Alfre Woodard, heaven knows, is a serious actress. Check out her Oscar and Emmy nominations, racked up for soul-bearing parts that deliver strong social messages. HBO is currently airing a two-hour movie in which Woodard stars as South African political activist Winnie Mandela. But, hey, this is Hollywood. Right now Woodard is on the back patio of her skylighted, two-story stucco house in Santa Monica, leaping about on a trampoline. She is also giggling. Her husband, stand-up comic Roderick Spencer, has just come home. And Spencer, a strapping, blond six-footer, can crack up his wife with a mere glance. “I’m so flaky sometimes,” Alfre admits.
Let her enjoy. Woodard, 34, is on a roll. At last Sunday’s Emmys she was up for two awards, one for her guest spot as a rape victim with leukemia on an episode of L.A. Law, the other a leading-actress nomination in the controversial Unnatural Causes, in which she played Maude DeVictor, a Vietnam-vets counselor who challenged the Veterans Administration by publicizing the hazards of Agent Orange. But don’t think Woodard is blasé about the attention. “Have you ever been to a horse race?” she asks, her expressive eyes opened wide. “I don’t care how many times that horse comes in, every time it’s just like ‘Wow!’ ”
It’s hardly the first time Woodard has been in the Emmy starting gate. The first nomination (and win) was in 1984 for a one-shot on Hill Street Blues; the second nomination came a year later for her semi-regular role as Dr. Roxanne Turner on St. Elsewhere. She’s also been up for an Oscar, as a backwoods servant in 1983’s Cross Creek.
Woodard is happy with the applause but not surprised. “When I came to L.A. people told me there were no film roles for black actors,” she says, sinking into her living room sofa. “I’m not a fool. I know that. But I was always confident that I knew my craft.”
Woodard researches each of her roles exhaustively. She spent several weeks watching news clips and listening to tapes of Winnie to match her accent. Alfre still wasn’t satisfied. Winnie and her husband, Nelson Mandela, played by Danny Glover in the film, meant too much to her. “People like Winnie don’t come along enough for the world in general,” says Alfre. “We should have them growing in our gardens.” At first the responsibility of playing the role overwhelmed Woodard, who thought, “I don’t have the feet to go in those shoes.” But on location in Zimbabwe she soon set to work on specifics. “I knew Winnie as a mother of the nation,” she says. “But I didn’t know how to lift her off the page, how she would smell or move.”
She met with an old friend of Winnie’s, Adelaide Tambo, whose husband, Oliver, was Nelson Mandela’s law partner and is head of the African National Congress. “We spent a day talking,” says Alfre. “It was good to be with a South African woman. She gave me pure spirit.” Also a heightened awareness. “Winnie [who’s been under various banning orders, including house arrest, for over 20 years] is in dire straits,” she says. “Playing her had to do with trying to put my social and political commitments into action.”
Woodard grew up in a black community in Tulsa, Okla., the youngest of three children—brother Cornell, 38, is a school counselor and coach; sister Marionette, 40, a curriculum counselor. The daughter of a successful oil driller who doubled as an interior decorator, Alfre remembers her childhood as materially “comfortable” but also “luxurious in friends, family and love. I was raised with the idea that anything was possible for me.”
At 16, she was cast in a play at Bishop Kelley High School. Later she studied drama for four years at Boston University, graduating in 1974 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in acting. Shortly after, she headed for L.A. and, in 1976, landed a role in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf. She stayed with the play off and on for about three years—in L.A., on tour, in Australia and on tape for PBS. In 1979 director Robert Altman cast her in a rare comedic role in Health, which led to more movies and a TV career.
Six years ago an acting teacher introduced her to Roderick Spencer. They married two years later, on a polo field in L.A.’s Will Rogers State Park, with about 250 friends cheering. Though Spencer has acted several times on St. Elsewhere, his stand-up career at such L.A. clubs as the Comedy Store and the Improv has brought him headliner status. Talking of her husband, tears well up in Alfre’s brown eyes. “I married him for love,” she says. “Roderick is my best friend.”
Alfre and Roderick, sharing an enthusiasm for natural fruit juices, seaweed crackers and a free-range flower garden, are determined to “spiritualize” their lives even in mad, glitzy Hollywood. “Real life to me is a simple life,” says Alfre. This from a woman whose next role, in NBC’s The Fierce Dreams of Jackie Watson, is that of a hard-nosed ad executive. To her friend John Ritter, also her co-star in Unnatural Causes, such contradictions help explain her magic. “I’ve worked with great actresses before,” says Ritter, “but Alfre has been kissed by the angels.”