Angela Bassett was recently in Saint Lucia with her family – her husband and fellow actor Courtney B. Vance and their 12-year-old twins, Slater and Bronwyn – when a seven-year-old Irish boy pointed her out to his father. “Dad, Dad, that’s the Queen!”
Best known for roles in R-rated films such as Tina Turner in the 1993 biopic What’s Love Got to Do with It (which earned her an Academy Award nomination), and Stella Payne in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, 59-year-old Bassett was likely not on the radar of most under-eight boys a year ago. But thanks to the unprecedented success of Black Panther, in which she plays the Queen of Wakanda, Bassett now has a fan base of youngsters the world over.
“Black Panther has definitely brought me a broader audience,” nods the actress. “The audience for it has been from six years old to 86. Every now and again, something comes along that moves movie culture forward, and Panther definitely sits on that throne. To have a black male superhero, but also to have strong, complicated, vivid, black female characters was special. Usually we are just the mothers of, the lovers of… Culturally, socially, it just resonates on so many different levels, and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
It’s a hot spring morning in New York City, and Bassett and I are having breakfast 39 floors up, overlooking a picturesque, mist-shrouded Central Park. There’s a lot of power-broking going on around us, and the restaurant, though airy and expansive, has terrible, clattery acoustics. Bassett speaks in such a low, soft timbre that I’m having to lean in to catch each word.
“Culturally, SOCIALLY, Black Panther just resonates on so many DIFFERENT levels, and I’m so PROUD to be a part of it”
It’s a voice that some might find surprising, given the characters she often embodies – strong, strident bad-asses, such as her current role, Athena Grant, in the Ryan Murphy drama 9-1-1, and her forthcoming one, that of CIA Director Erica Sloan, in Mission: Impossible – Fallout. Then there’s the muscular physicality for which she has long been admired, sometimes to the extent of fetishization.
When Bassett was catapulted into the public eye for her portrayal of singer Tina Turner, “people got very physical, people would grab me,” she says, grasping my upper arm, which has absolutely none of the muscle tone of her own. “I would be like: ‘I don’t know you, Mister.’ It was very intrusive. There’s less of that now, thankfully.”
What remains is an enduring obsession with her youthfulness. One headline around the launch of 9-1-1 this year read: ‘Angela Bassett shows us what 59 can look like’. “I guess it’s a high-class problem to have,” she shrugs. “But you don’t really know what to say when someone says: ‘Oh my God, you look so good.’ What do they expect? For you to be completely broken down?”
“You don’t really know what to say when SOMEONE says: ‘Oh my God, you look so GOOD [for 59].’ What do they expect? For you to be COMPLETELY broken down?”
The truth is, Bassett looks incredible for any age. She is tiny and taut in dark jeans and a black knitted top, with distractingly chiseled bone structure and huge feline eyes. And, despite the tightness of her triceps, she claims not to be obsessive about exercise. “But I’m regimented and rigorous about what I’m eating,” she says. “Diet is 85% of the whole thing for me.”
This morning, she orders oatmeal – made with water – and, when it arrives, rummages around at length in her Hermès tote, finally fishing out a Ziploc bag filled with sachets of sweetener. She travels with her own, just in case.
I press her on exercise, though – it just doesn’t seem feasible that she does not workout – and she admits to having a trainer. If she’s at home in LA, she will see him four to five times a week, but not when she’s traveling, like now. “I’ll try to get to the hotel gym and do 30 minutes of cardio, and lift a couple of weights or something. But I’m not getting up at 4am to workout,” she says, looking appalled at the very idea.
“My HUSBAND always said divorce is not an option. I tell him: ‘DO what you want to do…I don’t want you to get to the end and blame anything on ME”
Bassett was born just across the park, in Harlem, New York. Her parents split when she and her sister were small, after which their mother, Betty, moved them to her native Florida, where the three lived in a housing project. Betty was a social worker who “had a real theatricality in her genes,” says Bassett. “She was quite dramatic around the house. I mean, literally, back-of-hand-to-forehead.” She laughs as she acts out her mother’s domestic am-dram for me, wailing: “‘I’ve always wanted to be a kept woman!’”
Money was tight, but Bassett was enrolled in an after-school theater program for “less-fortunate youths”, which organized excursions. “We would go to the Asolo in Sarasota to see Shakespeare, in that beautiful jewel-box theater,” she sighs. “It was like magic to me, those actors upon that stage, the language and the poetry. You never know what a child’s flight will be, what seed their inspiration is going to spring from.”
For her, the moment she knew she wanted to act professionally came at 15 years old, at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC, during a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. “I’m a big one for believing that stuff comes true when you believe it, and stuff doesn’t come true because you don’t believe that it’s possible. The universe won’t make you a liar,” she says, sagely.
Her own children are being raised in very different economic circumstances than Bassett was. “And I remind them of it all the time,” she laughs. “They don’t have cell phones or iPads. I had a pencil and paper, they can have pencil and paper. I can’t give them everything – I don’t give myself everything.” She sounds to be the opposite of a ‘helicopter parent’, while her husband takes a different stance. “He’s got them on a short leash,” she says. “I try to give them a little bit more leeway. I want them to go out, explore, see how mature they can be about it, how safe, and then come back.”
She’s been married to Vance – who recently won an Emmy for his portrayal of lawyer Johnnie Cochran in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson – for 21 years. They must be doing something right, I comment. “Well, he always said divorce is not an option,” Bassett smiles. “I’ve always told him: ‘Do what you want to do” – meaning pursue his dreams – “because I don’t want you to get to the end and blame anything on me.’”
“My kids don’t have cell PHONES or iPads. I can’t GIVE them everything – I don’t give myself EVERYTHING”
When, recently, the call came about Mission: Impossible, it took her a minute to catch on. “I said: ‘What is that?’ I didn’t think it could be the mega-franchise,” she chuckles, softly. “It was seven in the morning, and I hadn’t had coffee yet. But I’ve also never seen anyone who looked like me in those films.”
The industry, she acknowledges, is slowly evolving. When she played Turner 25 years ago, Bassett was almost unrivaled as a black leading lady in Hollywood. That pool, though still shockingly small, has grown a little. “Yes, there’s Naomie [Harris], Viola [Davis], Taraji [P. Henson] and Halle [Berry], of course,” she nods. Along with Lupita Nyong’o, Zoe Saldana, Kerry Washington, Thandie Newton, Octavia Spencer and others.
“There are more roles, but if you look at the statistics, there are more platforms, more opportunities, for everyone,” cautions Bassett. “So, when you actually dive into the percentages, they’re still the same. There’s always still work to do on this house.”
“There are more ROLES [for black actresses], but there are more OPPORTUNITIES for everyone. So the percentages are still the same. There’s always work to do on this HOUSE”
And yet, even given the limited opportunities, Bassett has maintained an unusual integrity in her career choices. ‘I’ve had to protect myself from being led by the finance of it,” she says. “I can’t start with, ‘Well, how much are they paying?’ I can’t be led by that.” She turned down the lead role in Monster’s Ball, for which Berry won an Academy Award, but is sanguine about the parts she has rejected: “You cannot dance to every record. You must sit some out.”
Her next dance will be in Otherhood, an adaptation of the William Sutcliffe novel Whatever Makes You Happy, in which she stars alongside Patricia Arquette. She is also the executive producer. She drains the last of her green tea and excuses herself, as she has to leave for a meeting about costumes for the film.
When Bassett has left and I’m readying to depart, a woman at the next table waves me over. “Excuse me, but who was that?” she asks. I tell her. “Angela Bassett?” she gasps, eyes as wide as the restaurant’s breakfast plates. “She looks incredible. I thought it was some up-and-coming young pop singer.”
Mission: Impossible – Fallout is out July 25 (UK); July 27 (US)
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