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What's It All About, Alfre?

The award-winning star talks about directing the audiobook Nelson's Mandela Favorite Folktales and her new TV series Three Rivers. logo
Alfre Woodard
Storytelling is more than an art -- It's how we connect to our history, the world around us, and each other. It's also at the center of the actor's craft. So, when award-winning actress Alfre Woodard offered fellow actors including Hugh Jackman, Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Rickman, and Helen Mirren a chance to participate in the audiobook of Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales, its no wonder they jumped at the chance to stand behind the microphone and tell a story.

"Storytelling is just as old as we are, it's the passing of the lore," says Woodard, who last appeared on Broadway in Drowning Crow. "It's a primal connection. It connects the reader and listener. It settles us in the same way music has an effect on our bodies. Stories are a passing of a touch, a stroke from one person to the next."

Woodard is a founding member of Artists For A New South Africa, a non-profit organization of entertainment professionals who hope to advance the human and civil rights of South Africa, and the book is an outgrowth of that work. "We wanted to bring our political and spiritual work in line with an artistic endeavor," says Woodard, who stresses that the book is not meant solely for children. "Folktales aren't little kid tales; they come from folk living the experience."

As the audiobook's director, Woodard's biggest challenge was deciding which actors -- including Charlize Theron, Forest Whitaker, and Matt Damon -- to use on the project. "Mandela belongs to the world," she notes. "So we wanted it to be an international group of actors. And I wanted to make sure the generations were covered. Most of all, I wanted people who could bring a story alive. It's painting with your voice and emotion."

She also wanted the listener to have an intimate experience, so she kept things simple. "The only direction I gave to the actor was 'just read it to your family and friends," Woodard says. "I wanted them to keep their own voices so people at home felt like Whoopi, Hugh, or Alan were sitting in their den talking to them. In the end, you just get really brilliant people, and the work is done."

Woodard's own brilliance as a performer has been on display for decades -- she has won four Emmy Awards for her television work and was nominated for an Academy Award for Cross Creek -- so it's good to know that as much as she enjoys directing, Woodard isn't giving up acting.

In fact, she appears in the new CBS medical drama Three Rivers, about the emotionally complex lives of organ donors, the recipients, and their surgeons. "If they're transplanting faces, we need to talk about it," she says. Indeed, the message has always been more important than the medium to Woodard. "I would follow the right story to a construction site if that's where we're performing," she says.

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