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Angela Bassett Draws On Her Love Of Drama And Music In Pixar's 'Soul'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Pixar's new animated film "Soul" has an all-star cast providing the voices, Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Daveed Diggs, Questlove and our guest, Angela Bassett. "Soul" will be released on Disney+ Christmas Day. Angela Bassett spoke with our guest interviewer, Sam Sanders, who hosts the NPR show It's Been A Minute. Here's Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Angela Bassett is definitely an actress that you've seen a lot before. She famously played Tina Turner in the Tina Turner biopic "What's Love Got To Do With It."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT")

ANGELA BASSETT: (As Tina) I've got a room full of people who've come to see me - you hear me, Ike? - come to see me. So what are you going to do - I don't know - shoot me?

SANDERS: That role got her an Oscar nomination. She played Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X, in the film "Malcolm X." And you probably saw her in the Marvel blockbuster "Black Panther"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

BASSETT: (As Ramonda) I call upon the ancestors. I call upon Bast. I'm here with my son, T'Challa.

SANDERS: ...Or in several roles on Ryan Murphy's "American Horror Story."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY")

BASSETT: (As Marie) She needed the help of a powerful voodoo queen (laughter). But that ain't you, sis.

SANDERS: We will talk about some of those performances in a bit and the arc of Angela Bassett's career as a Black woman in an industry not always friendly to Black women. But first, we're going to talk about her latest role. It's a role in which you don't actually see Angela Bassett at all. She plays a world-renowned jazz saxophonist, Dorothea Williams, in "Soul," Disney and Pixar's latest animated film. So this movie, it's all about a character named Joe Gardner, this middle school band teacher who really wants to be a professional jazz piano player.

One day, an old student of Joe's, who is a drummer for Dorothea Williams' band, he calls Joe. And he says, hey, we need some help. Dorothea's piano player is sick. Can you fill in? This could be Joe Gardner's big break. And the movie is all about whether or not Joe gets that big break. But this is also a Pixar movie, which means that "Soul" is about bigger things as well, like what makes a person a person, what happens before and after life on Earth and what's the purpose of life anyway? This film also occurs in multiple dimensions.

All right. Here's a scene from the movie. Ahmir Questlove Thompson plays the drummer. He is introducing Joe, who is played by Jamie Foxx. And you'll hear Dorothea as well, voiced by Angela Bassett.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SOUL")

QUESTLOVE: (As Curley) Hey, Dorothea, this the cat I was telling you about, my old middle school band teacher, Mr. Gardner.

JAMIE FOXX: (As Joe) Call me Joe, Dorothea - I mean, Ms. Williams. It's a pleasure. Wow. This is amazing.

QUESTLOVE: (As Curley) Joe is Ray Gardner's (ph) son.

BASSETT: (As Dorothea) So we're down to middle school band teachers now? Get on up here, Teach. We ain't got all day.

SANDERS: Angela Bassett, thank you so much for your time here on FRESH AIR. This movie, "Soul," it was delightful.

BASSETT: Oh. Well, thank you.

SANDERS: That moment of reveal, when your character shows up on the screen leading the band, playing phenomenal saxophone as a Black woman in this film, I was like, huh, animated or, you know, live action, I've never seen a Black woman jazz saxophonist leading the band. It was nice to see. I mean, like, how did you - who did you channel?

BASSETT: I thought so, too. I enjoyed that as well. That's true. I've not seen a Black woman, you know, leading a band playing sax. But I have seen one back in the day of Betty Carter, you know, leading her quartet of young musicians, you know, whether it's Cyrus Chestnut, you know, and that ilk. And Dorothy Donegan was another one of my favorites that I had an opportunity to see - phenomenal piano player. I mean, you would listen to her, and you would hear strains of classical music mixed with jazz, mixed with a little lullaby (laughter), you know, of your youth. And it would just blow your mind. So I remember how I felt listening to them or going to see Betty Carter and those young musicians looking up at her, and she's leading them.

She's like - she's getting them on point - no, you got to come up here, come up here, come up here. And they would play and play, and they would strain their necks looking at her, hanging on every word. And she integrated and intertwined those two things in such a dramatic way, which, of course (laughter), I would appreciate as a lover of drama and of music. That's who I sort of recalled and imagined in approaching Dorothea.

SANDERS: Is this kind of voice acting in an animated film like this one easier or harder for you than - I don't know - quote, unquote, "regular acting," where we, you know, see your body on a screen?

BASSETT: Sometimes I think is harder.

SANDERS: Really?

BASSETT: Or I obsess about it being a little harder because that's - like, right now, all you have is my voice. And you don't have the other distractions, you know, the physicality, the facial expressions, you know, the others. You know, it's just your voice. But it has to paint. It has to give you the mood. You can't just look at my face and see that I'm sad. You must hear that longing and that pathos or that joy or whatever it may be in the voice, in the voice (laughter).

SANDERS: And I also guess that when you're recording stuff for this kind of animated film, you're talking these lines and no one's on the other side of you. Like, who do you talk to when you're recording this?

BASSETT: It has never been the other actor (laughter), which is strange. Yeah, that's who you want to - that's who, you know, you feed off, you live off of, you respond to. They give you something. They give you something different. And it elicits something else, you know. It's never, you know - it's never the - hopefully, it's never the same. Hopefully, you're responding honestly to what they're giving you. But it's generally just a reader or the director. And, you know - but - and you just hope that they don't turn you loose until they've got what they absolutely came looking for.

SANDERS: You know, I was prepping for this interview, watching this film and then going over all the other work you've done. And I realized - as I'm, like, literally scrolling through Angela Bassett's IMDB, I'm like, at this point, you've done it all. Like, you've seemed to have done every genre of TV and film there is, animated, Marvel, biopics, romance films, network procedurals. I could go on.

And then I was looking through, and I was like, oh, I forgot she did that. Like, I remembered, oh, "American Horror Story." Yes. I was like, "Master Of None." Yes, she did that, too. Like, you have this career now where you've literally seemed to have touched every kind of type of performance as an actress, you know, on stage, on film. Did you want it to be that way, where you're doing a little bit of everything? Or did it just work out that way?

BASSETT: It - I think I have to say it just worked out that way (laughter). But, I mean, there is a desire in me to not be boxed in, you know, to not be underestimated. And yet, you know, perhaps, from time to time early in the career, you're in a career where you are sort of boxed in or shoved into, you know, little, safe, recognizable places and stuff. But as times change, you know, and roles come and go and opportunities, I've been able to say yes to various things that, I guess, have, you know, freed me from that, you know, from...

SANDERS: Freed you from what? Tell me.

BASSETT: The tightest constraints of being only this are only that. Even growing up after drama school and coming to New York, it just seemed to be these constraints of - these are commercial actors. They only do commercials. These are, you know, musical theater actors. These are, you know, television, sitcoms and dramas. And these are the movie stars, and that's the rarified air up there, and no one crosses any of the boundaries. You know, and I was - my first love was theater.

SANDERS: Classically trained.

BASSETT: Yeah. But then you get an opportunity to do television, and then you want to do more. And, of course, then you want to do film. And it was wonderful to have opportunities with young directors maybe who didn't - they didn't look at it like that. I'm thinking right now specifically of John Singleton, you know, and "Boyz N The Hood," where I had come to LA from New York, you know - not much television. They would come in and audition you for film. You wouldn't get the role. They'd go back to California, cast someone who was there. So let me go there.

And, you know, from week to week, you get, you know, weekly series or a guest spot. And so now you're known for doing guest spots. But you get an opportunity to audition, but never for film. But your friend, who started auditioning for film, never gets guest spots on television, but always gets film. So now you want what you can't (laughter), what you don't have. But you just want opportunity.

SANDERS: I find it interesting to hear you say that John Singleton helped you start to get out of those silos. I wonder - did race play a role in you maybe being siloed early on? And were creatives of color more likely to help you get out of those silos?

BASSETT: Yeah. You look at me, there's (laughter) no denying I'm a colored girl. I'm a for-real colored girl - you know, brown-skinned girl. And those were the roles coming - you know, coming through New York, you know.

SANDERS: What kind of roles?

BASSETT: It may be you're a nurse on a soap opera. You know, it may be a secretary, you know, someone who sort of gives a little bit of information and move the story along. And, you know, it's great - you know, you make $500 for the day or whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

BASSETT: You pay - you know, you get your insurance or whatever. It's great. It's awesome. And then you go to your theater and Negro Ensemble Company or whatever. And some of the roles I remember you may be playing - it might be a role of a prostitute. I think I did a prostitute. I remember being so shamed. I, like, pulled my hair in front of my face. It was, like, a scene or two. I mean, and - but all I had to do was get out of jail and talk on the phone and get somebody to come down and get me.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

BASSETT: But it was like, OK, that's about as far as I can take this, you know (laughter), this sort of thing because I always grew up with that sense of - you know, of dignity and pride, I think, you know, not having much, being raised by a single mother and not having much in terms of resources. But, you know, you have a pride in how you do things and what you say yes to doing. But roles would - new roles would come along. It was a time where maybe there were two shows going on, "The Cosby Show" and "The Equalizer." Then after that, they're soap operas and, after that, industrial. So not a lot of - and commercials.

You know, a limited kind of opportunity. It was, you know, a theater town, that sort of thing - and off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway and off-Broadway no-pay showcase, you know (laughter), shows that you were able to do or you're doing. And "Antigone," you know - so I'm getting opportunity to play Antigone in a Greek tragedy. Those were the places in theater where you could go beyond race, you know what I mean? Because in theatre, you either reach the back of the theater and they believe you take them on that journey or they don't.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview that our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Angela Bassett. She's one of the voices in Pixar's new animated film "Soul." It starts streaming on Disney+ Christmas Day. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Angela Bassett. She's one of the voices in Pixar's new animated film "Soul." Sam is the host of the NPR show It's Been a Minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SANDERS: Hearing you talk about this idea of, you know, the roles need to be about something, say something and, you know, this - back to this idea of dignity and, like, is this helping or hurting - you know, in some parts of the culture, I see a shift. And I see in the zeitgeist right now a lot of creatives of color saying, I don't care if it's dignified. I don't care if it's uplifting. We get to be as messy as the white creatives, as rough around the edges as they are. If white folks can make "Breaking Bad" and also "The King's Speech," we can do whatever the heck we want. Do you feel that? And does that energy feel different than what it was, you know, a while back?

BASSETT: Yeah, it does. Yeah. You feel that coming. And, you know, you feel that already here. I'm fine with it. I just say as long as it's done with excellence (laughter), you know. Do it with excellence, not just a waste of time, you know. But I think we should be. But I think there was a time when I was coming up we couldn't - coming through and before me even, where we couldn't afford to be less than because we were - you know, we were considered, we were told, we were - it was written, you know (laughter) - it was written that we were less than, that we were three-fifths. No (laughter), you know.

So I can't give you three-fifths when you're telling me - you know, you're trying to make me believe that. No, we have to give you kings and queens. Right, we have to give you kings and queens. And now - you know, as has been said sometimes, and we got to overcorrect, you know. We can give you so much kings and queens. Now we got to (laughter), you know, bend it backwards and somehow, you know, land in the middle.

SANDERS: What made you want to get into acting? Was there a moment, something you saw? What was it?

BASSETT: I think, you know, when you're - during those years of maturation when you're about 14, 15 or whatever, your little girl - your hormones are going crazy. You're writing in your diary. You're writing poems and short stories. You're trying to express yourself. And you sit in theatre and you just came alive. And I just remember sitting at the Kennedy Center and seeing James Earl Jones in "Of Mice And Men," which I've seen many, many times.

SANDERS: Well, that'll sell anyone on theater.

BASSETT: Yeah. And everyone has up and left, and I am literally, with whomever I'm with, the last - the only (laughter) person in this theater, and I am weeping for - I'm just crying. I'm crying because they shot him. They shot him, you know, when he's - you know, he's killed the woman and he's - you know, his - all mental not there. And he's killed his - the little mouse and all of that. And it's just so tragic. And I remember thinking, oh, if I could make people feel as bad as I feel right now.

(LAUGHTER)

BASSETT: I literally remember saying that - if I could make people feel as bad as I feel right now. I feel so much. It's so real. It's so alive. And it was just - it was a play. It was make believe. But we're all here in community together. But if I could make people cry to this depth, you know, be so moved, how wonderful that would be. So I went home and just jumped, you know, and pursued as much as I could in my little bitty town with not many opportunities on stage.

SANDERS: In Florida, right?

BASSETT: Yeah, in Florida. You know, little four lines here (laughter), you know, and do some Langston Hughes poems there and put a little ginger on it, you know, put a little funk on it, a little drama, you know - wherever I could.

SANDERS: Was your family OK with your choice? Like, was your family like, OK, she's going to be an actress?

BASSETT: Absolutely, my mother was. Well, the family's just my mother and sister. She was absolutely OK because she'd always - you know, it was years, years later that she had a, you know, flair for - she wanted to be a singer, or she wanted - she was - you know, she would sing in church, and you're like, oh, Lord, mother, I mean, do you have to be that dramatic about "His Eye Is On The Sparrow"?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Oh, that is a song for drama, though, because, you know, it just builds up and you can just go.

BASSETT: Yeah, it soars, and I know he's watching me.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

BASSETT: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

SANDERS: And you can say watching like eight times over again to really get that effect. You know. You know how they do.

BASSETT: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

BASSETT: Oh, and the soprano and - oh.

SANDERS: So you had the performance in you. You had performance in the bloodline, OK.

BASSETT: Yes, I get it. Yeah, I get it. Yeah, a chip off the old block. But she - so she - whenever she would see me perform - oh, Angela, when you did that, when you said, he dropped them - she had seen me in a production for colored girls, "Lady In Red." She dropped them, oh - you know? And so I would be mesmerized watching her explaining what I'm doing. So she was very, very supportive. And, of course, then I had the - you know, the auntie who was the - you know, the Ph.D., Doctor Bassett wall of the family, who was the practical one, you know. So I - you know, I had both, you know, brain and heart working. But they were both proud. And I, you know, endeavored to make them both proud of me. But at some point, you have to, like "Soul" - here we are (laughter).

SANDERS: Here we go. I love that, that callback.

BASSETT: Follow your passion. And I remember thinking it would be as difficult for me to follow, you know, something that I had no aptitude or interest in than it would be to follow the most difficult thing that I'm passionate about. So I decided on the latter.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Angela Bassett, one of the stars of the new Pixar animated film "Soul." It starts streaming on Disney+ Christmas Day. We'll hear more of their interview after a short break. But first, here's music from the soundtrack for "Soul." It's by John Batiste, who wrote, arranged and performed original jazz compositions for the film. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Angela Bassett. She received an Oscar nomination for playing Tina Turner in the 1993 film "What's Love Got To Do With It." Her other films include "Boyz N The Hood," "Malcolm X," "Waiting To Exhale" and "Black Panther." She's received Emmy nominations for her roles in "American Horror Story," as well as guest appearances on "Master Of None" and "A Black Lady Sketch Show." Bassett is one of the stars of Pixar's new animated film, "Soul," which will be streaming on Disney+ starting Christmas Day. Bassett spoke to our guest interviewer, Sam Sanders. Sam hosts the NPR show It's Been A Minute.

SANDERS: One of the portrayals of yours that made me say recently, oh, that's a different direction for Angela Bassett - who I've been watching and loving for years - your sketch on "A Black Lady Sketch Show."

BASSETT: Oh (laughter).

SANDERS: That was really fun.

BASSETT: Yeah.

SANDERS: And I was like, I wouldn't have expected to see Angela Bassett doing this. Can you set up this sketch for our listeners?

BASSETT: We were in a support group - Bad Bitch Support Group, right.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

BASSETT: And the sketch is called Angela Bassett Is The Baddest Bitch (laughter), you know? And that might be the first time I've said it.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

BASSETT: Yeah. So we're a certain type of woman. We're - you know, we've got - we take care of ourselves. It's about the look and the draw, you know, and drawing your man in. I'm the moderator of the group, I guess. And...

SANDERS: (Laughter) The ringleader, even.

BASSETT: Yeah, the ringleader. Yeah. I enjoyed it.

SANDERS: So let's hear a bit now of that sketch from "Black Lady Sketch Show." It's a commentary on standards of beauty for Black women. It features Robin Thede and Laverne Cox as other members of the group. And with apologies to the writers and to you and to everyone else in this clip, we have to bleep the Bs for broadcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “A BLACK LADY SKETCH SHOW”)

BASSETT: (As Mo) Now Mya, can you tell us where this feeling is coming from?

GABRIELLE DENNIS: (As Mya) Well, I saw this lady walking down a street without lashes on. And she didn't seem burdened by the pressures of having bald eyes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hmm.

DENNIS: (As Mya) She seemed fine being an OK [expletive].

LAVERNE COX: (As Kiana) How you know she was a OK [expletive]? She could've been a bad [expletive] with alopecia.

ROBIN THEDE: (As Tina) Oh, I've seen those.

AMARA LA NEGRA: (As Sydney) That's what it was.

DENNIS: (As Mya) No. She was an OK [expletive]. I could tell by her wedges.

BASSETT: (As Mo) Oh, well, there's nothing wrong with being an OK [expletive]...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What?

THEDE: (As Tina) Oh, this [expletive] done lost her mind.

BASSETT: (As Mo) ...As long as you're not a basic [expletive].

THEDE: (As Tina) OK, she found it.

SANDERS: Do you think that the Angela Bassett starting out early in her career, when there was more pressure to be noble - to be kings and queens - do you think she would have done that sketch?

BASSETT: I probably would have done that sketch. It's more like - you know, it's more like - it was more like street theater. And, you know, and it was something different. Here it is a sketch show. I'd never been asked to do a sketch show before, so that was intriguing to me. And also, it was - well, at this time, it was a show that was created by three incredible sisters, you know? So that's intriguing to me. So it's various elements that are drawing me. They're making me say yes.

SANDERS: In terms of progress on some of the stuff and some of the portrayals of women, of people of color, shows like "A Black Lady Sketch Show," do they give you hope or do you think there's still so much further to go?

BASSETT: It definitely gives me hope. Both in front of the camera and behind the camera - opportunity. We've had sketch shows for decades and decades. And like you said, never having seen this, but I think some of the funniest people I know are Black ladies (laughter). You're right. Yeah. So it definitely gives me hope.

SANDERS: You know, it's interesting talking with the race and representation with you right now. I'm wondering, you know, it's obviously going to be different for your children growing up Black in this country than it was for you. Are you teaching them things different about race than the way race was taught to you when you were a kid?

BASSETT: I hope so. Part of it's - I'm like, how was I taught race as a kid? It seemed more observation or - and also, I mean, I wasn't bused to the other side of town until seventh grade. So, you know, I was in my own insular community. So I'm growing up in my Caribbean island, where everyone looks like me, you know, or my African country, you know.

But yeah, it's different for them because we live in this little hamlet. And they are one of - they could be one of nine kids in their seven, eight in their class. So yeah, you do have to have a conversation.

But when do you begin to have that? In kindergarten, where they come home and say, they wouldn't let her play with them because they said she didn't look like the mother because of her skin, you know? And your five-year-old has to take up for his sister. So even then, they're getting little messages. And they're saying, they're what? They said there're white and Black. They're not white, they're peach. We're not Black, we're brown. You're like, oh, lord.

But you don't want to just really smash their vulnerability and their innocence. You have to bring it along slowly. And then, when they get to about 14, and they think that, mom, that's a stereotype or you're - that's so race - or they think that you're wrong about it, about what goes on in the world.

SANDERS: What do you say when that happens?

BASSETT: Well, I didn't have to say too much because then the world started changing. I mean, the world started showing its face, you know? Just turn on the news, and you have Breonna and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. You - it starts showing itself.

So it really is about, you know, this is what it looks like, but always maintaining and having and insisting on your respect and humanity and that of others. And we can - hopefully, we can right this world. We can - you know, we can make it better. We have to. It's the only one we got.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer, Sam Sanders, recorded with Angela Bassett. Bassett is one of the stars of Pixar's new animated film, "Soul," which starts streaming Christmas Day on Disney+. Sam is the host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCENTUS HUNGARICUS PERFORMANCE OF JENO JANDO'S "PIANO CONCERTO NO. 21 IN C MAJOR, K. 467 'ELVIRA MADIGAN': II. ANDANTE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Angela Bassett. She's one of the voices in the new Disney and Pixar animated film "Soul."

SANDERS: If you wanted to say to folks that wanted to know who Angela Bassett is as a performer, what is one quintessential role of yours that you would steer them towards and say, if you watch that, you will get me as a performer?

BASSETT: I would have to say "What's Love."

SANDERS: Yeah.

BASSETT: If you watch that, you would get me.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BASSETT: Determined, resilient, hard-working, back-backbreaking, emotional - yeah.

SANDERS: It's funny. I was thinking about the roles, for sure that one. But I got to tell you I stopped counting how many times I have watched you in the Jackson family TV miniseries because you did that (laughter). You did that.

BASSETT: Oh, my goodness. Thank you.

SANDERS: Do you still hear from folks about that? - because I just remember it was everywhere when it came out, and it was on TV for years.

BASSETT: Yeah. And you look up, and you'll find it on VH1 - something or another.

SANDERS: That's where I saw it.

BASSETT: You know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

BASSETT: But - and I - yeah. It was - I mean, I grew up loving The Jackson 5, you know, daydreaming, just loving each and every one of them, my first concert I ever saw. So to - you know, to come along and then here's this opportunity and to - you know, and I remember my my agent's like, no, no, no. I was like, wait a minute. I had gone on the audition.

SANDERS: Why'd they say no?

BASSETT: Because there was all this stuff in the tabloids about Michael. So they sent me on the audition, and, of course, I got a callback and another. And then they tried to dissuade me from wanting to do the role. And here I am, working, an actor who wants to work. And these were my childhood daydreams and idols, and I have this opportunity. And I'm sitting in front one of them, who's a producer, and they choose me, you know, of all the girls in the world. And I remember just saying, I'm not playing him. I'm playing their mother, and they revere their mother. And the idea and the concept of a Black woman being revered by her children and respected is an idea that I think deserves to live on screen and in this world and in spirit.

SANDERS: There's a line you have as Katherine Jackson in the movie, and correct me if I'm wrong - in the miniseries, rather. You're about to leave Joe Jackson, and then you're like...

BASSETT: I don't want you. I don't want you. I don't want you no more.

SANDERS: It's so good. I used to run around my house in my parents' face, going, I don't want you no more.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Seriously.

BASSETT: That was an improvised line.

SANDERS: Wait. Stop. It was improvised.

BASSETT: Yeah. I remember we were actually shooting at their house in Encino and - Lawrence Jacobs and myself. And I was - you know, and I find - you know, he's on the phone, and I catch him talking to somebody he shouldn't be talking to. And I go to - and he was - and I was actually trying to just, you know, beat him down. And he was strong. He was not letting me. He was not. He was holding my arms. But I was really trying to wail on - let's say I was in the moment. You know, the whole time, we were - yeah. It was a wonderful experience. And so I remember - yeah, I was just, like - I was just caught up in that.

SANDERS: So you adlibbed that.

BASSETT: And what that might have felt like.

SANDERS: Wow. So let's hear a bit of that scene that we're talking about, you as Katherine Jackson in this TV miniseries, "The Jacksons: An American Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE JACKSONS: AN AMERICAN DREAM")

BASSETT: (As Katherine Jackson) Joe Jackson, you're a liar, and you're a cheat. And I don't want you. No, I don't want you. I don't want you. I don't want you. I don't want you. I don't want you no more (crying). Trust me, Katy.

SANDERS: So that was Angela Bassett playing Katherine Jackson, matriarch of the Jackson family in the TV miniseries "The Jacksons: An American Dream." We talked briefly about how there was a time when society saw all of us as three-fifths and that was still around. And earlier in your career, more so than now, there was this pressure to outperform, overperform, be better than because you're Black, because you're a Black woman. Why did you think you got that message? Was it coming from family saying this to you, from other Black actors saying this to you or just from your own self-awareness?

BASSETT: You know what? I think it comes not from one particular space, you know? It comes from family. It comes from seeing your mother get up early and go and work two jobs to support two kids. It's seeing your father's sister, you know, work at a university and go every summer and take a couple of courses to work on her master's to continue to do that until she gets her Ph.D. - and that may take, you know, eight to 10 years - and then, you know, rise to become the chairman of the department and the chairman of the school - you know, acting chairman of the school, an interim chairman. It comes from going to the theater and seeing Cicely Tyson in "Sounder" or Diana Ross in "Lady Sings The Blues" - you know, I mean, not noble, rich, grand, stately characters but grand in their - you know, in what moves them and who they are and grand in these women's excellence, just singular excellence, you know?

And then to - you know, to come through Yale School of Drama and walk by the plate glass window of an office and see Lloyd Richards sitting there as the head of your drama school, you know, the first Black man to direct "A Raisin In The Sun," a Black play by Lorraine Hansberry on Broadway, and to see working actors - you know, Gregory Hines in, you know, "Tap Dance Kid" and his brother and Vinnette Carroll's "Your Arms Too Short To Box With God" and Alvin Ailey and on and on. It's...

SANDERS: I can hear the excitement. I can hear it in your voice.

BASSETT: You can't help but dream, desire to be excellent. You see it all around you. You love seeing it all around you. And you want to be - you got to be a part of it, or what's living for?

SANDERS: You know, thinking of this less than idea, not being that, were there any other, I guess, perhaps, quote, unquote, "less than roles" that you saw other Black actors or actresses take that made you feel uneasy?

BASSETT: No, because you can't - everyone's on their own particular journey. And I've always known that what work for me may not work for everyone. What works for them may not works for me. And between the two, maybe we covered the whole (laughter) lay of the land. That's just the way that I've seen it, you know? We grow in our own time and place and space. Things that I may - you know, maybe I wouldn't have played the prostitute then, but I might play her today (laughter).

SANDERS: That's what I was going to ask - OK. That's what I was going to ask you, because I know you've talked about not taking some roles.

BASSETT: You know, I might be feeling a certain way about myself now today. It's more - it might be more - you know, it's more open. It's more, you know - you might - or - but - or you may not have - like, as they've told my husband, no, we don't want to see you that way.

SANDERS: Can I get specific, then, on this idea of roles you wouldn't take or would take? You know, there is one movie that's always spoken of. And it's spoken of not just for the person who took the role but the fact that you did not take it. I think you know what I'm talking about.

BASSETT: Oh, yeah. You're talking about "Monster's Ball"...

SANDERS: Talking about "Monster's Ball."

BASSETT: ...And my dear sister. Yeah.

SANDERS: Who we love. You know, Halle Berry did that work, got that Oscar. You turned it down then. Would the Angela Bassett of today turn it down now?

BASSETT: I can't even reflect on that. I mean, I choose not to. I choose not to because, you know, that was such a moment right then. But we all make our choices based on who we are in the moment. And it was a choice that I made. I came away, and I'm good with my choice. And she came away, and she's good with hers. And what's even more important is that we're good with one another.

SANDERS: There you go. And isn't the goal of all of this to allow Black women to choose their path and do what's good for them? And if that was good for you and that was good for her, we're good, you know?

BASSETT: Listen; you got to be happy with the decisions that you make in this life, you know? And you make those decisions based on all the - you know, on the knowledge and awareness that you have at the time. And when you have more awareness, you know, maybe you make different choices. But you got to live in that moment. And you got to be happy in that moment with whichever way the mop flops.

SANDERS: It has been an honor to talk with you about this and to watch your work in "Soul," a film that I think a lot of folks are going to be enjoying very soon. Thank you so much.

BASSETT: Thank you, appreciate speaking with you. It's been a delight. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Angela Bassett is one of the voices in the new Pixar animated film "Soul." It starts streaming on Disney+ Christmas Day. She spoke with our guest interviewer Sam Sanders, host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review Christmas music that fits the mood this COVID Christmas. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "SANTA CLAUS IS COMING TO TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.