What's it all about, Alfre? "m not sure," said Alfre Woodard. "I'm not sure how this series fits into my career. I choose projects because of who I'll work with. I met the producer, Gary David Goldberg, and responded well to what he wanted to do with 'Sara.' I'd rather be doing it in a film, but I think it's important to do what you'll be happy with."
So far, viewers have been surprisingly happy with "Sara." Playing opposite ABC's powerful "Dynasty" on Wednesday nights, NBC's new sitcom has posted respectable Nielsen numbers. And the show has given wider audiences to a number of actors whose previous claims to fame were notable supporting parts in movies or TV series.
The show's lead is Geena Davis ("Tootsie," "Buffalo Bill"); also featured are Bill Maher ("D.C. Cab"), Ronnie Claire Edwards ("The Waltons") and Bronson Pinchot (Serge from "Beverly Hills Cop").
Woodard won an Emmy for her performance as the mother of a slain child in "Hill Street Blues" and was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress in "Cross Creek."
"Sara" has been a welcome change of pace. "It enables me to break the idea that I was best-suited to play a period [or] victimized woman," said Woodard. "I wanted to be able to flex muscles I hadn't been able to flex in some time. And it leaves me six months of the year to do other things." Like what? "Films," she said, leaving little doubt that they are her first love.
For some actors, the heavy exposure in one role that comes with a regular TV series can be traumatic. "If I was unsure about myself as an artist, I would not want to contaminate myself by doing TV," she said.
"Contaminate," she explained, referred to the idea of being locked into a single acting identity. "I trust I can switch characters and that the American public will not be mystified by seeing me in a different role."
The whole idea of becoming an actress was a sudden change of pace. "A nun got me into it," she said. While attending a Catholic high school in her home state of Oklahoma, Woodard filled in at the last minute for another player in a student production. "The show was a hit, and the nun invited me to join the class," said Woodard. "I was completely hooked."
She went on to earn a B.A. in theater arts at Boston University in 1974 and made her Broadway debut in "Me and Bessie." Also among her stage credits is a role in "Horatio" at Arena Stage in Washington. The play was directed by Charles Haid of "Hill Street Blues." Her television work has included episodes of "Palmerstown" and "White Shadow" and PBS' "Go Tell It on the Mountain."
Woodard is from Tulsa. Her mother and her father, a retired decorator who drills wildcat oil wells, still live there. Her father has always been an independent businessman, Woodard said, with her mother "doing whatever was complementary. They once operated a nursing home . . . The residents were very attached to my parents. They ran the home like a family."
Woodard has an older brother and sister, each with four children, ranging from age 2 to their teens. "I can't understand having a 16-year-old niece," said Woodard, who is 32. "It seems like she should be my sister."
She remembers her own childhood with delight. "We had a wonderful family life," she said. "It was real -- not foolish and fairy-tale. Both my parents are very expressive, but I'm the only one in the family who went into acting."
Woodard lives in Los Angeles with her husband of a year, actor Roderick Spencer. Being married to someone who understands the stresses and strains of acting helps, she said. "We're great friends. If we weren't married," she said, "he'd be the person I'd hang out with."
Her commitment to acting is firm. "I think of myself as an actor. Period. I think that has to do with my approach to work and the underlying idea I have about my approach to work," she said. "It's like being a swimmer: You swim anywhere you are -- at the lake, at the pool, in the ocean. You know how to do all the strokes. The rules that apply to the strokes never change. I've done stage, improvisation work on stage and in films. I think as an actor you should be able to rise to whatever occasion."
Her orientation is to films, said Woodard, simply because that was the first acting she saw. "But I was trained on stage . . . Moving from medium to medium lifts any stagnation" that might set into her acting.
The move to a TV series with its massive audience "makes more of a difference to my agent than it does to me," she said. "I've worked houses where there were only five people in the audience. There've been nights when there were more people in the cast than in the house," she said, laughing at the recollection. There were actors in those casts, she said, who wondered why they should bother reading their lines to an audience they outnumbered.
"But I said, 'Look, it's raining and they came and paid their money,' " said Woodard. "We're going to do it."