Talking to Khandi Alexander

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By Lolis Eric Elie

Khandi Alexander is the cat’s pajamas.”  — Eric Overmyer

For Khandi Alexander, ‘Treme’ represented another chance to work with David Simon. The two had first joined forces on ‘The Corner,’ an HBO miniseries based on a book David co-authored with Ed Burns. When David and Eric Overmyer were creating ‘Treme,’ they approached Khandi to play LaDonna Batiste-Williams, a mother, wife and bar owner whose fiery independence is being put to the test with this season’s plot twists.

My conversation with her was supposed to be about the current season and how Khandi the actor has been dealing with the attack that LaDonna the character suffers in the third episode of season 2 (entitled “On Your Way Down”). But before we could get to that topic, Khandi was revealing fascinating details about her approach to creating her characters. On ‘The Corner,’ she played Fran Boyd, a real-life Baltimore heroin addict who has since turned her life around in a dramatic fashion.

To this day, Khandi and Fran maintain a friendship born during the production of ‘The Corner.’ I wondered whether Khandi had found any real-life parallels to the LaDonna character in New Orleans.

Khandi Alexander: Yes. Yes I have. I was very fortunate. I came in one month prior to filming the pilot. I worked at several bars in Treme slinging beers, and I got to know people. I spent the night at a couple of people’s houses. I did the whole thing. I was looking for her from the time I got here. I don’t think I was looking for her in particular this day, but I found myself shopping in places I knew she’d be, the little bodegas and things like that. And it just happened this one day she was at the register and I just looked at everything she had on. I listened to what she was saying, looked at what she was buying, cigarettes, etc. I said, “That’s her.” I followed her a couple of blocks. Finally, I had to approach her. So I said, “I know it sounds crazy, but …” She knew who I was, so she went along with me. Then we went back to the hotel and exchanged clothes. I bought the clothes off her back and I wore them for a week.

 It was emotionally very disturbing, to put myself in the middle of the life of someone who survived Katrina. It’s so raw. It’s far better now, now on the other side of the Saints having won the Super Bowl and years going by. But at that time, we were very new. The story we were telling was something people were cautious about. We wanted to be as respectful as possible and yet tell the truth. So you’re walking a fine line.

I always like to find the physical embodiment of my character. I really enjoy that aspect of my work. When I did research for ‘CSI: Miami,’ we went to Miami-Dade County and Los Angeles County, and I met with several coroners and top forensic medical examiners. They were predominately white males. Until, finally, the most breathtakingly beautiful woman in a mini skirt and high heels and hair down to her waist showed up. Full-on lipstick, 4-inch pumps, the whole thing, and I was like, “What?” And she told me that because she dealt with death all the time she could easily allow herself to wear sweatpants 24 hours a day. So she made the effort to hold on to her femininity and even took it to the extreme. So she was who I based that character on. That’s why I’d be in a swamp in high heels and people would go, “Well what are you doing?” I said, “Trust me, I know. This really does happen.”  

Q: When you got the script for the episode “On Your Way Down” were you shocked? Had you had any preparation for what was going to happen in that attack scene?

KA: Well, I’ve got to tell you the most interesting thing; before they gave me this script, David Simon and [episode writer] James Yoshimura came and talked to me. I was saying to them, “But she goes out fighting right?” I was the actress demanding of the creators that they make sure this character is fighting on the way out because I’m thinking, “They’re telling me they are going to kill this character off.” And I’m thinking, “That’s cool. As long as she goes out fighting. As long as you ain’t taking me out like a punk.” So all this time, I had no idea. I honestly thought, “Okay we’re going to wrap it up.” I really did. It was the craziest thing.