Actress Angela Bassett & director Antoine Fuqua

The Oscar-nominated actress and Training Day director describe the working relationship on their new feature thriller, Olympus Has Fallen.

Angela Bassett has made a career portraying strong, real-life African American women, with credits that include Malcolm X, What's Love Got to Do With It—for which she earned a Best Actress Oscar nod—and The Rosa Parks Story. She also starred in and co-produced Showtime's, Ruby's Bucket of Blood. Bassett holds B.A. and M.F.A. degrees from Yale and is an avid supporter of youth arts programs, especially the Royal Theater Boys & Girls Club in her St. Petersburg, FL hometown.

Antoine Fuqua is one of the foremost directing talents of his generation. His diverse body of work includes Brooklyn's Finest, King Arthur and the documentary Lightning in a Bottle; but it was Training Day that catapulted him into the top tier of his profession. The Pittsburgh, PA native studied electrical engineering in college, on an athletic scholarship. He moved to New York and worked as a production assistant before beginning his career by directing music videos and commercials.

The two team up on the new White House thriller, Olympus Has Fallen.

TRANSCRIPT

Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with not one but two talented artists – Angela Bassett and director Antoine Fuqua. Their latest collaboration is the movie “Olympus Has Fallen,” an action thriller that has wonderful under siege from terrorists.

Before we get to that conversation, though, we continue tonight introducing you to some of the people who make this show possible. We are in our 10th season, headed toward our 2,000th show, and joining me now, our director, Jonathan X.

This is the guy who calls the shots every night, and has been doing so from the very first night. Jonathan, I am honored to be your subject every night, sir.

Jonathan X: Thank you, Tavis. Over the years it’s been a wonderful experience being a part of so many great conversations, some that validate my belief system and some that challenge my belief system. So that also makes the show really special.

I tell my friends all the time that this is the only project I’ve worked on where my IQ has actually increased a couple points.

Tavis: I’m honored to have you -

Jonathan X: Thank you very much. Thank you.

Tavis: – (unintelligible) every night for 10 years, 10 seasons now. You want to take it away?

Jonathan X: We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Angela Bassett and Antoine Fuqua, coming up right now. Roll tape.

Tavis: Angela Bassett has played iconic Americans like Coretta Scott King and Tina Turner. Director Antoine Fuqua has won praise for tackling difficult subject like police brutality in “Training Day” with Denzel Washington, and refugees from conflict zones in “Tears of the Sun.”

They are now teamed up for a new movie. It’s called “Olympus Has Fallen.” I’ve seen it. I loved it. It’s a thriller in which the president of the United States is taken hostage by terrorists from North Korea. Angela plays the head of the Secret Service – go on, Angela. (Laughter) Let’s take a look at a clip from “Olympus Has Fallen.”

[Clip]

Tavis: So I love this for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is one of my favorite actresses, Angela Bassett, was in it. But Angela’s playing the head of the Secret Service. You’ve got a brother named Morgan Freeman who’s Speaker of the House.

Antoine Fuqua: Right. (Laughter)

Tavis: Got a brother directing it named Antoine Fuqua. How did you pull all that off? (Laughter) That’s what I want to know, for starters.

Fuqua: Made a couple phone calls.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Fuqua: Begged a little bit, yeah, yeah.

Angela Bassett: Oh, no, he didn’t have to beg me. (Laughter)

Tavis: It’s an amazing, amazing flick. I was teasing Antoine when he walked on the set. There was a wonderful piece in “The New York Times” today after our premiere there, and I laughed when I saw the quote from Harvey Weinstein, who’s been a guest on this program.

Harvey knows a little bit about movie making, just a little bit – and Harvey said in “The New York Times,” “This is easily $100 million plus.”

Bassett: Oh.

Tavis: So how’s it feel when Harvey Weinstein says something like that?

Fuqua: Feels fantastic. I just want to see it happen.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Fuqua: I love Harvey.

Tavis: It’s one thing for Harvey to say it, another thing for it to happen.

Bassett: Uh-huh, let’s see if we can do it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Fuqua: (Unintelligible) to happen.

Tavis: But I’m glad we raised this, because I recall once a conversation on this program, Angela, with Will Smith, and Will laid out – you both know Will – Will just laid out, methodically, the way he has gone about picking the movie that he wants to do.

And he literally, on this program, gave up his trade secrets. If you want to have a summer blockbuster, these are the things you have to have in that movie. He just broke it down. You need action, you need this, somebody saving the world, you need this.

He laid out all the ingredients. He said, “If you put all this together and give me a decent script with those elements in it, I can give you a $100 million film.” I know movie-making isn’t that simple, because we see flops that cost $200 or $300 million all the time.

Fuqua: Yeah, we do.

Tavis: But what are the elements that you look for if you want a movie that has this kind of storyline, this kind of action in it, to be a movie that does well?

Fuqua: Well, I think you’ve got to have some fantastic entertainment, first of all, because people want to get a lot for their money these days. And I think you need some substance nowadays, so you need something that they can hold on to and relate to.

In our film, you’ve got terrorism. Terrorism is a part of our world today, so people connect to a bit of reality at times. So if you can take a film that has big action and plant it, I think you got a shot at success. The other way is if it’s a cartoon, which is what Hollywood is doing a lot of now.

In the middle is dangerous. When you don’t have anything that’s grounded, even if you got great action, if it’s not grounded in something people can connect to right now, you can have a dismal failure. If you have a cartoon, you have a bigger shot at it because you have more freedom.

If you make something that’s a pure drama with no action, you’re really walking a dangerous line, which is harder to make these days. You can’t get dramas made. Rarely do you get dramas made.

Tavis: Why not?

Fuqua: Well, because they’re in the middle. Dramas normally cost between $30 and $40 million. Thirty, forty million dollars, plus P&A, you’ve got to put another $30 million in there. So now you’re already up to maybe $70, $80 million, and it’s a drama, and -

Bassett: Then what it costs to start making money back, you’ve got -

Fuqua: Then what it costs to start making money back.

Bassett: – you’ve got to double or triple that number.

Fuqua: You’ve got to double, triple that number.

Tavis: Yeah. Before I go to Angela here, because I’m fascinated by this inside the movie business, how much consideration has to be given to whether or not, even though it’s action and we know it’s action, how much thought goes into whether or not it’s believable?

That is to say there are a whole lot of folk who think that the White House is a fortress. I thought about this the minute I got the movie.

Fuqua: Right.

Tavis: People think the White House is a fortress, and the last thing you can convince most Americans of is that the White House could ever be taken.

Fuqua: Right.

Tavis: That the president could be held hostage inside the White House.

Fuqua: That’s right.

Tavis: So how much of it starts with believability, or is that part of the fun?

Fuqua: Well it’s part of the fun, but it also starts with believability. When I got the script, the first thing I said is I want to ground it and make it feel real.

Tavis: Right.

Fuqua: So we brought in some ex-Secret Service cats, we brought in some Navy SEALS, some Army Rangers worked with us, couple guys that worked in the White House, and we laid out – I said, “Let’s lay out a plan on how you would attack the White House.”

So if you took away certain elements that we weren’t allowed to show you, then it can go down that way, and it’s real. Just last Tuesday, I think it was, a tourist jumped over the fence.

Bassett: Yeah.

Tavis: Right.

Fuqua: So it shows you that there’s a vulnerability there. Now you always have to have inside help to get that deep into it, but you can cause a lot of damage, and I think people, their brains are wired now since 9/11. We know that – I talk about this a lot – the commission on 9/11 said that we lacked imagination. That’s why we were able to be hit.

Tavis: Right.

Fuqua: With box-cutters. And they took over our planes. So when you think about that and you put that in perspective, a well-oiled machine of motivated men that are willing to die – or women – die for their cause, with some inside help can cause a lot of damage.

Tavis: Yeah. I mentioned, Angela, some of the characters you’ve played, and I suspect that every role that you play or want to play doesn’t have to be some iconic figure. But from Coretta Scott King to Rosa Parks, I could have put her on that list, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Tina Turner, of course, I said.

What goes into your decision-making process at this point in your career about what you do want to do and what you don’t want to do? Because again, a Black woman running the Secret Service is something that hasn’t happened, but I love, as we say, the business casting against type. I kind of love that. But what’s your process for deciding what you do want to do these days?

Bassett: Well, it’s a number of elements. Sometimes others weigh more. In this case, this is one of the major elements, to have an opportunity to work with this man, who is prepared, meticulous, and has such a clear and strong vision, and just a nice guy on top of that as well. It’s been years that we’ve been hoping to work with each other.

Years ago we were close to that, and you never know when it might come up or when the opportunity arises. It’s a script. The script, the director, the role. Like you said, the opportunity to portray on celluloid the director of the Secret Service. Never been a woman, much less an African American woman.

Again, that’s the idea of the glass ceiling, and a lot of times we have life imitating art as in what the president may look like these days. Years ago it was Morgan Freeman; it had never been done.

Fuqua: That’s right.

Bassett: Now it’s a reality today. Or seeing Geena Davis on the small screen.

It’s just a matter of time before there’s a woman in the White House. So this is just, just adds to the capability and the strength and intelligence of a woman to be able to do any job. So I like that idea, putting that idea into the world, into an audience consciousness. That’s just pride. Otherwise, this is just a fun movie.

It’s big action, thriller, adrenaline, easy for guys to grab on to. But what is so wonderful is in addition to that there’s such heart and intelligence, commitment. Everybody has a hand in it. Not just the men around the table, but Melissa Leo’s character -

Fuqua: (Unintelligible)

Bassett: – cast as the secretary of Defense. My character, even the president’s son, everybody has a -

Fuqua: Ashley Judd (unintelligible).

Bassett: Ashley Judd (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah, Ashley didn’t – (unintelligible) give that away. I was going to say (laughter) – I was about to give the storyline away. I won’t do that. When I saw Ashley, I thought about the fact that -

Fuqua: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: I thought about the fact that with all the talk about her pending Senate run -

Fuqua: Right

Tavis: – from the state of Kentucky, it was nice to see her in a political, high-tech thriller. What are you going to say – and I suspect you’re going to get some of this, particularly given all the conversation now about gun control, et cetera, et cetera.

What are you going to say when the critics start saying that it’s pretty violent? It’s a good movie, it’s entertaining, but there’s a whole lot of stuff, and it’s pretty graphic in some of these scenes.

Fuqua: Well, the beauty of film is sometimes we document life in documentaries, and in fiction we are allowed to translate. I think that they should embrace this, because this goes – for me, the reason I wanted to make this movie is it is a cautionary tale, and that is that we’re vulnerable.

It’s not just guns; it’s all of our elements. The C-130 belonged to us; the garbage trucks belonged to us. The idea of having tourists in front of the White House with backpacks, that’s all part of our freedom. That’s all a part of American.

To me, the gun control issue can come up, but it’s not the first movie to deal with weapons and guns and things like that, but it is a movie that’s saying this is a scenario that could happen.

Every weapon they had is American-made. So that’s something to think about and talk about. Whether or not, how we police it, we have to figure that out. That’s people up in government that have to make those decisions, beyond me. But something has to happen, because now we’re talking about putting knives back on the plane. Seems that we have a short memory. 9/11 wasn’t that long ago, and they did it with box-cutters.

So as a filmmaker, I could put it up on the screen and we all get to go home and see our family and hug our children. In real life, people die. So they can look at the film and say, “What can we learn about this movie?” Maybe we should have a little more gun control, because you got people walking around and look like their tourists that could have AK-47s and MP5s in their bags.

Because you can make those. You can order them online. You can order parts. There’s people that I know that make AK-47s. They make them.

Tavis: I thought it was a bit of canny directing, Angela, to get your take on this, I thought it was a bit of canny directing to Antoine’s part, to his point, rather, that there was a scene in the movie – not to give it away – but I loved how he came in on this weaponry that the terrorists were using, that you could see clearly on the box that it was made – see, I watch your stuff. I paid attention to that.

Fuqua: (Unintelligible) details. (Laughter) My man.

Tavis: I paid attention to detail. I saw the camera zoom in; you could see very clearly that the weapons that the terrorists were using to take over the White House were weapons that were made by the United States of America. So that is the case to Antoine’s point. That’s real in the world, that so much of what we deal with is stuff that we helped put out that we have financed and we have sold weapons to place around the world, that at some point might come back to haunt us.

Bassett: Come back, right.

Tavis: Your thoughts about that?

Bassett: (Laughs) Well, I think he layered a lot of that into the movie, and it’s true, even the point to one of the characters who was part of the Secret Service, and a human being who’s used by the villain to attack us. And I remember you talking earlier about between the president and the Secret Service, just that idea of always keep your guard up, of having an awareness.

Fuqua: Yeah, that’s what the opening scene is about, the boxing scene. Keep the guard up, because that’s part of the world we live in. Terrorism is a part of our lives, unfortunately.

Tavis: You and I have boxed at the same gym.

Fuqua: Oh, is that right?

Tavis: Yeah, our friend Terry.

Fuqua: Oh, there you go, my man.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, so we box at the same gym. For that matter, Denzel boxes at this gym.

Fuqua: Yeah, that’s right.

Tavis: A lot of people do. I only went there because you raised the notion of the boxing in the scene. The movie does start out with a scene where the president is boxing with one of his Secret Service detail members.

Which leads me to ask what it is that you take from boxing into your directing. I love the way you used that metaphor a moment ago, about the boxing. I love boxing for a lot of reasons, which I’ve discussed on this show with other guests here and there.

Fuqua: Sure.

Tavis: But I’m curious as to what you take as a director from boxing into your work.

Bassett: Oh, I meant to ask you that. Was that originally because it was written – the script was written a while ago. Was that originally a part of the script?

Fuqua: No, I (unintelligible).

Bassett: Okay.

Tavis: See, that’s my point.

Bassett: Right, right.

Tavis: So okay, now I really (unintelligible).

Bassett: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Now I really (unintelligible).

Bassett: Okay, it’s very personal.

Fuqua: Yeah.

Bassett: Ah-ha.

Tavis: So you put the boxing scene at the beginning of the movie.

Fuqua: Yeah. Because, well, one of the reasons was that for boxing, as you know, you’ve trained with Terry and cats like that, it’s a chess game. It’s not just brutality.

Bassett: No, no.

Fuqua: It is a brutal -

Tavis: The “sweet science.” They call it that for a reason.

Fuqua: It’s the sweet science.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Bassett: And you have to keep your eye, as I know, on the eyes, not the hands.

Fuqua: You got to keep the eyes, that’s right.

Bassett: On the opponent’s eyes.

Fuqua: And you’ve got to stick a move. You can’t sit around and get lazy, because – Manny Pacquiao. (Laughter)

Bassett: Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Tavis: You can go to sleep.

Fuqua: You can go to sleep. So for me, boxing is – when I’m stressing, and even when I’m filming, I box. I get a heavy bag at lunch time.

Tavis: Right.

Fuqua: It’s a great sort of meditation, but it also just reminds you – first time I ever boxed before, man, I got knocked out. Cat was a little, skinny dude. I came off the streets thinking, man, I’m going to knock this dude – I didn’t know nothing about boxing. Man, this guy hit me so fast I didn’t see it coming.

Tavis: Yeah.

Fuqua: But he knew how to fight, he knew how to box better. I knew how to fight, he knew how to box.

Different game. So for me, the idea of putting it in a movie was that’s America. We’re great warriors, great fighters. But if we drop our guard, which we did before -

We saw what happened. So I would just make it a little point to say – and because Gerard Butler’s character, the hero of the movie, he ducks and cracks the president, and he says, “You’re telegraphing, putting your guards down.”

That’s why he head-butts the guy Forbes, Dylan’s character. He says, “Keep your guards up.” But the idea is that we dropped our guards – again. In the movie, at least, and you see what could happen when you drop your guards. You’re going to get hit.

Terrorists are sitting around waiting for an opportunity to punch us, man. That’s what they do. Our embassies are getting hit. Any opportunity that’s out there, they will take it. In New York, maybe it was a year ago, the guy was down in Times, Times Square.

Bassett: Oh, Times Square.

Tavis: Times Square.

Fuqua: A vendor happened to see him.

Bassett: Right, right.

Fuqua: That’s great on that vendor, man. He kept his guard up, he kept his eyes alert. Unfortunately, as much as we don’t want to think about that, it’s a part of our lives. You’ve been to Jordan, I’ve been to –

We afford to sit at the coffee shops and walk our dogs and live a free life here without worrying about that as much because of these brave men and women, who she plays one of them, are doing all these things behind the scenes that you never see.

Like I told Gerard and everyone else when we were making this movie, I said, “For Secret Service in all the other organizations in service for us, it’s 100 percent success or 100 percent failure. Any small event is a failure”

9/11 was a -

Tavis: Disaster.

Fuqua: – disaster, right?

Tavis: Yeah.

Fuqua: Kennedy, failure. Ronald Reagan getting shot, failure. But think about how many times it doesn’t happen because they’re out there doing their jobs. So this is really a message to us, and entertainment, of course, is really what it is.

It’s a thriller, it’s an action thriller, but the idea is that this could happen. This was laid out by people who know. These things in this movie all belong to us. If it’s laid out this way and you’re sleeping on the job and a guy can jump over the fence to get to the White House, that’s a problem.

Tavis: Yeah. I want to come back to Angela in just a second and ask about – I want to go back to the “Mountaintop” play. The last time I saw you, you were on Broadway. I had a great time; I came to spend some time with you. I want to talk about that on this side of the Broadway thing.

But while Antoine’s talking, I want to go to something. This might be a little bit politically incorrect. I don’t think so, and if you’re uncomfortable talking about it, we don’t have to talk about it.

But when I got this movie and started reading the commentary about it and saw what Harvey Weinstein and others have said about it, and then saw it for myself, again, and said, “Okay, this really is going to be a very big movie, a blockbuster, I think, sort of flick,” in my house, where I was watching the screener, I applauded you.

Fuqua: Thank you.

Tavis: I literally applauded you. But I wasn’t applauding you just for the work in this film. I was applauding you for still doing this, and doing it at such a high level. The reason why I was applauding you is because in this business, for those of us who live in this town – I think you know where I’m going with this -

Fuqua: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: – there was a moment after “Training Day” when you should have been at your – you were, in fact – at your apex. You were at the top of your game, Denzel wins the Academy Award under your direction for “Training Day,” you get snubbed, you don’t get a nomination for that, but Denzel gets his.

I love D; glad he got the respect that he received. But you get snubbed, and then a project or two later, it gets really ugly the press, and – I’m not going to call out the studio, but the studio in this town starts trashing you and blaming you for why the project didn’t come to life, and your name was mud in this town for a minute.

You survived that and you kept going, and now here you are directing this blockbuster, with other stuff on your docket. I wonder if you might say a word about how you – I’m talking now just about Antoine Fuqua, the person; not the director, the person – how you survived being slimed in that way, and survived that sliming, and now here you are with this, I think, blockbuster on your hands. Would you mind talking about that?

Fuqua: No, not at all. Well, part of it is this. I grew up, and I was taught to be humble. Sometimes, by getting knocked out and having humility, you grow and you learn even your own mistakes.

In retrospect, I look back and I disagree with how they handled things and how I was treated, but I accept that and keep moving. But I’m a fighter, man. I came from the streets, you know what I mean?

Tavis: Mm-hmm.

Fuqua: Not much Hollywood could do to me. I already survived the worst. For me, ultimately what I look at is the work. When people say negative things or try to destroy what I’m about, I always step back and say, “The work. Just keep doing the work, because you can’t argue with the work.” You know what I mean?

So they’re going to always say something negative about me, somebody, somewhere, but the legacy is the work. At the end of the day, when they step back and say, “But was he a talented director? Could he do the job? Could he make us money?” That’s it. That’s it.

Tavis: Thank you for answering. I didn’t know if you’d want to go there, but I appreciate it. Because I think it’s informative and instructive for those who watch the program and those of us who, in our own lives, have to take these hits. You’re not going to get from the cradle to the grave without taking these kinds of hits to your character.

Bassett: Right, and I vouchsafe that on that set it flows from the top-down, and to have him as our leader, who’s leading the ship, we’re on a journey, we’re trying to reach a destination – just phenomenal and one of the best experiences I ever had. So the work, the product, and the man is phenomenal.

Tavis: Speaking of the work, your work, before my time runs out here, you were phenomenal. I had my issues with the play, the way certain things were written.

But as an artist, the way you played this character and pulled this off in the “Mountaintop” play I thought was – you’re the best at this. I take it you enjoyed the experience, then?

Bassett: I did, tremendously. That’s my roots, stage, theater. So to have that opportunity to go there without – because I think they say that film is a director’s medium, but stage is the actor’s. Opening night, the director’s gone, it’s in our hands.

Fuqua: That’s right.

Bassett: The audience is a living, breathing, growing, changing -

Fuqua: You don’t get take two.

Bassett: No. (Laughter) It’s like I caught it tonight, ooh, it escaped me the next evening.

Tavis: Yeah, right.

Bassett: Ooh, I got that moment, but ooh, I fell short here.

Tavis: Yeah.

Bassett: But it’s exciting, it’s thrilling, and I haven’t done nearly as much since I came to Hollywood. But it seems actors are going back and forth with a little bit more fluidity.

Tavis: Is that what we can expect from you, to start doing more of the back-and-forth, you think?

Bassett: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I like that that was – I enjoyed that it was a new play and a new voice, a new voice in the theater. So we’ll see, we’ll see. Courtney’s on Broadway now doing a play, so.

Tavis: Her husband, Courtney Vance, that would be.

Bassett: Yeah, yeah, yeah, with Tom Hanks, doing “The Lucky Guy.” So when you’re talking about home and family and okay, and we have kids, and I’m going, now you want to go at the exact same time?

Tavis: Right.

Bassett: Do you really want to do it? If your heart’s there, your passion’s there, it’s like, bye-bye, we’re making it work.

Tavis: That play is getting good reviews.

Bassett: But it’s -

Tavis: It’s getting very good reviews.

Bassett: It is.

Tavis: Yeah.

Bassett: Standing ovations every night, so.

Tavis: Yeah. So Antoine, do you already know – how’s this director thing working? You already know what’s on the docket for the next project?

Fuqua: I got a couple things floating around, man, and I won’t mention it.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, we shouldn’t. I’m just asking if you knew what it was.

Fuqua: No, no, (unintelligible) mention it, because I want to make sure it happens. (Laughter) I’ll tell you when the cameras stop.

Tavis: Okay. Okay. (Laughter) My godmother says that to me all the time. She says it all the time. I think she’s right, but there’s a little bit of cynicism in it. But I think she’s more right than she is cynical when she tells me all the time, “People don’t wish you well. Don’t tell nobody your business.” (Laughter)

Fuqua: Don’t tell them nothing, man.

Tavis: Don’t tell them nothing. (Laughter) Until the deal is done, keep your mouth shut.

Fuqua: That’s it, brother.

Tavis: That’s that old Black wisdom – just shut your mouth until -

Fuqua: That’s right.

Bassett: That’s right.

Tavis: When it’s done, it will speak for itself.

Fuqua: That’s right.

Tavis: You put something out there, people say, “Well, Negro, I thought I saw you on ‘Tavis,’ saying you were going to do so-and-so. What happened?”

Fuqua: That’s right.

Tavis: You’re like, “Well, what happened was -” (Laughter)

Fuqua: Yeah, you got to explain yourself.

Tavis: So no, you leave that alone. The project now is called “Olympus Has Fallen.” It is a wonderful project I think you’ll enjoy, directed by the one and only Antoine Fuqua, and starring Angela Bassett and a wonderful, all-star cast. I think you’ll like this.

But when you start seeing the promos everywhere, you won’t need me to encourage you to go see it. I think the trailer itself will get you in the seats. Congratulations in advance.

Fuqua: Thanks.

Bassett: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Good to see you both.

Fuqua: Always good to see you.

Tavis: Appreciate you.

Bassett: Appreciate it.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. See you next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: March 25, 2013 at 12:00 pm