By Lolis Eric Elie
What made you want to do this role?
It was less about the role in this particular instance because I didn't know that much about [Toni Bernette] except she would be an attorney. Everybody says civil rights -- I don't call her a civil rights attorney myself. Bleeding heart, maybe. But mostly it was David Simon. I had worked with him years ago on 'Homicide,'' and I wanted back on television. He called and proposed what making an ensemble once a week television show might look like, with the writers driving the carriage. And that sounded really interesting. He sent me some pages. I thought, "There's no way in hell I'm dressing up like a sperm come Mardi Gras." And then you cut to several months later and I've been down here awhile and I've seen the goings-on in the street and I would have been a fool not to dress like a sperm come Mardi Gras.
In preparing to play Toni Bernette, what did you have to do?
Preparing to work is a continual process, especially playing someone who is a small part of a larger whole with a great huge arc to get through -- not only this show but also this season and in all good hope, five years of quality television. So what you are calling a preparation, what you're asking about, it is far too complicated an answer for this actor to even begin. But basically, first there's the script. And then there're the writers to go to, as a sounding board. Then I have wonderful Mary Howell [the public interest lawyer who is the inspiration for the Toni Bernette character], whom I am not "playing," but who has lived a parallel life to Toni Bernette. I would not go to Mary to access how something should be played in the script. I'd go to Mary for larger strokes.
Then there's a costume department that always helps me find who the woman is by the kinds of clothing she wears and how she wears them.
When you look at television you assume, "That's what the character would wear. How difficult could it have been?" But in fact, a lot of thought goes into that.
Yeah. Usually, too little, in television. We all have closets -- you, me, Toni Bernette. And sometimes you might play someone who never wears the same thing twice. I'm a person like that. I have a bunch of clothes in my closet, but I rarely put them together in the same way. But I've begged them to keep Toni's closet small and familiar to the audience. I think a major misstep in a lot of television is new clothing every episode. It is in the specificity that we make this pretending we do seem real. Every detail matters. The broader strokes don't even matter as much.
You have spoken out about ageism in Hollywood.
People say I've spoken out about ageism. I'm just recounting facts that I know. I'm anti-ageist. I'm anti anything that limits and constricts human beings. I see a vast similarity between a black male actor and a white lady actor. We both get cut from the sh**ty end of the cloth. They get the white guy first. And that's just how it's always been. I don't have an ageism problem. I got a problem with generally accepted norms for casting throughout the entire industry. And they cast the wrong people in the wrong parts and that's a shame. It's a much bigger, more general, more encompassing thought than, "Oh, us poor old ladies."
How does it feel to be an Oscar winner?
I was presented with an Oscar by Kirk Douglass. You then walk backstage and are put through a series of interviews. And all the interviewers want to know how you feel. I don't know because I am standing here talking to you. I don't know how I feel. I have a camera in my face, and I have to worry about how I look because of that, and now you're asking me how I feel? It's wonderful. It's awesome.