Alfre Woodard was performing in an Off-Broadway production of For Colored Girls in the late '70s when Robert Altman came to see the production. Already a three-time Oscar nominee by then (for directing M*A*S*H and for directing and producing Nashville), Altman was so taken with Woodard's performance that he cast her in her first feature film in writer-director Alan Rudolph's Remember My Name (1978), which Altman produced. Then in 1980, she starred in Altman's satire HealtH, which effectively launched her career as a film actress.
Despite nearly 40 years in the business — and her own Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for 1983's Cross Creek — Woodard says what she looks for in a project has never changed. "I have this idea, and I don't know where I got it, but how you start is how you finish," she explains.
"If you want your freedom, if you want to be honest and you want to see yourself however you want to see yourself, that's how you have to start out. You establish your way of working in the world," she says. "For me, how you choose your work, you're always going to choose it the same way."
No matter whether it's in a drama like 2013's Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave or 2019's much-lauded Clemency, or in popcorn fare like Star Trek: First Contact or Netflix's globetrotting espionage thriller The Gray Man, above all else, Woodard wants to deliver a quality performance.
Below, shares with A.frame the five films that she holds up as acting masterclasses.
Directed by: Ivan Passer | Written by: Ivan Passer, Jaroslav Papoušek and Václav Šašek
One of the movies that most impressed me when I was younger was Intimate Lighting by Ivan Passer. And I didn't know about film, and I didn't know even why I was attracted to it, but later in life, I was able to ask for a director for a particular project [1999's The Wishing Tree] and I got to work with Ivan and became friends with him. But Intimate Lighting is this wonderful film. It takes place over a weekend in the countryside, and he used all non-actors, which I didn't know it. But there was a realism about it and a dynamism about it that felt so real.
I like when I'm unaware that I am in a film, rather than [feeling like] I am looking in on the recreation of something that has happened. It was very interesting once I found that out that all of those people were first-time actors. It seems antithetical to somebody who really believes in actors and training and process, but having none of it show, that's why Intimate Lighting remains one of my faves. It's that film for me.
Directed by: Sydney Pollack | Written by: James Poe and Robert E. Thompson
I remember being completely gripped by what [the movie] demanded of the actors. You just want to say, 'Put me in coach!' It looked like this tremendous exercise. The thing that actors love most is when a situation requires something of them. Real actors don't like the easy, like, 'All I have to do is stand here and look cute and say this.' 'All I do is stand here and look badass and swing my arms or throw some punches.' We like the complex score.
So, I was marvelling at what they were having to portray and actually doing all that marathon dancing — even though you're cutting, and they sit down and rest, you're still doing all of that. You're stopping and going for days shooting those scenes, but having to match where you are in fatigue. It's lot to do. But again, it was about the actors.
Directed by: Sidney Lumet | Written by: Frank Pierson
Oh my God, Chris Sarandon has never been better. Everybody in that — he and John Cazale and Al [Pacino], what an intense and full workout. And again, that's what you want! For me, as an actor, I learned from watching it. I was inspired by watching it. You want to grab that baton and jump into the action and go, 'I want to run this leg.' That's what they were called to do.
Written and Directed by: Robert Altman
Altman became like my cinematic godfather. He gave me my first job and I did two films and a play with him. In the things that we did, he trusts actors to establish a character. He's got an idea how he wants the film to go, but the first day of work you come in with your script and he says, 'Throw that in the trash. The studio demanded one, so I gave them one. But throw that away.' He trusts that, once you figure out who your character is, if you've done your work well, that character becomes a person. Everybody would get dressed and just hang out, and you might get a call to come downstairs to whatever the set is. And he just goes, 'Get in there and don't let her leave.' That's all you know. Get in there and don't let her leave.
And in 3 Women with Shelley Duvall and Sissy [Spacek], he had the kind of trust where he stayed to capture their real life, because life happens between the lines. A lot of people shoot somebody when they're speaking, but the most important story is the person that's receiving what that person is saying. 3 Women was that for me, and I learned how you can relax. And the more patient you are in terms of taking your time, that increases what you're communicating. Actors don't take their time enough, to me. It's a luxury. And, to have a filmmaker that does it, is great.
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann | Written by: Alvin Sargent
It wasn't necessarily so the film itself, but I'm saying Julia because I love Vanessa Redgrave in it. I've always looked toward Vanessa Redgrave's work when I need to touch base, in terms of staying on key with playing my score. The other movie is The Trip to Bountiful because of Geraldine Page. There are three people I look to when I say I need a brush up, or I need a class: I just look at Vanessa, Gerri Page and Mary Alice. If I can get the spirit and the movement in the sensibility, in terms of how you approach your work and how you carry it out, then I'll always know that I'm on key. I'm on pitch. I'm in rhythm. I'm honest. And I'm producing some really good music.