Olympus Has Fallen, which opens nationwide today, is probably not the movie that’s finally going to get Angela Bassett the Oscar she deserves. She plays the Secret Service director during a terrorist attack on the White House, and she spends the majority of the film in the Crisis Room, watching and listening to other characters do more interesting things. Which is fine. This isn’t her White House movie. Sooner or later, somebody in Hollywood is going to make a movie about the Obama Administration, and they’re going to say, “We don’t need to have a casting call for the First Lady role, right? We all know who should get it.”
I called Bassett and asked about Morgan Freeman, movie violence, serial killers, Lena Dunham, and the Oscar-winning role she’ll inevitably end up getting if there’s any justice in the world.
I heard that Olympus Has Fallen was shot in Louisiana during a pretty nasty heat wave.
Absolutely. It was burning. It was like 109 degrees, something horrible like that. You just stayed inside. They didn’t have to call you to the set because you never left. I was on a soundscape so it was nice and cool and temperate.
Did you go stir-crazy?
Not really. I mean, you’re surrounded by great people. I’m in a room with Morgan Freeman and Robert Forster. You don’t want to be anywhere else.
In between takes we’re just sitting around and talking and sharing stories. Actors like Freeman and Forster — they’ve been in the business so long, they can regale you with some amazing tales. Robert has stories about working with Marlon Brando and getting acting advice from him. And Morgan would sometimes keep us entertained by singing old show tunes.
He’d burst into song?
Yeah, usually without anybody asking. He’d just start singing.
He sounds like the singing frog in that Looney Tunes cartoon.
He was kinda like that.
Did he ever serenade you personally?
Oh, yeah. I think I got most of it because I was sitting next to him between every take. It was a little intimidating for me just to be around him. I’d never worked with him before, and he’s one of our finest actors, so of course you expect… I don’t know.
He’s played God twice.
That’s not an accident. It’s almost typecasting.
My mind certainly made it worse than what it was because he was a total lamb. I mean, such a gentle soul. On our last day, I just jumped on him and gave him the biggest hug.
There were also Secret Service people on the set?
Well, actually, I think I’ve been saying that wrong. They weren’t actually in the Secret Service. They worked in — what do you call it? Anti-terrorist?
Right, yeah. One of the gentlemen is a counter-terrorism expert employed by the government. And then there was another one, Joe Bannon, who worked presidential protection detail.
Did they have any Brando stories?
No, but they were definitely interesting to talk to.
Interesting as in you’d love to hang out with them and open a bottle of wine and just get them talking?
Absolutely. They’re actually the opposite of what you’d expect. These anti-terrorist people, they are just gentle, gentle giants, and they have such a lovely sense of humor. They’re humble, and great chefs. One of them was our chef for the evening.
All of this is shocking to me. When you think of Homeland Security, you don’t usually think, Now those people know how to make a mean veggie chili.
It’s true, though. It’s true. They just have a very easy way about themselves. I guess that’s what you’d need if you were going to interface with the enemy and not draw attention to yourself.
Not specifically that. Just a warm personality. You want to draw them in.
You get any dirt?
As in stories from the field? Yeah, we got some of that. They don’t tell all of what they know, obviously. But they told me enough. That’s not a field of work I’d ever go into. I don’t have the heart for it.
Did they ever tell you a story and then go, “Oh crap, I probably shouldn’t have told you that”?
No. But there was a great moment with Aaron Eckhart. He gets shot or something in one of his scenes, and he’s reacting in the way he thinks somebody would after getting shot. He’s an actor, but he’s never been shot. [Counter-terrorism expert] Ricky [Jones] says to him, “You know, Aaron, that’s not what happens when you get shot.” He starts explaining exactly how the body reacts. “Your mouth goes dry and your heart rate speeds up.” All this crazy technical stuff. And Aaron is like, “Really? And how do you know that?” Ricky pulls up his shirt and says, “Because of this.”
He had a gunshot wound?
A bunch of them. He was like, “Here. And here. And here.” And he’s got stories about all of them.
You spent a good chunk of this movie sitting behind a conference table. Almost everybody else in the cast is exchanging gunfire and blowing stuff up. Did that make you jealous?
Oh yeah, yeah, absolutely. I love that stuff, the action scenes.
You kicked Laurence Fishburne in the nuts in What’s Love Got to do With It. You set a cheating husband’s car on fire in Waiting to Exhale. Shouldn’t you be the White House’s first line of defense?
Yeah, I think so. I can get real physical when I need to be.
If you could trade places with anybody in the cast, who would it be?
Well, why not my subordinate?
Gerard Butler’s character?
Yeah. Just go all the way. You know, just go in and take charge. Let me get in there and see what I can do. See how many of them I could take down for you. [Laughs.]
I’d rather see you as one of the bad guys.
There you go. Yeah.
You haven’t played a lot of bad people in your career. Actually, I can’t think of anybody.
Most of them have been good and noble and resourceful and resilient human beings. It’d be fun to play someone who is just up to no good.
Not just mischievous. I’d love to see you doing a character who’s just contemptible and unsympathetic. Somebody an audience loves to hate, like a serial killer.
Well, sure. As long as it’s well-written and the character feels complex. Complex in why they do the things that they do.
Yeah. They don’t think they’re evil. They have reasons for doing what they do, and it makes sense to them.
It’s a foregone conclusion that when they make the eventual Obama biopic, you have to play Michelle. We can all agree on that, right?
Okay. From your mouth to God’s ears.
You’ve played her before. On The Simpsons.
That’s right, I did. That was so much fun, but all too short for my liking. I feel like I was just getting warmed up. I had an opportunity to meet her recently, at a White House luncheon she held for ladies — there were about 27 of us. It was a real honor to be there, next to her. It was a little surreal.
Were you studying her behavior for your inevitable Oscar-winning portrayal?
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Nobody’s offered me the role yet.
When you’re sitting there with Michelle, can you turn the actor part of your brain off?
Easily. When you’re in the White House, the only part of your brain that’s switched on is the kid part. You’re just like, “Whoa! I can’t believe this!” The kid takes over.
When you get cast as Michelle — which, again, let’s just assume is happening —
[Laughs.] You’re bad.
It’s going to be a challenge. When you played Tina Turner, you didn’t know her. You were barely familiar with her music. But with Michelle, you’ve stumped for her husband. You’ve had dinners at the White House. How can you play somebody honestly, with all their flaws, if you’re that connected to them in life? Can you be objective?
I hope I could. With all the characters I’ve played, I’ve held them in high esteem and with respect. What I find most interesting are their vulnerabilities, the areas where there may be a weakness, and I juxtapose that against their strengths. I think that makes for a living, breathing, feeling human being.
If it’s just “Michelle Obama, superwoman” …
That’d feel robotic and false. I wouldn’t want to play her or any character that way. A strong individual is able to show you where they’re weak. We all have weaknesses, but it’s the strong ones who are able to show it.
Maybe your Michelle will have a little Tina Turner sassiness to her?
Maybe, I don’t know. She definitely won’t have the same shoes.
Really? I think Michelle Obama strutting in high heels would be freaking awesome.
Yeah, but that’s not reality.
You played Tina Turner twenty years ago. Can you still strut in high heels if you had to?
I’d be scared to even attempt it! That was a magical moment. I don’t know what took over me back then.
But if a director asked, “Hey, can you put on those ten-inch high heels and bust a move?”
They may ask, but I’d decline.
Your version of Michelle on The Simpsons said to Lisa, “Before I was who I am today, I was a nerd.” Do you think that’s true? Do all powerful and successful people begin as nerds?
Probably. I don’t know if they considered themselves nerds, or others considered them nerds, but they got their work done. They did what they were supposed to do, learned about responsibility. They came home when their parents said be home. That’s what I tried to do as a kid.
I can’t begin to imagine you as a nerd, even as a teenager.
I don’t know that I was. I got teased a little bit, but that was in fifth grade. In high school, I was a theater kid, so you’re already different from everyone else. You march to a different drummer. I never thought of myself as a nerd. But who knows? Maybe everybody was calling me that behind my back.
The villains in Olympus are from North Korea. Have North Koreans replaced Muslims as the bad guy du jour?
We could have gone to so many different areas, and we just happened to choose North Korea this time. Yes, there is longstanding tension between North and South that figures into the story. It does help to create a heightened sense of reality. But it’s a fictional story, with a villain from a fictional extremist group.
It’s a hyper-violent film. The body count is ridiculous. You see brains spurting out, dead people are shot in the head just to be sure they’re dead. Is that something that gives you pause before you say yes to a role?
I certainly don’t think this is for young kids. It wasn’t made for my kid, who’s seven years old. It’s an R-rated action thriller. And I think that it’s not extraneous, that the violence isn’t extraneous. The intensity of it is to match the intensity of the situation, which is really threatening.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about gun violence in this country and our gun culture. When you read the Olympus Is Fallen script, and there are tourists getting mowed down with machine guns, were you hesitant? Something like this could send the wrong message.
Yes, that thought went through my head. But part of it is, for me, it’s a faith walk. It’s not just what I read in the script, it’s what the director reads in the script and how he sees it playing out on the screen. His vision for it. I feel confident in [director] Antoine [Fuqua] and who he is as a man and a family person, the father of young children. I trust his sensibility in terms of this type of genre. I didn’t feel that he would be extremist in his showcase of violence. It was what the situation called for. It was warranted.
The reason I ask is that you’ve been so outspoken about issues like this, with how Hollywood reflects the world. You’ve criticized movies like Monster’s Ball and Vicky Cristina Barcelona for not having fair representations of African Americans.
Yeah, that’s right. Celluloid is forever. Celluloid is forever.
And that’s true whether you’re talking about black stereotypes or people being shot in the head at point-blank range.
The bottom line for me, as an actor, is what can you live with? We’re all different, and it takes all sorts to make this world go round. But what can you live with? You have to take that on a script-by-script basis.
Are you familiar with Lena Dunham’s Girls?
No, I haven’t seen it.
She’s faced some criticism for not having enough African American characters for a show set in New York City.
Really? Does the show take place entirely in her home? It seems a little farfetched. What is her world populated with? Young Anglo men and women between the ages of 22 and 26? I don’t know — it does seem a little crazy that a young person in 2013 wouldn’t realize that the world is filled with all kinds of colors. I’m working on a movie now, Black Nativity.
Oh yeah, yeah. It’s like a gospel musical, right?
That’s right. It’s shot in Harlem and the cast is mostly black. But we did have a few white folks in it.
The world has white people and black people in it. Even in Harlem.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)