Editor’s Note: As of this month, “Love Jones” is on Netflix! As as a result, I’m sharing an interview I did with Bernadette Speakes about the 20th anniversary of the classic film in 2017! Enjoy!
If you came of age in the ’90s, you know it was the golden age of black cinema…Let me hit you with just a few — “House Party” (1990) “Boyz in the Hood” (1991), “New Jack City” (1991), “Juice” (1992), “Menace to Society” (1993),”Jason’s Lyric” (1993) “Friday” (1995), “Above the Rim” (1995), “Waiting to Exhale” (1995), “Love Jones” (1997) and “The Best Man” in 1999…One of those films “Love Jones” is being celebrated for reaching its 2oth anniversary as of this March with much fanfare, and I’m here for it, particularly as one of my Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters, who also pledged the sorority at the University of Georgia, co-starred in the film! The movie captured a time period in my life just after college when I fancied myself a budding poet (the great poet Nikki Giovanni, also a Delta, even critiqued one of my poems!) and traveled to poetry readings around town with friends. So when I discovered that Bernadette Clarke now Bernadette Speakes, on top of acting in one of my favorite movies of all time and being a Delta, is also a Christian, I knew I had to interview here on After the Altar Call about her journey, particularly as it is the 20th anniversary of the release of “Love Jones.”
Below is my interview with her (which I edited for for the sake of brevity):
1.You were born in New York, raised in Chicago and received a bachelor’s degree in Theater from the University of Georgia in Athens. How did you get from Athens to being cast as Sheila Downes in what has become a classic film “Love Jones?”
After I graduated, I moved back to Chicago, and I began pursuing my career. I ended up meeting Ted (writer and director of ‘Love Jones’) during a master’s thesis film we were doing for someone. He was doing sound. I was one of the actors on the film. And that’s how we first met. And it was very interesting because everybody that was on that shoot, especially one gentleman in particular, kept bragging and kind of boasting about all of these projects and things he had coming up. And Ted really didn’t say anything, he was just kind of joking around and just kind of laid back. We got along really, really well. Next thing I know, like, I think it was less than a year later, I get called on an audition for a film. I walk into the audition room, and it’s Ted. And he’s like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ And I said, ‘Oh my gosh, is this yours?’ He goes, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Did you have this in the works when we were working together?’ He said, ‘Yeah, it was kind of coming together, but I didn’t want to say anything.’ And that’s how I got cast.
On what set Bernadette apart from other actresses auditioning for the role…
I think Ted could answer that question better than I can, but I will say this about my last audition. I don’t know if you remember in the movie, I do this African dance. So when he wrote that, it was kind of like everybody had been drinking. My character who hadn’t been written yet does this thing, and it’s really simple. And when I auditioned, my agent said you need to come in there with an African dance. And I was like, ‘What?’ And that was my 4th call back. And I said, ‘Is that it? Is that all I have to do?’ And she was like, ‘Yes, they want to see a two-minute African dance.’ I said, ‘Okay.’
God puts things in divine order. I was already dancing with a West African troupe, and I went to one of my friends. We choreographed a routine. I walked into that audition very raw I would say because a very close friend of mine, I didn’t know if he was going to live or die that day because he had AIDS. So I wasn’t even going to go to this audition when I would found out that that he may not make it. I had said I’m not going. And my agent was really mad because I said I was going to visit my friend instead. Well, he found out that I wasn’t going to go to the audition. So he called me, and he swore up and down, he promised me that he would hold on and he said I needed to go do this. He told me he wouldn’t see if I didn’t go do it. So I called my agent and said I was going to go, but I went in there raw. And I guess I put all of that energy into the routine. I went in there with no shoes on, no make up on, these African pants and a leotard. I did my thing, and I was ready to bounce.
And Ted was like, ‘Wait, wait, wait.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. What’s up?’ He said, ‘I actually wrote something for you that I want you to read on camera.’ I was like, ‘Really? I have no makeup on.’ He said, ‘Naw, it’s all good. I just want to hear how you do it.’ I said, ‘Do you have a note that you want to give me before I read it?’ because it was a cold read. And he said, ‘Yeah. You know those girls who go to Whitney Young? You’re one of those girls.’ And that’s a note that only you being from Chicago (where the film was shot) would understand. Whitney Young (former First Lady Michelle Obama is a graduate) is a predominantly black high school, and it’s like a prep high school. It’s kind of bougie. And my sister went to Whitney Young so I totally knew what he meant when he gave me that note. So that is exactly what I did, and he said, ‘That’s it.’ And when I was finished, I said, ‘Gotta go. Peace out.’
And I think just being authentic and real in that moment is what got me the role. Not to say no one else was, but that is who Sheila is. She is very authentic and real, calls it like she sees it, very loyal to her friends, not fake. So I think the way that whole day kind of evolved brought all of that into place. I ended up being a co-star in the film which was huge for my first film!
2.Twenty years ago, “Love Jones” debuted on March 14. Did you have any idea that it would be a hit movie that continues to resonate with audiences even today?
No, I didn’t. I don’t know if any of us did. We knew we were doing something unique because nothing had been done in regards to the Chicago scene, the poetry scene or anything like that up until that point. And also, nothing had been done in a real positive, eclectic way of looking at African-American life in this type of setting so we all kind of knew that, but we didn’t know that it would burst. The irony is that it didn’t do well financially. It didn’t cost a lot to make, but it wasn’t in the theaters for a really long time. But it became this pop culture film, and once it went to video and television and online streaming and all of that stuff, it started to reach the masses in different geographical settings. My daughter, she is a millennial, and all of her friends know about the movie. People in my parents’ age group, they know about the movie so it became this really iconic film. And we had no idea that is what we were doing.
And for me, it wasn’t just about the movie. It was about the soundtrack too. Even today, you can listen to the soundtrack, and it’s still good.
And I really credit all of that to Ted. Ted is an amazing visionary artist. He’s a photographer. He’s a connoisseur of music, jazz, classical, R&B, blues. Like he loves it all. And he put all of that in the film.
3. I read that last month the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hosted the event “In the Mood for ‘Love Jones’ – The Academy Celebrates the Film’s 20th Anniversary,” which included a screening of the film at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. What was it like to reunite with the entire cast, and was this your first time reuniting with everyone since the movie debuted?
No, in February, we all saw each other at the ABFF (American Black Film Festival) Awards which was awesome! It was amazing to see all of us older. When we first did the film, none of us were married. Well, actually, Isaiah was married, and I was the only one who had a child. And we were all like in our early 20s. So when we see each other 20 years later, we’re all married. We all have kids. We’re older, wise, a lot more debonair. (laughter) And then it was really great to see each other again (at the academy event). And everyone is doing well in their lives. I had seen Bill Bellamy and Nia in passing at different events, but we all didn’t keep in touch. Well, I personally didn’t. I think some of them are closer in relationships than I am with them, but it was really beautiful for all of us to be together again.
4.In addition to “Love Jones,” you were featured along side Oscar Award-Winning Actor Sidney Poitier in “To Sir with Love II.” You’ve appeared in several TV shows such as Parenthood, Monk and Boston Legal. And you have acted in several theater productions in addition to being CEO of Dreams Take a Minute Productions in Los Angeles. Have you had a strategy in advancing in your acting career or do you have a principle that has guided you as you’ve made moves in your career?
I think the main thing that I do, I think most people would say, you should focus on one thing, Represent yourself well in that one thing and then move on to the next thing. And I’m more of an eclectic person. I can’t just focus on one thing. And also, I’m a stay-at-home mom taking care of my kids. So it was like what can I do to stay creative but not jeopardize or sacrifice this time in my children’s lives. And that fueled my decision making.
I feel like the industry isn’t going anywhere. It’s always going to evolve and grow, but it’s not going anywhere. So for me, I didn’t want to miss the legacy of my family and missing moments of when my kids grow up and taking steps toward their mark in the world for the sake of my dreams. I would rather still stay productive in my career, watch them grow, get them to a point where they can jump off the cliff so to speak into their dreams and then usher in mine. I don’t regret making that decision. I know I’m not where I could have been. I have not accomplished half of what my colleagues have, and I’m so happy for and proud of them. But for me, my family is my pride and joy. I look at my kids and how they are today, and I’m so glad I put them first. And my marriage is solid. My husband and I have been together 18 years. I think marriage is hard regardless of whether you’re in the Hollywood scene or not, two people trying to live together with flaws and all. But I think definitely my husband and I have cultivated something that is amazing. We’re each other’s biggest fan.
And now we’re at a point in our lives where are our kids are going, ‘Go do you thing.’ They want to see us soar, especially me. My kids definitely realize what I’ve given up in a sense and now they’re like , ‘Go soar Mom’ and that feels so good.
5.In addition to your acting career, I also admire that you are a Christian. How and when did you find your way to Christianity? Tell me about that journey. What is it like to be a Christian in Hollywood?
It was a journey within itself. My mom’s family are Baptists, and my dad’s are Catholics so I was always around some type of faith-based environment. But it didn’t really appeal to me honestly because I saw a lot of hypocrisy so I wasn’t interested. But then when I got to college, I felt lost. And I felt like I wanted to be a better version of me, but I didn’t really know what that meant. But I chose to become a Muslim. When I went back to Chicago, there is a very large population of Muslims where I lived which was Hyde Park, so I studied with an imam under Sunni Muslims. But I still felt like my soul was crying out for something.
There’s a reputable theatre in Chicago called the Steppenwolf Theatre, and I ended up being cast in two shows that same year with that theatre company, and God put Christians in both shows. It was the first time that I saw Christians not only own their imperfections but were authentic. Like they weren’t ‘judgy’ or judgmental or religious like a Pharisee or legalistic. And they were extremely talented women in the arts whom I highly respected. And all of that kind of piqued my interest and made me think, ‘Well maybe I have this whole Christianity thing wrong.’
So these women studied the Bible with me, and I asked 50 million questions because I had a lot of bitterness in my heart. They helped me sort through a lot of it. So I fell in love with Jesus. He was this masterful storyteller, the very thing that I am, he is the epitome of. I fell in love with the Bible. It became a no brainer for me to follow Him.
On how her faith helped Bernadette to transition to Hollywood…
So I was converted in Chicago, and when I moved to California, the church that I was a part of in Chicago, had a sister church in California, and they just actually moved me here. I moved here with nothing. It was literally my child, my clothes and my car. And the ministry in California gave me a household with roommates and a community that I’ve been with for almost 22 years. My church is called Turning Point LA. We changed our name. It used to be AMS, which stands for Arts Media Sports in the Los Angeles Church of Christ.
Being a Christian in Hollywood, I feel like it’s the fire that fuels me. And not because I’m trying to go out here with fire and brimstone. I’ve always been rebellious in my nature. Like I was the first to get tattoos in my family, the first to get piercings in my family, I had a baby out of wedlock. But now I get to be rebellious in a whole different way. When you look at Hollywood, you can say there are innovators absolutely, but I want to be defiant in a different way. So it definitely fuels me where I feel like I don’t have to compromise or give up anything just because I’m a Christian. What’s mine is still going to be mine and what isn’t isn’t. And I’m not going to apologize for who I am because I’m an actor and a storyteller. It doesn’t hinder me at all.
6.I know that you had a bout with illness. How did your faith sustain you during what I’m sure was a difficult time in your life?
It was 2014, and I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. It was cancer of my bone marrow. It was stage 4, and it was aggressive. I had a tumor in my back that cracked my vertebrae. I had been sick for six months before I found out that I even had cancer. It was a progressive cancer to say the least. And it caused excruciating pain that wasn’t helped by morphine or Percocet. And I was hallucinating with the dosages they gave me to so I didn’t want the dosages because I didn’t have a clear mind when I was using them. I had the choice to do medical marijuana which I prayed a lot about, and I chose not to do that either. It was a time when I felt like the physical pain, the emotional anguish and the spiritual suffering that Jesus went through when He went to the cross, this is an opportunity for me to experience that intimacy, even on a small scale, with Christ.
On choosing to focus on joy and gratitude during illness…
I think when you go through suffering, it can either be a burden or it can be a joy. And joy doesn’t mean happiness. Joy means I think your perspective and your gratitude. For me, I chose a joyful, grateful perspective going into it and that is what sustained me. I was sick for just over a year. When you have Non-Hodgkins lymphoma, there is only one combination that is curable. The combination that I had which is stage 4 aggressive was a curable combination for the type of chemo prescribed for me. I’m in remission now. I’m technically not cured until the 3 to 5 year mark.
7. Is there anything else you want to add?
I’m not done yet. I may have not been on the scene for a while, but trust me when I tell you, I’m not done yet.
Bernadette Speakes recently completed two films, and is about to step into another in mid-February. She has been adventurous on stage in 2014, stepping into her first COMEDY…Elephant Theatre’s West Coast Premiere of “North Plan,” directed by David Fofi. During the 2013 Fringe Festival, she portrayed Tituba, in “The Crucible.” She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre from the University of Georgia; and presently continues to hone her craft at various acting studios around the Los Angeles area.
Bernadette was a part of the Producing Queens of The Trunk Show… which brings its own uniqueness in the world of storytelling. She is also the creator and producer of “Get Up Stand Up…Clean Comedy 4 A Change,” a comedy showcase that bridges the gap of laughter and charity together. Bernadette has also appeared in several acclaimed shows, such as The Elephant Theater’s “In Arabia We’d Be Kings,” and The Fountain Theater’s West Coast Production of Direct from Death Row…”The Scottsboro Boys.” She’s performed at the Steppenwolf Theater, Goodman, Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, and the Matrix’s LA Premier of An Evening with Shakespeare featuring Charles S. Dutton.
Awards include an Emmy Nomination for “A Stage of Our Own,” with James Earl Jones, The LA Drama Critic’s Circle, and the LA Weekly. Other Film & TV Credits include…”The Soloist,” “Heroes,” “Parenthood,”” To Sir with Love II” with Mr. Sidney Poitier, and the 1997 Sundance Festival Winner, “Love Jones,” which was honored this year, the 20th anniversary of its release, at the 2017 ABFF AWARDS for its contribution as a cinematic classic in African-American films!
So if you’ve never seen “Love Jones,” see it NOW on Netflix!