Beyoncé isn’t the only fierce queen in The Lion King.
Hollywood royalty Alfre Woodard, 66, voices lioness Sarabi, mother of Simba and queen of the Pride Lands, in Disney’s new CGI remake, which recently clawed past $1 billion at the global box office.
NewNowNext spoke to the Oscar nominee and four-time Emmy winner, whose upcoming film Clemency won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, about her lionhearted spirit and loyal pride of queer fans.
People often question the need for remakes. Why revisit The Lion King?
It’s like asking, “Why are we doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream again? Why revisit Hamlet?” The Lion King is a classic. It’s about family, community, self-expression, and it shows how animals can inspire us toward our own humanity. There’s always time to tell those stories.
What’s your take on Sarabi, the lioness queen?
The lioness is the strongest member of the pride, physically and in terms of perseverance and perception. The king came from a queen, was suckled by a queen, so the queen’s job is never done. Our director, Jon Favreau, highlights that while the king has to present himself a certain way in the savanna, it’s the lionesses really holding down the fort.
Well, I love remakes—especially your all-black 2012 Steel Magnolias remake for Lifetime. While playing Ouiser, were you aware of how protective gay men were of the original?
I wasn’t aware of that. But you know what? You can remember your first kiss or your first bonking, but if that’s what you’re looking for every time, you’ll never be present enough to discover something you may enjoy even more. So, yeah, I hope you’re a fan of the original and, in an entirely different way, the one we did with all the chocolate sisters.
Are you aware of your gay following?
I’ve had a gay following since high school. [Laughs] Yeah, I feel that love. My aim is to always be authentic, to tell stories with my feet bare and firmly on the ground, and I think my realness resonates with gay people.
What’s that fan interaction like?
I get a lot of sincere hugs and kisses from gay strangers, and I have lots of lesbian supporters who give me great energy. People throw my lines back at me in the airport, which I love, but it’s usually someone coming up to tell me I’ve done something that touched them, something they needed in their life at a certain time. I know I’ve resonated with that gay boy or girl, alone in some small town, and kept them company. But I wouldn’t call myself a gay icon or anything. I think my gay following is a more of a personal, individual thing, as opposed to that collective thing where everyone hoots and hollers together.
It may be more collective than you think. I attended weekly screenings of Desperate Housewives at a gay bar, for example, and we hollered for Betty Applewhite.
Oh, really? That’s fabulous. I sort of passed through the Housewives world quickly, so I didn’t realize that. I only dabble in social media, so I never really check the zeitgeist.
I have a special place in my heart for your character Wanda Dean, a drug-addicted single mother befriended by a drag queen, in the 2000 Showtime movie Holiday Heart.
I love me some Wanda Dean! I’m glad you like that one. I get a lot of feedback on that movie from people who do drag, but I wish they’d impersonate me more.
Ving Rhames as the titular drag queen is something to see.
Right? How wonderful to have Ving, who is not delicate, be dragged up into a beautiful parfait, but also to have a drag queen become the lioness of that little pride? Wanda Dean made some bad choices, and she wanted to resist the package, this man in feathers, that help came in. But when we need help, we reach for it. People have their attitudes about race, religion, gender, and sexuality, but we all live together on the ground. Are you going to quibble over who it is cutting you open and stitching you up when you need a new heart? Go ahead and be that way, but the rest of us are moving forward with our new hearts.
You played Ruby Jean Reynolds, Lafayette’s bigoted mother, on True Blood, which also addressed homophobia within the black community.
It’s important to keep showing that ignorance, that bigotry, not as a concept but in everyday stories. The idiot squatting in the White House might put out some edict about not wanting transgender people protecting our freedom, but our storytelling needs to call out the bigotry happening in our households, our offices, our schools, and the horrible things being said to little ones before they can even defend themselves. But people remember and respond to what moves them. It’s not a lecture that changes peoples’ hearts and minds.
In the recent Netflix film Juanita, your traveling character, Juanita, bonds with a lesbian truck driver named Peaches. Did you want that relationship to reflect common ground between the black and queer communities?
Yes, of course, but you don’t want to ignore our differences either. Someone like Juanita isn’t around someone like Peaches every day, so she may be uncomfortable when she first realizes Peaches likes women. It’s not truthful to pretend we’re all beyond that. We have to present these situations as they might happen in real life.
Have you ever played a queer character?
Have I? I’m trying to remember. I don’t think so, no, at least not an obvious one. I have played roles where sexual orientation wasn’t stated either way, because that wasn’t the focus.
So, say, Lily Sloane in Star Trek: First Contact may have a whole lesbian backstory.
Right. And sometimes you’ll be playing a character, and then a writer or producer—maybe to jump on a bandwagon, maybe they were told they needed more LGBTQ representation—will suddenly say, “Oh, by the way, your character is now transgender.” It’s like, “What?! I should’ve known that! I would’ve played things differently!”
As an activist, you’ve supported marriage equality and challenged anti-LGBTQ legislation in the U.S. and Africa. Do actors have a responsibility to fight injustice and raise public awareness of social issues?
What other actors do is not my business. But if you’re an artist, especially a storyteller, you’re in the people business. We’re keeping the lore of humanity alive, like the first griots who sat around a fire, holding up a mirror to society. So how can I study people, step into their point of view, speak their voices, and not care about them and how they’re being treated? If you’re a good actor, how you can not stand for the same people you inhale and exhale every day?
Some argue that actors should stick to acting.
We weren’t born on a red carpet. We all come from communities, from people who have educated us. When somebody says actors need to shut up, are we suddenly supposed to act like we don’t know shit? Hell no.
You stumped for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Have you gotten any backlash from conservative fans?
I don’t know. [Laughs] I don’t look back to see how somebody felt about me speaking my truth. That’s not my job. I’m not sticking my fingers in the breeze to gauge my effect. I’m not being mean, I’m not destroying lives, I’m just saying what I feel is right for the common good.
When can we expect your 2020 endorsement?
You can get my endorsement right now: Kamala Harris. I clocked her years ago. I’ve stood for that sister since she was running for attorney general in California. She’s smart, clear-thinking, courageous. Thinking outside the box? She doesn’t even see the box. She’s made the journey through a very macho world to get where she is, so she can go up against whatever the odds may be. I’d love to see a Harris/Warren double-mommy ticket. It’s besides the point that they’re women, but it’s also way overdue that they are women. It’s a win-win.
You played the president on NBC’s State of Affairs, which makes you more qualified than Trump.
Everybody I passed today on the freeway is more qualified than that guy.
The Lion King is now in theaters.