Question time: Angela Bassett on why she is drawn to playing strong women

Actor Angela Bassett on why she is drawn to playing strong women - from Tina Turner to the mother of Biggie Smalls

You play Voletta Wallace - rapper Biggie Smalls's mother - in the film Notorious. Was she very hands-on as co-producer?

Yes, but in a very laidback way. I had a lot of dialogue with her before filming. She was vocal about the script and making sure that certain things were said that she actually said, but she knew it was only a two-hour movie about a whole life, and how impossible that is, that some things are changed for dramatic reasons.

Is is true she specifically wanted you to play her in the film?

That's what she says, yes. I met her when she was in LA visiting her grandson, Christopher Jr [Biggie Smalls's son]. I went for dinner at Faith's house [R&B singer Faith Evans was Smalls's wife], and she said I was her first choice.

Christopher Junior plays a young Biggie. How was that on set?

It was very sweet. It was his first experience acting, and in some way he is developing more of a relationship with his father through portraying him at a young age. It was very dear to watch. He was extremely focused and charming, and ready to work. I've worked with kids before and they're bouncing off the ceiling, eating all the candy and the soda, but he is a serious little lad, and very sweet, focused, gentle.

Did you have any misgivings about the film?

No, not at all. The whole east coast/west coast hip-hop rivalry seems like it's in the past. We see what the carnage of it is, the sadness. We see what we're left without - two geniuses [Smalls and murdered rival Tupac Shakur]. We're just making a movie and I don't think it would stir up anything. It's the movie of the life of a very inspiring person, someone who made mistakes, who in the end returned to the lessons that his mother taught him. [He] had wonderful gifts; his poetry, his voice. And at the young age of 24, he had an enormous impact on a generation.

Do you worry about glorifying the worst elements of rap culture?

I think it's balanced. Glorifying? No, I don't think you come away thinking, "Oh, it's beautiful I want to do all of that." Not in my eyes. Especially if you watch it to the end. At the end of the film he's in the grave, in a coffin, so you see where that glory gets you.

I found the roles of the other women in the film, Lil' Kim and Faith Evans, troubling


They don't get treated very well.

Yes, that's the culture. That's who he was. They were doing a lot of drugs, you're not really in your right mind.

You've got a reputation for playing strong women. You played Tina Turner, [Malcolm X's wife] Betty Shabazz and Rosa Parks. Is there some sort of secret formula that a part has to have before you pick it?

No, I wish there was. It's how I'm made up. It seems like those strong, resilient, vulnerable women hold my interest.

I read an interview with Laurence Fishburne where he said you were very "particular" about your roles. You turned down Monster's Ball, for example.

I don't have anyone who's gone before me saying, "Angela, hey, let me guide you in this career." This is a career about images. It's celluloid; they last for ever. I'm a black woman from America. My people were slaves in America, and even though we're free on paper and in law, I'm not going to allow you to enslave me on film, in celluloid, for all to see. And to cross the water, to countries where people will never meet people who look like me. So it becomes a bigger thing than me just becoming a movie star, and me just being on TV. So if you're going to show every black woman as 400lb or every black woman as the prostitute on the street ... But I have always maintained that [the roles] I cannot do because of the way I'm made up, or because of the way I think, I don't begrudge that there is someone else who has no issues with that.

• Notorious opens in cinemas tomorrow.


Interview by Hannah Pool

The GuardianTramp

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