Actress Nicole Beharie, 26, is a fan of Sci-Fi, especially Octavia Butler novels; which she wishes would be adapted to the screen. Beharie is “like in love” with Whoopi Goldberg, and she’s also fervent in professing the respect and admiration for the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in the controversial film The Help, in theaters now. Would she like to eventually follow the footsteps of Viola Davis and produce her own films? The answer of this wise beyond-her-years talented actor was the most certain and resounding one of this nonetheless candid phone interview, which lasted over an hour, “DEFINITELY, definitely.”
As soon as Nicole sent me a text message, saying that she would be calling me in five minutes, right after getting her tea and reserving a spot at a busy café, I realized this was a surreal moment for me. I have been following her career upon seeing her magnificent performance in 2008’s American Violet. Besides her striking looks, the graceful and delicate Juilliard graduate, portrayed an ordinary woman with an unprecedented fortitude, maturity and intelligence not commonly seen on the screen. I knew at that moment she was an important talent to watch.
She then continued to carve her own path, selecting projects that spoke to her artistry and showed her dynamic acting range: an angry and resentful daughter with a nervous condition in Lifetime’s Sins of the Mother, a down and out singer who falls in love in My Last Day Without You, the love interest of an afflicted sex-addict in Steve McQueen'sShame (opposite Michael Fassbender), a bipolar and secluded woman involved in an online affair in Small of Her Back, a slave country wife anxious to explore the world in Broadway’s A Free Man of Color, the high school sweetheart of an ex-football player in Matthew Cherry’s The Last Fall and a member of a community searching for a couple’s missing daughter in T.D. Jakes' On the Seventh Day. She will also be seen this fall, in a guest spot playing an attorney for CBS’ critically acclaimed hit show The Good Wife, which premieres this September 25th at 10pm et.
VM: Steve McQueen’s Shame is a highly anticipated film screening at Venice Film Fest this month and at Toronto next month; how did you get involved with the project? Did you audition?
NB: I was doing A Free Man of Color at the time, and it was a crazy work schedule with all the shows. I didn’t have time to go to the audition. He [McQueen] was looking for people, and he’s like really hands on. He contacted my agent to arrange the audition, they were like, “why is she standing you up?” But I wasn’t; I meant to go in but our schedules kept changing. It’s kind of strange; I think it peaked his interest by me being unavailable [laughs]. I ended up meeting with Steve to talk about the character. I think he was a little upset; in a way reprimanded me for having missed my audition [chuckles].
Then I put myself on tape and that was the end of it, not that I thought I had the part by no means, but after meeting with Steve, I knew this project was going to be special, as far as what he had in mind and his style of work, which he’s willing to play with and change to allow the actors to define their roles was something I needed to experience. Whatever people read on the script is not necessarily what the film is going to be. For example, there’s a scene that’s almost eight pages of dialogue that we ended up improvising, so I’m very interested in seeing the film myself.
VM: How was working with Steve McQueen?
NB: It was amazing. He allowed me to relax and not be so self-aware; not worry about how I’m looking. He was like “do you.” He thinks along the grain of how I like to think. He was great to work for and him being a visual artist, especially a black artist, and us sharing some in depth conversations about that; I’m forever indebted to him.
VM: How was working with Michael Fassbender?
NB: He’s a riot. Very intelligent, fearless, playful. We were shooting a scene back in February or March; it was freezing raining, we were walking down East Village over and over again, and it was so much fun to enjoy the person you’re working with. He made some of the uncomfortable scenes easier. I’m just glad I worked with the guy. He’s blowing up and for a good reason!
VM: Obviously, Shame is a sexually charged drama overall. Did you have any doubts going in?
NB: If you’ve watched Hunger [Steve McQueen’s directing debut], there’s a lot of nudity in that, and it’s for a reason. This film is about something taboo [sex addiction]. I have gotten reactions from my family and other people who have an idea of who I am as an artist, and they’re like “I can’t believe you’re doing something like that,” and I’m like “well, you see music videos and you get more than enough,” and here you have a story about something that’s really talking about where addiction lives and things that go on everyday right underneath our noses and there’s a big problem with that. For everyone involved in the film, it was pretty much about everything else going on besides that.
VM: What can you say about your character Beth Hutchins in T.D. Jakes’ On the Seventh Day?
NB: My character is a professional woman and she’s part of the support system in the community, who helps a couple find their missing daughter. It’s an uplifting story, but it also forces you to look at secrets. I can’t give too much away, but there’s a lot of twists and turns in the story.
VM: How hard is it to find work? Are you getting offers?
NB: I’m auditioning. You may audition for something a month ago, you don’t hear anything and then they call you. I have been getting a few offers here and there. The problem with that is, if you have an idea of the character that is different from whatever they thought you were like. I show up sometimes, and they expect me to be the girl from American Violet in real life [laughs]. I show up and I’m 5’1" and kind of shy.
VM: What can you say about S&A’s topic about the “Burden of Representation” for black actors?
NB: I think there are all kinds of representation. As artists, you can’t box yourself in. Like Christian Bale gets to do the coolest things; I think the other side of that, is to limit ourselves because we have this ‘compensating middle class thing,’ and we have to be like, perfect. There are expectations in how you play your character as a black woman, to be sassy and the same kind of feel, as if there are no quirky black women. I struggle with those things constantly, trying to add dimension to my work and that’s the goal too.
There’s so many things that I’ve read that I’m just like “naahh.” I have certain socio-political ideals that won’t allow me to do certain things [chuckles]. I’m going to have to watch my sun and my mercurial spirit. But yah, I don’t want my mother or grandmother to be embarrassed by anything that I do.
VM: What can you say about The Help film?
NB: People criticize Viola Davis because she was in it, but, she was amazing. The actress is amazing. I have a lot of respect for her and Octavia Spencer; she was wonderful. There were moments where I was moved. I enjoyed certain parts and that’s all I’ll say about that. Everything about us black people is complicated, us being here, being a minority, being a woman, all those things are complicated.
VM: Any other projects on the horizon??
NB: I usually don’t say anything until the contract is signed; I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’m trying to make moves and keep things going.
VM: Would you get involved in a film set in a historical period during slavery?
NB: yeah, I’m not averse to that. It’s part of my history. You have to be sensitive with they way it’s done. I feel like we’ve done a lot of the same things and there’s other ground to cover. So yeah, if the script is good, I’m not like “no slavery ever!”
VM: How do you feel about becoming a so-called “celebrity” or “it girl”? Are you scared/interested in getting exposure in that regard?
NB: Ultimately, anyone that is doing something they enjoy, wants to have more opportunities. I think everything is always changing and fluctuating when it comes to the concept of “it” girl. I don’t see that for myself. I think you have to go to parties and do all that kind of stuff. I love what I do, and I’m constantly negotiating what it means to do this, and working with different people, and it’s been my dream for a minute. I plan on being here for a while, not necessarily to be a superstar.
I’ve been fortunate to work with Alfre Woodard and Jeffrey Wright; people who are artists, have careers, longevity and full lives. That looks good to me. I’m figuring out how to do this still. There are people I watch like Penelope Cruz; you look at her early work and look at her now. I want to grow man! That’s the goal. I want to get there, learning new things. But, you know, whatever God has for me in his plan, and God willing, I’ll be working [laughs].
Watch this 2009 American Violet Interview with Beharie. If you haven't seen the film; you are highly encouraged to do so. :-)