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Whoopi

Rolling Stone Interview May 8, 1986

WHOOPI GOLDBERG The Oscar-nominated star of 'The Color Purple' worked hard for it, honey


STEVE ERICKSON

Very suddenly, at a velocity resembling All At Once, she became very big.

It's a week and a half before the Academy Awards. I seem to be the only person in America who hasn't been exposed to what must be referred to as the Whoopi Goldberg Phenomenon. Six months ago I would not have felt so lonely. At that time Goldberg, while an object of cult veneration on Broadway for her one-woman show, was but a peculiar and exotic name to the rest of America, save those who saw her HBO special or popped for her record album on the basis of word of mouth. Now her name recognition is through the roof. Face recognition follows only inches behind.

Her life story, which seems to be repeated by everyone but herself, has taken on a quality so mythic as to sound a little apocryphal: growing from a child with no father in a New York City housing project, to a San Diego welfare mother with a failed marriage and a junkie past; then pulling herself together to build a reputation in Berkeley for improvisational theater and returning home to Manhattan to stun Mike Nichols, the critics and Steven Spielberg. Debuting as a film actor in Spielberg's 'The Color Purple' with a performance acclaimed even by the film's detractors, Goldberg has been nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. On talk shows like 'Donahue' the audiences rain on her their fascination; love itself may not be too strong a word for it. In New York Laurence Olivier asks if it would be all right to sit and talk with her an hour or so about acting. At dinner Elizabeth Taylor passes along her phone number. Whoopi's public-relations person fondly remembers the day her manager called to say he had found "the Actress of the Century."

The Actress of the Century? Well this is Hollywood, where it isn't enough to be the actress of the hour, or the moment; everyone has been the actress of the moment at one moment or another. But even by the standards of Hollywood inflation, the furor over Whoopi Goldberg, fanned by desperate reminders from the East Coast that New York, after all, discovered her first, is something out of the ordinary. And the Dismantling of Whoopi--that dialectical reaction by which a celebrity-crazed media will turn around to cut her down to size--will probably be out of the ordinary, too, when it comes. In some ways it may have already begun. Her credibility with the counterculture, impeccable up until six months ago, took it's first blows by fault of association with Spielberg ('The Village Voice' called 'The Color Purple' "an Amos 'n' Andy for the '80s") while the mainstream culture mines that same association for stories that magnify every minor disagreement with the director into a full-fledged star tantrum. It's a perfectly familiar irony of the times that the press that tried so hard to make Whoopi Goldberg a star now complains that she acts like one.

In truth, Goldberg, reaching this pinnacle around the age of thirty-six, in many ways resists stardom. But this is that enthralling, potentially lethal point in a career launch when acceleration, gravity and the inaccessibility of higher heavens test the stability of the structure going up; and resistance to the trajectory, attractive as it may be in principle, does not make scientific sense. Whoopi Goldberg, in other words, may now simply be the passenger on her own ride.

FIVE DAYS BEFORE THE ACADEMY AWARDS, GOLDBERG is at her house in San Francisco's Bay Area. She's sitting on a low wall in her back garden, wearing an ever-present baseball jersey with a gray felt hat pulled over her head; her finger is in the mouth of her neighbor's new baby. "You press the finger against the soft upper palate of the mouth and they suck," is the first thing she says to me. "They don't know nothing's coming out." The house has stood in its place nearly a century. Goldberg tells me it used to be a birthing center; her secretary says it used to be a dairy barn. In a century it could have been both. The house isn't to be found in the Tony hills that overlook the bay, where one might expect to find the residence of a star, but in one of the neighborhoods populated by students and blacks and hippies. "I'm still a hippie, you know," Goldberg says. "I still want peace and love in the world, I still want all that stuff." Not so far away is where her eleven-year-old daughter, Alexandrea, goes to school.

It's a pleasant house but, like the neighborhood, not particularly conspicuous. Whoopi hangs on a little to the Time That Fame Forgot--not a time before she was Whoopi Goldberg, because she's been that person for a while now, but before she was having to defend herself on talk shows to callers who think her breezy wardrobe does not do the black race justice, back when she was with Berkeley's theatrical Blake Street Hawkeyes. The house is in the middle of transformation. She hastens to justify every new trapping of her good fortune. "This bathtub," she explains, indicating a large, white, old-style porcelain bathtub, "this is the one bourgeois thing I got when everything started to happen, because I always wanted a bathtub like this." A little while later she points out the new bed. "When everything started to happen, I decided the one thing I wanted was a really nice bed--the kind of bed that needs someone to be in it." She presses down on it: "Air mattress," she adds. Still later, standing in the middle of an upstairs loft like bedroom, she says, "When I got some money the one thing I had to have was just some space," and she passes her hands over a two-hundred-square-foot area of carpet. It's a nice-sized room but hardly mind boggling, except maybe to a woman once used to living in one-bedroom apartments with a child, when carpeting and a decent bed were indulgences; now there's something touching in the way she prizes these things. Outside in the parking lot is a red Porsche. "Nice car," I say. She shrugs almost apologetically. "The one boojzhie thing I went in for when, you know..." Well, along with the bed and the bathtub and the space. It's not exactly going to make you forget Imelda Marcos, though. In the garden are chimes and cats, a small fountain and large Popeye head in the corner. She will stare into the garden muttering, almost inaudibly, "I'm so fucking lucky."

Around town they know Whoopi. We eat at a small fish place where customers either react as friends or, as a courtesy, don't react at all. The specialty here is something called buffalo fish, deep fried, half portions of which will feed two or three people. For a while we watch inchworms move up the walls of the restaurant like Slinkys--the back end must always catch up with the front before the front before the front moves on. "I feel like that sometimes," Goldberg says. Sometime during the course of the meal a young black guy in gym clothes, who identifies himself as Jerome, approaches to quietly as Whoopi about pursuing a career "in the same line of endeavor as yourself." He calls her "Miss Goldberg" and reminds her that he spoke to her the day before; she remembers him. She explains she'll be out of town for a month but if he'll give her his phone number she'll get in touch with him afterward and talk to him. I give him some paper, and he writes the number down and stands far away when he does it; he's afraid he smells bad: "I've been working out and I'm a little funky," he apologizes. Where this guy came from isn't clear; he appeared like an inchworm, out of the wall. His speech has the labored precision of having been practiced, and he has probably waited all day to see that red Porsche out in front of the fish place. He looks at me as though he'd give anything to be sitting where I am. Whoopi neither dismisses him nor humiliates him with I-love-to-help-the-little-people condescension. Later she acknowledges a little sadly that these things happen a lot now: "I know they think I can just say, 'Put this one in a movie...' and you try to explain sometimes and they say, 'Well, you just don't want to help.' You want to be able to do everything for everyone and you can't, and that'll kill you. You can die from this stuff because you feel guilty that suddenly you got the cookie. People think I'm running Hollywood."

When Goldberg goes to Los Angeles this evening, she will begin a period of activity in which she will make a commercial with Mickey Mouse and the Muppets for Hands Across America and the nation's hungry; help present the Comic Relief benefit for America's homeless; put the finishing touches on the much troubled production of her second film, "Jumpin' Jack Flash"; plan for the shooting of her third picture, "Burglar"; and attend "that other thing" the following Monday night. That other thing, of course, is the Oscars. "I think about it and I don't think about it," she says when we're driving. "Mostly I don't think about it because everyone else is thinking about it for me, and they try to keep it in and finally they can't anymore. And then I can't." She laughs. Goldberg is traveling these days in a constant cloud of genuine astonishment, alighting at star functions where she finds herself eyeball to eyeball with Elizabeth Taylor or Garson Kanin or Billy Wilder, "and the scary thing is you get there and they know you. They know who you are! so you'll be coming out of the bathroom or something and someone'll stumble back onto your feet and you're just about to say, 'Hey, look.' And they turn around and it's, like, Gene Kelly. And he goes, 'Oh, Whoopi, I'm sorry,' and it's like..." She puts her hands around her throat and croaks in panic. "And you have this conversation with them and you want to say, 'I can't believe I'm standing here talking to you; I'm dying.'" Walking through her house in the afternoon she'll inspect a "Hamlet" poster of Sam Waterson and point out an inscription: "Sam wrote something here," she says, emphasizing the first-name familiarity not to impress but to say, "Do you believe this, me calling him Sam?" Under a large, framed poster of "The Color Purple," I ask if she ever looks at it with momentary disbelief. "Come here," she says, and waves me into the front room where, on the hearth, there is a plaque certifying her nomination for Best Actress: "You want disbelief?" she says with her face. "This is disbelief."

She says everything with her face, and her voice: not the words of the voice but its sound, and the mouth that speaks it. The mouth looks to be from somewhere other than her face, as though it arrived later and decided this was face, after all, that would never upstage it; it is generous of energy, and harbors poltergeist tendencies. On the day I meet her, Whoopi is wearing contact lenses of an utterly disconcerting blue, but her face is so otherworldly, as defined by this mouth, that one almost believes for a moment the blue is hers, too, a nomadic gene that settled in the cornea. And the voice is from somewhere several registers lower than one expects from such a face--bluesy and genderless and elemental.

There are two remarkable scenes in "The Color Purple," in many ways the most remarkable scenes of the film, which might never have worked at all but for that face and that voice. One is in the juke joint when chanteuse Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) sings to Celie (Goldberg), the story's much-abused central character. In the picture's single best bit of acting, Goldberg simply watches Shug, one emotion after another bubbling to the surface of that face, each bursting the emotion that came before and then waiting to be contradicted by the next. "That was the first scene we shot," Goldberg says. "It also was the first time I'd ever been on a soundstage." The other scene--at the dinner table when the women square off against the men, and Celie, of all people, becomes the one to speak for them--was one of the last filmed: "I'd spent two months not hardly saying anything, and I was so ready to talk, and [Spielberg] purposely--which was great, you know--he built it up and, boy, when he said, 'Roll it,' it was like, 'Yes! I'm ready to talk now and I don't give a shit!'" In many ways this scene encapsulates everything that has moved and angered people about the movie: it's undeniably powerful, but it also throws into the sharpest contrast the film's portrayal of the sexes: the women are paragons, and the men either monsters practically drooling into their meals or contemptibly harmless goofs like Harpo, the son of the story's incarnate male-demon, Mr. (played by Danny Glover). It's Goldberg's voice that retains control of the scene, a flowing, rageful mix of experiential pumice and psychic hot springs that persuades us, in a way neither Alice Walker's book nor Spielberg's direction ever quite does, that this set-upon woman is capable of such an insurrection, that such an insurrection was always in her, from the first.

By this time, of course, I'm no longer the world's most underexposed Whoopi Goldberg audience. By this time, I've taken the Whoopi Crash Course, I am steeped in Whoopi: I have seen the movie, I've heard the record of her Broadway show many times, I've watched all the tapes; and it always comes down to the face, the voice. Not that the immaculate body language of characters like Celie and Fontaine the junkie and Surfer Chick and the Jamaican mistress and the Crippled Woman aren't all significant parts of the performances. But it's the face and the voice that own Whoopi Goldberg's best moments, apart from any reading she might give to any particular line: one thinks especially of the way her voice uncoils itself as the body of the Crippled Woman transforms into something "normal" in her dreams. Given this and her accurate self-identification as a character actor, it's remarkable to discover that there's also a face and voice all Whoopi's own, in contrast to those actors who so give themselves to a role that they have no identity at all when removed from it. Goldberg isn't really much like Fontaine or the Jamaican mistress or the Surfer Chick; she's even less like Celie, though she shares with Celie "a kind of shyness, a kind of naiveté," she says, "that I don't like copping to." Goldberg is direct and stripped of affectation, remarkably without bitterness; it she's wary and self-possessed, she also betrays little calculation. She's serious more often than funny, and in the time I knew her she seemed to me one of the least phony people I've ever met. It's fair to say she knows what she wants and assesses her talents accordingly, if not always prophetically; when she first read Walker's novel, she wanted to play the strong, relentless Sofia and argued with Spielberg's decision to cast her in the lead. "I figured Sofia would be a nice little part, a nice little way for me to break into the movies. And when he said, 'No, first of all you're too small to play Sofia as we see her, and you're better suited to play Celie,' and this wall along Alice's idea, I kind of said, 'Oh, I don't know.' And then I realized that Steven Spielberg's sitting there trying to convince me to be in his movie. And it was like"--she slaps herself on the face--"'Wake up, stupid. Say yes.'"

America has been saying yes to Spielberg for so long that it wasn't going to stop just because he transplanted his instincts for sentiment and fable to antoher kind of creature, the black woman, in another kind of suburb, the South. One watches 'The Color Purple' trying to imagine what it would have looked like without big musical numbers and portentous scenes of African spectacle, shot instead in the grit of black and white and liberated of Quincy Jones' unctuous score. More to the point, for a film about transformation, the motivations of emergence and redemption are sidestepped if not exiled from the picture altogether. It would be entirely legitimate that Spielberg decided the lesbianism between Shug and Celie was secondary to bigger themes, except that in the Walker novel it is precisely this passion that finally breaks Celie free of Mr.'s grip, and without it Celie's rebellion seems the invention of a movie rather than a reality of character. Finally, fatally unmotivated--and a figment not of the novel but rather of Spielberg's--is Mr.'s sacrifice at the end, made on behalf of reuniting the woman he's so badly abused for so long with the family he went to such lengths to keep from her.

Its cinematic flaws thus stated, the political rap against the movie seems trendy at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. People who never had a beef with Alice Walker's depiction of black men are suddenly insulted by Spielberg's, which is basically true to Walker's except in the way it's been softened by Mr.'s last nobel, albeit inexplicable, gesture. For the same reasons that only Steven Spielberg, of all people, could have made 'The Color Purple' a hit with Middle America, there was never the slightest chance of his finding credibility with those who now protest the film's alleged racism. When I ask Whoopi Goldberg if any director other than Spielberg would have engendered this kind of controversy, she replies, "If he had been white, probably. If he hadn't been white, probably not." She will defend Spielberg to the end. "He has a wonderment about the world....A lot of people complain, the movie doesn't have enough lesbianism, it doesn't have enough this or enough that. And it is very cute in places. But it's necessary, because in Idaho an din Nebraska, it makes it easier to ingest. It takes it out of the realm of a black movie into a people's movie. [Spielberg's] this open kind of guy: 'I don't know everything, you know some stuff I don't know, I know some stuff you don't know, let's do this together.' It's like we all made this baby. I don't think it will ever be like that again, it will never be that new or that glorious...I'd marry him if I could. But he already did that.

"I thought this furor over the treatment of black men in 'The Color Purple' was a pile of shit. Because here you have this movie, 'Purple Rain'....Prince is a great musician, he's the best of Jimi Hendrix and the best of Little Richard mixed into one person. You can't take talent away, [even though] you may not like someone's politics....But here you have this movie, 'Purple Rain,' where women constantly get smacked around, thrown in trash cans, told to go topless in a lake, I mean, dumb, dumb shit. Nobody said a word. I don't understand it....'Police Academy 3' has this guy [Michael Winslow], who does all these great sounds, who I love--but this cat looks like Stepin Fetchit. You know, like this..." She widens her eyes and curls back her upper lip. "Nobody says a word. Every TV show, every time you see a black man, with the exception of Philip Michael Thomas, he's a pimp. How real's that?...It's not like ['The Color Purple'] is a lie where Steven Spielberg said, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to ruin it for black men and write this...this stuff happened.' And I resent that people use this movie as a way to get publicity for a bogus issue."

Nonetheless, the movie's hit status with Middle America, its rejection by the tastemakers of the counterculture and her own exponentially increasing popularity, all rush Whoopi Goldberg to the brink of an anomalous distinction: the Rising Black Star of the Regan Era. Goldberg sees herself in no such terms, of course; if her politics refuse to be codified ideologically, they have long since infused her art in the broad manner of a humanist: at home she's reading Isabel Allende, a biography of Madame Mao and Primo Levi's 'Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity'. Her interest in Holocaust literature in particular suggests her name change goes deeper than the standard elusive jokes ("I saw a burning bush in my backyard"), to a fundamental affinity; and about America she expresses hope framed by skepticism, or perhaps it's the other way around. "The funny thing about America is that the down-on-the-bottom beliefs are right, they're good things," she says. "The Bill of Rights, these are good things. They're things Ronald Reagan says he's into, but he's not; he's into a different kind of America....People would like the United States to be what we're told it can be, without realizing that the price has gone up--the price, you know, of human dignity.

"Homelessness in America is disgusting. It's disgusting that we could have this big, beautiful country and have families living in dumpsters. It makes no sense.

"You can't talk about embracing a world," she says, "when you don't embrace your own people." Such public alignment with social causes has yet to be figured into Middle America's infatuation with her. While Goldberg has such a basic faith in people's good intentions ("I want to believe that if you present something that's reasonable, people will at least think about it") that she doesn't worry about it, it' s an open question just how many of those who loved her so much on "Donahue" have seen her Fontaine the junkie, for instance, which opens with a strung-out rendition of "Around the World in Eighty Motherfunkin' Days," or the whole of the famous Surfer Chick sketch, which ends with a coat-hanger abortion and a guaranteed childless future before the girl is fourteen. If it's true that Goldberg is probably not Ronald Reagan's idea of a movie actor, it's also safe to suppose the era will conspire mightily to make her exactly that; and over buffalo fish and beneath the inchworms it occurred to me in a flash that, if she continues to be as lucky as she thinks she is while contemplating in her garden of chimes, then she will not win the Academy Award five days later.

The Academy Awards capture the attention even of people who know better. In Los Angeles, perfectly intelligent disbelievers will stop to watch its rituals in the manner of non-Catholics stopping in the streets of Rome to read the white smoke over the Vatican that indicates a new pope. Probably people pay attention because every once in a while the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences lurches to a decision that smacks of something like integrity, honoring a gutsy or ingenious bit of work by Francis Coppola or Woody Allen, maybe even something really off the wall like a Warren Beatty picture about communists. One can never be sure what these wacky Hollywood people will do. By the time Goldberg arrives in Los Angeles the weekend before the ceremonies, the balloting for the awards has closed, and following the worst year for American movies in memory, the competition is wide open. Whatever else is true about Steven Spielberg's flawed movie, its controversy and Spielberg's own non-nomination for direction have framed the debate: the question around town is not whether "Prizzi's Honor" or "Out of Africa" will win but whether "The Color Purple" won't. In the actress category, bets are on either Goldberg or Geraldine Page, and it's the kind of matc the Academy loves: long-time veteran, oft nominated and never anointed, providing the Academy its last chance to do so, against the brilliant newcomer in whose light the Academy can bask while it's at its brightest; one never knows, after all, if the light will continue to burn or nova out. The veteran has the odds, and when the night arrives, Goldberg's luck holds out and the veteran wins. Later, presenting the award for best editing, Whoopi thanks her mother anyway, in the best non-acceptance speech of the night. "The Color Purple" wins no awards at all.

"This star business," Whoopi says. "It's kind of, like, no one's quite sure what to say about me and where to put me, so they made me a star and figured that'll cover whatever comes down....It's just a real blessing to be a working actor. A real blessing." With few exceptions, her greatest inspirations have been working male actors: Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Jack Lemmon. "Those are the guys I watched, those are the guys I wanted to be. They did stuff I always wanted to do. I never saw any damsels that looked like me, but I could always imagine that I could be swinging through Sherwood Forest." Among contemporaries she cites John Heard, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro. "I look at De Niro and I want to be hm." Her popularity notwithstanding, she's not found herself exactly drowning in offers: "I'm choosing things I want to do and going to the studios and saying, 'Hey, what about this?' Because if I wait," she says, laughing, "I'll be doing hookers and mammies and abused women for the rest of my life." Asked which three roles in movie history she would most like to have played, she names Captain Queeg in "The Caine Mutiny", Billie Dawn in "Born Yesterday", and anything in "Rashomon". "A tree I would have played in 'Rashomon.'"

Of the many characters Whoopi Goldberg has created herself, the one to which she's most similar, the only one, really, that seems much like her at all, is, interestingly, the Crippled Woman of her Broadway show, who waits for that core of the night where she finds that core of herself that's something like a damsel, and for whom nothing is darker than a harsh, awakened dawn. In the manner of most "overnight" sensations, where the night in question is twenty anonymous, unpitying years, Goldberg has found in this particular dawn that the dream of the previous night hasn't gone away; it keeps on going. It's a little terrifying. Not that many people want to hear about the night. It scares the people she thought were her friends, and the others want to believe that "you wake up and there's Mike Nichols at the front of your bed, saying, 'Baby, I'm going to make you a star.'" She shrugs. "Maybe it gives people a little hope....You look at me and you say, 'Yeah, this is not the face of a pinup.'" In the current life and times of this face and voice, the dawns and nights are interchangeable, the former marked by realizations one can not only accept but embrace; the latter by a darkness in which every star in the sky knows who you are.

 

McCall's Interview March 1995

 

Michele Willens

 

Whoopi. She has always marched to her own drummer: the quirky name; the defiant dreadlocks; the wide-ranging, often noncommercial film roles ("Sarafina", "Clara's Heart"); the animated voices ("The Lion King", "The Pagemaster"); the guest stints on TV shows such as "Star Trek" at a time she hardly needs it; the Ted Danson love affair and `that' episode. Remember Danson in blackface two years ago at the Friar's Club roast for Goldberg and the actress's admission that the poorly received comedic stint was `her' idea?

 

What's so refreshing about Whoopi Goldberg is that the honesty and moxie that are her trademarks have not diminished over time: When asked what movie she's filming right now, for example, she responds, "Oh honey, you don't want to know, it's so bad."

 

Of course, in Hollywood you're only as good as your last success, and, fortunately, Goldberg's had plenty of those. There was the $300 million made by "Sister Act". The $8 million she garnered as a salary for its less successful sequel. The Academy Award she won for "Ghost". The Oscar show she hosted last year. And the fact that she's become a rather prominent and favorite guest at the Clinton White House.

 

Not bad for a girl who grew up in the New York City housing projects, had her daughter (aspiring singer Alexandrea Martin, now 20) when she was 18, divorced shortly thereafter, spent several years on welfare, remarried and went though another divorce at 33. A few months ago she walked down the aisle again, this time to wed union organizer Lyle Trachtenberg, age 40. The couple share homes in West Los Angeles and Connecticut.

 

Goldberg's newest film, "Boys on the Side", opened recently and, no surprise, it's controversial. She plays a gay woman traveling across the country with a stranger she learns is HIV-infected--a woman she grows to love in nonsexual terms. The movie also stars Mary-Louise Parker and Drew Barrymore, and centers on women's friendships, which is one of the things the actress loves about the project.

 

WHAT APPEALED TO YOU ABOUT THIS ROLE AND FILM? I got to play a sort of different character, a little more contemporary, not quite as dizzy as Dolores in "Sister Act" but not quite as biting as the woman from "The Player".

 

WAS IT WRITTEN FOR YOU IN PARTICULAR? No, but it felt like a glove.

 

DID YOU CONSIDER IT AT ALL RISKY TO PLAY A HOMOSEXUAL? No, because if you remember "The Color Purple", my character, Celie, was bisexual and really quite gay--in the book anyway. The country wasn't ready for it then, so the film didn't deal much with it. So this was no big deal. I've [known so many people in the business] with AIDS for so long it's just part of my life, but I think in the last five years we as a country have come to understand that the disease touches everyone. It was nice to be in something that dealt with this issue in such a classy way.

 

WAS YOUR CHARACTER PATTERNED AFTER ANYONE? No, because the biggest problem with watching gay folks on film is, everyone is stereotyped. Having gone through that early in my career--being a victim of stereotyping--I wanted to just play my character for what she was: a human being who loved women. She had no problem with men, but they weren't for her. There was no need to "butch" it to make it acceptable visually. She's a woman who's soft, but she's got edges. And that's been my experience of gay women.

 

IN THE LAST YEAR OR SO WE SAW YOU ROMANTICALLY ON SCREEN--WITH TED DANSON IN "MADE IN AMERICA" AND WITH RAY LIOTTA IN "CORRINA, CORRINA". WAS THAT NEW AND EXCITING? It's been the most romance I've had on screen. This has less to do with my concept than with the 'powers that be's" concept of what is sensual, beautiful and acceptable. Those barriers are changing. There are more women out there that look like me than there were ten years ago. I guess the fact that I was involved in real life with several men, people said, "Oh, okay, I get it, it's possible."

 

THEY'VE ALL BEEN WHITE MEN WITH YOU ON SCREEN. They seem to be. Though if you watch "Long Walk Home" [a small, independent film released in 1990], I'm there with a black man. But when you talk about big old commercial movies...if they're not sure about you, they're going to put you in there with someone they think might also bring in an audience. And let's face it, I'm a little too old for Denzel Washington and a little too young for Sidney Poitier. So I'm at that awkward stage.

 

SPEAKING OF ROMANCE, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH MCCALL'S TWO YEARS AGO, YOU SAID YOU DIDN'T FORESEE MARRIAGE AGAIN. QUITE A CHANGE? Yeah, and it's nice to be proved wrong! It was a combination of saying it was okay to say, "It would be good to be with someone" and not be embarrassed about it, and finding a really nice man, a kind person who let me go through the changes I needed to go through. He has his own career and life, and it's not as an actor.

 

YOU SEE THAT AS AN ADVANTAGE? I believe so. My shadow is large, and if your shadow is not as large as mine, it might make you uncomfortable. But his shadow is large in what he does. So I'm, like, fascinated and proud that because of what he does [as a union organizer], people get their pension, welfare and health benefits.

 

ARE YOU TWO STRIKINGLY DIFFERENT? We're very similar and completely different and it's funny. He's a vegetarian health-food person.

 

AND YOU'RE NOT. Nooo! He's a nonsmoker and I'm a smoker trying to stop. But we both love rock-and-roll music and the TV show "The X-Files". The things we don't see eye to eye on are okay too. It's not about making you see it my way. It's about knowing I'm entitled and he's entitled and we go on.

 

SOUNDS VERY MATURE. I don't know if I'm more mature. I'm a big old egotistical baby and that's okay. I can accept it and laugh at it when it happens. He can laugh at my ego too, and it's okay. Sometimes I'm the strong one, and sometimes he's the strong one, and sometimes we're both really weak. We're not perfect, and it's okay to fight.

 

YOUR WEDDING, HELD IN THE GARDEN OF YOUR CALIFORNIA HOME AND COMPLETE WITH LOTS OF CELEBRITY GUESTS, SEEMED BIG, WHICH SEEMED UN-WHOOPI-LIKE. OR WAS IT JUST THE HOVERING HELICOPTERS THAT MADE IT APPEAR THAT WAY? It was about 200 people--all friends, people I care about, that I wouldn't be embarrassed to do this in front of. For a long time, no one was sure of the date. Then someone found it out, and we got stuck with the helicopters and news people in front of the house. It was like some sort of war going on. Somebody got in and took pictures, so the rags were very happy with themselves for what would be breaking and entering in any other forum. I wish you could say, "You came into my house uninvited, and now something's missing and I think you took it." But you can't fight that.

 

YOU LOOKED RATHER DRESSED UP FOR THE WEDDING. I GET THE SENSE THAT'S NOT THE NORM FOR YOU. I dress for comfort. You know, I'm physically touched by lots of people all the time. I mean, I go on the street and people want to shake my hand and touch my hair. If you're bound up in uncomfortable clothes it can make you really crabby. I like casual because I can stay in it longer. But I am glamorous when I'm in the mood. I loved wearing that drag [a long cognac-colored dress designed by Ray Aghayan] on the Oscar show. I dressed well for President Clinton when I hosted something at Ford's Theatre. I like telling Armani or Bob Mackie, "This is what I want to look like," and they understand. They get me wonderfully.

 

YOU SEEM TO WEAR A LOT OF PANTS. Yeah, I like pants because if you're not paying attention to how you sit, you can't get in trouble.

 

YOU ARE IN A VERY VAIN BUSINESS WHERE A WOMAN TURNING 40 CAN BE PUT TO REST... This year I turn 40--contrary to what you may have read in 400 articles.

 

WHY IS THERE SUCH A DISCREPANCY ABOUT YOUR AGE? [THERE WERE REPORTS LISTING HER AS 35 IN 1984, WHEN SHE APPEARED IN A ONE-WOMAN BROADWAY SHOW, WHICH WOULD MAKE HER 46 NOW.] I don't know. First it was my name, now it's my age. I don't care because you can't tell because I'm not gonna wrinkle. I have no qualms with aging--I'm really excited to turn 40--because I was never a leading lady. So I can still have boyfriends and lovers and husbands in movies, and I can be somebody's mother or best friend and that's cool.

 

SO NO REAL WORRIES, PHYSICALLY? Spreading worries me periodically.

 

HOW DO YOU SLIM DOWN? By not eating the bad things. Number one, I cannot cook. I've never been able to cook. Now I have a professional chef who does that, and it's great. but if I feel like I've gotten way big--like I was in "The Player"--I'll start to think, "What can I do?" But I quit smoking for a while, and that put weight on, and I also have an under active thyroid, so I tend to go boom. The smoking's not under control, but the thyroid thing is happening.

 

DO YOU FEEL LIKE A ROLE MODEL, WITH SPECIAL RESPONSIBILITIES, FAIR OR NOT, BEING THE MOST VISIBLE BLACK ACTRESS TODAY? No. I feel only responsibility to be the best person I can. That, in turn, will speak for any of the things people need to know, like being a black person or a woman or a black woman. As soon as you set yourself as a role model, you have no leeway for learning, you have no leeway to make mistakes. I don't tell anyone to do as I do, but if it works for you too, great. If it doesn't, try something else and don't come to me.

 

WHAT DO YOU TELL YOUNG BLACK WOMEN WHO COME TO YOU AND WANT ADVICE ON HOW TO BE AN ACTRESS? I say the first thing you have to believe is that this is really what you have to do, you have to act, not for the fame or the money or the guys or the clothes. Then no one will be able to tell you that you can't.

 

HOW ABOUT POWER? WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU? AT TIMES YOU'VE BEEN THE HIGHEST-PAID WOMAN IN FILMS... It doesn't mean anything. People equate power and money, and they shouldn't. Just because they pay you a lot of money doesn't mean they listen. It just means they pay you a lot of money and remind you of it...and remind you why they're not going to listen. Can I say, "I want to make this movie tomorrow"? No.

 

DO YOU FEEL THE ACTOR'S USUAL FEAR OF NEVER WORKING AGAIN? Oh yeah, because people tear you up. I mean, my career should have been dead ten times over with some of the things that have been said. But somehow the people who have gone to see my movies have always supported me, they've never let me fall out of the loop. For which I'm eternally grateful. My fans have allowed me to do animated features and little parts on television. You know, I get letters from people saying, "It's cool to see you do `Star Trek'." I'm trying to get "The X-Files" to let me be on that too.

 

ARE YOU BASICALLY A PERSON WITHOUT REGRETS IN YOUR LIFE? No, there are of course some, but I don't live with them. My motto is: You do what you can the best you can.

 

DOES ANY OF THE TED DANSON THING QUALIFY AS A REGRET? I'm not even gonna answer that. I've been married two months; I'd assume it's behind me. I don't even care if it was misunderstood or not.

 

WHY DID YOU DO "THE LION KING"? I was really trying to impress my granddaughter [Armarah Skye, age four]. And I did. "Pagemaster" was the same thing. I wanted to have something she could go and see--and get. I love animation. I love the idea of being a voice.

 

DO YOU FEEL DIFFERENT AS A GRANDMOTHER THAN YOU DID AS A MOTHER? Oh yeah. I'm a better friend than I am a parent, and that just doesn't work. I didn't feel I was ready to take on all the responsibilities a parent has to take on--and this was after my daughter was, like, ten! But I'm lucky, I got a second chance. I dig being a mother at this time, and of course, as a grandmother, I just run amok.

 

DO YOU EMPATHIZE WITH SINGLE PARENTS? It's definitely a tough gig. I don't envy single parents. I was one. It was hard, and it's gotten a lot harder with all these people sitting in judgment about issues they have no knowledge of. My feeling is, if you put things out there for young women to get interested in and put some support out there, if you make education a goal, young women won't stop and have babies to get self-esteem. I'm glad the welfare system was out there for me, because I needed it. But there are people out there today taking people's jobs and expecting families to stay together. You can't say "Get rid of abortion" on the one hand and then be upset that people continue to have babies. You can't have it both ways.

 

THE ABORTION ISSUE IS STILL IMPORTANT TO YOU? I believe that choice is what it's about. If you choose to have the child, hopefully you'll have people around you who will be supportive. If you choose not to, hopefully you'll have people around you who will be supportive. I only mind people trying to force their beliefs on someone else.

 

YOU'VE HAD ABORTIONS? Oh yeah. It was a hard choice. I was one of those people, you looked at me and I was having your baby. I was in a great relationship at the time, but we were barely getting by. I have great anger toward people who cavalierly make these decisions, assuming some woman just decides, "I'm going to get my hair done and then get an abortion."

 

IS LIFE PRETTY GREAT RIGHT NOW? YOU WAKE UP IN THE MORNING FEELING WONDERFUL? Well, girl, please, this isn't the end of an MGM movie. It's as good as it is.

 

Essence Magazine

 

January 1997

By Bebe Moore Campbell

Since 1985 Whoopi Goldberg has starred in a whopping 23 films. She has also been the whipping girl of Black leaders and fans alike. Here the Oscar-winning actress shares the joys and pain of just being Whoopi

Whoopi Goldberg never does what we expect her to do. In the studio of the Leeza show, the audience looks for her to enter onstage. Instead she descends from the top of the bleachers and is engulfed by a tornado of applause, yelling, stomping--more like hysteria than appreciation. As Whoopi passes through the crowd she smiles and shakes outstretched hands, floating through the cacophony of frenetic adulation.
She's dressed for floating, clad in her trademark loose sweater, loose pants, loose shoes--all the better for hanging loose. She seems to drift through the clapping, the smiles, the noise, the worship, absorbing it all with no indication that she's even aware of it other than a wry smile, a nod of her head. Is this, I wonder, what a little Black girl named Caryn Johnson dreamed of?
Whoopi Goldberg is an unlikely star. Too everything to make it to the Big Time: too dark, of course; hair too nappy; looks too unconventional, according to the naysayers, the dream crushers. But somehow Whoopi dodged those big bullets and kept getting up. the little 8-year-old who started out performing in New York with the Helena Rubinstein Children's Theater grew into the young woman who did improv and comedy.
She dropped out of high school and got sidetracked by drugs and an early failed marriage. She was on welfare for seven years and was a struggling single mother in her twenties with an infant daughter in tow when she moved to the San Francisco area. There she joined an experimental theater troupe, the Blake Street Hawkeyes. That stint led to the solo act that brought her to the attention of directory Mike Nichols, who produced her one-woman Broadway show.
From that lofty trajectory, a clean and sober Whoopi was catapulted into the starring role of Celie in The Color Purple, for which she won a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination. Her powerful debut also launched a career that has included more than 23 films in 11 years, ranging from the quirky (The Telephone) to the critically acclaimed (The Long Walk Home), from the Oscar-winning Ghost to the box-office blockbuster Sister Act.
And the films keep coming. Last fall she starred in Eddie, Bogus and The Associate. "It was a Whoopi fall," she quipped on Leeza. Come February, Goldberg will replace actor Nathan Lane in the male lead role of the Broadway hit A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
This month, she'll portray heroine Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, in Ghosts of Mississippi. The film centers around Evers's 30-year struggle to bring the murderer of her husband to justice. "I never thought of Whoopi playing me," admits Evers-Williams, "but she's a fine actress. I hope she captures the spirit of Myrlie, a very angry, determined woman who didn't let anything turn her around."
Goldberg says she feels honored to play the role. "People like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers fought for me," she says. "They are part of the reason I feel I can be whatever I want to be in this country."
If The Color Purple was the beginning of a stellar filmography, it was also the start of the kind of internecine controversy that has hovered over her like a vulture ever since. Not unlike the prophet who is without honor in his own country, Goldberg is viewed with ambivalence by some Black people, who feel she fails to live up to their expectations of what a Black star should look like, act like, think like and say to the press.
"I'm Black," Whoopi tells me after she ushers me to her dining-room table. "I don't have to prove it. I've been Black all my life."
Her house is big and beautiful, with enough art to open a museum but not so fabulous that it's not a home. She lives in the same type of affluent community that most Black stars with sizable bank accounts reside in (which is to say that the area is predominantly White). Goldberg moves through her house with assurance. She says please and thank you when she asks her maid to bring us water. She has clearly grown accustomed to the trappings of wealth and doesn't apologize for having them. But her pure sister chuckle reminds you that race isn't determined by either geography or money and that being successful doesn't mean you've handed in your skin.
"When I run into individual Black folks--male and female--they don't seem to have a problem with me," Goldberg muses. "They tell me they appreciate me and my work. It's only when I seem to bump heads against the Color Establishment..." Her voice trails off.
Until very recently our Black leaders have been virtually all male. In 1985 a segment of the Color Establishment deemed The Color Purple anti-Black male (which, rightly or wrongly, often translates into anti-Black people in a way that being anti-Black female rarely does). Like Ntozake, Alice, Terry and the other Black female artists who have been attacked by the testosterone-fueled culture police for creating politically incorrect Black male characters, Whoopi was pinned with an anti-Black tag that continues to shape our perceptions of her.
Other detractors claim, however, that Goldberg did insult her own people when, at the infamous Friars Club roast, she and then-boyfriend Ted Danson dressed up in blackface and spouted N-word-laced zingers, from a script penned in part by Whoopi. More recently, she was criticized for hosting the Oscars in the face of Jesse Jackson's almost boycott of the event. And many sisters and brothers deem her choice of White men as husbands and lovers a slap in the face to the race.
Goldberg doesn't flinch at the race issues. She considers Reverend Jesse Jackson's decision to protest the 1996 Academy Awards ceremony ill-timed. "There aren't enough of us in the industry," she concedes. "No one knows that better than I do. Yes, there was only one Black person nominated. But I was hosting it and Quincy Jones was producing it. So why attack this ceremony when there was such a major Black presence?"
About the Color Purple debacle she says forthrightly, "Mister didn't represent every Black man. Still, we were attacked by the NAACP, who then attacked the Academy because we didn't win any awards. That's schizophrenic! To this day, I feel that there is a sour taste in the mouths of Academy members as far as Black projects are concerned because of the NAACP stance." There is indignation in Goldberg's tone, but there is also vulnerability.
"The NAACP hurt my feelings," she says softly.
She insists, however, that when she wrote that Friars Club skit she was attempting to satirize the hate mail she and Danson had received. She claims she was exercising her artistic freedom by using the word nigger. "I was trying to take the power out of that word," she explains. "It's controlled Black people for too long. I mean, any White person can say nigger and we react to it. That's not good."
Whoopi may well be a woman ahead of her time, but she clearly misread the mood of Black people if she believed they were ready to have a White man in blackface instruct them on how to neutralize their feelings toward the N word. She realizes that now. "Black folks weren't ready for that," she says of the skit.
Carolyn McDonald, who is co-executive producer of Danny Glover's production company, has worked with Goldberg and feels that the actor is often misunderstood. "It's really sad that some of our people don't embrace her," she says. "She's on a whole other wavelength. She and Angela Davis could be on the same podium. She's a free spirit."
Truth be told, Whoopi never agreed to represent "us" in the first place. It is Whoop's talent and skill as a performer that most of us, regardless of race, appreciate about her. And if the Color Establishment has come down on her, they have lauded her enormous gifts as well. She has won the NAACP's Image Award multiple times, and she received the Essence Award last year for her screen accomplishments and generous charitable contributions.
Black people also respect her as a potent force in Hollywood. Yet, Goldberg, who is only the second Black actress to win an Academy Award in 51 years, hedges when asked if she feels she has clout in Tinsel town. "No," she says at first.
"Do you get top billing?" I ask.
"Yes."
"Can you choose your directors and producers?"
"Sometimes."
"Are you paid top dollar, commensurate with how much your pictures earn?"
"Yes."
"You have power," I say.
Goldberg smiles a bit and shakes her head. "Power to me is being able to walk into a room with the big boys and say, 'I want to make this movie,' and everyone says, 'Yes.' Clint can do that. Redford. Arnold."
But Whoopi has arguably come much closer to that kind of A-list primacy than any other African-American film star in history. If she hasn't climbed to the very top of the Hollywood mountain yet, she certainly has the guts to get there.
"Whoopi has confidence in her own instincts," says casting director Reuben Cannon. "She's the closest thing to genius I've ever seen. We were doing The Color Purple, and it was the scene where Shug is introducing Celie to herself. There's a very intimate, important part where Shug shows Celie her face in a mirror. Spielberg yelled, 'Cut!' and whoopi said, 'Not yet! There's another moment.' And she was right, because Celie and Shug needed to give each other a look. That was her first film, and she didn't hesitate to tell Spielberg exactly what was on her mind. She has confidence in her own instincts."
She also has a reputation for not giving up. "She's talked herself into many roles," says Bill Duke, who directed her in Sister Act 2. "She's a fighter. She's had to deal with the you-don't-look-like-a-leading-lady syndrome in a system that's designed to recognize people who are her opposites. She has tenacity, will and faith in herself."
Perhaps it is this faith that has sustained Goldberg in her quest for a meaningful relationship. Yes, she has had her share of well-publicized husbands and boyfriends, but at the moment she's pleased to be settled in a relationship that she describes as rewarding and fulfilling. She is currently living with Frank Langella, a well-known White Broadway actor who costarred with her in the film Eddie. "This man came to me fully formed," she says. "He's got his own thing going on. And he's fine."
Still, Whoopi wants to put to rest once and for all the rumor that she shuns the brothers. "Listen, I was married to a Black man; he is my daughter's father. Before I met Frank, I went out with five different men. And two of them were Black. That didn't make the papers because that's not news. I've always gone out with the people who ask me out."
"She has the right to put on her arm whoever makes her happy," says her friend, actor Jenifer Lewis. Adds Lewis, "Black people: Let Whoopi live her life as she sees fit."
For her part, Goldberg is more concerned about the quality of her relationships than the color of her lovers. "My life is so chock-full that it takes a lot of adjusting for whomever I bring in it," she says. "My relationships haven't always been successful, but when they haven't worked, it's been for lots of different reasons. Sometimes it's the fame that surrounds me. It takes a lot of work to be a child, a family member, a lover of mine."
Whoopi now finds comfort and companionship in her relationship with her 22-year-old daughter, Alexandrea, and her two granddaughters, Amarah Skye, 7, and newborn Jerzey, although she is the first to acknowledge that her daughter's search for her own identity was often quite painful. Whoopi, however, was determined to try and see things Alexandrea's way. In one interview, she reflected that her daughter "got pregnant because she did not feel that, individually, she was enough. She didn't have safe sex because she wanted a baby. She wanted to get pregnant, and I figured if she was old enough to make that decision, I had better damn well be there for her."
Whoopi admits now that Alexandrea went through a period during which she was extremely angry with her mother. "It got rough," she says. "My kid felt overshadowed by Whoopi Goldberg. Every kid wants to do better than her parent. When you're Whoopi Goldberg's kid, that's hard to do, especially when the kid hasn't found her path yet. My daughter's search for self was so extraordinary. She needed to learn how to communicate. She finally learned that it wasn't me she had to battle, but outside forces."
She says that putting Alexandrea in the cast of Sister Act 2 paved the way for their healing as parent and child. "I made her come to work with me everyday," she explains. "When she saw the way I had to fight for what I wanted, she began to look at me with different eyes."
Today Whoopi, too, looks at herself with more accepting eyes. She calls her no-frills sense of style "low-maintenance." "The first person I ever saw with dreads was Rosalind Cash, and I remember thinking she looked incredible, but I didn't consider it for me then," she says. "I was wearing my hair in a little natural and I used to braid it. And then one day, much later, I just got tired and I said, 'You know, I'm never taking these braids out.' But for so long my particular package was alien to everybody. Today when I see dreads, braids, plum lipstick and women wearing flats and sneakers, I know part of that is because of me."
Whoopi is also keenly aware of what she does best. "Acting is my life's blood," she says. "I'd be in an institution if I weren't in the arts." If little Caryn Johnson didn't dream of crowds and applause, she certainly yearned for recognition and appreciation. Now Caryn Johnson is all grown up, and as Whoopi Goldberg, she has brought the house down. "It's been great," she says of her career. "Even when I wasn't making any money, I always knew I was good."

Inside the Actor's studio

 

With James Lipton

 

Thanks to Mickie from Spain for typing this up!

 

When Whoopi appeared on this programme James Lipton asked her the following questions:

What is your favorite word?
Amore

What is your least favorite word?
Stupid

What turns you on personally, creatively, spiritually?
Life

What turns you off?
Voluntary ignorance

What sound or noise do you love?
(Whoopi laughs)
I can stress that you can say anything you want.
I know, but I shouldn't. But it`s a great sound.
What sound or noise do you love?
I`m not gonna tell ya, I`m not gonna tell ya!

Okay. What sound or noise do you hate?
I hate to hear children cry.

And now.....
Yes?
Whoopi, what is your favorite of favorite curse word?
(laughs) Really? S***! It`s my absolute favorite!
It is?
Yes. (laughs)

 

What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?
I'd like to attempt to be an Ambassador.

Okay. What profession would you not like to participate in?
I don`t think I would want to be a Judge.

Finally, if heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
WHOOP!

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