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An Interview with Cynda Williams

Cynda Williams is an actor known for her work on One False Move, Mo’ Better Blues, Tales of The City, and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. I spoke with Cynda about landing a role in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, working with Carl Franklin on One False Move, and her words of advice for anyone pursuing a career in acting.

Did you always want to pursue a career as an actor?

I started as a singer when I was very young. Usually when you are a singer at school, the next step is to act in play and so then I began acting. I would say since then, that was a journey I wanted to take.

How did you land the role of Clarke Bentancourt in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues?

I moved to New York the year before, expecting to do Broadway. I was a musical theatre actor primarily. At that point I really didn’t know anything about movies, but Spike was very popular. I was working in a restaurant and all kinds of strangers came up to me knowing I was an actress and singer. They were all telling me about Spike’s new movie, which at the time was called A Love Supreme and suggesting that I go in for it. I had I had seen School Daze and She’s Gotta Have It, so I thought why not.

Several people gave me the information and I went into the casting office. I said that I’d love to try out for a role. I had no experience in film and didn’t know how to audition, but I was able to figure it out. I’d always been told that I should do movies because I do a lot of acting with my face. On stage you can’t really see facial expressions so well. I was a perfect fit and after six auditions I finally landed the role.

What was the transition like at the beginning?

It was easy for me. I had a natural affinity for that type of work. I loved stage work, but naturally I’m more softly spoken and more subtle. A lot of internal work happens that you can’t see on stage, so it wasn’t a difficult transition at all. The only difficulty was getting used to all the stops and starts, all the time waiting for the technical side of things. I ended up enjoying that a lot because I do other things. In my lag time instead of being bored I would read, listen to music, or write music so that my time was always well spent.

What was the experience like working with Spike Lee?

I really was used to stage and being directed by very proactive directors that knew exactly what they wanted from me as an actress. Film directors are different sometimes. They are more about the technical side of things and more about how the shot looks, how it is framed and what the lighting looks like. It’s a visual medium. So, I had to really participate in creating my own character without a lot of direction from Spike Lee. He took a lot from me as a matter of fact. We spent a lot of hours talking about the character and who she was. He let me create this woman. A lot of it got cut out the movie, but it was a different experience and it put a lot of power in my hands when it came to coming up with who this character was. I enjoyed that. I’d spent enough time in school and working and doing theatre to know how to create a character. I wasn’t lost and ended up enjoying it.

Is that creative freedom something you enjoy when taking on roles?

Not always. I love direction and multiple minds coming together and creating a vision. I have fun when a director asks me to try to do different things. Working with other actors everything changes in what you come up with on your own. I enjoy that process, but I also can self-direct when it comes to who my character. I enjoy both experiences and I can adapt.

What’s it like working with actors who have very different methods to your own?

It took me a little bit of time to get used to. I’m not a method actress. As soon as they call cut, I’m back to me. I have worked with method actors who become the character for the amount of time they are working on the project. I understood it from what I’d read in books, but I’d never experienced it. For instance, a lot of people ask me what Denzel Washington was like as a person. I can’t even tell them because he wasn’t himself, he stayed in character all the time for Mo’ Better Blues. I didn’t get to know Denzel the man. I got to know Bleek the man.

Every actor I’ve worked with since has been different and they all have their different ways. It’s all about finding a way to meet in the middle. Depending on the relationship of the characters, find a way to come to terms with who you are to each other and find some history in our own paths, so we can experience each other in a realistic way for the audience. It’s very important and I’m very much in love with the ensemble feeling and working with different people and figuring out how they work best. An actor is a chameleon that way. I’ve enjoyed every type of actor I’ve worked with. I’ve had some difficult experiences with some actors, but I still was believable on the screen with them. It’s always worked out so far.

You collaborated with Carl Franklin on One False Move. Could you tell me more about your initial conversations with Carl about the character of Fantasia? What did you both want to achieve?

That’s an interesting story because Carl Franklin had another actress in mind for the role. I didn’t really have any conversations with Carl in the beginning about my character. Everything I got about my character came from the script. The script I studied and prepared with was a very different script that ended up on the screen. What ended up on the screen was a rewrite by Carl Franklin. He simplified the movie and whittled it down to its bare essence a made a very wonderful film noir and storyline. Originally it was more of an epic. It had a whole lot more monologues and dialogue, so there was so much to study.

When I got there, I was given a script with way less to say. I’m good with space and being subtle, so I was able to take all the information from the original script and use it in my body and my tone. While we were on set, Carl was very good at giving direction. If he wanted something done a different way, or a different emotion, he was wonderful at getting the performance desired out of all of us. I grew quite a lot as an actress on that movie.

Are there any particular directors you'd like to collaborate with?

There are so many. Ava DuVernay is someone I’ve always wanted to work with. I had the experience of working with a woman named Neema Barnette who was lovely. She’s done quite a bit, but I haven’t had much experience working with women directors. Victoria Mahoney was a friend early in both of our careers and now she’s doing huge things. I appreciate and love men and their abilities, but to get in the mind of a female director would be exciting and different. Then of course there are your dream directors like Scorsese, or Coppola.

As well as an actor you are a musician. Is that something you’d like to focus on, or a hybrid of both?

I love to act, but I’ve done some work I’ve not been proud of. Not my work, but the movies themselves because I was just trying to make a living. I don’t really want to ever have to do that again. I do a lot of writing and script writing. I also sing and write music and act if I like the script and the people involved. If the people doing it have a vision I want to get with and if it’s the direction I want to go, but also willing to pay me what I deserve. It means that I’m doing fewer movies, but happier with what I’m doing.

What’s one of the most important things you’ve taken away from acting?

I find for me that it has been therapeutic. I do it for many reasons, but one of those reasons is very selfish. It enables me to be any kind of person I want to be at any given time. I’ve played nice girls, awful human beings, drug addicts, mothers, and lawyers. It’s just so therapeutic to be able to act out these walls without having to live those lives. It gives me the opportunity to delve deep into the minds and hearts of all kinds of people. It just helps me love them even that much more. I love people because part of my job is to be able to analyse and understand the characters that I play. It opens me up to being more loving and less judgemental of humanity.

Do you have any advice for anyone pursuing a career in the industry?

I would say two things: the first is very foundational piece of advice and that is know who you are and be very grounded in that because life is difficult anyway. The entertainment world is difficult. It can hurt you because there is a lot of rejection. You have to understand your value and never give up if it’s something you love. The other thing I would say, is education of some sort is very important. There are so many different ways to educate yourself when it comes to the field. Every other field of study, you can constantly learn and become better. As long as you better yourself as an artist, the more you will work and have confidence because that confidence will be read by the room. Always study online, in-class, solo, workshop, books, tutorials, etc. There is no excuse not to be educated.

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