Q&A: Kimberly Elise calls 'For Colored Girls' the most emotional role of her career
One of the most impressive and yet strikingly depressing aspects of Tyler Perry's "For Colored Girls" is how the drama highlights so many great African-American actresses who, bluntly, just don't get enough quality work.
Kerry Washington is a charismatic superstar who bursts across the screen, but she continues to find her best roles in little seen indies. Thandie Newton disappeared after being showcased in "Crash" and one major misstep aside ("W."), she's gotten most of her most interesting work in British flicks. Tony winner Anika Noni Rose hasn't landed a prominent big screen role since "Dreamgirls" and is finding more consistent parts on the small screen. Somewhere along the way Hollywood forgot that Whoopi Goldberg won an Oscar for a reason, she is a superb actress. Phylicia Rashad is another Tony winner who somehow became ludicrously stereotyped as just Bill Cosby's TV wife wife and nothing else. And, then there is Kimberly Elise, who broke through with an impressive turn in Jonathan Demme's "Beloved" and somehow has only been provided strong material from Demme and, don't be surprised, Perry.
Elise, who starred in the title role in Perry's out of nowhere hit "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," has reunited with the prolific filmmaker in "Colored Girls" in what she describes as the most "emotional" role of her career. This pundit would simply call it the best role of her career. As Crystal, Elise plays the mother of two young kids trying to juggle a full time job while avoiding the increasingly delusional and dangerous mood swings of her boyfriend who has returned from serving overseas. When tragedy occurs, Elise pulls out a gut wrenching turn that's almost impossible to ignore. And, if enough SAG and Oscar members see "Colored Girls," it could easily land her some well deserved kudos. "If" enough of them see the film.
I had the opportunity to speak to Elise in person earlier this week and, besides being incredibly charming, she was quite blunt on how difficult the role was on her both emotionally and physically.
I know that Tyler has said that he was thinking of different actresses while he was adapting the play. Did he let you know immediately, 'Hey, listen I want to play Crystal. I’m thinking about you for a couple of the roles.' How did he approach you?
Elise: Yeah, he called me early on. He was still in his writing process. And he sent me an early draft and he said 'I want you to do Crystal.' I didn’t even know the characters by name they’re different [from the colors in the play], so I didn’t even know what that meant. And then when I read it, I’m like 'Ueah. I should do Crystal. That’s most appropriate for me.' And so he was right on with that. And then he continued with that as he finished his draft and the script, I always stayed as Crystal.
One of the things that’s really interesting about the character is that she could have easily gone down to like the stereotypical road that you’ve seen many times before of a woman in a bad relationship who can’t get out of it, but it felt like, and certainly in your performance, that there’s an awareness of that circumstance you give to her. There’s no sort of naiveté. Was that something you added? Or was it something that Tyler had put in the script?
Elise: Michael Ealy [, who plays Crystal's boyfriend.] and I spent a tremendous amount of time developing these characters, really going back to our theatrical roots. And we began meeting before we even got to Atlanta and just talking about these characters and coming up with their back-stories. This couple and how they fell in love and their current story and what would happen in the future. That we had a whole life going on inside of us. And I kind of knew where Crystal was at that point. And then I just threw it all away because then it was like a life that existed, like yesterday, is there. So, we created all of our yesterdays, but it still lives with you. It still lives with me. Crystal in my mind had been through a lot up until this point and so she was at that crossroads of 'I have to get out of this, but I don’t know how. I don’t know who can help me and I love him. If I leave him, what’s going to happen to him? But I’m scared for my children.' I mean she was in a real quandary. And I think, as women, we love so big and so hard, not that men don’t, but women, we give birth and all this stuff so her love for him was so strong and he had really become a child. He came back from the war. He left a man—a beautiful glorious man came back a broken child she had to care for, an angry child. 'And if I leave this child, I can’t. I love it too much. I love him too much, from the time we were 14,' which was a line that I put in there. It’s in the movie and it was something that we came up with in the back-story and it’s hinted at in the poem that they knew each other since they were kids. And so when we were shooting it, I just said it because it was in history. It was in my mind and Tyler loved it and he kept it. I kind of was aware of where she was and the crossroads that she was at and it was like she loved one day too long. She loved one day too long. And if she would have had some kind of help, some kind of guide or some kind of something…
You have a long relationship obviously with Tyler from 'Diary of a Mad Black Woman,' which he did not direct. He just did the screenplay.
Elise: He wrote and produced and acted.
It’s sort of tough to ask this question because he’s never worked with you as a director before, but as someone involved in film, could you see like…
Elise: The growth?
Elise: Oh yeah. Oh my goodness, yeah. When we did 'Diary' that was…he hadn’t even really been on a film set before. So [the language of] 'Mat box, go to your mark, checking the gate.' All that was foreign. And what does that mean? And what’s that?' You know? So, he was very much there learning and observing and just soaking it all in. And, of course, being a very supportive producer and co-star. And then he felt confident enough to give it a try. And give it another try and keep learning and keep learning and keep learning. And he’s like 'I want to work with you again. I want to work, but I want develop some more.' I’m like, 'O.K. We’ll do it when it’s right.' Nine films later he called and he said, 'I’m ready and I’ve got the piece.' And I was really blown away. I mean to see this man from what I described to you know calling for a 75 lens and 'get the key over here' and 'bring in the…' and 'take out the…' I mean it was brilliant. [He's] very present and very available and very in control and in command, yet so respectful to me as an actress to just give me the free reign to do what I felt was necessary for the character and adding things if I felt they needed to be added. So, he was a great collaborator and just really wonderful to work with.
It’s funny, I’ve been around the business a long time, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a story about a filmmaker who would be so humble to be able to say 'Oh listen, I’m not ready for you to do this now. Come meet me down the road later.' Is that as rare as I think it is?
Elise: Well, I’ve worked with some pretty accomplished directors.
I meant more in the sense that like they would say that you would know someone and they’d say I’m not ready to do this now. I want to work with you down the road after I’ve learned more. Like you don’t really hear that a lot.
Elise: No. He has a lot of humility and in this project he always said, 'Teach me' to all of us women because its’ a woman’s piece. And you know you’re going to be [judged] as a man how much you can say and the smartest thing is let the women speak. Let the women guide me. Let the women lead me. So, I think that’s pretty rare and in time he knows his position and he’s very strong with that and he’s a leader. And he’s very clear on what it is he wants and is in control. So he’s managed to find a balance of humility and control at the same time.
You mentioned you did a lot of pre-shooting work with Michael that was sort of rehearsals and sort of not rehearsals. Did you do rehearsals with Phylicia or any of the other actresses before filming began?
Elise: mm-mm [Shakes her head]. I was so immersed in Crystal at that point, anybody else that would come into the picture it just would be very natural. But ours was special because one: we’re dealing with an incredibly sensitive storyline. And there were things that we had to just work out. The safety of the children, you know, the safety of each other and developing the trust with each other. There’s a lot of stuff you don’t see. The film was really long and it had to be trimmed down, so there’s a lot of stuff that Michael and I did that you don’t even get to experience. Unfortunately, when you’re an actor you’re like 'Ah, if the only knew.' But so with the others? No. By the time I experienced the other actresses, they were, for me, coming into my world that I had created. And then I just would relate to them from that space. I didn’t have to create a world with them.
Being so immersed in the character, I don’t know if it’s ever easy but was it easier to sort of strike that note of pain and grief that you sort of hit later on in the film or was that always difficult?
Elise: The whole thing was the most emotional acting experience I ever had but incredibly rewarding at the same time and the actors are like that. And to release it? No. That particular scene I was just in a trembling state of hysteria because it starts to [question] what is real and what is pretend? Who’s wailing now? Is it me? Is it Crystal? Because it’s just like to watch what this character goes through is painful enough and then to be in it at the same time so it all becomes just, y'know, a jumbled up thing that real and not real. That’s Kimberly and just as a human being experiencing, watching Crystal go through this stuff is painful. I went there with about 5 gray hairs, and this is serious…
I believe you.
Elise: I mean I wear a wig…
Did it stress you out that much?
Elise: I wear a wig in the movie and at home I had to take off my wig, get back into my hair. There were like 50 gray hairs. This was in less than a month. And I knew right away it was Crystal and I knew it was the body not knowing the difference. Not knowing that it was pretend and that it had been traumatized and this is how it was expressing itself. And it sounds hilarious because I thought, 'Well, now I’m Crystal. You’re not going to go back. And I did, I waited and I’d look at it just didn’t go back. I started taking vitamins. You’re going to go back. And I realized that it’s like a [personal moment]. I’d say that scene, that whole story, pieces of my heart are still down there and they are just gone. Like that’s just gone. And I wear it with pride. I gave voice to women who don’t have a voice. And maybe I’ll help somebody heal. Help somebody get the message. 'I have to go. I can’t love one day too long.' That’s worth all the gray hairs. And I can’t do this kind of thing without knowing I’m serving a large good somehow. So to cleanse the character I came home, confronted my gray hairs, slept for about 4 days.
Elise: Literally could not get off the couch. It was like I was lead. And then I reintroduced my meditation, which I had to put out to play Crystal. I couldn’t be in the center of any for. I brought that back. Went to yoga when I had the energy. And that’s all about centering. And then the biggest thing that helped me was I did a 21-day detox.
Elise: Yeah. Where it’s just fruits, vegetables, water. And it was like she wasn’t moving. It wasn’t enough. Everything else I had to purge everything out. And then I started feeling lighter so I started feeling like myself, feeling like myself again.
And the next thing you did though was the dramedy 'Highland Park,' though right, which is more…
Elise: No, 'Highland Park' was before.
Oh, so you didn’t even have a chance to do something that was completely different after you sort of put it away.
Elise: No. And then they’re calling me to do ADR and you know what ADR is. You go back and re-do some of these things. Meanwhile, I’m trying to catch up. I’m trying to heal. But then I’m committed to her so I have to go do it and get it right. So it’s been a process of getting into the character and getting out of the character, but like I said, it’s worth it to me.
Based on what you've said is it therefore harder to watch it than some of you other performances?
Elise: I haven’t seen it yet.
Will you not see it? Are you an actress or actor who prefers not to watch yourself onscreen?
Elise: Well, I mean it’s like there’s a couple reasons. One is yeah, it’s like taking me back and I’m still in the process of patching up and healing. And two, I don’t really have a need to see myself. The pleasure and the satisfaction was the creation of the character, the time Michael and I spent, the shooting of it, the doing it and that’s really what it’s about. I learned that from Danny Glover when we did 'Beloved.' I was like 'When is the movie coming out? Do you know when we get to see it?' He’s like, 'Sweetheart don’t worry about that. This is what it’s about. This is it right here.' And that just sort of stayed with me and so I don’t have a big need to go see it. I’m sorry I haven’t seen my co-stars though. I may get a video and zoom past my stuff and stop and watch the other actresses and celebrate them. But I’m good. I’m happy when people come up and say how they feel about it or what your character went through, you know, I went through and it’s helping me deal with it. I get to see the movie through the audience’s eyes and that’s really gratifying.
"For Colored Girls" opens nationwide on Friday.