Celebrity Profiles: Fools Gold

fools-gold.jpgFOOL’s GOLD in Theaters on Feb. 8th

Sandra Varner’s Celebrity Profiles

Kate Hudson (Skeleton Key, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) and Matthew McConaughey (Amistad, A Time to Kill, We Are Marshall) re-team in the romantic comedy, FOOL’S GOLD, opening in theaters on Feb. 8th.

In this film, the two (Hudson as “Tess” Finnegan,” McConaughey as Ben “Finn” Finnegan) are a divorcing couple whose egos clash albeit they make a concerted effort to dig up buried treasure on the ocean’s floor.

Filmed in Australia, the story centers on the legendary 18th century Queen’s Dowry, chests packed with exotic treasure that was lost at sea in 1715. The wildly hunt sends the squabbling couple –along with several bumbling cohorts– on a water-adventure fiasco, finally getting the gold.

Directed by Andy Tennant (Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama) the cast includes: Donald Sutherland (A Time to Kill, Six Degrees of Separation, Instinct, Ordinary People), Malcolm Jamal Warner (TV’s Jeremiah and The Cosby Show), Kevin Hart (Scary Movie 4), Brian Hooks (TV’s Eve) and Alexis Dziena (Broken Flowers, TV’s Invasion).

Sutherland has been cast in a diverse array of films from comedy to dramatic roles and credits his motivation –still, after over 40 years in the business– to passion. Quoting a portion of Russian-born poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky’s commencement address at Dartmouth College in the late ‘80s, he recited, “‘Try to stay passionate; leave your cool to the constellations, passion alone is a remedy against boredom.’ So that’s the kind of passion that I’m talking about. I passionately love the characters I play. I desperately try to inform them (my characters) with as much observation as I can and with as much truth and morality that I can.”

The 72-year-old dad of son Kiefer (star of TV’s 24) says he has been humbled by many of life’s experiences, particularly of late, Kiefer’s recent jail stay (48 days) for a drunk driving charge. “We didn’t have much time together and –while he was in prison– could only talk for 14 minutes each phone call so I tried to say all the things that I thought were important while he was in jail.”

Tennant, who broke records with the box office success HITCH, starring Will Smith, says of his desire to direct FOOL’S GOLD, “I was attracted to this particular story because the treasure hunt is not only about the money. It’s about a couple who fell in love over a shared passion for research and discovery. But in the real world maybe that wasn’t enough, so when we meet them (Tess and Finn) they are on the brink of a divorce. For them, the treasure may be finding a way back to each other. That, to me, was fun.”

On working with Will Smith, Tennant said, “Will hired me to make HITCH and on some levels we were more partners in the making of that film. I mean, Will Smith is ‘Will Smith’ and he is a tour de force both creatively and in the workplace. The nicest thing Will ever said to me was when he hired me. He told me that his dad was a military man and had taught him a valuable lesson, ‘When there are two generals, everybody dies. Now, that I’ve hired you, you’re the general and I’m the actor.’”

Quintessential Actress Margaret Avery Shares
Her Journey, Her Passion

When you think of some of the classic comedies that speak to the black experience, certainly the work of Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier come to mind. As a matter of fact, one of my favorite movies, Which Way Is Up?, costarring Academy Award® nominee Margaret Avery as “Annie Mae, rates high on my list.

Fast forward to 2008, we have Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins and again we see Avery, as Mamma Jenkins, in a well-round family comedy with Martin Lawrence cast as a talk-show sensation in the new film from writer/director Malcolm D. Lee (The Best Man, Undercover Brother).

Lee directs the accomplished performers-including Avery (The Color Purple, White Man’s Burden) as RJ’s loving mother, Mamma Jenkins; Joy Bryant (Bobby, Antwone Fisher) as his reality-television-star fiancée, Bianca Kittles; Louis C.K. (I Think I Love My Wife, Pootie Tang) as his agent, Marty; Academy Award® nominee Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile, Planet of the Apes) as RJ’s intimidating older brother, Otis; comedian Mike Epps (Next Friday, Resident Evil: Extinction) as the family’s shady cousin, Reggie; comedienne Mo’Nique (Phat Girlz, Beauty Shop) as RJ’s sexy, loud-mouthed sister, Betty; Nicole Ari Parker (Brown Sugar, Remember the Titans) as his childhood love interest, Lucinda; Cedric the Entertainer (Barbershop, Be Cool) as the family’s competitive cousin, Clyde; and legendary Academy Award® nominee James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope, Field of Dreams, the Star Wars series) as the tough-loving patriarch of the family, Papa Jenkins-in the film.

Avery is famously known for her landmark role as the sultry “Shug” in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. Says director Lee, “Mamma Jenkins was written on the page to be kind of a sassy black woman, but, after Margaret Avery came in, it was as if a light bulb went off and she grounded the character so much; she gave it so much dignity.”

Avery says of her character in Roscoe Jenkins, “She is a little different, and the challenge was that she has a lot of one-liners. For me, it’s easier to memorize a monologue than it is to figure out how to do that one line, because one line has to say a lot. It was a lot more homework for me.”

No stranger to challenge, ever since being born premature and weighing only two pounds, Avery has been a fighter and a survivor.

As a young woman, she fought to train for and get experience in an industry that provided little opportunity for aspiring black actresses. After studying and learning her craft, she fought for quality roles during a time when movie executives were quick to assign black women to parts as maids, cooks, servants and other stereotypical roles.

Determined and undaunted, she became inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s messages of equal opportunity for all, and fought for-and won-vital roles in such films as Which Way is Up?, Magnum Force, Hell Up in Harlem, The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh, Blueberry Hill and White Man’s Burden.

In 1985, Avery’s faith and persistence paid off when she was nominated for an Academy Award® for her unforgettable role as the sultry and spirited blues singer, Shug Avery, in The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of Alice Walker’s prize-winning novel.

In 1998, she and award-winning actor Blair Underwood co-hosted and presented the critically acclaimed docudrama, Sister, I’m Sorry: An Apology to our African American Queens.

Avery recently completed filming Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns, which stars Angela Bassett.

Today, while she continues to act, Ms. Avery also finds joy and fulfillment in working with at-risk teenagers and battered women in greater Los Angeles. “That work is especially rewarding,” she said, “because it has the capacity to change lives. It just takes one person to reach out, with a kind word or deed or with a smile, to change someone’s entire world…and I don’t mean, to give money all the time, because sometimes that’s the easy part. I mean…to care enough to give another person the most precious gift of all-the gift of hope.”

She also recently toured the slave dungeons of Ghana, the Mother Land. This spiritual experience gave her an insight and understanding of her heritage and origin of her survived roots.

Avery is an Oklahoma native, who moved to the Oakland/Berkeley, CA Bay Area, took her talents to Los Angeles, and has won numerous awards for acting and her activism, including a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for her role in Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, in addition to an NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award.

A former schoolteacher in the Bay Area, Avery holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education from the University of San Francisco, and a Master’s Degree in marriage, family and child therapy. She lectures across the country and abroad on issues involving women of color and her passion in life: seeking to empower, enlighten and inspire.

In Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins, Martin Lawrence stars as a talk-show phenomenon that has left behind his modest Southern upbringing and family name to transform into a self-help guru dispensing his “Team of Me” philosophy to millions of adoring fans. With a reality-TV-star fiancée and money to burn, there’s no piece of the Hollywood dream RJ hasn’t achieved.

After his parents (Avery as his mother and James Earl Jones as his father) request that he come home for their 50th wedding anniversary, the TV host packs up his 10-year-old son and diva bride-to-be and heads back to Georgia. It’s a chance to prove to his family that he’s no longer the awkward kid they relentlessly picked on. At least, that’s the plan…

I spoke to Avery about her role in ROSCOE JENKINS and her imprint on the entertainment industry –

Sandra Varner (SV) – So many of your female costars in ROSCOE JENKINS couldn’t stop saying all these glowing things about you and what a privilege it was to work along side you. Describe the on set atmosphere while shooting this film?

Margaret Avery (MA) – I’ve been on a lot of sets and this one was just special and I don’t expect any set to match it for quite a while. I mean it was just as though everyone there was “ego-less” and everyone was there with heart. The tone was set by our director Malcolm Lee. He’s very personable. Each morning he would come around and say hello to everyone whether you were in the makeup chair or doing something else and that just sort of set the tone for the day. Even with the grips, the lighting people, the food people, the extras… he was so personable. When we ended shooting the film and the director said, “Okay everybody, it’s a wrap,” it was very bittersweet. We had worked hard, we were tired and all glad that we had reached our goal, but at the same time, we hated to say goodbye to everyone.

SV – You have maintained a career in this business for over 30 years, how have you evolved as an actor? How has the industry evolved?

MA – Well, let’s go way back. I started with black exploitation films and select roles on TV such as “Kojak” and “Ironside,” where I’d always be the woman who had been done wrong and always crying over her man (laughter). My girlfriends used to tease me saying I’d get the medal for the most crying jobs (more laughter). Speaking to how the industry has evolved, I continued to do more black films with black themes such as “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh,” “Cool Breeze,” “Hell Up in Harlem” and others. Then, along came “The Color Purple,” but that movie came along after about a six or seven year absence.

(As far as family-based black films) There was “Sounder” then this long, long lull before Color Purple. After that film, we started having Spike Lee films, Malcolm Lee and John Singleton’s films and these are black films…good films. For me, and from my perspective, when those films emerged, I had moved into another category of casting being seen as someone’s mother or grandmother and these writers and filmmakers are young. They’re writing about “their generation” and what’s happening with their girlfriends and such. That’s been the thing for me for several years. I have to be somebody’s mother or grandmother and I’m limited to feature films that are black scenarios.

I think that’s the burden of the black actress because we’re limited too much. We don’t get the range of opportunities that our counterparts get, moreover, that the black male actor gets. Typically, they can get cast as the best buddy and we’ve seen that with the Lethal Weapon franchise where four movies were made with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson.

We, women of color, don’t get those opportunities. I was just tickled pink to see Vanessa Williams cast in the Ugly Berry TV series. I mean, she got a chance to work along Arnold Schwarzenegger in Eraser but that was a very rare thing. When Halle Berry costarred in Monster’s Ball people didn’t like her role in that film. They liked her getting the Oscar but didn’t like the role. But, that’s a whole other issue. After her win, I said to myself, ‘OK, let’s see if things have really changed (in Hollywood). Let’s see if black actresses can work outside of “the black film.” With Vanessa, at least she’s doing a different kind of role on Ugly Betty and I’m happy about that but, for the most part, our roles are limited. When I look and see what our dear, dear wonderful actress Alfre Woodard is doing or not doing I think about that.

Then, when you look at the excitement over Barack Obama yet, the question remains, will he be our next U.S. President? Not that I don’t think he’s qualified, but, I wonder if ‘America’ is ready to elect a black president when we as black actors and actresses are still struggling to be accepted.

I’ve done Malcolm Lee’s film with Martin Lawrence and coming out after this is Tyler Perry’s film, Meet the Browns. I have a small role in it. But these are two black films. So, am I supposed to ask myself, ‘What new black film is coming out where I can be somebody’s moma?’ And that is not an equal playing field as Denzel Washington has described about the plight of black actors and actresses.

I don’t see scripts for the type of roles that Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep get. Keaton got all those Woody Allen films (Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan) and gets to do a lot of cute little roles that are not always family in nature. We’re (women of color) are limited to working in a “black” situation. The story lines are great and they’re wonderful roles but why are “we” limited to that scenario only?

SV – Considering you’ve worked in both TV and film, many credit your role as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple” as your quintessential role; how does that make you feel?

MA – I used to resent it thinking that people must have thought I’d never done anything before Color Purple. Then, I realized what a blessing it was to be recognized for a significant role, particularly when there are so many fine, fine actors and actresses who never get that opportunity. So, I had to look at it as a blessing and as a compliment. The only compliment I don’t like is when I’ve played a role so well, such as Shug Avery, and people think ‘I am’ that character in every way. That’s when I have to let them know, ‘Hey, this is make believe.’ That’s the power of film and the understanding as to why there was such uproar over that film because people couldn’t see the redeeming qualities of “Mister,” Danny Glover’s character.

SV – What are your comments about the New York stage production of The Color Purple and the success it enjoyed?

MA – Oh, I love it. I saw it in New York with Fantasia and also here in Los Angeles…to see that story onstage with all those beautiful black people with all that talent and the music was wonderful. And, Fantasia was wonderful –to be so young– and show all of that range of emotion certainly comes through in her performance, she was fantastic.

SV – And what about the person who played the Shug Avery character?

MA — Oh, I loved her too (laughter).

SV – Would you comment on Ms. Ruby Dee’s Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in “American Gangster” and what her nomination means to you personally?

MA – Well, there are only six of us now: six black actresses who have been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category in the history of the Academy. I just think it’s (her nomination) fabulous; she’s such an veteran at her craft. She took that small role (approx. 4 minutes on screen in “American Gangster”) and just worked it. I mean, she’s only about five feet tall and to have all that come out of that little woman was amazing. I just love it.

The six black actresses Avery is referring to are actually 10: Ethel Waters (Pinky 1949), Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life 1959), Bea Richards (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 1967), Alfre Woodard (Cross Creek 1983), Avery and Oprah Winfrey (The Color Purple 1985), Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies 1996), Queen Latifah (Chicago 2002) and Sophie Okonedo (Hotel Rwanda 2004). Ms. Ruby Dee makes the 10th nomination; however, she could very likely move into the Oscar winners’ category alongside Hattie McDaniel (Gone With The Wind 1939), Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost 1990), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball 2001) and Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls 2006).

For more information on Margaret Avery, visit her website at www.Margaretavery.com