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October 2004
Ray: An Interview with Aunjanue Ellis

Ray: An Interview with Aunjanue Ellis

By Wilson Morales

If there's an actress who can go in and out of films and leave a mark, it's the versatile Aunjunue Ellis. Over the last decade or so, this incredible woman has pilled an impressive amount of work in theater, film, and television. From her recurring roles on "New York Undercover", "The Practice", and "100 Centre Street" to her performances on stage on "George C. Wolfe's The Tempest" and "Drowning Crow", she certainly has showed others her range as an actress. On film, she was played opposite Cuba Gooding, Jr., and Robert De Niro in "Men of Honor", and opposite Eddie Griffin in Malcolm Lee's Undercover Brother. Ellis will next be seen playing Zora Neale Hurston in the independent film Brother to Brother opposite Anthony Mackie. Currently in production, Ellis will be also seen in Fox's new show, Johnny Zero. In her current film, Ray, Ellis play Mary Ann Fisher, the first female singer Ray Charles hired to perform with his him and his band. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Ellis talks about her role and working with Jamie Foxx, as well as giving her opinion on the quality of roles for black women.

How did you get the part for what was an independent movie being filmed at the time?

Aunjanue Ellis: Well, I had initially found out about it when I was in California working on something and then I was back in New York cause the movie got postponed, and I was going back between New York and New Orleans and I happened to be in New Orleans at the time and I read with Taylor (Hackford) and I read with Jamie (Foxx) and they just gave me the part.

Did you do any research on Mary Ann Fisher or is she a composite character?

AE: Yes, she's definitely a composite character in some ways, but to be historically accurate is her being the first background singer. What I'm saying, essentially in the movie, is pretty much made up. She's not a composite character. I don't think that's fair. She is Mary Ann Fisher but she's not as historically accurate as Della Bea is.

How was working with Jamie?

AE: I loved working with Jamie. He is incredibly generous and gracious and he has this ease about him on set that I haven't experienced beforehand. He was actually and literally handicapped while filming the movie and I never knew. He would be on set sometimes and you never knew he was there. He was saying his lines and making people laugh to make them more comfortable at 2 in the morning when everybody was tired.

What's the feeling like when you're on a film with this cast?

AE: To be honest, I was more excited to be working with Regina King than I was about working with Jamie. At the end, I was really excited about having these scenes with both of them and Regina was just as gracious. When I did my scene with her, she was sweet to me but when it was time for us to have our fighting moment and go toe to toe, she kept it real with me. She was around and we talked about stuff just because I wanted to feel at ease and didn't want to feel that antagonism when we weren't shooting. She wouldn't engage me. By the end of the day, I realized that was just her trying to stay in character and keep me in character as well.

Were you a fan of Ray Charles?

AE: Yeah, I was a fan of Ray.

What's your favorite song?

AE: That changes from day to day but I love rendition of "America".

With the amount of work you have done in theater and film as well as TV, how do you do it when it's not easy for others to be in the same position?

AE: I wish it were like that. I work a little bit but I definitely don't work as much as I need to.

What keeps you motivated to stay in this business because as you mentioned, you're not working as much as you need to?

AE: I don't know what keeps me motivated. A lot of practical things keep me motivated like taking care of my family. On an artistic level, there are stories that I want to tell. I grew up in a story telling rich community. It is important to me as a consumer of art and I guess in some ways a wannabe artist to continue that tradition and acting is my chosen genre at this point to do that.

What do think of quality of roles that are out there for black women?

AE: I can only speak for myself but I think that there are probably other sisters who have a different story to tell. I think they have a greater wealth of opportunities than me. For myself, it's still a challenge. The roles that I feel I get, or handed to me, or whatever are not that interesting. I don't it's a problem that's specifically to black women. I think it's a problem that's specific to movie making in America. People don't make that many movies like that for white women or black women. I guess I would be asked , "Would you want to play Denzel's wife?", and I would say, "No, I want to play the part that Denzel plays."

What do you think of the quality of black cinema today?

AE: I would never judge someone on the choices they make. I think the movie making community still has a myopic view in terms of the black American experience and the American experience. The movies that get financed are a reflection of that myopia. There should be a balance. There should be smaller stories that have a wide appeal. I think those stories aren't told very often and that's what I want to be a champion for. I hope that happens.

What role do you play on the TV show, Johnny Zero?

AE: I play Johnny's parole officer.

What led you to do a TV show?

AE: I got the role when I was working on a play and you do it for financial reasons. A lot of times you hopefully choose something that you can essentially be happy with. Just on real level, for me, it's easier to do drama than it is to do a sitcom. Sitcoms are incredibly limiting. When you do a sitcom and it becomes a signature part for you, it's harder to do something else; but if you do a drama, you can get lost in it, and have a role to do other things. I do it for practical reasons and it's something I can do and not be incredibly visible so it won't pigeon-hole me.

Do you have any theater work coming up?

AE: No. There was a play that I was supposed to do but it conflicted with the show so I wasn't able to do it unfortunately.

With the TV show currently in production, will you still be able to do films?

AE: Yeah. I'm not a regular on the show. I'm just a recurring character. It's definitely something that I can be in and out of.

Any upcoming films?

AE: I have "Brother to Brother", directed by Rodney Evans, where I play Zora Neal Hurston. I also did an independent film called "Perception". It's about a woman who becomes paralyzed as she gets hit by a bus. It's about her figuring her life again and I play a high school friend of hers. Piper Perabo (of "Coyote Ugly") is the lead in the movie.

How was portraying a character like Zora Neale Hurston?

AE: I felt challenge by it and that's always a blessing to an actress. To have a role that's challenging. I also felt honored to play such a role. There's a moment right now culturally where homosexuality is at the forefront and with Harlem in the economical and cultural as well as political situation, we're bringing back what Harlem used to be back in the forefront; bringing art back to that community and because I live in Harlem as well. I felt playing the part of Zora gives me a chance to explore all those things.

When folks go see "Ray", what do you think they should get out of it?

AE: I'm not huge on films delivering messages. I don't require them to preach to me. Hopefully they get out of the movie what I choose to take away from movies and that is I hope people have an experience. I think a film is a failure if it doesn't have an emotional effect. That's the film's failure. Not if it doesn't deliver a message, but if it doesn't have emotional effect or visceral effect. I hope people will be affected by this movie and be more interested in Ray Charles and his music and buy more records and his legacy will be continue even after he's gone. That's going to happen anyway. Ray Charles is an American icon.

What advice would you give to an aspiring actress?

AE: I would tell them to follow their heart.

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