Angela Bassett did the thing
Angela Bassett is doing the thing. It’s a weekday afternoon, and the 64-year-old Oscar nominee is squeezing in a final Zoom interview as the months-long marathon that is the Hollywood awards season approaches the finish line. She’s wearing a black gym tank that highlights those famous arms, and her hair is hanging long underneath a headband, framing her fine-art cheekbones.
“I’m just here in my workout clothes,” she says dismissively at one point. As if the everyday-ness of how she’s dressed could in any way diminish how she shows up.
This must be “the thing” Ariana DeBose was rapping about. Of all the cringey lines in an opening ditty shouting out female nominees at the BAFTAs last month (“Blanchett, Cate, you’re a genius, and Jamie Lee, you are all of us!”), none was more random than DeBose’s declaration that “Angela Bassett did the thing” (to rhyme with “Viola Davis, my woman king!”). And yet ... we all kind of felt what DeBose meant. You know, the thing?
But, fine, if it must be defined, then the word is obviously regal. Like Queen Ramonda in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the role that earned Bassett her second Oscar nomination 29 years after her first, the actress possesses an unassailable majesty that commands attention whether she’s on a throne or headed to her home gym.
In “Black Panther,” that was the point. But what about the rest of what Bassett called her “pretty consistent decade-after-decade-after-decade career”? Because the thing is seeped into so many of her roles. It was there when she was schooling her son’s father in “Boyz n the Hood”: “You may be cute, but you’re not special.” It was there in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” when Tina Turner claims her name. In “Waiting to Exhale,” Bassett didn’t even have to say a word. She lit a cigarette and sashayed away from the bonfire of her marriage in a lacy black nightgown.
Bassett and the word are so inseparable that one wonders whether she gets tired of hearing that particular compliment. Does it diminish the actual acting involved if everyone just assumes that the thing will show up?
“I could never get tired of that,” Bassett said. “I appreciate the positive connotation that comes along with that word.”
But there’s a negative side, too. Or, at the very least, a downside. Regal, queenly and majestic can sometimes register as standoffish or — gasp — going all Hollywood.
“I’ve noticed throughout my career that sometimes people think I might be a little, you know, austere or pulled back or even unapproachable,” said Bassett, raising her eyebrows dramatically, before adding: “But that depends on the person who’s approaching.”
Really, what it is, according to Bassett, is self-preservation. So trying to get your arms around that special something that makes the Oscar nominee so undeniable is especially difficult, because she’s also trying to keep it for herself.
“When you’re in the public space and people appreciate what you do, they want pieces of you, so it really is a matter of protecting your instrument, your heart, your mental state, so that you have more of that good good to give,” Bassett explained.
When people are pulling and pulling and asking and wanting, and you can’t give it all away.
“I think as I hold myself in protection, maybe it comes across as ... you know,” she said without saying words such as aloof or haughty. “It’s centering. It’s an attempt to remain poised in the midst of a whirlwind. It’s being grateful, thankful. And I think all that comes across as being regal.”
To further explain the unexplainable, she offers the example of the red carpet, of which there have been many this season. During a three-day stint in February, Bassett attended the NAACP Image Awards, where she won entertainer of the year (and nodded to DeBose in her acceptance speech: “I guess Angela Bassett did the thing!”), the SAG Awards and the Costume Designers Guild Awards. Red carpets are mayhem in the moment. Fans, journalists, publicists and paparazzi are all screaming your name at the top of their lungs, clamoring for your attention.
“It’s so much,” she said. So, many years ago, she decided to approach red carpets differently.
Instead of giving in to the chaos, she just stood there quietly, waiting for the energy to come down to her level for the split second it could. “I’ll take the picture, and then when I’m finished, I’ll say thank you. It’s just my little way of recognizing each other’s humanity here, you know? We’re all here for this particular reason. We can all get what we want without yelling at each other and being disrespectful or ugly,” she said, offering up a free queen lesson.
Some folks have caught on. The photographers who get the really good shots of Bassett (are there bad ones?) break through the noise by very quietly saying, “Ms. Bassett,” as she walks by. “And I turn right to them. The respect they give me? I give it back to them,” she said.
“It’s just how you hold yourself. I try to carry myself with poise and appreciation. We all have a job to do. We all have a gift, talent and ability. We all have a purpose. And none is more important than the other.”
Much has been made about the passage of time between Bassett’s first Oscar nomination, in 1994 for “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” and her second, for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” Nearly three decades, almost her entire career in Hollywood, have gone by. When she first arrived in Los Angeles in 1988, five years out of Yale’s School of Drama, the Florida native would head to her local Kinko’s and make homemade postcards for her mother, Betty, and the rest of the folks praying for her success.
“Watch me on Thursday at 8,” the young actress would write on cardstock she cut into fours herself.
Just a few years later, she was attending the Oscar nominee luncheon and ran into Steven Spielberg, whose “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” were contenders that same year.
“He said, ‘Where have you been?’” Bassett recalled. “I was like: ‘Right here. Right here in L.A., working.’ I guess I hadn’t sent him one of those cards, you know.”
“I still remember that. I’ve always been here, just steadily trying to apply myself, whether it was a big project, small project, supporting project, girlfriend of, wife of, whatever, making the most out of it.”
Making the most out of it. Maybe that’s the thing we all recognize in Bassett, the woman who seems to make more of the lines, the looks and the in-betweens than everyone else. Her husband of 25 years, Tony winner Courtney B. Vance, always knew that this seemingly invisible extra work of hers would be recognized someday. For years he’s been telling his wife that the world is waiting on her Oscar. “Years have gone on and turned into decades,” Bassett joked.
“You don’t always see what others see,” Bassett continued. She referred back to the question from the start of this interview about her regal quality, once again looking genuinely shocked by the suggestion. “We don’t always see what others see in us. But seeing yourself reflected in their eyes, sometimes that’s enough to give us strength to go another mile,” she said.
And Oscar night will be Mile 26. Bassett’s plan now is to remain calm and keep working. She’s got 5 a.m. call times for “9-1-1,” the Fox drama, now in its sixth season, that she stars in and executive-produces. Her baby sister, D’nette, is flying in. Work and family. “That’s going to keep me grounded,” she said, although she’s still leaving room to be swept up in it all.
“When you sit there and there’s a possibility that your name will be called, there’s just a surge of energy that goes through you. It’s in the pit of your stomach, through your arms, your scalp,” Bassett said. “And no matter how calm you try to remain — unless you just don’t care, and I care — it’s something that will just take you away.”