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NEW YORK (Reuters) – (The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Over the past year, Angela Bassett has been showing her wide acting range as mother of superhero T’Challa in “Black Panther” and a CIA director in the new “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” sequel that opens next week.
That follows roles as American icons, ranging from vocal powerhouse Tina Turner to civil rights activists Betty Shabazz and Rosa Parks, and her debut as director of a TV movie about singing legend Whitney Houston.
For the latest in Reuters’ Life Lessons series, Bassett spoke about her most challenging role of all – how she went from a modest childhood in St. Petersburg, Florida, raised by a single mom, to being a reigning Hollywood queen.
Q: Who left the biggest impression on you growing up?
A: My aunt Golden and my uncle Grover. He was a barber, she was an educator, and every summer she would continue her studies somewhere, until eventually she got her PhD. Perhaps that is why as an actor, I understand that you have to go away and leave your family for a bit sometimes. You go do projects that inspire and grow and stretch you, and then you come back with stories and experiences to share.
Q: How did being raised by a single mom shape your worldview?
A: Betty Jane Bassett only had a high school education, had to leave NYC to go back to Florida, and went to night school in order to make us a better life. She used to enlist us kids to quiz her with index cards, to help with her studies. She did what had to be done to make ends meet, and taught me how to make a dollar out of 15 cents. She always said: “Don’t be average. I don’t have average kids.”
Q: What was your first job growing up?
A: I worked in an assisted-living facility in St. Pete Beach. I took orders in the dining room. That was my first regular paycheck, and it was the first job my mother let me take. She didn’t allow me to work at fast-food restaurants, because she thought it was slave labor.
Q: After you graduated from Yale, were those first acting years rough?
A: I had a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a fourth-floor walkup. I worked at a salon on the East Side of Manhattan, answering the phone and making spa appointments. During my 45-minute lunch break, I would go on auditions. After nine months of that I was feeling a little depressed, but just kept paying the bills and kept auditioning. I knew the salon was just a means to an end.
Finally I got a part, in an ensemble show of vignettes throughout African-American history. I was just an understudy, but I remember I had to go on once as Billie Holiday, singing a cappella. Now that was intimidating.
Q: When you hit it big, how did you handle financial success?
A: I have always been pretty frugal. But something I did learn quickly was that whatever you loan, just give it. When you become successful everyone starts asking to borrow money – friends, family. I can’t spend the rest of my life keeping a tally, and getting upset, and running after people because they owe me.
Q: Where do you devote your charitable dollars?
A: It depends on what hits you in the heart. For me it has always been about children in St. Petersburg, helping the community where I grew up, like the boys and girls clubs. I’m also very involved in diabetes awareness, since my mother passed away from complications due to diabetes and heart disease. I try to get the word out.
Q: What lessons do you try to pass along to your two kids?
A: What I tell them is that you can’t dance to every record. In other words, you can’t be everything to everybody, and get yourself involved in every possible situation. So pick a song you like, and then give it your best. Hard work pays off.
I also like the advice, “If your outgo exceeds your income, then your upkeep will be your downfall.” I heard that from a man of the cloth, and I love it. Never live beyond your means.
Editing by Richard Chang