Just A Minute With: Angela Bassett on "Notorious"

LOS ANGELES (Reuters Life!) - Angela Bassett likes jazz more than rap, but in her latest film she plays the mother of slain rapper Christopher Wallace in “Notorious,” which depicts the rap world at a violent time.

Voletta Wallace (R), mother of slain rapper Christopher "Notorious B.I.G" Wallace arrives with actress Angela Bassett to the premiere of the film "Notorious" in New York January 7, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The movie, which debuts in U.S. theaters on January 16, takes place in the mid-1990s when an East Coast versus West Coast rivalry raged between the backers of L.A.-based hip hop star Tupac Shakur and Brooklyn-born Wallace, whose stage name was The Notorious B.I.G.

Shakur was slain in 1996. Wallace was murdered the following year. Both killings are unsolved. Bassett said the murders made her feel the “brightest stars had just fallen out of the sky.”

The Yale-educated Bassett, 50, who was nominated for an Oscar for playing singer Tina Turner in 1993 film “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” spoke to Reuters about the film, working with her husband and her hopes for President-elect Barack Obama.

Q: What experiences or memories of your own mother did you draw on in playing the role?

A: “She always pulled our coat-tails and it was as if she had spies everywhere. So we feared our mom and knew that news would get back to her. It was also more of a community, that if they saw me hitchhiking way across town, copying what the other kids did, I would get an earful from my neighbor, and then I would get an earful plus from my mom when I got home.”

Q: In 2006, you and your husband, Courtney B. Vance, became parents to twins. How does being a mom influence your job playing a mom in a movie like “Notorious”?

A: “I don’t think that it changes it too much because I’ve always had a yearning for children, and seeing that they do well and they have exposure and resources. I knew how important it was to me that the community cared about me and pushed me and believed in me and championed me and held high expectations for me. ... I appreciate that in my own life, so whenever I work with young people and I portray their mother, I feel as if I am. I look out for them on the set.

Q: You are known for appearing in a number of biopics. You’ve played singer Tina Turner, Michael Jackson’s mom, Betty Shabazz, wife of slain black leader Malcolm X, and now Voletta Wallace. When you play a real-life character, do you feel under more scrutiny to get the role right than if you play a fictional character?

A: “Oh yeah, absolutely. People are known. People are loved, or hated, or whatever the case may be. The women I’ve played, they’ve been really highly regarded women, so yes you do want to satisfy the demand for their life, as much as possible in this medium.”

Q: On the TV show “ER” this season you play a doctor and Courtney Vance plays your husband. Is it easier or harder to portray a married couple when you happen to be married to your co-star in real life?

A: “I find it harder. It should be easier but it’s harder. When you don’t know someone you always put your best foot forward, your best face. ... You try to accommodate each other. Or, you either approach him or you don’t approach him. With your husband you’re like, ‘Let’s rehearse,’ and he’s like, ‘I don’t like to do that.’ Someone I just met who was in a scene with me would never have said that to me.”

Q: When President-elect Obama is inaugurated on January 20 you will be attending “The Inaugural Purple Ball” in Washington, D.C. The event is going to honor U.S. troops, and it’s also dedicated to overcoming partisan divide in the U.S. Do you think the rift between Democrats and Republicans is likely to heal in the coming months under the Obama administration?

A: “I think so. I hope so, and I think he as president, his personality, his ethic, his intellect, his way of dealing with people, talking to people, his appreciation of others and sensitivities, I think he’ll make every effort to reach out.”

Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Patricia Reaney