When she was told she was to be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, Alfre Woodard confesses that she understood little about the honor. But in November, as she stood beside Blake Shelton, Wanda Jackson and the rest of her 2014 class, Woodard suddenly was “gobsmacked.”
“Each of those people who have been inducted [through the years] are such strongly unique individuals and contributors to our state and to our world. It was like joining this sort of epic sorority/fraternity,” she says. “Yeah, it got deeper and deeper, the significance of it, for me, because it didn’t have to do with just the moment. It links me to the past, and it links me to the future.”
Even without such honors, however, Woodard, a Tulsa native, is and will be known as one of the most respected actors of her time. Endowed with numerous awards for her acting on television, film and stage, Woodard is still in hot pursuit of those creative projects offering a new experience. As U.S. President Constance Payton on NBC’s primetime hit State of Affairs, Woodard flexes the political savvy she first cultivated as a child.
“I walked to the [voting] precinct with my mom and dad there in north Tulsa when I was 10 years old,” she recalls, “and they always said to me, ‘This is Democracy.’ Everybody is responsible and has to get involved…it doesn’t work by itself. It works because people get in, and they work.”
Woodard continues to stay involved in the political machine by working on campaigns, participating in protests she deems necessary and visiting with elected leaders. On the State of Affairs set, her knowledge of Washington, D.C., and its protocol is a definite asset; and it’s made her more than capable of playing the tough, decisive Payton.
Yet, when asked about past accolades – four Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, three SAG Awards, eight NAACP Image Awards, a nomination each for an Academy and Grammy award – Woodard would never say she is “proud” of them.
“I am happy and very satisfied about the things that I have done because of the feedback that different people have said – ‘This is why this touched me,’ ‘Oh, I recognize myself in that, ‘Oh, I recognize another
human being in that.’ All of those things are valid, because they don’t belong to me,” she says. “It’s something that I was meant to be a conduit for as a storyteller.
“I’ve enjoyed projects in very different ways, because they are very
different, just like your children are different, and there are no favorites. But I just do my work. Some experiences have been memorable for certain reasons, and I think of them that way…you keep yourself out of the equation altogether.”
As for the experience of playing the leader of the free world, it’s still a little early to summarize.
“We’re still stirring the soup, you know? People are just starting to say, ‘Mmm, smells like soup! Smells good,’” she says, laughing, of State of Affairs.
Others have made up their minds already: She is up for another Image Award for her role in the series.
Woodard lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with her family; and aside from visits, she’s been away from her old hometown and state since she left at 17 to attend Boston University.
“I’m going to be honest with you – I don’t think about being an African-American person during the day when I’m going about my life. I don’t think about being a woman every day. And I don’t think about having been born in Oklahoma and raised in Oklahoma, but it certainly…informs the way that I move about the world and how I interpret the world and how I interact in the world,” she says. “Do you know what I mean? I just am myself.”
But Woodard never hesitates to clear up any misconceptions or stereotypes about her old home state.
“Of course, anytime anybody says ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘Oklahoma,’ and there’s a big conversation,” she says. “It definitely flavors who I am.”
– Karen Shade