Sunday, March 25, 2007

Chicago Sun Times

Family Matters

Angela Bassett's innate charm and sweetness spills over into 'Robinsons' role

Angela Bassett doesn't walk into a room. She makes an entrance. Evoking all the starlet glamor of Hollywood's Golden Age, Bassett looks like a movie star: beautifully coiffed hair, impeccable makeup, a breezy black-and-white print dress hidden beneath a fingertip-length fur coat. The sparkle in her deep brown eyes is matched by the glare from her bazillion-carat diamond engagement ring. Her smile could melt a glacier.

Bassett settles in for a chat in a sun-kissed room at the Ritz-Carlton, a sumptuous setting for the velvety-voiced 48-year-old actress who, sorry ladies, doesn't look a day over 35.

She's in town promoting her latest film, the Disney animated feature "Meet the Robinsons." The movie (screening in 3D at select theaters) tells the story of 12-year-old Lewis, a sweet and precocious little boy who is raised in an orphanage from birth. Lewis is also a genius, taking college courses and inventing all sorts of gadgets that usually end up exploding. Undaunted, he continues sketching his dream machines until, one day, he invents a "memory scanner" -- a time-replay gizmo he hopes will return him to the rainy night when his mother left him on the doorstep of the orphanage -- run by the kindly Mildred (voiced by Bassett) -- and therefore allow him to re-create the family he has never known.

Bassett beams when she recalls the first time she saw her animated counterpart on the big screen.

"Oh, I thought she was just so sweet and warm, very matronly," Bassett says. "She dressed kind of nice. I loved [her] cute little sweater ensemble."

Animation voiceovers can be a lucrative though somewhat lonely project for actors. In most instances, the actor is alone in a recording booth armed with only those pages of the script that pertain to their character. The lines are out of context, and the actor has no idea who they're speaking to or who is responding to them, except for the film's director, in this case Stephen J. Anderson.

"At first, it really is sort of like being in a vacuum," Bassett says. "You don't know if you're getting it right. So I'd just look at the director and say, 'Was that right? Did you get what you wanted?' With Stephen there, it made my job so much easier. And it was great that halfway through the process I got to meet with the animators. It gave me an opportunity to see what they were doing, and it gave them an opportunity to see me, to see how I moved, my expressions. As much as I was working in an isolated [recording booth] setup, the animators were also isolated in that they had no real idea what I looked like and sounded like. Looking back, I wasn't so much playing off another actor, but rather the animators. And vice versa. That was a unique experience."

What was most special, Bassett says, was the revelation that Anderson was closer to the material than she or anyone knew at first.

"What was really touching and helped me a lot was discovering that [Stephen] was himself adopted at a very young age," she says. "I could only imagine how special a project this film must have been for him. He could tell that story because of his own life experience. He was Lewis. He had been living with those characters in his mind all these years, so he knew exactly where he wanted each of us to go with [our characters]."

Born in New York City, Bassett and her sister, D'nette, were raised by their divorced mother, Betty, who instilled in her daughters the strength and determination to succeed, much like the way Mildred (and various other adult characters in "Robinsons") encourages Lewis to "keep moving forward."

"I was a latchkey kid," Bassett explains. "Our mom was working all the time. So we had a lot of responsibility thrust upon us at an early age to do the right thing. She laid down the law, put the rules down and you followed them. [Laughs] You know, let that foot hit the front porch when the streetlights come on. She constantly told us to listen to our teachers and learn. She held me and my sister to a high standard and, yes, sometimes it seemed so unfair, especially when we saw other kids in the neighborhood getting away with a lot of stuff, and maybe not trying so hard in school. But she was so loving, even in all of that.

"She wanted us to achieve more than she had achieved in life. Having graduated only from high school and not really being pushed academically, college wasn't an option for her. She headed straight to New York to join the work force. So it was really important to her that we got a college education."

Bassett attended Yale, where she received her degree in African-American Studies, then a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama.

Her acting career began in earnest in 1985, when she starred in the film "Doubletake," followed a year later by the television series "F/X." Moviegoers first saw her in her Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning performance as Tina Turner in the 1993 film "What's Love Got to Do With It." She also starred as Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of the slain Civil Rights leader in "Malcolm X" (1992), as a hugely successful stockbroker who finds romance under the Jamaican sun in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (1998) and as a detached mother in last year's "Akeelah and the Bee." Her recent small-screen work includes CIA director Hayden Chase in the now defunct "Alias," and her Emmy-nominated role as Rosa Parks in the made-for-TV film "The Rosa Parks Story."

Yale was not only an educational journey, it also was the place where she met the love of her life, fellow student Courtney B. Vance ("Law and Order: Criminal Intent"), also a graduate of the university's prestigious drama school. Their long, intense courtship resulted in a 1997 marriage. The couple recently wrote a book, Friends: A Love Story ( (Harlequin), he-said/she said autobiographies detailing their their life journeys. Last year they became the parents of twins by a surrogate. Daughter Bronwyn Golden and son Slater Josiah have taught Bassett to look at life in a whole new way.

"I'm sure I'll do and say a lot of the things my mother did," Bassett says, laughing, "no matter how much I always said I never would. Of course, I want to instill in them the work ethic, the love of books and school, but I also have the opportunity to expose them to so much more than I was. I look at them and I just see the little kid in me, in everyone. I think any time you look at a child it makes you see the child in all of us."

Even at the tender age of 1, Bassett's children have taught her one very important thing about herself.

"I have a little patience, [laughs] and I have a lot of patience," she says. "Lord knows I have a whole lotta patience these days."

'I'd want to know who my biological mother was'

The subjects of adoption and searching for one's birth mother may not be the expected stuff of animated features, but director Stephen J. Anderson has turned the topic into a sweet, funny and emotional children's film that reaches out to all kids -- and to all parents, biological or otherwise.

I posed the question to actress Angela Bassett, voice star of the film: If you had been adopted as a child, would you seek out your birth mother?

"Wow, that's a tough question," Bassett said. "Interestingly, my sister adopted a boy and a girl. My nephew never had an interest in seeking out his birth mother. But my niece went looking for her with great determination. She bought books on how to do it, she used the Internet, of course, and she did ultimately find her.

"And it really turned out so beautifully. We spent Thanksgiving with her birth mother and maternal great-grandmother. [Pauses] Just the whole idea of family -- that we're all a family -- is so beautiful and so powerful. My sister is totally OK with all of it.

"Would I? Hmmm. I think I'd be very curious because I'm a curious type of individual. So, yes, I guess I would want to know who my biological mother was. But, you know, I wonder how great that curiosity would be if my adoptive parents were so phenomenal and I was completely satisfied and knew that my birth mother only wanted what was best for me. That she gave me up out of a profound love for me."

In the movie, Lewis (voiced by Daniel Hansen and Jordan Fry) comes to realize just that: His mother didn't give him up because she didn't love him; she gave him up because she did.

"It's a film that goes so deep and yet speaks to children so beautifully," Bassett said. "I hope children will walk away from it believing in themselves, no matter how many obstacles life throws their way. And believing that we are all family, all one humanity. "

1 comment:

SimSim said...

WOW! What a great read. We find something new about Ang everyday! I wonder which sister Angela is talking about though. According to her she has about 4.


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