• Interviews

Alfre Woodard & Marisa Tomei on Acting: “It’s a Great Privilege to be an Actor”

What happens when two highly accomplished actors get together and discuss their craft? For one, they ponder their job description – actor vs. actress. When Alfre Woodard and Marisa Tomei – who have five nominations and one Golden Globe win among them – came together at the ORA! Fest in Puglia last month, they had a spirited discussion on all things Hollywood while addressing an audience of young film students.

How important is the work of an actor today, and why was it important for you to be addressed as actor instead of actress?

Woodard: I identify myself as an actor and it’s not new. I’ve been working professionally now 49 years. So, when I went away to train at conservatory at school, your teachers always referred to you as an actor. And a lot of the disciplines that we trained in, like the Stanislavski method, everybody referred to you as an actor. They never differentiated. It wasn’t a masculine term; it was an identifying term for the student of the discipline. When I went to Hollywood, which doesn’t exist, it’s just a name – when I went to California to work in film, people were suddenly saying actress to me, and I just don’t answer to it. It’s as if somebody is calling you a different name, so I don’t turn around. I’m not offended by it, but again, that was my generation. I’m in the baby boomers and we were the first generation of American actors to go to conservatory. Before us, our great actors, that was the first generation, they were at Neighborhood Playhouse, Actors Studio, and again, they identified as actors.

Tomei: Yeah, because isn’t the book called An Actor Prepares? That’s the Stanislavski book, right?

Alfre: Yes.

Tomei: But I think at that time probably it was because no one thought about women at all. So maybe it’s something that became habitual for us or what we identified with, but now I don’t think there’s any pejorative in being an actress versus an actor. It doesn’t really bother me, except for when people want to pay me less because they’re calling me something less. And these little differentiations are interesting though, because I’m going to say this just because it’s kind of funny, but Betty Davis, two generations before us, also had an opinion about actors and actresses. She said, “An actress is more than a woman. An actor is less than a man.” Now, I don’t mean that that’s necessarily true in the way we would think of it now, but there is something about the strength that it takes to be a woman in, not just in our business, but to move in the world in a free way. In her generation, most women were home and not making money. So, it’s a kind of little Betty Davis derogative. I couldn’t resist to tell you that.

Woodard: Things change decade by decade in the film business, in the commercial film business. Depending on where you are in the timeline and what is happening in the culture, it changes. I’m in that older, more experienced generation. We’ve gathered more years. In this generation, the way women were looked upon and dealt with in film, in the business end of film, was that to be called an actress meant you were idolized more. You were put up higher on the pedestal, but in the way that you do this kind of like it’s a show pony, like a hyper pony. So, there’s more adulation, but person to person, and in the business office when they’re paying, the people they thought of as actresses, they thought of them as …

Tomei: Meat.

Woodard: …also somebody that couldn’t be controlled and not in a good way on set. You wouldn’t say, “I’m your pilotress and we’re going to be flying to Rome.” You’d be like, “Whoa.” And lastly, I just wanted to say the great thing about your generation now is that you have brought to all of us the right to self-identify and that’s because of your generation and you’ll continue to do that. There’s a freedom in that as you tell your stories.

Do you feel that in every project you make, there is a part of you that really needs to find that sense of responsibility towards the audience?

Tomei: I think it starts when you say yes to a film. What does the director want to say? What is the film about? What’s the theme? This is just for me personally, is it a conversation that I think is interesting or has dignity of some kind in the public discourse? Is it something that I feel that I can stand behind, even if it’s just pure entertainment? I don’t want to do a lot of things that have a lot of violence. It’s not really ideological. Actually, it disturbs me, so I don’t want to be in that energy. And for other people, it helps them as a catharsis. It’s just really a personal thing. Our responsibility as actors is to understand the characters. It’s a deep level of compassion and identification. And even if it’s something ugly in the character, to say, “Oh, well that could be me on a different day.” It’s a great privilege to be an actor because you get to know parts of yourself and you get to hopefully shine a light on parts of things that people don’t maybe want to talk about or look at.

Woodard: And it brings you more understanding and empathy for people you really disagree with or feel like that’s not a person that I want to be. When you have to play them, you’ve got to be able to look at the world out of their eyes, so we’re in a constant state hopefully of evolving, actors are.

Tomei: Yes, of staying open. That’s why I feel it’s a good life for those of you who want to be actors.

Woodard: Being on the screen, [or] out anywhere in public, there’s a microphone. When that microphone comes, we are here to tell stories that uplift you, entertain you, make you laugh, make you go ‘Ah.’ That’s what we do. That’s what actors have done since we first stood up on two feet around the fire. But actors who feel not a responsibility as much as a privilege, we feel connected to our audience, and so we care about whether the people watching us on their screen, whether they’re hungry, whether they have healthcare, whether their rights are guaranteed to them.

Tomei: Bring it out to a different way.

Woodard: Are you actor or actress? Either one.

Tomei: I’m both.

Woodard: Actress/Actor Marisa Tomei, that is something that you get from her more than her excellence and her craft and her beauty, is she is a place that will speak her mind. And that’s the natural combination of artists, actor, whatever you are, whatever kind of artist, is that you are a voice for the people. And you do that well.

Tomei: Thank you. Together. Alfre. Alfre is on the front lines with that.

How important is it for you to use your voice to point out social injustice, whether it is onscreen or through actual activism?

Tomei: I feel that my role is, I’m being called more and more to activism. I don’t want to stop being an actor/actress, but I feel like the times are calling for something else.  It might be just because I’m getting older and I’m getting less parts…

Woodard: You are more than relevant. But I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas. I was born in 1952. I was a Black female child, and you didn’t really have a choice if you are awake but to be active. And so, it’s like breathing air. You have to speak up for each other, stand with each other because that’s just how it is. So, I actually was an activist starting at 14. I didn’t discover acting until I was 16. But the more the world goes on, people are realizing that when one person’s liberties are compromised, everybody’s are. And yes, we are in a moment where everybody is called. And it can be something minor, signing petitions. It could be just giving some food to the food bank, but everybody is called because we realize we’re at that point. When you step up, you feel power. You feel empowered, and you meet other people who are stepping up.