Angela Bassett always understands the assignment. Whether she’s tasked with stepping into the iconic pumps of a legend, ruling Wakanda with equal parts regal flair and empathetic wisdom or flexing her comedic timing as the baddest of the bad bitches, Bassett has never delivered a disappointing performance.
Offscreen, she’s known for shutting down red carpets simply by showing up, being the walking embodiment of Black Don’t Crack, and for her decades of expansive philanthropy. But when you are a Black actress as prolific as Bassett, duty extends beyond onscreen consistency and red carpet reliability. When you’re a Black legend — especially a legendary Black woman — there’s an expectation to be all things to the community and also a perfect representative to those outside of it.
But Bassett doesn’t see any of that as a burden. In fact, she’s taking on her responsibilities to speak up for Black women as a blessing. When Bassett joins R29Unbothered over Zoom from Los Angeles, the assignment is a somber one: she’s working with the American Heart Association to raise awareness about cardiovascular disease and its connection to type 2 diabetes, which disproportionately affects Black people. Bassett lost her mother to diabetes and knows firsthand how important it is for Black women to be armed with information when navigating a healthcare system that consistently fails us.
“It starts with education, advocacy, and being there for your loved ones and for yourself,” Bassett says. And on whether it’s bittersweet to have to take on this advocacy, Bassett is unwavering. “By giving, you receive. By giving yourself, a funny thing happens: you receive some comfort also.”
Talking to Angela Bassett is a comfort in and of itself, mainly because she’s thoughtful and generous, and she drops gems of advice as easily as she reminisces about Tina Turner. But it’s also clear that the comfort Bassett has received by giving — herself, her work, her endless lewks — to the culture has sustained her through her illustrious career. That famous glow (seriously, she glows through the screen) isn’t in spite of her age (she’s 62 years young) but because of it. There’s beauty in those decades of lessons, baby.
Here, Bassett talks about her upcoming event, Know Diabetes by Heart at the Theater (a virtual night at the Apollo Theater in Harlem), the public fascination with her age, the secret to love and longevity (she’s been married to Courtney B. Vance for 24 years) and sharing in grief and responsibility with her late co-star Chadwick Boseman’s wife Simone Ledward-Boseman, another Black woman who has had to speak out about a disease that impacts the Black community (Boseman died of colon cancer last year). The reason Bassett excels at every job she’s given is clear: she just really cares about us.
R29 Unbothered: You are empowering Black women to take care of our health considering, as we know, the Black community faces higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. How can we do that, especially when it comes to type 2 diabetes?
Angela Bassett: “It’s about making structural changes. But it’s also about arming yourself with information. You can do that when you go to your doctor and develop a plan. Those are the first steps. But, like with anything, it doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a day at a time, a step at a time, a point at a time, and we can make it happen. We can change things.”
As my acting teacher would say, years ago, ‘Angela, you are heartbroken. Use it for good. Use it in the world.’ So I use that experience, as opposed to being devastated by it.
We know that Black people are three times as likely to end up in the hospital for uncontrolled diabetes. That stat is so frightening, especially when you factor in the reality of Black women being overlooked and mistreated by the healthcare system in America.
AB: “We need this knowledge for each other. Had I known more about [diabetes] at the time and what my mother was dealing with [before she died], perhaps there was something I could have done. I could have been that lion. I could be that strength when it was overwhelming for her. Especially as a very mature woman, it’s a lot. But we were looking in other directions. We were taking care of the day-to-day, her comfort or whatever. We were focusing on the outside that we see as opposed to the inside, which is very, very important. And that’s in the numbers, the science, the blood work, and the doctor. Sometimes doctors are placed in this demigod position, and we just have to all be on terra firma, on firm ground. Get the information that we need, find someone that can hear us, be knowledgeable, and take those steps with us.”
Absolutely. Knowledge is power. Hearing you talk about this initiative and the intersection between the Black community and this disease, I can’t help but think of Simone Ledward Boseman, Chadwick Boseman’s wife. She used this past award season to talk about colon cancer and how it affects Black men. She was also dealing with losing a loved one, like you did, to a disease that disproportionately affects us. Can you talk about if there was any connection you felt watching her do those speeches, and if this work feels a bit like a burden or a responsibility?
AB: “I think I only heard the Golden Globes speech, but I’ve been in her presence, and I sense the strength and dignity of this woman. The strength that she has, that she possesses. And the strength that he possessed, and that his spirit is still here. Though he was very private about [his disease], now that we are at this moment, she’s using that to say, ‘Look into this.’ But I know it is painful and hurtful. She’s still very close to it. I am six years removed from [my mother’s death], so I’m able to put it in a place where I can deal with it and assess it. And as my acting teacher would say, years ago, ‘Angela, you are heartbroken. Use it for good. Use it in the world.’ So I use that experience, as opposed to being devastated by it. Use it for good to illuminate and to help others who may be going through the same thing. That’s what we’re both doing.”
I have to ask you about the amazing Tina Turner documentary, Tina, that just came out and has sparked a resurgence of praise for your role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It. Did you know back then that it would be a definitive role of your career?
AB: “I knew it would be definitive in some way, for good or not, depending on what performance I was able to give [Laughs]. Yeah. There’s some moments that you meet that you have to address head on. You can’t say no. You can’t refuse. You don’t know which way it’s going to go, but you have to have courage. That’s not the absence of fear, but you have to go into it anyway and give your best, work hard. From day one I didn’t think, oh, this is going to be a slam dunk and I’m going to be on top of the mountain. No, not at all. I thought, Well, I could fail miserably and have that narrative. Fortunately, it turned out the way it turned out.
I didn’t think, oh, this is going to be a slam dunk and I’m going to be on top of the mountain. Not at all. I thought, Well, I could fail miserably and have that narrative.
ANGELA BASSETT ON PLAYING TINA TURNER
It turned out as one of the most iconic performances of all time! Have you watched the documentary?
AB: “I have seen the documentary, and I think it’s wonderful. I was part of it, maybe about three or four years ago. And it was a very easy day. I showed up, said a few words. It was very easy. Once you have everything together, a documentary tells its own story and this one did beautifully. So beautifully.”
I want to ask about love and longevity. People talk about you and your husband, Courtney B. Vance as “couple goals.” What are the relationship goals that you set in your life that keep your marriage going?
AB: “I think that I continue to hold on to me. I hold on to me and I let him be him. I let him do his best. I let him do his worst. I encourage him to go back to his best [laughs]. I consider him in decisions around the house, but decisions about my career, it’s what I respond to. And he accepts what I want. When we first got together, he’s an actor, I’m an actor, but I’m not going to read your scripts and tell you what roles to do or what you should do. I’m going to encourage you in the dreams and desires and the musings that you have, and I expect the same with me.
I’m pretty independent, but I’m very loyal. And I’m just going to be me. You have to start that from the beginning. He’s loyal, decent, upstanding, and supportive. And I saw all those things. So when you go through life and you make a misstep and maybe he does something where he doesn’t consult me or I feel like I’m the last to know, I remember all those other qualities that he has, and it cancels the rest out. It makes whatever little misunderstandings completely forgivable and forgettable.”
That’s some very good marriage advice. I want to talk about wellness and aging as a Black woman. You’ve talked about how when people compliment you, they’ll say, “Oh, you don’t look your age.” And people tend to couch these compliments with denying aging. How has your relationship with beauty and aging changed over the years?
AB: “I think maybe early on I just didn’t think about it too much. But now I think that I got to get some sort of movement of my body in. Just because now I wake up in the morning and I’m always feeling that lower back pain [Laughs]. Or sometimes with kids my pressure is going up, so I’ve got to get some cardio in. I can’t eat the way I used to eat. And I love sweets and that sort of thing. I find my son loves that too. My daughter’s got herself together. She’s going to be okay. I want to be like her when I grow up.
I just have to be mindful of little areas that you take for granted when you’re young, and you just bounce back like that. And also just the whole idea of what we’re hearing more about self-care. Take care of yourself mentally, physically, spiritually, of course. Because that’s who we are, we’re not just a physical being.”
What would you say is the one thing you do every day to stay on track with your self-care journey?
AB: “One thing? Breathe deeply. Actually, there’s two things: Trying to go to bed at a decent hour and just trying to be grateful for everything. Being grateful for everything that I have, and for others around me, and knowing that we all have something to add to this thing called life. And so I focus on not being selfish, but grateful.”
I love that those were so internal. I think when we talk about self-care right now, a lot of it is about the external. Like take a bubble bath or put on a face mask.
I loved, loved your appearance on A Black Lady Sketch Show. We’re having this conversation in pop culture right now about more joyful Black roles. So in the future, do you want to do more comedy?
AB: “I always welcome that opportunity. I was glad when Black Lady Sketch Show reached out to me. I was sad that I didn’t have the time this year. It didn’t coincide. I’m always looking for that [joy.] Even in the roles that are a little bit more serious, or situations like we’re about like the event with diabetestheater.org on May 25th to bring more awareness to the link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It’s a very, very heavy topic. Right? Of course. But it’s about finding a way to bring more joy even into that dialogue and in the monologue that I’ll be delivering, but also to infuse those things that are so wonderful in our culture, whether it’s break dancing or jazz, or singing. It’s about somehow weaving in the joy and the joie de vivre of life even into that situation. So it becomes more palatable and you can hear it more and take those gems of wisdom with you.”
Because you are Angela Thee Bassett, I’m sure everyone asks you for your advice. So, what is the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?
AB: “What popped in my head is going to be crazy [laughs]. Lloyd Richards said to me, “Don’t waive the rubber chicken.” Which I think I could extrapolate and put that in other situations. I had rarely done anything on television, so I was bigger than life. I was as big as I was on the stage, which is too much for television. He was saying, ‘Don’t wave the rubber chicken’ because he was speaking to subtlety. There’s goodness, there’s strength, there’s grace, there’s power in being subtle sometimes. And reflective. Be reflective and quiet. And vulnerable. There’s great strength in that. So you see from that little phrase I got all of that [Laughs]. Those are good lessons, to be vulnerable, to be reflective, to be subtle. Along with the laughter, the joy and the loudness. Everything at its right time.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Click HERE to read more from Refinery29