Margaret Avery as Mama Jenkins in "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins", now in theaters across the U.S. and Canada.  (Photo: David Lee/Universal Pictures)

Welcome Home, Margaret Avery

After an unforgettable performance as Shug Avery in "The Color Purple" in 1985 and a small role in "White Man's Burden" in 1995, Margaret Avery triumphantly returns to the big screen on her own terms in "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins"

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

February 8, 2008

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"I've reached a point in my life, thank goodness, where I don't have to depend on the business anymore.  So if I don't enjoy it, I don't want to do it.  After a while, you get spoiled."

Thirty-five glorious years in the Hollywood film business has made Margaret Avery wiser and naturally more introspective.  She spoke last week in a telephone conference call before several journalists.  One of the legends of cinema has been on a sojourn of sorts, not necessarily because she wants to, but because the things that galvanized her to do work -- namely the quality of that work -- simply weren't in the roles being offered to her, even after being Oscar-nominated in 1986 for her role as lounge singer Shug Avery in "The Color Purple" (1985).  For Ms. Avery the energy of pursuit has apparently taken the joy and exhilaration out of the process of finding the right role.  "It's probably more work trying to go after the work than it is to do the work.  So it's that, and then, what are the opportunities?  Because that's what got me off on another track -- not having the roles there that were challenging and worth my time.  So I kind of went into another field," said Ms. Avery, who among other things in the intervening years spanning Mr. Spielberg's adaptation of Alice Walker's novel and beyond Desmond Nakano's "White Man's Burden" (1995) has starred in a number of films that she says were straight-to-video projects.

Despite a lack of good roles to sink her acting chops into, Ms. Avery is happy and at peace with the decisions she has made in her onscreen career.  She has also graced Broadway and other stages as a theater performer on numerous occasions.

One thing about Hollywood for the seasoned actress that gave her some peace of mind was the realization that "once I stopped defining who I am and my value through the industry it became less important to me because there's so much about (show business) that's out of the talent's control," she revealed.  What gratifies the Oklahoma-born Ms. Avery most in 2008 is her place as a transitional figure --- specifically a person who is an agent of change and growth in Hollywood.  "As long as I'm working with people, and young people and (they) can see that I'm a part of the change that's being made, and I'm making a difference with them -- that's the most important thing," she said.

The actress spoke about her mother, who passed away in July of 1998, and said that she was able to take care of her very well before she passed.  Had Ms. Avery been ensconced in Hollywood working what would have been 12-hour days in Los Angeles, she said there would have been no possibility to devote valuable time and attention to the utmost important matters of family.  "I wouldn't have been able to oversee the things that I did.  And it was important to me that my mother go out with dignity.  And she did.  So I felt good about that," reflected Ms. Avery.  In her comments about Hollywood, Ms. Avery says she is not saying that the industry is bad, rather that she's just acknowledging the reality that "show business is a full-time thing."

Margaret Avery encourages young people who aspire to make it big in Hollywood "to learn to write."  And of Malcolm D. Lee, the director of "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins", the comedy in which she stars as Mama Jenkins, she says that his experience as an actor and a writer was key to her getting on board the film, which is playing now in theaters across the U.S. and Canada.  Though she didn't explicitly say so, she was initially skeptical however, about being in it, but "loved" Mr. Lee's film "The Best Man".  Ms. Avery revealed that she did not know who the "Roscoe Jenkins" cast would be, but she trusted him and was amused by a "very funny script".  She recalled being pleasantly surprised when she arrived on the set for filming last year in Shreveport, Louisiana and found that James Earl Jones, among other talented actors and actresses, was part of the cast.  (Mr. Jones plays Roscoe Jenkins senior, the father of Martin Lawrence's title character, a self-help guru from Hollywood who reluctantly returns to his roots, visiting his rather eccentric family.)

Ms. Avery finds that it is harder to divorce herself from an intense role, whether on stage or screen.  "It was fun doing that film," she said of "Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins".  By contrast, she received a Drama Circle Critics Award for her performance in a play years ago called "The Tiger Wears The Necktie", in which she played a very intense role.  The preparation so thorough for her role in "Necktie", which ran at Los Angeles' Zodiac Theater, that during television interviews held the next day parts of her stage character would emerge.  "I could see that it was hard to be so entrenched in one thing dramatically and go into something else.  And for that reason I don't like to do heavy, heavy dramatic roles on theater or in film when they're shooting around a holiday, because I don't want to be down for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's.  Those are supposed to be family and up-time, you know what I mean?"  For "Necktie" she said she would pour over every detail of the script, each and every day of the play's stage run.

These days, more comedy is on the way for the Oscar-nominated actress, as Ms. Avery has wrapped up filming Tyler Perry's upcoming "Meet The Browns", which stars Angela Bassett.  The film is scheduled for release in the U.S. and Canada within the next few months.

Though years of playing indelible characters by all accounts should have led to bigger opportunities in Hollywood especially after an Oscar nomination, Ms. Avery is not bitter at all, perhaps more relieved than anything that she hasn't lost a sense of herself, as some actors in the industry do.  Still, Margaret Avery conveyed a learning experience that taught her a lot early on in Hollywood.  She recalled her first film experience, in 1972, on the set of "Cool Breeze".  She was on camera shooting a bathtub scene with co-star Raymond St. Jacques, who was Ms. Avery's acting coach prior to the film.  "And the way it was written in the script, I didn't have to show anything," she recalled.  Bubbles discreetly covered her breasts, so that only her shoulders would be revealed. 

["In (acting) class", Ms. Avery remembered, Mr. St. Jacques, who has since passed, said to her that "'some people cannot take a private moment'".  Ms. Avery, sitting in the first row in class, was repulsed by an acting student who decided as part of his private moment in Mr.  St. Jacques's acting class of private moments, to actually urinate in front of everyone.  He said that he was acting as if he was urinating, and obviously took it a step further than merely acting.]

"This is a story that I've never shared," Ms. Avery continued, who didn't know that Mr. St. Jacques would play the character she shares the bathtub with in "Cool Breeze". 

"So now I'm in this bathtub with . . . so here I am in the bathtub (with St. Jacques), and he starts wiping away my bubbles!  From my breasts!  And I'm thinking, 'why is he doing this?'  I totally went out of character as far as my subtext was going.  And he's looking right at me.  And so the lesson that I've learned is -- see I didn't know how to speak up for myself.  Because I thought that -- I was taught at that time, 'don't ever come to the set without knowing your lines, don't ever stop anything, or you'll never work again . . . because if you don't know your lines then you've cost the (film) company money.  And I wish to this day that I said, 'Hey.  I didn't agree to do a nude scene.  And that's not what this is gonna be.  And from that day on, anything that I don't like, that I didn't agree to, I stopped," Ms. Avery revealed.

Ms. Avery said that she now directly questions anything on a film set that doesn't suit her well personally, makes her uncomfortable or places her in an exploitive light. 

"They know what my boundaries are.  And I've learned to do that as a hot-headed Aries, now, I'm telling you something, I've learned to do that nicely."

"Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins" is now playing in the U.S. and Canada.

Margaret Avery at the 2006 Black Movie Awards.  (Photo courtesy: Flickr)

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