“I’m not gonna be in no damn convent with these people. These people don’t even have sex! ” — as Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence in “Sister Act”
“I’m poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I’m here. I’m here.” — as Celie Harris Johnson in “The Color Purple”
Q. Which is harder to do: Broadway or being on a film?
A. Eight shows a week live is not a walk in the park. Then you work 14- or 15-hour days on a movie. That is not a walk in the park either. It’s all kind of miserably fabulous.
Q. Growing up, who were your favorite actors?
A. Sidney Portier, John Garfield, Gary Grant, Harry Bontafonte and all the dead guys that I didn’t know they were dead when I was a kid. They’d be in all these movies. It never occurred to me that the ’30s meant they were not still living.
Q. I understand you are doing a voice in the upcoming “Toy Story 3.”
A. I have done a lot of animation over the last few years, but in the last six years, I have not made a movie.
Q. What went into your decision to do animation?
A. Because there was no work.
Q. I heard somewhere you are a fan of Star Trek. What draws to you to the show?
A. I am a big fan of Star Trek because before Start Trek there was no other sci-fi that had people of color in the future. I always thought that was really depressing. Along came Star Trek with a beautiful black woman and people from all over the world. They seem to be happening in the future. I said I would like to do that in the future at some point. When I got the opportunity, I asked to be part of it. But they were like ugh, they don’t wanna … The person I asked was LaVar Burton because he was doing it. I said, “Tell them I wanted to do it very much,” and told them all the reasons. He said OK. A year went by and nothing happened. When I saw him next I said, “What happened?” They didn’t believe me. I said, “Give me the phone number,” and I called them. We had a meeting with Gene Roddenberry who asked me the same question you just did. I told them the same thing I told you. I never thought about it that way. So he wrote the last character that he wrote for me, and that’s how it happened.
Q. You became famous through “The Color Purple.” Last year, “Precious” came out. People draw comparisons between the two films. What do you think of “Precious”?
A. I think the movie is remarkable. I think people are drawing comparisons because there are not a lot of films with black people in them in between that are as strong as “Precious” is. I guess that’s why people say, “Wow they are quite similar.” It was nice to see the evolution of stories of people of color happening. It’s a shame that it’s almost 25 years in between, but you can’t be picky and rush stuff.
Q. In the 1980s and 1990s, when you were making most of your films, how did you strike a balance between comedies and serious dramas?
A. I never thought about it. That’s other people’s hangouts. When you are an actor, you are supposed to be able to do everything. So, it never occurred to me that it was an oddity until people started telling me that it was strange that I could do both comedy and drama. Then I realized I was different. I didn’t know it at the time.
Q. How do you feel about actors getting pegged into certain roles?
A. That’s all media telling folks. It’s not them. Actors are just trying to get a job. They are just trying to keep working. As soon as you peg somebody, it sorta limits them. They can’t go do other things and explore other things without people crabbing at them, which is a drag when you are an actor ’cause that’s the joy of acting. You’re supposed to be able to play anything. You’re supposed to be able to play this window. You’re supposed to be able to play that chair. That’s the key. But nowadays, you hear people say they are only supposed to be perky and cute. Which is a drag to me, though I’m still perky and cute.
Q. How do you prepare for a role?
A. I don’t. The way I go about things is that I don’t inhabit anyone until the click of the camera. I did a movie about the march in Selma, Ala., called “Long Walk Home.” I went to Alabama thinking, “I know she’s a stoic black woman, she is a maid, she has to do this and that.” If I had been alive during that time and they came to me the way they came to her, I would have said blah, blah, blah. I got down there and all those women — they called me Hoopi — they said, “Hoopi, we need to sit down and talk to you because you would not have said any of those things to these people, because this was a life and death situation.” Sometimes someone needs to snap their fingers to wake you up to where you are supposed to be. I’ve gotten better at that to figure out eras and what was going on. As a general rule, I try to wait and feel it. It has worked so far, but who knows what’s going to happen?
Q. Is it a challenge to be on “The View” when what you say blows up on the blogs?
A. I don’t pay any attention to the blogs. What I’ve discovered in the last two and a half years is that people hear what they want to hear, doesn’t matter what you actually said. People in the blogosphere can put their spin on what you say and comment … on what you say, opposed to what you actually said. It’s kinda annoying, but I guess it’s part of what it is now. I like “The View,” but I don’t like the idea that no one is responsible for what they say you said. I think bloggers are sightly cowardly because they can in the ether say whatever they want endlessly. They never have to check, they never have to do their homework. They can just talk. It’s all commentary on commentary, but I have to have my facts straight. I could actually get sued for saying something that is inaccurate or talking about people in a derogatory way.
Q. On another note, the “Madea” series has been very popular in the last few years. You played a cameo in “Madea Goes To Jail,” correct?
A. The ladies of “The View” did a favor for Tyler Perry.
Q. Recently Spike Lee attacked Tyler Perry’s films, calling them “coonery and buffoonery.” Is “Madea” OK as black entertainment?
A. [Laughing.] I’m laughing because 15 years before that he was talking about me, kinda saying the same things. Those films Tyler Perry made come out of his theater work, and they are passion plays. And people love them. So God bless him for being able to do it. Anybody who can make inroads and get folks thinking or talking about these subjects is fine with me, you know. There is buffoonery everywhere; you just have to turn on the television. Every now and then it doesn’t happen, but more often than not because that’s what sells. And it sells for all ethnic groups. So as long as people are watching it, people are going to do it. Who are we to say whether it’s good or not good?