Angela Bassett just earned her second Oscar nomination, so maybe that’s why strong memories from the first nomination — 29 years ago — have come rushing back.
On Thursday evening, the Wakanda Forever star was honored at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival with the Montecito Award, and during a lengthy Q&A onstage with the festival’s Executive Director Roger Durling, she reflected on many of her most memorable performances, including Malcolm X, Boyz N The Hood, and Waiting to Exhale. But it was her stories from working in the 1993 drama What’s Love Got To Do With It? — in which she starred as Tina Turner — that revealed just how hard she’s worked to get to this point.
The film, which was adapted from Turner’s autobiography I, Tina and chronicled both her career along with her abusive marriage to Ike Turner, was filmed at a breakneck pace — with one shooting day running 25 hours long — because it needed to be completed in time to be released with Turner’s world tour. “We were just hoping this will be good enough to coincide with this world tour — to have this, you know, comparison dynamic going on,” said Bassett.
From early on, the press was paying close attention to the film. Bassett recalled reading the industry trades’ disparaging comments. “You always remember the bad critiques,” she said. “And they said, ‘we don’t know what’s worse, the dailies or the script.’ I was like, ‘Oh, damn, how did they know this?’” Bassett admitted that early versions of the script were a cause for concern, but that it was always changing. “I couldn’t say no to this opportunity. This was a big spotlight.”
Bassett hinted at a challenging working relationship with the film’s director Brian Gibson, who would demand numerous takes from his actors as well as last-minute makeup and costume changes. She said it became especially difficult during sensitive scenes that involved rape or physical abuse. “Directors are different, but they all ask for the same thing: They just want to tell the story,” she says. “But as my mom said, “it ain’t what you say, it’s how to say it.’ And our director would be brusque.”
She said her co-star Laurence Fishburne, who played Ike Turner, was a protective and collaborative partner throughout. When they were filming the rape scene, he asked her how many times she’d want to film it. “Because Brian would listen to him before he would listen to me — this female voice, this Black female voice who’s just getting a shot,” she says. She told him she’d film the scene five times, telling Fishburne, “We are going to give it everything. I’m going to scrap and claw, like my life depends on it.”
The tumultuous experience ended up landing Bassett her first Oscar nomination for best actress (Holly Hunter would go on to win for The Piano), but it turns out that attention stalled her career more than helped it. She told the Santa Barbara crowd she wasn’t able to get another role for 18 months. She used that time to recover from what was one of the most demanding roles of her career. “I was so exhausted after that experience,” she said. “Someone like Tina is a larger than life rock star…I lived and breathed that, and that was a harder one to let go.”
Bassett ended her on-stage conversation reflecting on the impact of her current Oscar-nominated work, playing Queen Ramonda in Wakanda Forever. If she wins at the Oscars, she’ll be the first actor from a Marvel movie ever to do so. But Bassett says it’s the impact that the films have made on audiences, especially Black audiences, that has had a lasting effect on her. “That representation that I longed for as a young actor coming up, to be able to offer that is a dream come true,” she says. “It’s a full circle moment.”
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