' ‘It looks like its been injected with colour. . .when I first sawthese
counters in the street. I thought. My God. they‘re like ﬂowers.‘ It‘s hard to believe that the glamourous butterﬂy of Spielberg‘s The Color Purple can get so excited about London‘s fruit stalls.
Margaret Avery is herself as vibrantly colourful as Shug. the character for whom she won an Oscar nomination. Against the subdued. good taste decor of the St James Club dining room. she is bright as sunshine in a yellow dress. her body spectacularly fine-boned and black.
Yet the differences between the actress and the character who. coincidentally shares her surname. are marked. The actress‘s arrival among the cucumber sandwiches and scones is quiet and dignified contrasting bizarrely with Shug. Avery‘s first appearance in the film at (‘elie and Mister‘s porch. bedecked in finery but soaked to the skin as lightning ragesoutside. Margaret is noticeably slighter than the strident blues singer. lady-like and delicate. rather than brash and powerful. She tweaks her upper arm with glossin manicured fingers. proving the extent ofthe iron pumping that went on prior to taking on the part: ‘Steven asked me to gain ll) pounds. In my paranoia. I gained 25'. Muscle training and a special diet gave 1930s curves to her ‘all skin and bones‘ figure. When it came to the brawl in the ‘Jook Joint‘. she could pack a punch with the best of them. albeit in a scene which was part of the 90 minutes cut from the film when the epic was trimmed to its present 152 minuteslcngth.
Margaret admits to being immediately drawn to Shug. not just her ‘floosiness‘. but the ‘free spirit‘ which inspires Celie. played by Whoopi Goldberg. An upright presence at the table. Margaret says that this lack of inhibition is unlike her real self. To help create the part she would "I‘hink everyday like Shug‘ anticipating the chararcter‘s comments even ifshe didn‘t dare make them. Of her own life she makes example of her 15 years residency in the same house in ‘smoggy‘ Hollywood. "I‘hat‘s how conservative Margaret Avery is.‘
In fact since the film has been released in the US. grossing Sltltlmillion. her fixed abode has made it easy for touched well wishers to contact her direct. ‘It is quite a thrill. People ring because they are so happy for me. I get people I went to elementary school with who thought ‘Is that Margie‘."; I can tell when it‘s my family because they call me Margaret-Jo. my real name.‘
Avery is moved by the magnitude ofher role and the film itself. ‘I‘ve heard of ministers telling their congregation: ‘If you want to know about love. go and see The Color Purple.‘ When she tried to congratulate Spielberg on the success of the challenge he‘d undertaken. she broke out in sobs because she realised the possibility of ‘never experiencing again this
Ltype ofemotion in making a film.‘
ZThe List ll—Z-Uuly
Oscar-nominated actress Margaret Avery talks to ' Stephanie Billen about what Spielberg‘s acclaimed The Color Purple has done for blacks.
For all that she sees herself as a lesser being than Shug; Margaret Avery has had to struggle for the lifestyle and recgonition she is achieving now. Is she tough? ‘All black women have had to be strong, unless we come from a rich family.‘ As an actress she remarks: ‘Women in the business have had it difficult. For every ten men there will be one woman. Add black woman and over 30. and its more like 40 to l.‘
She grew up in the 503 in a poor naval household. Through a quirk of the housing boundary line. she found herselfat the ‘ritzy all-white junior high school. where the children only knew blacks as domestics in their homes.‘ Her experience ofschool theatre there was ofcourse depressing; ‘The casting was archaic. I could a only ever get to be a maid.’ Back home there were few black actors to inspire her on television. Her mentors were Lucille Ball and Doris Day. ‘I didn‘t get the feeling I could ever be an actor— not until I was in college when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. He always talked about ‘the dream’; when he was assassinated. that inspired me to go on.‘
Avery‘s involvement in black rights as a political movement in the 605 was short lived. ‘I lasted a week. then I got run out oftown.‘ The occasion was ‘making a statement‘. in fact simply ‘grumbling‘ to the person beside her in a Mississippi courtroom. after she had gone south to help prevent the injustices and disappearances of blacks she had heard about. A friend warned her that the sheriff in the small town was looking for her. a situation which she Says meant. incredibly. that she too
Shug (Margaf‘A‘ry) antl‘Celie (Whoopi G‘tildberg‘) become lrintls.
l l l l l l l
and Horror Film for Lathe of
As Margaret turned back to her acting career. she faced a situation just fifteen years ago when there were only a handful of black actors working. "I‘hen the black exploitation films started up and that opened up tv roles. The film industry had suffered economic depression in the late 605 and early 70s. Then there was a decision that black people would like to see blacks on screen. so they came up with these low budget. all black films set in the slums of New York full ofpimps and hookers and dope dealers.‘Times had been desolate. ‘I had been studying my craft desperately getting answers from agents like: ‘No we‘re not interested in your type.“ Now there were parts. hookers, and Avery played them. ‘Then someone said there was too much violence. so there was a question ofwhat to do with all these pimps and hookers. Some of the ‘pimps‘ could play doctors. but they still didn‘t believe a black woman could be a nurse or a secrtrary. . . .‘ Over a period of5 years Avery claims her career went gradually down — her slender arm gestures the fall from grace. ‘For me The Color Purple was Margaret Avery being rediscovered again‘
Avery‘s depiction of her career is modestly misleading. She won an award for her starring performance in the film ScottJoplin. as the wife of the ragtime composer. and has played in films like Which Way is Up? with Richard Pryor and Magnum Force with Clint Eastwood. Her television movies have included a nomination for best actress by the Academy of Science Fiction Fantasy
Heaven. and her theatre roles. a Drama Desk Critics Award for her lead performance in Does a Tiger weara Necktief’. For all that. it is only now that she has been inundated with scripts. ifnot all of the calibre she would like.
She may be about to work on another tv movie and she would like to play in theatre in England. But in truth. her enthusiasm for The Color Purple and Spielberg threatens to make anything else an anti~climax. She talks admirineg of her director. ‘Steven‘s communication to the actor is so specific. he knows exactly what he wants. . . . I‘m amazed that everyone here seems to think he must be a tyrant. I‘ve never seen him like that. He is very much for the actor — sometimes too much. I have seen an actor come 45 minutes late for his make-up. and Steven will still go up and tell the make-up person it looks awful.‘
She defends Spielberg‘s decisions about the film and she is irritated at the criticisms of his represention of men. ‘I hate it. but I can understand it. There are so few black people in films. that The Color Purple was almost expected to represent them. If the cast had been all white. the men wouldn‘t have felt threatened. because they have so many other positive images to look for in films.‘ And she admits to being ‘relieved‘ about the controversial delicacy of Spielberg‘s indication of lesbianism
between (‘elie and Shug. ‘I think you '
get the idea enough. Personally I think whatever you read in privacy is very different from what you can
digest in public.‘ One person who got
the idea rather too well was her 12 year old daughter. A single parent as ofsix or seven years. Margaret is used to her presence near the set. After the love scene between the two stars she asked. ‘Does that mean you‘re gay‘." Margaret replied. ‘Shug wanted Celie to know how it felt to be loved.‘
Margaret is shocked at the maturity of her 12 year old and feels the weight of her responsibility towards her as a single parent since her divorce. ‘I think as I was an only child and I have had to be independent all these years. maybe I‘ve not allowed her to do enough.‘ As it is she finds the contrast between her child's life and her own at 12 sometimes jarring. ‘She will criticise me for not doing some piece ofwashing. but I remember washing out a bra because I only had two at heragef
To some extent Avery‘s fight goes on. Since The Color Purple she has been touring her independence in one woman shows and lectures across the states. Despite not singing her songs in the film. she considers herselfan ‘entertainer‘ and has performed numbers from the film on stage. ‘I like to think people go away saying I like that person.‘ she says. She deserves it. It is a reflection of her own hard work that as she says. ‘Psychologically I guess I always put artists in the struggling category.‘ The Color Purple opens at the A BC. Sauchiehall Street. Glasgow and A BC. Edinburgh on Friday 11 July.