"I've been wanting to do espionage," Alfre Woodard says. Across her nearly four decades as an actress, the Oscar nominee (Best Supporting Actress for 1983's Cross Creek) has starred in projects of seemingly every variety, but never a true spy movie. She flirted with the genre in the short-lived NBC series, State of Affairs, although Woodard was cast as the President of the United States and not as a secret agent. Now, she finally gets her chance in The Gray Man.
The espionage thriller comes by way of the Russo Brothers, who first worked with Woodard on 2016's Captain America: Civil War. "I did Captain America because Downey Jr. is a close friend and he lobbied for me to come in for that role with him," Woodard recalls. In that, she plays a grieving mother who took Tony Stark to task over the death of her son. Notably, she does not play a superhero. And if you're going to cast Alfre Woodard in a Marvel movie, don't you want to see Alfre Woodard play a superhero?
This time, her casting delivers on its promise: The Gray Man stars Ryan Gosling as Sierra Six, an off-the-books CIA operative who unwittingly uncovers dirty agency secrets. And so, a psychotic mercenary named Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) is sent in to eliminate him. Woodward co-stars as Margaret Cahill, a now-retired CIA agent and former head of the London Bureau. (The character is gender-swapped from Mark Greaney's novel.)
"When they said the Russo Brothers are sending you something, I was very excited. Then I read it and it reads as exciting as it plays [on-screen]. And just the fact that it was in Bangkok, it was in Hong Kong, it was in Czech Republic and London, I was like, 'Oh, I am so there!'" Woodard tells A.frame. "After I said yes, they said, 'Oh, because of COVID, all of your things are going to shoot at the abandoned Long Beach Airport.' But anyway, it was great fun."
Still, she gets her espionage moment. In one pivotal scene, Sierra Six and Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) seek refuge at Margaret's apartment with agents and assassins alike in pursuit. Margaret greets them, pistol in hand, and upon Six learning that she is dying of cancer, quips at him, "If you utter anything remotely sympathetic, I will shoot you." Then the building explodes.
"I have the best stunt person in the world, Cheryl Lewis. She's probably done about five things with me — you wouldn't think I would need to do that many stunts — but she is fearless," says Woodard. "She is also very safety-conscious because she does a lot. But then, I have to begin it or maybe end it. And she takes care of me. She immediately speaks up to directors, producers, whatever's going on, and just says, 'No. I don't want my lady doing this. Nope. I'm not going to let my lady do that. So, she's just great."
Woodard, however, was tasked with one section of the stunt sequence.
"So, [Margaret] goes over the back of a sofa and Cheryl and Ryan's guy did all that. But, Ryan and Ana, they were doing a lot of that stuff themselves! As the apartment is being shot up, all I had to do was crab crawl on my belly and go around the corner, and stay huddled with Six. There was a wax parquet floor, there were bits of sawdust and cork all over, and fake glass, and Cheryl showed me the motion how you crab crawl. And I couldn't go anywhere."
"I was doing it right in place! The Russos kept saying, 'And go! Move. Move. Go around the corner.' And I just kept doing kind of a breaststroke thing on the floor in place. Like, I was making snow angels. And they said, 'Okay. Cut! We want you to move.' And I was just slipping and sliding. And they kept simplifying it for me! Even the stunt part that, all I had to do was like crawl around, I couldn't do it. I wasn't going anywhere! So, Cheryl is the person that we go to for anything, anything that requires movement."
The Gray Man is in theaters and on Netflix July 22. Woodard, having finally made her debut into the world of international espionage, is hoping moviegoers will take it in on the big screen. "I know most people probably have television screens as big as I am, but I'm still old school. I think I'm really living large having a 50 inch, but you got to give yourself at least once, if not twice, in a cinema to see it," she says. "Then you can watch it [on Netflix] as many times as you want, to go back and look at the action, and try to figure out how they did certain things."
Crab crawling, perhaps, notwithstanding.
By John Boone