"Whenever you're having a success," observed Alfre Woodard, "the feeling of ascending is a very airy feeling. You want to feel grounded."

That's the sort of woman Woodard plays in an NBC TV movie tonight. And it is a child who brings her back down to earth.

Woodard has the role of Andrea Crawford, a rising advertising executive enjoying the rush of a recent promotion and taking on a new challenge at the agency. She's cool and collected, in control in her work and under control emotionally.

"She's not emotionally in touch to start with," said Woodard. "She's hiding her emotions. Maybe she tucks them away, the way she files everything else."

But in the movie, "The Child Saver," things come unfiled when Crawford is proffered dope by a child on the streets of New York. Nothing unusual about that -- it is New York -- but there is something unusual about the boy.

"Places that haven't been touched in her in 12 years are touched again by the kid," said Woodard. "She's less able to keep control of her heart and her head. She lets her feelings fly more as she goes on.

"She meets the kid on the street -- she has been in New York for 12 years and she's seen hundreds of kids on the street before. But she never thinks of getting involved. She's not a mother, and not a mothering type."

For most of the '80s, Alfre Woodard has been establishing herself as a fine-acting type. She has turned in stunning television performances as Veterans Administration employee Maude DeVictor in "Unnatural Causes" with John Ritter, and as a guest star on "Hill Street Blues" and "L.A. Law," for which she won Emmys. Recently she played Winnie Mandela in the HBO production of "Mandela." She also was nominated for an Oscar for her role in the 1983 film "Cross Creek."

In "The Child Saver," she has a TV movie and a role with an unusual pedigree.

"In this movie, I got to run and fall down -- the beginning of adventure," said Woodard. "I was also attracted by the class of the woman. I knew I would have to do my homework to be a business person. If I've got to figure something out, to do something I'm not used to doing, I am attracted."

Homework consisted of getting acquainted with a black female advertising executive in New York. "Chuck Rosin {the movie's scriptwriter} gave me the plot, the idea about a black woman ... She gave me the psychology of the person. She's from Ohio. When I saw her in the smoothly-run office on Fifth Avenue, she looked as if she'd always been there."

Rosin also gave Woodard a script that is in some ways original, in other ways old.

"It's not fact-based, it's not a disease-of-the-week show," said Woodard. "It's fiction, the lone thread of truth being a revelation in New York years back that there was indeed a boy selling drugs on Times Square. Everything else is fabricated."

Rosin, Woodard said, had used the script as a writing sample for more than a decade. "Ten or 12 years ago the part was that of an actress, not necessarily black. And it was more about her biological clock ticking. He got a job with it and continued to use it as a writing sample.

"The biological-clock theme has been hammered into the ground. When I read it, I thought of it as a person succeeding and about the relationship {between her and the boy}. They thought of it as a black woman versus a white corporate world."

There is a part of the appeal of the boy -- he's played by Deon Richmond -- that is strictly business. "He is very much like a man," said Woodard. "He swaggers like a man, though he's only 7, and he's made his way without anyone else. He's a businessman too. I thought of it as a love story."

Things get complicated. It's not enough for Woodard's character to have to deal with her new feelings and the boy's extralegal activities. Behind every street pusher is a bigger dealer: Enter Mario Van Peebles. It's not long before Woodard's character realizes that her life is on the line in her tug-of-war with Van Peebles over the boy.

Also starring are Michael Warren, late of "Hill Street Blues," and Martin Balsam. It's hard to predict where Woodard might show up next. At Christmas, she was working on a Christmas movie for release next year. She plays a Bob Cratchit-like secretary to Bill Murray's Scrooge-y executive.

After her Emmy-winning performance on "Hill Street Blues" in 1984 as the mother of a police shooting victim, she had a comic role in the short-lived sit-com "Sara."

Having played Winnie Mandela, she said, she swore off the idea of playing real people. But there has been a suggestion that she play civil rights icon Rosa Parks, and it has sparked her interest.

"It's very difficult to find things to get excited about," she said. "People who want to do things remember what I've done in the past. For me, it's usually too similar to what I've done. Writers don't have the free-ness of mind to see a woman -- especially a black woman -- with humor, sensuality, as someone with any rogue bitchiness, any complexity."

For her, she said, writers tend to come up with "the very poignant, the very put-upon. I'm looking for writers who don't look upon a character's sex or color as changing the possibilities of what can happen to them. I've been looking for a year, for instance, for a comedy, a romantic comedy."

She's looking for writers and producers with unusual roles to offer, she said, people "who will allow me to be a woman who can get excited about receiving a piece of Wedgewood as easily as a James Brown recording."