The Oscar-nominated actress on Christmas, family and film

Angela Bassett began her career on stage, after graduating from Yale University. An accomplished stage actress, working on and off Broadway, she appeared in several television shows, such as The Cosby Show, before her first film role in Boyz N The Hood (1991), which was followed by her highly praised portrayal of Betty Shabazz in Malcolm X.


Bassett was outstanding as Tina Turner in What's Love Got To Do With It, for which she earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Her many award-winning films include Waiting to Exhale, Contact, and How Stella Got Her Groove Back.


This year, Bassett stars in Black Nativity – a rousing, heart-warming story that stars a stellar ensemble cast of consummately talented musicians and award-winning actors.


Here, the classic beauty sits down to discuss her latest film, family, and plans for Christmas.



STUDIO: When did you first get involved in Black Nativity?

Angela Bassett: I remember a year before we even started filming, I sat in New York with [director] Kasi Lemmons at Café Fiorello, eating and reading the script. I couldn't see what it was going to be, honestly. I did not have the vision. So Kasi showed me a little something that she had filmed, and a book of images and photographs that she had taken, which made it clear to me. Kasi and I have a history that goes back to when we were both actresses beating the pavement, and knowing her work, I wanted to be a part of her world and her vision. It didn't start off as a major film. It was more like a little Indie. Very shortly thereafter, it became a major Hollywood film (laughs).


STUDIO: What was the appeal of the film?

AB: Langston Hughes was one of Harlem's greatest poet laureates during the Harlem Renaissance. I actually became an actress by falling in love with his work as a teenager. I loved the director's vision of the Christmas story and of the original play. There was also the appeal of the wonderful cast and all the folk who worked with us, such as our choir and our dancers.


STUDIO: You sing in the film, too. Was that daunting?

AB: I liked being scared of actually opening my mouth and singing. My voice is not known for that, so it was something new. One of my songs is with the incomparable Jennifer Hudson. I have a duet with Jennifer! But as an artist, to be afraid, and not feel I can do this in my sleep, or I can do this standing on my head (laughs), is intriguing and inviting.


STUDIO: What is the major theme of the film would you say?

AB: It's a movie about family and unconditional love; it's about getting over past mistakes, getting over pride and righteous indignation, in order to see and accept each other. It shows that love is the greatest option. As someone who has a love for people and for children and who's a Christian herself, I loved it and I think it is important to be able to tell this story about relationships, love, redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness, first and foremost. This is one movie I can let my kids see. I think they will enjoy it.


STUDIO: Can you talk about the couple you and Forest Whitaker play?

AB: I play Aretha Cobbs, First Lady of the Church. My husband (Whitaker) and I have been together for thirty years, and we have one daughter (Hudson) and a grandson (Jacob Latimore), who we're meeting for the first time. I was thrilled to work with Forest, whom I absolutely adore. He's just so special in so many ways and unique among actors, among human beings, and among men. Forest and I have a long, rich and wonderful history. We have always been there for each other. I think our great respect and admiration for each other helped is to play this couple. It is an unspoken connection that really aided us in this relationship.




STUDIO: Are we seeing a change in the way black people are represented in Hollywood? There are some great films this year with African American themes: this one, 12 Years A Slave, and The Butler.

AB: Well, maybe there will be a little bit, having a variety of roles available, but it's always such a weird conversation. Are there any more films with people who look like you? When we're playing characters, we're just playing human beings, so to be boxed or limited is weird, but it's good that these films are coming out. When there is good work and varied work, that's good and if this is a trend, may it continue.



STUDIO: Black Nativity has a strong spiritual theme. How influential was the church and religion for you as a child?

AB: My mother was a single parent, and her grandfather was a preacher. Now her dad took another route, but my father's father was also a preacher in North Carolina, and so was my great-grandfather, in Florida. I grew up in Florida with him as part of our extended family. So church was where we were every Sunday and every Wednesday night for choir rehearsal. Religion played a great role, because of the struggles of life. It just helped us to feel that there was a bigger purpose, and that certain circumstances don't mean the end, that there's a greater purpose to our lives.


STUDIO: Is religion still important to you?

AB: Yes, and I would've been in church today, but oh well I am here talking to you (laughs)! There is ease and comfort [in religion], because there is so much in life that's just hard to understand. I trust that there is a God, who does have a plan and has a purpose and knows far more than I do.


STUDIO: Black Nativity is a wonderful Christmas film. What are your Christmas traditions?

AB: I love getting a tree on Christmas Eve and then decorating it. It always feels like a risk with all the ornaments (laughs). We beg, "Please let it stay up." Then, in our house, it must come down before New Year's Day. I also love going to Florida for Christmas, where it is warm. I grew up in Florida, so for me Christmas means it's 85 degrees. Being cold is strange to me.




STUDIO: What do you cook?

AB: I'm not a big cook, but I can certainly put food in a bowl and make it look like I came up with it (laughs). It's just important to be home, especially since I spend time away working and filming. It's sometimes just the simple things that mean a lot, like enjoying quiet time at home with family.


STUDIO: Do you have a favourite Christmas gift?

AB: One year as a kid I just really, really wanted an acoustic guitar, and my auntie in North Carolina sent me one, and I was very happy about that. I took it around, everywhere – to college, to New York, and to California. But then there was the big Northridge earthquake in LA (1994). It was a really bad one that shook everything up, and my guitar splintered everywhere. That's when I lost it.


STUDIO: You have young children and you and your husband (Courtney B. Vance) are so successful. How do you instil the values that you were raised with? It must be hard not to spoil them?

AB: I definitely try and keep a lid on materialism. I've been so blessed, and it's so easy to give them so much, but I just try to keep a lid on that. This is the time of the year for reflection. The kids maybe get two or three things that they really want for Christmas. But that's all they ask for; they really don't want that much, which is very unlike me when I was young (laughs).


STUDIO: You have achieved so much with awards and accolades. Does that mean you can relax a little now?

AB: I would never feel that. You're always wanting and desiring and reaching, and I hope that's true for everyone. It's about growing. When someone says, "Oh, there's talk about Oscars", it's important not to concern yourself with something like that. The work is the reward and award, and it is important to remember that, as opposed to getting side tracked and losing what was your first love and passion. Sometimes, you're offered something, and if you start by asking about the money, it gets warped. You should read the script and wonder, "Will this challenge me? Can I add to this? What is the greater story that it's trying to tell?"


STUDIO: Is acting still as fulfilling as it always was for you?

AB: Performing is still a first love for me. I never want to take it for granted and I have never been one to just take a role for money's sake. That's not the best reason to do something. For me, Black Nativity is about love and forgiveness; that was the most important factor. It was also about working with the individuals involved and having the experience that we had, as opposed to wondering if we will receive awards. Those are things you can't control. There's so much that's not under your control. You just have to concentrate on what's most important.



Words by Elaine Lipworth.


Black Nativity is out in cinemas now.

“This movie shows that love is the greatest option.”

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