The HBO Films drama Bessie highlights the life and career of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith (Queen Latifah, in a truly remarkable performance) and showcases her transformation from a struggling young singer into one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920s, whose work still endures today. Bessie Smith was a woman determined to use her immense talent and love for music to pull herself out of a very challenging home life, never truly conquering her own demons on her way to becoming a celebrated legend. The film also stars Michael Kenneth Williams, Khandi Alexander, Mike Epps, Tory Kittles, Tika Sumpter, Oliver Platt, Bryan Greenberg, Charles S. Dutton and Mo’Nique.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Khandi Alexander talked about playing Bessie’s older sister Viola, why she wanted to be a part of the project, the experience of working with Queen Latifah, how oppressive this time period was for women, and what a challenging character this was to embody. She also talked about how much fun she’s had playing the devilish Mama Pope on Scandal, and how she’s never known what’s coming next on that show.
Collider: How did you come to this?
KHANDI ALEXANDER: I was sent the script, and I thought it was wonderful. And then, I got the offer. My manager, at the time, asked for the offer, and came back with it. I was thrilled. I was thrilled to work with Dana [Owens].
What was it about this story that made you want to be a part of telling it and what made you want to embody this particular character?
ALEXANDER: Honestly, I wanted to work with Latifah. She’s someone who I’ve watched for a long time, and I’ve always loved her work because she takes such chances. She was also a producer on it, which I think is wonderful. She did a film with Steve Martin and Eugene Levy (Bringing Down the House), and she was a producer on that, as well. I just love that. I love women who take command like that. So, I really wanted to work with her.
Had you been familiar with Bessie Smith, before this?
ALEXANDER: I didn’t know much about Bessie Smith. I had seen a play, many years ago, about Ma Rainey, so I was a little more familiar with her. Even though I had heard Bessie Smith’s music in the past, I really didn’t know much about her, so it gave me the opportunity to find out on my own and do some research about her. But in terms of the character I play, I’ve known many people like Viola, who are bitter and resentful and manipulative. It’s not a fun or easy character to play, but I can’t say that she’s not familiar.
This was really a time when women weren’t treated all that well, and they had to either fight like hell to overcome that, or perpetuate the cycle that they were in. Who is Viola to you, and how did this time period affect who she was?
ALEXANDER: It was so oppressive. It was interesting to film in Georgia, in that particular part of Georgia, because we really were in the woods. The set designers were fantastic, along with the wardrobe and props. That really fed me. Once you put on that wardrobe and you walk on that set, you feel the heaviness of the oppression of that time, and the poverty. It was very helpful. For Bessie to have such a free spirit, to go out and do the things that she did with her life and with her career, is truly phenomenal. I don’t feel that Viola would have ever left that environment. I don’t think she ever dreamt of anything more than what was right in front of her face, along with the resentment that she carried, having to grow up so quickly and take care of her brother and sister. I don’t think she was the type of person who would have ever had that kind of free spirit.
Did you listen to a lot of this music to help inspire you for this shoot?
ALEXANDER: I didn’t listen to the music. There were times when I allowed myself to listen to the music, right around filming the scene where she’s in the car when she goes to visit Bessie, once Bessie is successful. But I wanted Viola to remain almost paralyzed in this environment and with this anger and the suffocation of her circumstances, so that she could stay invested in this anger. I didn’t want her to feel the joy or the happiness of any kind of freedom. I wanted it to be very suppressive, so that I could actually live that as I was interpreting the character. When Bessie comes back to that house, Viola’s presence sucks the oxygen out of the room. She wasn’t an easy character to live with.
Was Viola a difficult character to just shake off, at the end of the day?
ALEXANDER: You really couldn’t shake her off at night because she was all-encompassing. And she’s completely opposite from who I am, so I needed to be her and cocoon myself. I’m not a method actress, but I really wanted to make sure that I didn’t have a false note, so it required really not having that much joy. I had to make sure that, when anyone was around me while I was in character, that I sucked the joy out of their life, too. We all know people like that, and you just run from them.
How do you view the relationship between Bessie and Viola? Why do you think they kept coming back to each other?
ALEXANDER: That’s so interesting because I did ask the director, Dee [Rees]. At one point, I went to Dee and said, “Why does she keep sending her money?” This is an absolutely hateful, resentful, manipulative person. Even after Bessie loses everything, she keeps sending Viola money. I had to ask the director about that because I really couldn’t understand it, and she laughed at me. She was like, “Oh, come on, you know how it is.” When someone is that manipulative and has that kind of a hold over you, they always play that guilt card with you. You’re just manipulated down to your core by this person. It’s survivor’s guilt.
As an actress in scenes with her, what was it like to watch Queen Latifah really bare her soul in this, and what does it add to your performance to have someone like that to feed off of?
ALEXANDER: It was such a joy, and I have to give a lot of credit to the director, Dee Rees. We came in early and had a rehearsal period, where it was just the three of us. She created an environment that made it safe for an actor, which is the best environment. It was the best environment for Latifah and I to explore this relationship, and to create a shorthand that allowed us, while we were filming, to refer back to that kept us connected. We had the opportunity to just create this relationship that kept us connected. She went off and did other scenes that didn’t include me, and then, when she came back to work with me, I was able to bring her right back. It made the days easy, and it made the shoot multi-layered, in ways that wasn’t necessarily in the script. But we were able to emotionally connect because we had that time together to create a history.
You’re also a part of Scandal, which is a show that not only a lot of people love, but they love to talk about it. How much fun has it been for you to be a part of a show where you get to play a character that is just so devilish?
ALEXANDER: I don’t know what’s going on! I need to do a comedy! I don’t know what happened, or how I got caught in this! I really enjoy working on Scandal. It’s so much fun. That’s another place where the environment is very healthy. When you’ve worked as long as I have, which I’m truly grateful for, you go in and out of these different environments. Sometimes it’s not so much fun or easy or healthy. Sometimes you’re fighting a lot of things, off camera, that have nothing to do with the work on camera. That makes the work a little harder that it needs to be. On Scandal, the majority of the cast, if not all of the cast, comes from theater, so it’s a healthy environment. People come into work and actually go home to their families. They want to go there and explore and have a good time, but they also want to go home, which is the best kind of working environment. You go in and do your job, and then you go home and enjoy your life.
With as secretive as we all know Shonda Rhimes is with everything, did you ever know where things were going with Mama Pope, or did you just get a call the day before you were told to show up at work?
ALEXANDER: Oh, my goodness, not only was I never told, I was literally told that I cannot tell. So, I got the phone call and it was, “Okay, you can’t even tell your representation, but we’re offering you Mama Pope. You can say yes or no, and you have about two minutes [to decide]. And then, you’re going to hang up the phone and never tell anyone.” So, I was like, “Yeah, and don’t worry, I won’t breathe a word.” As we were filming, I never knew what was happening. The one thing I did ask one of the producers, Mark Wilding, who I adore, when he called to offer me the role was, “Do I get to be a bad girl?” And he goes, “Oh, you’re going to be very bad!” And I said, “Okay, I’m in!” Other than that, I never knew. I still don’t know, from episode to episode.
Bessie premieres on HBO on Saturday, May 16th.