October 2003
The Human Stain : An Interview with Anna Deveare Smith

Interviewed by Wilson Morales

The Human Stain
An Interview with Anna Deveare Smith

In recent times, the issue of race hasn’t been dealt with on the big screen in a long time. I may be wrong but the last film that dealt with this subject in regards to African-Americans was Remember the Titans, which starred Denzel Washington. In that film, part of the storyline had to do with Denzel’s character having to deal with a town that was against him being the coach of their beloved football team because he was African-American. Coming out on Oct.31 is The Human Stain, based on a book by Philip Roth. Part of the story concerns the issue of “passing”, in which an eminent black classics professor has spent his grown life passing for white. Playing a central character in the film is Anna Deveare Smith, who plays the mother of the lead character, Coleman Silk. Besides acting, Smith is a Tony nominated playwright, performance artist and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her previous films include Dave and The American President. She received critical acclaim for her one woman show, “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”. In an interview with blackfilm.com, Ms Smith talks about the issue of “passing”.

WM: What was the appeal of taking a role like this?

ADS: I think for an actress, or at least for me, what I look at is, “What does this (role) give me a chance to eliminate? What does it give me a chance to show about the human condition and what will it require and how deeply will I have to dig in order to deliver? And so I’m going to have to dig deep to deliver and I’m going to have to shed some light on the human condition. In the case of this part, my character loses something that’s very precious to her and I wanted a chance to work on that and show what that is so that other people can reflect what it means to them to lose something.

WM: As someone who appears light-skinned, did you ever face a situation like this, where you went through phases in your life passing?

ADS: No. I have relatives who did not pass, on my father’s side; my great-aunts and uncles could have pass but did not. I had another great-aunt, however, who did pass as Spanish, in order to be a dancer in New York. That’s her word, not mine. I got to know her because I lived with her when I was in school many years after that. It’s funny that in my generation, I’m just considered like a high yellow redbone or whatever. Nowadays, people would ask if I’m mixed. I’m just a colored girl from Baltimore. However, having said that, I would say that I always had a pretty profound understanding that my race came first and so there’s different ways to pass. There’s passing like the way Coleman Silk pass but there’s also another kind of passing that I think goes on now; the temptation to leave some of us behind, but I was brought up in a way to make me aware not only of my individual desires but the effect of my actions on the group; and the generations that I grew up with, we were very aware of the effect of our actions on black people, on how black people appear into public and so forth. For me, the fact that my son passes is a terrifying thing because it’s such a transgression and I’m just afraid of what’s going to happen to him when he leaves his community and he doesn’t have that anymore. Just imagine how hard it is for any of us to leave our families but he (Coleman) leaves the whole thing and starts over. He cut himself off from the primary part of himself. That’s very scary to me.

WM: There have been some gripes with the casting of Anthony Hopkins as the adult Coleman Silk. What’s your opinion on the matter?

ADS: I think those gripes are really unrealistic I have to say. What Robert Benton says about the casting of Anthony Hopkins is the answer. You need to be surprised, so he had
to be white, I think the other answer is that Hollywood hasn’t delivered a light-skinned male actor yet at the star level that can get a film made. I just don’t understand the question because people know the conditions in Hollywood. And Benton’s right, you need to be surprised. You need to first identify with one thing, and in the case of Hollywood, it’s going to be a movie star, Anthony Hopkins, a white movie star. In fact, he’s black. (Laughs)

WM: Although your role is small compared to the others, were you able to talk to them and go over the relationship of the characters as well as established a personal friendship?

ADS: I only worked with Wentworth (Miller). Harry (Lennix) and I worked briefly. He then ran off to do the “Matrix” films right away, but the person I worked with closest was Wentworth. I was in the flashbacks so I didn’t get to work with Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Nicole Kidman, or Hopkins. I did love working with Wentworth. He’s really an extraordinary, interesting young man. I had no problem thinking about him as my son and no problem thinking about how sad and devastating it would be if a guy like Wentworth was my son and walked out on me for a white girl.

WM: With as many things you have done in your illustrious career, you haven’t done a lot of movies. What’s the appeal to do the roles you have taken thus far? What gets you going?

ADS: Well, something like this; having the chance to work with Robert Benton, and getting the chance to play this part. That means something. I also loved the language in the film.. It’s very hard to find language in a film that has visual form. To get to say a line like, “Coleman, you’re as white as snow but you think like a slave.” You don’t get that kind of language in films. I don’t. So that part of the film was very appealing to me.

WM: Not that long ago, you had a one-woman show in which you played many characters. How did you come up with so many?

ADS: Well, I worked hard. (Laughs) I interview people and I say what they said to me, word for word, and I go across race, and I play women, and I play men.

WM: What’s next for you?

ADS: I just wrote a revised play of mine, “Twilight”. It’s my play about the Los Angeles riots. I just revised it for a cast of four, and that’s currently being presented at the Lincoln Center Institute for school kids. I’m very excited about that. I’m also living the life of an itinerant actress looking for work.

WM: This film will open up at a time when the marketing folks at the studio will push it
for Oscar considerations. So the film, along with the story and actors in the film will be getting noticed. With the hope of good reviews, and a good turnout from the audience, what do you want them to walk away with after seeing the film?

ADS: That’s a really good question. I want people to appreciate the artistry of the film, the design, the directing, the editing, the music, and our performances. I want them to be fulfilled artistically, but if were up to me, I always like to think about not so much what people walk away with, but do they struggle with anything. Does the work of art present any more questions for them? And I guess the question here would be about, “What does it take to live your life?” and “What kind of price do you pay for the choices you make?” and accept which people leave the film thinking about that in their own lives and do you have a moral responsibility to the group? Or is it okay to live your life for your individual pleasure? I guess if I had an effect on what people walk away with, and I don’t, I would hope they think about that and they talk about that, and they bicker and argue with whomever they came to see the movie with about whether or not Coleman should have done that. There are lots of other things in this film about America. Ed Harris plays a Vietnam vet who speaks about the kind of shape that he’s in after that, and that still haunts us. The stuff that happens with Nicole Kidman’s character is another issue. I hope that the audience has empathy for some of the characters that will also make them think about their own lives differently.