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"It’s so weird that nobody ever rats me out about how wacky my life can be"—Alfre Woodard
Dia Dipasupil—Getty Images

Alfre Woodard, one of Hollywood’s most versatile stars, tells TIME about her new movie and finding opportunity when doors were closed.

In your new movie Clemency, you play a prison warden in a facility with death-row inmates. What did you do to prepare?

My filmmaker, Chinonye Chukwu, took me on a tour of prisons in Ohio, and I met with three female wardens and a deputy warden.

Was there something they had in common?

They all came to their positions from the mental-health professions, or social services, or public health. They were all women trained to deal with human beings in extremis. And they were solid. They would all be women I’d be at a book club with or go to church with. They were people who are trained in not being demonstrative emotionally. But as we see with [my character] Bernadine, overseeing an execution, especially multiple ones, weighs on the person, because they’re putting to death a person they know. It takes 10 to 20 years to exhaust all appeals. So it’s like turning to the person who has been in your cubicle for a decade and saying, “O.K., Bob, we’ve got to put you down today.” That takes a toll. Especially because you said, “I will see you through this with dignity.” They never put anyone to death who didn’t thank them.

Do you have opinions about the death penalty?

I do, but they’re beside the point. I do my activism that I have since I was 14–that’s my life. I see myself in our tradition as a griot. The griots were the ones that told the tribe the story. They hold up the mirror. The tribe sees itself, and reflects. I knew nothing about being a warden. Didn’t even know women wardens existed. Who could they be? Did they step on bird eggs when they were little girls? I’ve got to find that character, discover that human being’s point of view. I really respect those women.

This is also a very interesting portrait of a couple. You’ve had a 36-year marriage [to screenwriter Roderick Spencer]. Did you bring any of that to this performance?

I don’t use my personal life ever, even if it’s like thinking about putting your dog down to make you weepy. Or remembering that time my pants fell down when I was trying to cross Wilshire Boulevard and I got hysterical laughing.

These are hypothetical examples?

It’s so weird that nobody ever rats me out about how wacky my life can be.

You have played something like 120 different roles in horror, comedy, melodrama, action.

Gangster! I was a gangster. And the President! Not at the same time. I could do that now.

Why do you feel like you’ve been able to avoid being typecast?

If I had the access that some of my Caucasian colleagues had, what I’ve done might lay out on a spreadsheet differently. But because those doors didn’t open, it gave me the opportunity to seek other ways of entering. When something was a dry riverbed, I found water in other places.

Of all those roles, what do people in airports recognize you for the most?

That’s what’s so wonderful. It could be anywhere on the timeline. Every five or six years, I try to do something that I know would appeal to people between the ages of 12 and 18, because you have to introduce yourself to each generation. That gives you longevity. Businessmen will start to talk to me and I’m thinking, “O.K., it’s going to be Star Trek,” but they’ll say, “I know this is weird, but could you sing the ‘Hug-a-Bug Bear’ song [from the 1993 romance film Heart and Souls] for me?” I’m not going to sing that! The theme of it, though, is that everyone will get a little misty telling me their story and why it means so much to them. I am never alone.

This appears in the January 20, 2020 issue of TIME.

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