Whether you know her from stage work in shows like “Chicago” or “Dreamgirls,” sitcom work like “Newsradio” or dramas like “Treme” and “CSI: Miami,” or scaring the pants off of us as Kerry Washington’s mother on “Scandal,” Khandi Alexander always manages to stand out.
This weekend, she takes on the role of the sister to Queen Latifah’s Bessie Smith in the biopic “Bessie” on HBO. While the film premieres this weekend, Alexander has already picked up a Critics’ Choice Nomination for Best Supporting Actress in a Movie or Miniseries. (Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique also picked up nominations as did the film itself).
I jumped on the phone with Alexander recently to talk about the film but also had to talk about her multi-faceted career including a trip back in time when she was dancing in videos and on tour with greats like Whitney Houston and Natalie Cole.
How did you approach the role? Did you go by the script or delve into research since these were real people?
Khandi Alexander: First of all, I had an immediate connection with Dee and I appreciated the way that she created an environment for Dana (aka Queen Latifah) and I to establish a relationship during rehearsals that fed us when it was time to film. For me, for that particular character, I’ve known people like her and I’ve had friends who’ve had family members like her and I know someone who can just suck the oxygen out of a room.
And sometimes some family members will have a negative hold on a person. So it wasn't anything that was so far fetched to reach. It was more of establishing a real bond between the two sisters and that was actually done in the rehearsal period thanks to Dee and the openness of Dana. We were allowed to play a bit and create that relationship and some history. So by the time we got to the set we had a knowing.
Do you think one of the issues Viola had with Bessie was because she got out? She left home and was able to do something with her life?
KA: At that time it was extremely hard and I also believe that for Viola she had a great deal of resentment because she was thrust into adulthood because of the death of her parents and she was forced to raise her brothers and sisters. I don’t think even if she didn’t have that responsibility and obligation put upon her, I don’t think she would have been the type of person who would have ever left that home or area. There’s just some people who just don’t have that vision. And I think there was a lot of surprise and envy in Bessie’s freedom and of her free spirit, you know?
What did you know about Bessie and that whole period before you dove into the project? I know I didn't know much at all.
KA: I’m exactly like you. Many years ago I remember seeing a play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” So I did know a little bit about Ma Rainey and of course I knew a little bit about Ethel Waters and that time period, ‘Cabin in the Sky,’ but I honestly didn’t know much about Bessie at all other than having heard a bit of her music in pieces here and there.
In the film, we see that Bessie does have different sexual relationships with both men and women. Was Viola aware of this or was this just part of their world? Did you talk about that at all while filming?
KA: We didn’t talk about it and I never saw that as an issue. And I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in pretty much freedom within my own family in that way. I always just kind of accepted it. It’s interesting because I remember when I was growing up having cousins and in my neighborhood…I grew up in Queens and we were with everyone. It was multiethnic cultural, Jewish, Italian, Polish, black, Asian, Puerto Rican. Everybody was on our block.
And when I was growing up, there were a lot of people, kids, who would just say, "Hey, you know, you're already black. You might as well be gay." So you know, I always just assumed, hey, you're already under hard circumstances during that period and they're already dirt poor so I just didn't see a reason for it to raise the eyebrows.
A lot of your roles over the years, including this one, do not involve singing but I know you can sing! Do you look for that in roles? Or maybe a role where you can belt out some songs?
KA: Mostly in theater when I start getting that itch. To be on stage, because you know that’s where I came from. So I have to go back now and then and I get the itch occasionally and now I’m having a lot of friends who are going, ‘You need to do a musical, kick and dance and sing again.’ And I’m like ‘you know what?’ It’s starting to wear me down! It’s starting to get to me. I have to confess. I’m like, ‘oh, man, okay.’
And in your recent roles, like on “Scandal” or even “Treme,” you weren’t playing happy kind of roles.
KA: I know. People think that I don’t mean it when I say, ‘Listen, I want to work with Adam Sandler. I just want to laugh. I want something mindless and fun with people who are good.’ It’s like, ‘yes, please,’ but you know, it’s interesting, it’s a backhanded compliment. You’re constantly offered and after a while you just have to sit back and go, ‘okay, until I can break through, which I’ve done before on the comedy side, I’m going to have to fight for those things.’
I remember before I saw you in Los Angeles doing “Chicago” many years ago you were on “News Radio” and I had no idea you could sing!
KA: I had a whole career before that.
And I have to admit, I even found Natalie Cole’s Pink Cadillac video and there you were!
KA: You know, I did a lot of videos at the very start before we even knew they were. Because we didn’t know what they were. Really. I mean, David Bowie, INXS, Joe Cocker, I mean, we didn’t know what they were. We’d just show up and do your thing and there was a camera there, you know?
I watched it again and was like 'Oh, there she is with all that hair. I see her!"
KA: I was going to say, how big is my hair? How big is the hair?
It was huge. Huge. But perfect for that time. I mean, at that time that's what those girls looked like in the video. They all had big, amazing hair!
KA: Oh my God. It was so big. The hair was so big. There was a lot of hair spray and teasing.
Because I have seen you do a little of everything, do you even have a wheelhouse? Something you prefer more than others?
KA: I couldn’t really pinpoint that. It’s more of a passion that is aroused by great material. Then it is just one thing or the other. And it’s also ignited by the producing team. If they’re interesting directors, producers, doing interesting work, and then it’s a great script. That’s pretty much my passion will follow it. My passion will follow it. But I am due for comedy right now.
Since we’re talking past and present, what would that Khandi back in the Natalie Cole video days, what would she think of the Khandi today and what you’ve done and who you are?
KA: Wow. That’s a pretty incredible question, actually. For a very long time, even back then before Natalie, I had a desire to be an actress. I just didn’t see black women with consistent work as actresses. So it was something I chose not to pursue because I didn’t want to have a career that I couldn’t support myself financially. And growing up in New York, going to the theater as a child, you always saw integrated casts. So there was never a question. It was, ‘okay, I’m going to train and follow this passion,’ and it kind of worked out as the years went on and those doors began to open. I did see wonderful work and actresses working consistently. I went back and I studied the craft and then made the transition. But myself back then would be more proud of what has happened as a whole to the industry in terms of the opportunity for black actresses. That there is clearly a way to sustain yourself with a career as an actress.
“Bessie” airs Saturday at 8pm on HBO.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.