June 2002
Alice in Wonderland : An Interview with Mary Alice

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

Alice in Wonderland : An Interview with Mary Alice

In my opinion, one of the joys of being a character actor is that itís never the lead role. Thereís no pressure to carry a film like a box office star. Character actors get more roles, and with some, it can be a scene-stealer. The drawback to this sort of work is that the individual is never in high demand. For Mary Alice, sheís managed to be a constant presence in the film community for over 30 years. Her name may not be as famous as others may but her face and body of work is distinguishable. In a phone interview with Ms. Alice, whoís currently in Australia filming the ďMatrixĒ sequels, she speaks to blackfilm.com about her latest work in John Saylesí new film, ďSunshine State.Ē

WM: Can you talk about the part you played in Sunshine State? In Sunshine State you play a mother who gets a surprise visit by her daughter she hasnít seen in years and obviously thereís some tension there. From the audienceís point of view, are we supposed to perceive that the mother was good in what she did? Because of what happened with the daughter (the mother wanted to maintain a certain standard in her community and in her eyes the daughter just did something different.)

MA: Because they were a middle-class family, there were certain expectations you were supposed to live up to and she wasnít able to or chose not to. So the estrangement between the mother and the daughter has existed for a while because she was expected to follow in that tradition.

WM: Is there any truth to the segregation of races in Florida?

MA: Oh yes, in fact the movie is about American Beach which was founded by the first Black millionaire in Florida, the great-grandfather of the former President of Spellman. It was founded in 1934-35. He founded the beach because Black people couldnít go to the beaches. So this community, up to this day, is a Black community- American Beach- in Florida. Itís called American Beach in the movie for legal reasons or maybe to give him more license, but the real name is John James. But the community still exists in Florida and for years the developers have been trying to reclaim this property to put up hotels. In fact when we were shooting there were two very large hotels on either side of the beach where we were shooting. So of course racism exists in Florida. Not only in Florida it exists in Australia and all over the world. But this particular community was set up because there was [racism]. And it wasnít just a place for Black people to go in the summer just to go swimming. It was a very vital community with everything: churches and restaurants and stores and everything and a lot of that has gone because a lot of the young people have moved away. But thereís still a Black community right there on the beach. Itís about an hour outside of Jacksonville, FL. Even now certain members of the community are trying to maintain, keep their property and keep it as it has been, as a Black community.

WM: Speaking about John [Sayles], he seems to give good roles to everyone he has in his movies, no matter how big or small the role is. How was it working with him?

MA: Oh I love working with John Sayles. I think he has just a wonderful respect for actors- of course heís an actor too but primarily heís a director, a filmmaker. He has such respect for actors and just from the beginning of the experience to the end, I just felt that. The way that it was presented to me: he contacted my agent, he contacted me and he faxed a letter [telling] me he would love for me to be a part of it. He sent the book on which the movie is based. The book is called American Beach. Just from beginning to end, I really loved working with him. I love the way he works on the actual set. He gives you a lot of freedom, but he knows what he wants so he shapes it. But within that you have a lot of freedom not only for the actors but also for the crew. Heís wonderful! He and Maggie, his wife, whoís also the producer. Just wonderful. I loved it. It was a great experience.

WM: How was it working with Angela Bassett?

MA: Oh, I love Angela. Angela, in fact, is a friend of mine, she and her husband, Courtney Vance. And Iíve known Angela since she was at Yale. I met Angela in the 80s. In fact I met her before that. I think I met her at the Eugene OíNeil playwrightís conference, but she was still a student. She was a student at Yale and we worked together up there. But this is the first time weíve worked [together] other than then. So it was nice working with her. It was nice working with somebody I knew. She was playing my daughter, but I had a history with Angela already. Many times when you work with actors you may not know them, but I had a history with her where Iíd known her [since] about 1983. Iíd known her but I hadnít been in touch with her a lot until she got married because Courtney is a very good friend of mine. I went to their wedding in fact. So itís very interesting to play the mother of somebody who was a friend of mine. But sheís a wonderful actress.

WM: A lot of the roles youíve played have been mother roles. Is that something that you look for?

MA: No. That is something that happens when you are a Black actress. I think it happens more to women of color. It happens to white actresses too, but to a lesser degree. As you get older youíre going to play [a] mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and so forth and so on or some character who is wise and nurturing. It just comes with the territory. Itís a little different in Sunshine State because he gives her a little edge. He gives her a little attitude where sheís not just completely supporting her daughter. But most of the time that happens. It happened to me and it happened to most of my friends as we get older. Even people as glamorous as Diahann Carroll gets typed into the role of someone who is [not] completely one-dimensional but close to being the best friend, the nurturing mother, the supportive grandmother or even if itís not a relative, she is someone who is strong and wise. And it happens to a lesser degree on stage because there are more interesting roles for older Black actresses in the theater. Sometimes you might get a role on TV that is in a series that might be interesting. Have you seen any older Black actress in a movie?

WM: Thereís not that many. Youíre one of the better known persons whoís always in this business constantly. Others either donít get called or rehired. And youíre someone whoís been around for quite a long time. I remember you from Beat Street. And there arenít that many people that came out of that film who are still doing work today.

MA: Yeah, Iím very fortunate to still be working. I know why Iím still working. Iím working because of the work that Iíve already done. Iíve been very fortunate because Iíve worked on lots of films. I share with my friends - the more people who know of you in the business, the better your chances of working. You know that somebody will recommend you or think of you for something for TV or film. I was surprised. I didnít know that John Sayles knew of my work. I knew of his work but the letter he sent said ďIíve been a fan of yours for years.Ē So you never know whoís watching you, whoís seen you in a movie, seen you on TV, seen you on stage. I had no idea until I got that letter from him and I responded in kind. I told him I would love to be in it and then he sent me another letter thanking me for being a part of it. But I was very, very pleased because Iíve admired his work for years. So you never know. But I think thatís one of the reasons why I still have a career. Itís not because Iím more talented than anybody else is. Itís just that I have worked and more people know of my work. More people know that there is a Mary Alice, the actress. So if my name comes up, thereís a greater possibility that someone will say ďOh yeah I know her work! Iíve seen her in this or that!Ē

WM: So is that the secret of staying in this business?

MA: I think thatís one of them. Iíve been a professional actress for thirty-five years. So the more you have worked, the more people will know of you in the business because you will have auditioned for somebody, you will have met somebody, you will have worked in something. And whenever you work you meet a lot of people. If you work on a movie youíre going to meet a lot of people and you donít know who those people know. And it doesnít have to be a director or producer, it can be a cameraman who might be working on a movie and the director might say, ďOh, I canít think of anybody.Ē And he might say ďOh, well so-and-so, Iíve just worked with her.Ē Itís the networking and I think thatís the most important thing for most actors. Some people just get very lucky very early on and become stars and of course their career is pretty much guaranteed. But since eighty-five percent of actors are always unemployed any day of the week, itís something that I have just learned through the years. Early in my career I worked a lot. I just did all kinds of things. I understood the importance of networking: that the more you work, the more you will network within the industry. The fact that Iím here (in Australia, shooting the Matrix films) is because somebody recommended me to replace Gloria Foster who died and wasnít able to do the rest of the movie thatís being shot. Sunshine State is because John Sayles knew of my work, Having Our Say the production I did on Broadway, Catfish, I could just name them. It was just because somebody who was working on that project knew of my work and thatís my point about the networking. It guarantees a career given that you do your work well. Itís not important whether or not you get the job, the important thing is that you make an impression and then people remember you. They may not cast you in that particular role, but somebody will remember and along the line itíll benefit you.

WM: Most of these Hollywood pictures have at least one main Black actor and it seems like heís the only one. As someone whoís more of a character actor, is it a much tougher process to get inside of a movie?

MA: Not for me because I donít want to work that much anymore. I donít have a great desire to perform anymore so itís not hard for me because I like it when Iím not working. Earlier on, 10-15 years ago, when I was still highly motivated to work, I found it frustrating not being seen for roles I wanted to do, but not anymore. Iím past all that. If Iím asked to audition for something and I donít get it, it doesnít bother me. [Laughs] In fact I have a sense of relief.

WM: Do you have a role that youíve considered your favorite?

MA: Yeah. The role that I consider my favorite of anything that Iíve ever done is a TV project that was written by Phillip Hayes Dean and it was done for PBS. It was called The Sty of the Blind Pig. It was the greatest role Iíve ever been privileged to play. It was written in 1974. Itís such a great, great play. It was such a great role. Thereís no role Iíve ever played where thereís been a character as complex as I am, as a person is, as a woman is. It was just the most satisfying role that Iíve ever played. Phillip is such a great writer and even now when I look at the tape, thatís the one Iím most proud of.

WM: With you being in the business as long as you have, do you think that thereíre more plum roles for Black actors in character roles in independent films than in Hollywood films?

MA: I think so, especially for women. Theyíre so few and far between. There arenít a lot of them that are written. If there comes a time when there are more Black female writers who are writing stories. And I think there are now itís just that many of them donít get done or theyíre trying to get them done. I know that Iíve read scripts that are trying to get off the ground that had interesting characters in them. But I would say the average Hollywood film itís very rare to find. Iím trying to think of the last time I saw a film that the middle-aged Black woman in it was interesting. I think that there was a movie that Diana Ross produced and starred in where she had schizophrenia and the lady who played her mother, when I was watching the movie on TV I said to myself ďOh God, why wasnít I seen for that interesting role?Ē So every now and then thereís that, but theyíre very seldom. Most of the time theyíre pretty much the strong Black woman: nurturing, taking care of people but nobodyís taking care of her because she doesnít need care because sheís so strong.

WM: With the Oscars now over months ago and with the tremendous achievement that Blacks have made with Halle and Denzelís win, do you think the glass ceiling has been cracked a little bit? That hopefully more producers or directors will look at other Black actors and give them roles to sell with?

MA: I donít know. I donít know if thatís going to make a difference. Hopefully it will, but I was just glad that I lived long enough to see a Black woman win the Oscar. I just screamed and cried and yelled. I just thanked God that I lived long enough to see that. But I think there have been roles that have been written, that have been performed, that should have been nominated but they werenít nominated. Usually films that are higher profile get the more attention. Even though Monsterís Ball wasnít a big budget film, it still had high profile stars in it. But Iím talking about the low-budget films where you may not have the high profile stars. Iíve seen some very good performances that were deserving of Oscar nominations but they didnít get it. And if you donít get the nomination, you donít have any chance of getting an award. Because those films are not necessarily seen by members of the Academy. The public not usually sees them until they come to video. [Laughs] Weíre still moving on slowly but surely. That was a night to remember. Not only Denzel too, but of course but we had already witnessed that even though it had been many, many years. Denzel is high profile and heís been nominated many times but that was the icing on the cake. I was very happy for Denzel because he deserved it for Malcolm X, even before Hurricane. But the point is that for Black women, because we have fewer Black female stars than we have male stars to begin with, to get good roles in high profile movies that are going to be seen, it was especially wonderful that she won that Oscar and I really feel that she deserved it.

WM: For anybody that wants to get into this business and hopes to sustain a long career as yourself, what would you say to them?

MA: When Iíve spoken to young Black actors I always tell them two things: first of all, learn your craft. Whatever it is, if itís dancing, singing, acting, whatever. Learn your craft well! So that when you represent yourself, when people see you, the thing they will remember is that you know how to do what you say you do. And that is the beginning of the network, which I mentioned before. The other thing is that it will give you the spiritual support that you need. When you know how to do something well, nobody can take that away from you. They may not give you a job, but they cannot take away from you what you can do. And that is something that can see you through the bad times as well as the good times and keep you going because this is a business that is full of discouragement. So you need something within you that no one else can give you and no one else can take away from you to keep you going. You will work for many, many people. Sometimes it will be pleasant; sometimes it will be unpleasant. You are always being judged either by the public or by the critics or by whomever. So you need something within you that you know is yours and that no one can take away from you and those things: the fact that you know your craft and youíre representing yourself and youíre building a career and youíre networking, showing that the more people who know you in the business the better the opportunities, all of what Iíve said will guarantee you a career. It will not guarantee you stardom, fame and fortune. But it will guarantee that somebody will always think of you and then you can then have a career, which may be, as long as you live. Iíve had a career for thirty-five years based on what I just said. Talent is not enough. I know too many talented people who havenít worked in years, canít even get an agent. They donít even audition. Some of them just gave up the business and went and did just regular jobs. And thatís the only reason why Iím still working because I know Iím an actor. I know how to act. [With] the networking that Iíve done, I know that I will always work. I may not work as often as I did when I was younger, but I know that I will always work. My last agent released me along with other clients because the new owners wanted to revamp the office and I guess they were getting rid of all the fat, people who werenít bringing in any money. And at first I was very disappointed when he told me that. Then I was relieved. Ooh I was so relieved because Iím at the end of my career. In the past four or five years Iíve thought Iím winding down. So I though oh I wonít be bothered with anybody calling me. Do you know about a week after that people were calling me directly at home: ďWe called your agent and they gave me your home phone number.Ē I got offered jobs that I turned down. I got offered auditions that I turned down. And then Mali Finn called me for this. And at first I turned it down. It wasnít an offer; it was an offer for an audition. I said no I donít want to go to Australia for two months. No, no, no, no. And it kept coming back. But my point is that those people already knew of my work. Whether or not I had an agent, they already knew of my work. Even without the agent, my career was still going on. It was really funny to me after a while.

WM: Should anyone see Sunshine State because Sayles is a great writer?

MA: Yeah, heís a wonderful writer. I agree with you, itís his film first of all. And his characters, no matter how large or small they may appear to be in the movie, are always real. In Lone Star, and maybe several of his movies, how all those stories are related. Those peopleís lives are interrelated. He brings those stories that somehow or another, itís one story, but itís different stories within. And all the different stories, like the relationship between Edie Falco and her mother and her father, and she has a relationship with Angela. Itís all interwoven and by the end of the movie you have a story. And itís something you walk out of there remembering. And along with that, even though itís not exactly historical in the sense that itís based on the book American Beach, itís interesting to know a little bit more about our history. Because I had never heard of American Beach and yet I have been to American Beach. I went to American Beach in 1991 to visit some friends of mine and to think I was thinking about buying a house down there. I visited the beach while I was there in Jacksonville. When I was down there shooting Sunshine State I said, ďIíve been to that house! Thatís the house I was in.Ē It was right there where we were based. I had been on that beach but when I went there in í91 I didnít know the historical value, the issues that were involved. I didnít realize what it was until I went back last year. And after reading the book and after meeting MaVynee Betsch, the sister of the former President of Spellman. Her sister is one of the people down there who for years sheís devoted her life to saving that beach from the developers. Her name is MaVynee Betsch and she has nine-inch dreadlocks. She lives on the beach. They call her The Beach Lady. Sheís a fantastic human being. And it was either her great-grandfather or grandfather who founded that beach for the Black community. So thereís a bit of history there.

WM: Thatís amazing.

MA: Yeah, itís a very powerful story and I wanted to be a part of that. That was the attraction along with working with John when I found out after reading the book. I thought, ďOh, I didnít know this!Ē And I happened to see Barbara Montgomeryís name mentioned in the book and I called Barbara, sheís a friend of mine. And she said, ďThis is where you came in 1991 when we visited. This is the beach.Ē It was a wonderful experience.