Ray: An Interview with Sharon Warren
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By Wilson Morales
How did you get involved with this project?
Sharon Warren: I was in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was going to a costume fitting for a show called the Music by Tamie Ryan at the Alliance Theater. I had been cast for that and I left that wardrobe fitting and went to a hotel where a young lady by the name of Diane Williams had approached me about managing my career. This was August and she had approached me in April; so I went to her room for my appearance the opening night of my play, she told me to go up on the second floor and I asked her are there any questions and she asked me whether or not I had agent and I said no and I went up and I waited and people started congregating and it ended up being a final cast call at that time for "Unchained My Heart" and they got to me and - and I was like no and they were like, "Yes, this is a final cast call." The casting director Mark Fincannon of Fincannon Associates said, "I like your nerve. If you give me a head shot then we'll talk". I went across the street to the Alliance and got a head shot. The casting director there came back and gave him a head shot. I was working like three jobs at the time so I had to wait and I left and the next day I got a call from Mark Fincannon saying, "Can you come to the hotel where you were at in 15 minutes?" and I said sure and I mean, I was just wearing jeans and a shirt and I had no time to change so I went back to the hotel and I got off the elevator and they gave me 12 slides and then I sat down and I didn't know who he was but Taylor Hackford walked in the room. He sat down, he looked at me and said, You look perfect, but now I need to know if you can act?" and started to begin telling me the story of Ray Charles. The story evolves into Aretha Robinson and we began working these shies. Well, I'm thinking he was going to give me three. When we get to nine of the twelve that I had been given and he turned to Mark Fincannon and says, "Start recording." When we finished he said, "Do I have all your information" and I said yes. He said, "We'll be back in two weeks." I was like, "Okay, great, bye." Two weeks and a day he called me. I was working at Seven Stages in Atlanta and it was the opening for Dire Folk Peasant Bible and I was working tickets and I got a call from him and he was just like, "Hi, this is Taylor" and he said, "You know, I've never done this in 30 years", he said, "But you knock the ball out of the court, and this role is yours. I'm not looking at anybody else."
He said that the film was not financial. They didn't even know if it was going to be made and this was two weeks from that August, like mid August, the date that we had initially met and he said, "It's yours, you're it. I showed your tape to Jamie and other and they loved it and Jamie just said, you're the one, that's it, and you have the role." I was like, "Okay, can I get your number and if I call you back later." Later was in November. It was almost like two months later and I literally almost forgot about it. It was just so not real to me. I didn't know anything about the film or anything and so, I called him and he was like, "You know, I'm not kidding you, you're going to be in this film and we're doing everything right". We just began holding weekly conversations from November until December. I got an e-mail from him and he was in England at the time, and he was just saying how he was still trying to find out whether or not the demos would be greenlit. In January the film got a greenlight and February I got a call, I got a script and March the 3rd I was working on the film. I got a revised script on March 2nd and on March the 3rd I was working on the project.
How much do you know about Aretha Robinson and do you physically look like her?
SW: I have never seen a picture of her. I've only read descriptions and my director believes that I have her physical makeup. I have not seen anything but based on what I have been told by Ray Charles, Jr., James L. White and Taylor, I had no other choice but to agree what they described was very much what my physical, my body; she was a thin and frail woman and Taylor felt that my body makeup was very similar to hers and that that was significant in choosing who Aretha Robinson was going to be.
How much research did you do about her?
SW: I read the script. I read some pages of "Brother Ray" but I didn't want to read it before I didn't know. I really didn't because the film is not just an autobiography so I spoke to Ray Charles, Jr. and he took me out to Staten Island, we talked and he gave me a lot of information and James L. White gave me a lot of information and then I just began to conceive her in my mind from the initial script that I got and the person that really prepared me for this role first and foremost was my grandmother. She was born August 3, 1915 in Forest Glen, Georgia and above and beyond anyone she made Aretha a reality. She could have easily been Aretha Robinson and she just made what her life could have and that was probably about just a tangible reality of me. The reality of when two dollars has been stolen away from me, what the impact of that really was, what two dollars really meant to a black woman in 1935; Aretha Robinson foremost washed clothes, she was a domestic. She did factory work, she did lumber work. She was just a jack of all trades. I mean, she was a very, very hard working woman and my grandmother was telling me about just the economics of what two dollars could really do. Washing clothes, the soap that was used was and you cooked, red devil ten cent lie, and you cooked lie and would spread it out on a sheet and you would let it cool and you would cut some and I mean, a can of lard was like a quarter, red devil lie was ten cents, and so thirty-five cents could make enough soap to wash clothes for probably anywhere from three to five months and my grandmother really just spoke to me about the reality of what it was like at that time to wash clothes and just the labor of it. Aretha Robinson was just a woman who was just tired all the time because she worked herself to death really and my grandmother made it all a living reality. She made it very real in my mind and she spoke to me about, and just the realities of what it was like being a black woman in 1935, and being in a rural community and the adversities that you face and so, she is first and foremost the person that prepared me for this role.
What year did Aretha Robinson die, and what did she die of?
SW: No one knows what she died of. She died when Ray Charles was 14 I believe. She was born in 1930. There's speculation that she just really worked herself to death. I mean, she just died of overexertion. She just truly worked herself to death and according to what I have been told by the people - like I said Ray Charles' son, Ray Charles, Jr. and James L. White and Taylor and I remember reading about her death in "Brother Ray", that was something that I did read about and you know, no one really knew what she died of but in the autobiography he just speaks about how it affected him. No one really knows exactly, you know, medically what she died of.
Although you don't have that many scenes with Jamie Foxx, how was working with him?
SW: I only had one scene with Jamie Foxx and it was an honor to work with him. It was really an honor to do that scene that concludes the film and that resolution between he and his mother and that resolution of that healing of the death of his brother George. That was an amazing scene to shoot. It was really an honor to see an outstanding actor and it was just an honor to work with him and to see him - to watch him work and to observe him because this film was really - it was not a lot of money - there were a lot of guerilla taxis that were taken and there - people just worked hard - were worked 20 hour days. We worked everyday. We worked 20 hour days. I have immense amount of respect for him. I worked 20 and 19 hour days. So everybody in this film worked like that, you know, it was just - it was a real honor to hang out and watch some of my scenes on days that he didn't necessarily have to work and just really affirmed his belief in me as an actor, and the value of the work that he had seen in my filming. So it was an honor to work with him.
One of the actors I wanted to talk about is the little boy that plays Ray and I'm sure you had to work with him a lot because it's him who's supposed to carry the torch for what we see Ray become. There's that scene where you have to let him know that he has to be on his own because you don't want him to be taken pity upon.
SW: Exactly. D.J. Sanders is the child who portrayed young Ray Charles. He is amazing. He is so amazing. He is outstanding. I mean, there is no other way to describe him. He was six years old when he made this film and he changed contacts 12 or 15 times a day to better secure his vision. He had drops put in his eyes to cause mucus to form. I mean, this child was amazing. He's not just reading lines. He's relating to me. He's an outstanding actor. He's a beautiful child. He's such a well rounded little body. I mean, he has a normal life. Very disciplined child and just a very dedicated and committed actor. He nails it in the first take. He's an outstanding actor. It was just an honor to work with him. He's just a professional. He does an outstanding job in the film.
A number of the other actors that we have seen in other films basically have small cameos. Did you get a chance to talk to any one of them? Have you seen any of their work to the point that you wanted to talk to them just to find out how to stay in this game now that you're in it?
SW: Well, you know, I don't necessarily know that I'm in the game. I'm not of that opinion as yet because I just try to stay grounded, but I always make myself accessible and available to the advice of those who have experienced beyond me. I don't care what it is. I haven't been given a whole lot of advice. Everybody was just kind; like Jamie was telling me over and over again, he was like, "They're going to be all over you" and that was just so foreign to me at that time and is still foreign to me, because I really don't believe in comfort zones. I don't. Those things just don't make roles, so I'm very easy to diminish what I do because it just keeps me grounded. In Hollywood it is a brutal reality and I am so blessed for the opportunity that I got. What I did before, you know, it prepared me for the days that I walk in that room and I had to give Taylor what he wanted. I think above all, a lot of people spoke to me because Taylor had made them aware of my theater background. I remember Clifton Powell in particular because he was like, "You're going to be fine". He says if you dealt in theater you're going to be fine and I have to really say that above all things you know, my theater background - I attribute so much to that with what you see on the frame. I really do; to be gotten the attention of an audience and to maintain it. The intimacy that you have with a theatrical audience, it is so intense and I think for a lot - in some ways it's meant or it's not valued like films, not that it necessarily means to be, but it has it's own measure and it's own level of intensity and I finally believe that being exposed to that is what prepared me for dealing with the intensity of the camera. It truly did. I'm very grateful for my theater background and Taylor had made so many people aware of who I was and what my background was and when people came to me even though it was a first meeting it was as if they knew me already and I could tell you that that was a solid coming on the set for the first time. I gave Taylor what he wanted in the audition and he never questioned me ever. He was just like, "That's it". You know, if you want people to be outstanding you have to believe in them. You really do. I mean, you got to see, you got to know what you want and when you get it you've got to communicate that. I really haven't gotten a whole lot of it right but I received more affirmation, and that's really what I received mostly from people was just affirmation that I was going to do a great job.
With every other actor in the film you have an idea about what you're going to get from them, because we've seen them in different films. You're the one person that nobody knows about, and you're the one person that's brought in and out through the film. At the end of the day when people see this film and they see how powerful your performance, they will want to know who you are. Are you prepared for all the fanfare you're going to get receiving from this film and what are you planning to do next?
SW: No I'm not prepared for it. You know, I wasn't prepared for Toronto at all. That was really something, to receive the reception that our film got from Toronto and I think first and foremost because it wasn't just a domestic reception, it was a worldwide reception. That's affected me in so many different ways. It's still something to grasp, but I'm happy that I got a chance to receive that and to be exposed to that because it's just broadened my thinking that much more of this film and its potential, and I'm sorry you're on that page because Ray Charles is a worldwide phenomenon, but I'm not prepared because I don't think anyone is prepared for when this film is going to go and the mark its going to make on film history. I don't think that there's any way that it can be. I don't see how anyone could predict it. I think this film is going to be just, I mean epic in all proportions and what's next for me, well, you know, I'm just getting my team together because I've been dealing with for the most part a lot of my own business and it's really taxed me and it is somewhat cheap like diminished the experience of enjoying this and what I like to do is really enjoy it. Toronto went by like a blur. It literally did. I was doing fifty million things and I enjoyed it but I don't ever want to find myself in any type of experience with this film and not fully experiencing it, enjoying it because these are once in a lifetime opportunities, and so for me my priority is creating a scene that will alleviate my having to involve myself so much in what I have been involved in which is the business of managing my career and developing it more. I really want to just focus on the artistry and that's been a surrender for me, getting people to work with your career, those are really important decisions and I'm just really in prayer speaking all kinds of guidance from God about who needs to be with me and I just believe God is really sending the people. I believe that they are turning and the situation and the circumstances are coming. There are no signed contracts now but I had a meeting recently that was amazing, and I am deeply encouraged by ways that I never thought I would be at this stage of my career before the release of the film and even before the premier. Toronto was beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was necessary and I appreciate it deeply because it's already having an impact on my career, so I'm just getting my dream team together to just effectively and strategically manage my career.
Were you ever a fan of Ray Charles's music?
SW: I was. I used to spend summers with my grandmother in George, in Wing Fall, Georgia and she would always sing "Georgia On My Mind", and it was always be like with the Georgia lottery system, like with the commercial. I love that film. I loved it, I mean - that's not my favorite song, my favorite is actually his ABC recording with Betty Carter of "Baby It's Cold Outside" and I love him, I mean, I have of course been far more exposed to who he is and his music and the meaning behind a lot of his music and having made this film but I'm a huge fan. You know, he wasn't in one joiner of music and I just inspired to have a career that doesn't have me in joiner of subject matter in material I want a broad and well rounded and developed career and so when I look at his life and his career I'm just inspired.
What do you make of the state of black films today?
SW: With the state of black films today, I think that we clearly have a presence in the game, if you will, for lack of a better term than we have ever had. You have African-American who are fundamentally a part of the filming process. We aren't just content with being in front of the camera, we are behind it, we are producing, both men and women, we are financially sustaining our own efforts and I just think that that is the course that we need to continue to take economically. We have to have an impact on our own art more. We have to be at a point where we can financially have a presence. You go to studios, you ask for your dreams or your visions to be utilized and you are dismayed when it's been altered but that is just the purpose of dealing with the studio. I'm encouraged when I see people producing their own projects, taking their own money, funding them, and just gaining an alliance and financial alliance for a black film to go from the page to the screen and that just means to become more of a reality so it can manifest itself in a greater way, that is the direction that we will be going. We need to be economically empowered and have an impact on green lighting our own, and we can. You know, its just a matter of financially raising money and strategically investing and it's really great to see that happening with black films and I'm just encouraged that it's only going to become more profound when the day will come when an African-American will say I will fully fund this film. That day is coming. We are a valuable consumer and we have a measurable economic impact on this economy. We are in the economy and I know the day will come when we will begin to look within and value ourselves and become financially more strategic about gaining the funds to just make films. I believe that that's just where we're heading.
Who were some of the actresses that you grew up watching and whose work have you admired?
SW: I am fundamentally an actress because of Whoopie Goldberg's "Three Coins in a Fountain". That had the greatest impact on me. When I saw that I was like that's what I want to do. There wasn't even a question. I was so truly addicted. Totally addicted to her and I was so mesmerized by her writing and the way she became and gained a presence. In the early stages of her career it was very strategic, her one woman show and just the way she toured and the way she gained presence and the attention that she gained of so many producers and writers and directors, I really admire her as an actress. She was just somebody that really fueled me. I thought she was so real and she just had a profound impact on me. I will forever see Oprah Winfrey as an actress. I mean, in my heart it is all she will ever be to me. I can never get enough of her. Whatever she does it just encourages me. I grow from it. Of course, Margaret Avery, the Color Purple changed my life. It had an impact on me as a little black girl and when I saw people on the script that looked like me, it encouraged me, motivated me, it made me passionate and hungry, so that film in itself; it was that catalyst for me, but my father exposed me to so more films, and so many different people like Sophie's Choice, I loved Meryl Streep, I love Nicole Kidman, I love Kimberly Elise. I love Mary Alice from A Different World and the last Matrix film. I love her. I love Queen Latifah. "Set It Off" will go down as an urban classic in my mind. Queen Latifh gave a nomination worthy performance in that film. It was just so alive. It just affected me in such a way but first and foremost Samuel Jackson is my inspiration as well. He gives me a lesson every single time he's on the screen. Ed Harris is an actor that I just like. These are people that really educate me. Edward Norton, Jeffrey Wright, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, of course Jamie Foxx. I've been watching Jamie and admiring him for some time. I just think it was a matter of Jamie's talent needing something to challenge him in a profound way and I'm just really happy that that's happening now in his career but there are just so many people out there like Billy Bob Thornton My father sat me down and made me watch "Slingblade", and he said "You will watch this film" and I was Billy Bob's fan from that point on. He's a brilliant writer, a brilliant actor, and he's amazing. Danny Glover I've always loved, Alfred Woodard is somebody who just moved me in so many ways. I could go on forever. There's some aspect of so many people that met me and really just educated me and inspired me, and so it's just a pleasure of actors and actresses, but those are a few of the pictures.
Just like you were inspired by some of these actors that you just mentioned, if someone was going to try to get into this business, what do you tell an inspiring actress? When they're trying for roles and they see other known actresses try for the same position, what advice would you give any inspiring actress to be in this business to keep trying?
SW: Love yourself completely, all completely in love with yourself, every single inch of your body, every single thing about - love yourself because you don't need to expect that to come from anything else other than you. These are greatest sorts of love for you, first of all. Second be fearless, fear is alive. It's alive and it's a pimp with a lot of whores. Be fearless, be totally fearless because you are perfectly designed and you are a gift to the world and what is in you is in your person, no other person whatsoever - and whatever exploit you exploit, whatever, I mean, when you are given a design assignment and you are given an appointment all you got to do is show up. That's all you have to do and just know that any design in your heart I believe profoundly is something that was divinely placed there. When something calls you that you are passionate about it, you're supposed to meet and don't look for a justification from anyone, don't look for an amen corner, don't look for support - but don't expect it. Be your own champion. Really, just be solid in who you are. I don't want to speak to strength because I don't feel like - I want to feel like I'm strong. I just feel like I persevere. I just feel like meet whatever you need to meet and just whatever walls come into your life just knock them down. First of all, they're not even real, you know, a lot of the ways in which I see people being tender in this industry is that they are conditioned in their thinking. They're prescribed, don't be so susceptible to be prescribed in your thinking about who you are, what your value is and what you're capable of, have a knowing and that would be my advice for any aspiring actress.
What do you want people to get out of this film once we see a part of his life?
SW: There is nothing that can hold you back. I believe that this film is going to meet so many people on so many social economical levels. It's meets you where you are and it tells you I don't care what your situation is, I don't care what your circumstance is, I don't care what somebody else has and you don't, you know what, get up, do it. Just motivate. Move it up and be. Life has a purpose and I think a lot of people don't value themselves, they really don't. I think a lot of people sleep on what they got and I think that this film is going to wake a lot of people up. It's going to make them look at themselves in a different way and to become hungry - first of all to perceive that they are not a mistake. They are perfectly designed and that their life has a purpose and to be hungry about discovering what that purpose is and fulfilling it; that is what life is, and I think that this film is just going to turn a lot of people's lives on.
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