite and the challenges of raising optimistic, confident kids when police brutality against African Americans dominates the news.

What do you think this kind of film brings to the conversation about the state of the world?

To me, it’s just all about relationships and understanding humanity. This is really just entertainment. We’re making an action thriller that we hope audiences will appreciate for just that. It’s just the narrative of the good bad and the bad guy. What motivates you? Personal greed, revenge or altruistic endeavors? It’s no ideology. It’s not casting shade in anyone’s political beliefs or religion. It’s pure fun. I’m not a conspiracy sister over here. [Laughs]

Can we talk about the state of race in entertainment? It seems black actresses have been pushing things forward this last year.

There’s been more opportunity, especially on television. I’m pleased to see that. When I came up, it was all about [finding] you’re lucky enough to find your gift and have time and passion to put behind it. That was me, falling in love with acting at 15 and believing that talent can stand on its own. There are others who say that’s naïve. At times, I thought that also... We’re all just these orbs of individual need and ego. [Laughs] What I do, examining human motivation and drive — that’s interesting. Why is there someone with a great talent but they don’t have the drive or the ambition? And you have someone who has a lesser talent with enormous ambition and they make a success of themselves?


What do you think of #OscarsSoWhite?

It seems every February a question is asked: “What do you think? How do you think it’s changed?” Has it changed? It’s a question that sometimes it just irks you because it comes down to race just making it so black and white when I’m trying to carve out a career that’s based on talent. I’m trying to express my humanity and my femaleness. I appreciate this broader dialogue is taking place. We have a very colorful, rich history in America about race, and it’s a conversation that continues to need to be examined.

You studied African American history at Yale, and as an actress, you’ve played a series of influential African American women in history from Betty Shabazz to Rosa Parks to Katherine Jackson.

Not by design. [Laughs]

Do you think you have a unique perspective on the African American experience because you’ve been on the inside of these women’s psyches as an actor?

It seems that we’re at our most resilient and strongest when we have a Goliath in front of us and we’re not comfortable. [We have] the courage, which I’ve heard defined as going forward even when you’re afraid. I think that to me seems to be the case with some of these women I’ve portrayed. I haven’t got to the point where I’ve had that opportunity to portray my “Training Day,” just a morally corrupt … [Laughs.] That would be fine now that my mother is transitioning looking down from above. I don’t feel I have to make my family proud.

So she has always guided your choices?


I have to say that was a nudging force. [My mother] passed when I was directing [Lifetime’s 2015 Whitney Houston biopic] “Whitney.”

What was directing like for you?

You try and cram and you have those feelings, before you start, of self-doubt. You have to keep talking yourself up. Which is what I would do at Yale. [Looks at herself in a nearby mirror and shouts] “What you gonna do? What you want to do? Quit? You’re not gonna quit! You wanna have a pity party? You want to cry? Go ahead! I’ll give you 10 minutes! Then get up! Wash your face! Oil your scalp! And do it!” I was hesitant. I questioned if I was going to succeed or fail. And then I quickly determined that the bigger failure for me would be if I didn’t make the attempt.

Was there a director you turned to for guidance?

We had 21 days [to shoot]. It was really fast-paced, but I did have conversation with Kathryn Bigelow. I was asking her about location scouting and an editor. And she was so generous and has been from the day she cast me in [the 1995 crime drama] “Strange Days” without an audition. The way she made me feel, and other directors made me feel in the industry, they have given you wings.

As a celebrity mom raising two kids in L.A., what have you learned?


You want them to grow up and have more opportunity than you had. You also want them to be mindful of what’s going on in life. For me, it’s like balancing the real world versus “Yeah! You can do anything!” You look at the news and Sgt. Slam is slamming kids and dragging girls in two-piece yellow swimsuits and putting them on the ground. Hanging in jail cells? Really? For failure to signal. It’s this reality.

Do you think the fact that these abuses are now on video, lighting up social media, that it will change things for your children’s futures?

There’s pros to there being cameras and social media and lifting the covers off. But there’s also never a secret again. So all that has to be balanced and respected as well.

Any thoughts about the presidential race?

I’m a Democrat and a Hillary supporter. It’s certainly entertaining and frightening. It’s going to be a fight to the end. A defining moment before us. We’re so forward and backward at the same time.