Kimberly Elise Kimberly Elise

When Film Life's Black Movie Awards are televised for the first time ever (Wednesday at 10 pm/ET, on TNT), one very special guest of honor will be Kimberly Elise, the Diary of a Mad Black Woman headliner who has been named this year's Rising Star. Elise, currently playing no-nonsense prosecutor Maureen Scofield on CBS' Close to Home (Tuesdays at 10 pm/ET), shared with what it means to merit such kudos from her peers. What was your reaction when you learned you'd be receiving the Rising Star award?
Kimberly Elise: It was really overwhelming. I just sort of quietly do my work, so I was touched to see that people have seen it and respond to it and wanted to take a time-out to say that they like it, and encourage me to keep going. And it was very... I don't even know what the word is to describe the feeling of Cicely Tyson presenting me with the award. That was staggering. Did you know it would be her?
Elise: We're friends and she calls me every couple weeks or so, and she said she wasn't going to be there actually, so she kind of tricked me! [Laughs] When she came out on stage, I said, "Oh, she's here! Look at how beautiful she looks." And then I glanced over at the [Rising Star graphic on the] screen and realized, "She's here for me!" When it all came together, I was just overwhelmed. It must be surreal for you, a thirtysomething actress, to see a montage of your career.
Elise: It was, it really was. There was stuff I hadn't seen or thought about in a long time. I'd have been like, "Am I dying? Does somebody know something I don't?"
Elise: [Laughs] Yeah. And yet I feel like there's so much ahead of me, that the best is yet to come. I've had marvelous opportunities, and there is so much more inside me. I'm looking forward to another ton of years ahead of me. How long did it take to prepare your speech?
Elise: I had one prepared, but when I saw it come up on the TelePrompTer, it just wasn't what I was feeling in the moment, so I spoke what I felt from my heart. I worked on it all week long and then I didn't say a word of it! [Laughs] Why do you think the Black Movie Awards are so important? Some may argue that such segregation isn't needed.
Elise: Well, sometimes it feels like the other award shows are kind of segregated, where you don't get recognized so much. I feel that if we did not celebrate ourselves, there would be many, many people who would just go through life and never know that their work had been seen and valued. You want to know that what you're doing is affecting people and that you're doing a good job, and this is one way to say it very loudly and very strongly. I've never been nominated for any major award. I've never set foot in any of those auditoriums.... Films such as Diary and Hustle & Flow might command critical kudos, but sill not get their due.
Exactly. Diary made huge box office, close to $60 million and still, chances are it will be ignored for whatever reason, and that's a shame because it was a great film that was unique and took chances. The work across the board is stellar, and it deserves the same recognition as the same type of film with an all-white cast, which would get that type of recognition. In prepping for this Q&A, I found a movie poster for Diary that I had never seen before. It was basically a silhouette of your head made to look like a purple orchid.
Elise: It was beautiful, like a piece of art. But it presents Diary as a much different movie and more important than the poster that was used.
Elise: Right. The poster you saw is far more representative of the heart and the soul of the film. Publicity decides what they're going to do, and maybe they didn't think audiences would see something that looked like it was substantial and starred black people. Ms. Tyson says much about integrity in choosing roles. Of which of yours are you most proud?
Elise: All of them; there's not a one that I hide from. They all spoke to me in a different way. One that I really love is The Loretta Claiborne Story, [a TV-movie] which deals with a black woman who has mental retardation, and that's something I don't think we've ever really seen. It's not a pity party, it's a power party, which is a great image, I think, for all audiences to see. Who is your pick for a rising black star?
Elise: The people I really respect are very much under the radar, undeservedly so. Like Viola Davis — she had like three scenes and barely said three lines in Antwone Fisher and was the highlight of the film. I think she should be in a whole lot more stuff and when she is given the opportunity, she will win an Academy Award. A lot of people are like that, quietly doing great work and haven't been married with the great opportunity yet. What drew you to Close to Home?
Elise: As an artist, I want to sample a lot of different things, and I wanted to sample television and see what that is. I don't have that whole "I only do films" snobbery thing. Plus, it's Jerry Bruckheimer [producing it], it's really high quality and it's a great character who I'm having a fun time watching develop and morph into this complicated no-nonsense moralistic woman. For me it's an opportunity to put a realistic image out there of a human being that will reach more people in one evening than would see one of my films in an entire run. Also, it's a great job for a mother [of two girls, ages 7 and 15] such as me, to be able to be with my children every day and not miss their lives. Maureen came across pretty hard in the pilot, but they're been softening her up a bit.
Elise: Yeah, and that was really important to me. I was sort of turned off by the pilot and passed on it a couple times. I talked to [series creator] Jim Leonard and told him I don't want to play this mad black woman on TV every week, that she has to be a real human being if I'm going to do the show, and he was in complete agreement. Now Maureen is very complicated and realistic, and not so villainous. Is there any word yet on getting a full-season pickup? I can't imagine why CBS wouldn't.
Elise: We don't know yet, we don't know. Whatever happens, happens!