Alfre Woodard and Jamie Foxx On Playing Roles Set In Prisons

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Dec 05, 2019

This holiday season, two feature films on the lives of people who live and work in prisons will be released: “Just Mercy” (in select theaters December 25) and “Clemency” (in theaters December 27). 

On December 4, the stars of each film spoke separately on camera about their roles. Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx joined the The Hollywood Reporter’s “Actor Roundtable” to discuss playing Walter McMillian, a man who was sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit and the subject of Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy.” And Alfre Woodard, the actress who has a total of 17 Emmy nominations for 16 different roles, spoke with Deadline’s "The Actor’s Side" about her performance as a prison warden overseeing executions for the Sundance Film Festival Grand Prize-winner “Clemency.” Below are excerpts from their respective interviews: 

Foxx, on finding inspiration to play McMillan and the experience of shooting in a real prison: 


My father was an educator for 25 years in the hood. He dedicated his life to saving Black kids in the hood and they ended up putting him in jail for $25 worth of illegal substance for seven years. That was a huge thing that I carried inside. I didn't share it with a lot of people.


The one moment when the cuffs were being put on me, they had a guy who was part of the prison system, wasn’t part of the movie, and he kept saying, “Squeeze it tighter. Cause he's bigger one.” There were a couple times when I was like, “Hey, man, they're tight enough.” He doesn’t know he’s saying something that is taking me to [a place]…But that's his everyday life. We become so used to it too. I was talking to Bryan Stevenson about changing the perception, because the perception kills us. The reason I don’t want to go see somebody in jail is because I don't want to get used to that. So many people are used to seeing their father, their brother, their mothers in jail. And the next thing you know, we start rapping about it. We rap about being in jail because this is all we see.

Watch the video, below, of Foxx, courtesy of THR. The full episode premieres on Sundance TV January 19, 2020:

Woodard, on preparing herself to play a warden and doing the research in prisons for her role:


Playing Bernadine, the prison warden, was not tough because we did in-depth homework. Chinonye Chukwu, the filmmaker, she worked in the Ohio prisons for years, and she decided this was the story she wanted to tell. We talk about being pro or con death penalty, and we have for years, but no one has ever considered what happens to the people that we charge with carrying out these executions. That’s why I came on. We discovered what that was when she took me on a prison tour. We went through maximum security, minimum security, men’s, women’s. I met wardens…I met with people who have overseen over 12 executions. And we had the chance to have conversations with condemned men. So once you do that, once you go into those spaces and you’re listening, you’re really doing what an actor does which is absorbing… It takes a person of compassion and respect to say, “I’m sorry, no.” Or, “what would you like to eat for your last meal?” 

Check out Woodard’s complete interview here.