Ask Alfre Woodard what it was like starring with Denzel Washington in the ’80s hospital drama St. Elsewhere and you might expect to hear about her love scenes with one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs, or maybe her two Emmy nominations for the show. (She’s had an astounding 17 noms and four wins in her career.)
“What was it like? It forged a friendship, and I got a whole new family!” Alfre, 66, exclusively revealed to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “I am godmom to Denzel and [his wife] Pauletta [Washington]’s twins, Olivia and Malcolm, and I’m Auntie Alfre to [his kids] John David and Katia.” Family has always played an important role in Alfre’s life.
Despite her busy career — she’s currently starring in Netflix’s new rom-com road movie Juanita — she’s completely devoted to her husband of 35 years, writer Roderick M. Spencer, 61, and their adopted children, Mavis, 27, and Duncan, 25.
“Until my kids were born, marriage was my main commitment. I trust my husband more than I’ve trusted any other human being,” Alfre shared. “It feels like love, but at the same time, it’s deeply spiritual, like a homecoming. I put nothing before my family.” Scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A interview with Alfre!
You’re exec producing your new film, Juanita, with your husband. How did you get it off the ground?
The author Sheila Williams got her book [Dancing on the Edge of the Roof] to me and said she had me in mind as the character. I took it to my husband because he finds words to your thoughts that you could never imagine finding, and said, “I don’t want an anniversary, birthday or Christmas present. All I want is for you to write this screenplay.”
Why did you think he was the right person to adapt a woman’s novel?
He’s more of a feminist than I am! And from being together with me for 38 years, he’s been deeply involved in my family, which has a lot of big-personality women who adore him. I knew he could bring nuance to it.
How are you like the character?
Roderick has always said, “People think you’re so serious, deep and thoughtful, but you’re absolutely insane, a cut-up and wacky/sexy.” [Laughs] He wanted to write something I haven’t been asked to do, but that I can do well, because it’s in my spirit.
It’s been 41 years since your screen debut. The other new film you produced and starred in, Clemency, just won a top Sundance Film Festival prize, and you voiced a role in The Lion King, out July 19. What do you attribute your longevity to?
Fortunately, people have come to me with projects, and I’ve got a team that constantly fought for me. Bold guys who got told, “Are you crazy?” because they weren’t waiting to see “black woman, 5 feet 5 inches [in a script].” Roderick has about five projects that I’ve aged out of [because of a] myth that a black woman couldn’t carry a film, which we got told by everybody for 25 years, even friends in a position to green-light things.
Did you always know you wanted to act?
I was a [track] athlete. I didn’t even think about being an artist until I was 16 or 17.
In 1984, you won your first Emmy for Hill Street Blues and got an Oscar nom for Cross Creek. What was that like?
I didn’t know what the Academy was! My agent rang to tell me, and I said, “Great! How did I get nominated?” I had lost one of my very best friends to AIDS at around 4 a.m., and at 6 a.m. I got the call. There’s a lesson in that, but there’s no way to articulate it.
Few people have more Emmy noms than you do. What do you think of awards?
It’s like winning the lottery. They’re like the baby contests when I was growing up. I was actually in one once and I didn’t behave! [Laughs] They’d dress up everyone that could sit up, from around 6 months to 2 years old. Awards are like, which is the cutest baby? All babies are adorable. Can’t we just get all of them together and play?
What do you enjoy about show business?
The great thing is that we come from everywhere. We were the most sensitive, unmanageable kids in class. People didn’t realize it was from energy and ideas coursing through us. So we all ran off to join this circus, and the people that you’re drawn to as you go along are the family you accumulate along the way.
How did you balance work with raising your kids after you adopted them?
You make decisions based on how it affects people you love: How is my relationship with Roderick? How’s Mavis doing? How’s Duncan doing? Before they were in school, my kids came to the set. When they started to say, “Mom, I don’t want to go,” I put them first. If I had 12 hours free, I flew home, went to clap for them in whatever they were doing, and flew back to the set. They were my priority.
Your marriage is one of the longest lasting in Hollywood. Any secret?
First of all, you’ve got to marry the right person! I think you know in your heart. It’s having the same sense of humor and putting the relationship before anything.
Is there something left in your career that you’d like to accomplish?
I just want to keep doing things that I didn’t know I could do, that will allow me to discover and learn something. I prayed about wanting to do something that challenges me — well, you’ve got to be careful what you pray for! [Laughs] I’m in Vancouver doing See [a sci-fi drama series] for Apple that’s like an expedition with acting. We’re shooting in the wilderness, and every scene is outdoors.
How about in your personal life?
I want to keep having fun, and a lot of holiday time with my kids and my husband. We have so much fun together — laughing, cooking, seeing things and going, “Come here, guys, look at this!” Whatever comes up in their lives I just want to keep enjoying it. Mavis is 27 and Duncan is 25, so I might have to share them with somebody else someday, but it won’t be taking anything away. It will be adding more people into the circle. I just like making memories.
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