Kimberly Elise: Tyler Perry’s film not just ‘For Colored Girls’

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Kimberly Elise is an acclaimed actress who has stolen the hearts of many filmgoers since her debut in 1996 in the film Set it Off. Ms. Elise portrays Crystal in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, an adaptation the iconic play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange.

Kimberly Elise talks with theGrio about her acting process and the transformative experience of being a part of an all star cast in this historic adaptation.

theGrio: I just want to congratulate you on a breathtaking job you did as Crystal in For Colored Girls. You must be so proud.

I’m glad you enjoyed it. I really, really, really am.

This leads to my first question. How did you prepare for such an emotionally complex character?

I really had to allow myself to disconnect from myself. There are certain things I do in my regular life—like meditate, yoga, hike, strict vegetarian, all of these things. The first step for me was to take all of those things out of my life because I knew that that would take me off center; and Crystal was off center. And I knew that those things would make me not feel as connected to spirit. And Crystal was in that place. And when I took those things away from myself I was left really raw and vulnerable. I also had to go back to my theater roots and develop this character from the ground up.

I worked a lot with Michael Ealy, who plays Beau Willie in this film, and we would meet for hours, days, weeks before hand in shaping these characters and talking out their histories, present day, their lives what their futures could have been. It was a lot of technical and spiritual work until I was just stripped raw and ready to surrender to Crystal. That’s what I did so when it came time to shoot she was able to come in and take over and I was out of her way.

We went on this journey, but it really took its toll. I went to Atlanta with five gray hairs and came home with about fifty, seriously! (laughter) It’s just a commentary that when you act your body doesn’t know it’s pretend. My body thought it actually went through this experience and it manifested itself and expressed its pain. I had to sleep for days and days and reintroduce my meditation and my prayer and all those things to come back into Kim.

You mentioned “theater roots”. Have you ever worked in a production of For Colored Girls in your early acting days?

No, never.

How did this role differ from your role in one of Mr. Perry’s films?

We did Diary of a Mad Black Woman together. And, this is very different. I think what’s so similar about a lot of his parts, and the ones I play in particular, [is that they] are about women who’ve forgotten to love themselves first. Crystal loves her man before she loves herself to the detriment of the entire family. And it’s something that women do in general. It’s a part of us to take care of everybody else before we take care of ourselves, which is not the way it should go. So Crystal has to learn how she can put on her oxygen mask first as does my character in Diary as so many women in life. I even have to remind myself of that sometimes, as a mother, a single mother, it’s very easy to just put them first all the time and then I’m exhausted so when it’s time to eat I microwave something. Rather than stopping and taking a nap and saying I can’t do that and taking a nap so that I can get up and make you a proper dinner. It’s just an extreme example of not loving yourself first.
What do you feel about the overall adaptation process? I’ve read the play and it appears that a couple of characters were added. If I’m not mistaken, the characters played by Phylicia Rashad and Whoopi Goldberg were not in the play.

Well, I just think when things are translated you have to take some liberties. Tyler wanted to make a linear structured story. As you know a choreopoem is very different, it’s more free flowing. To do that and connect ABCD you have to have certain connecting points. That’s just basic storytelling. Sometimes to have to add other characters that weren’t there just to help the A that’s established and the B that’s established really connect. And the Gilda (Phylicia Rashad) character was one of those characters. She helped interconnect all of us.

Over the years, this play has garnered a lot of criticism for being harsh on men. How would you like this play to be received by men who will come to see For Colored Girls?

Well, I think that it’s not black men. It’s not a statement against black men. It’s just these particular men have done these particular things. Speaking about Beau Willie in particular, I think it’s important to understand that he’s not a bad man, a bad, wicked, evil man, and if you know the poem from the original play, you know that he’s just come back from the war. Crystal’s man left — this beautiful and strong amazing man — and came back broken and with post traumatic stress syndrome because of what he went through in the war. And he came back to a society that didn’t offer any support for him. And she was left to clean up the mess. For that it’s a statement about how our soldiers come back and do not have the proper resources to help heal, and families heal. I think you have to recognize it’s so much bigger than the color of any of our skins. These are human stories, human situations, and human solutions.

So I would hope when men go to see this film and they see a rapist, that’s not to say that they are rapists. It’s to say protect your sisters. It’s to say teach your sons how to treat women. Or when your best friends say something that doesn’t sound right to you, intervene before something bad happens. If you are pure and good of heart, you will not recognize yourself, and you will find a way to remind yourself to make a difference.

I was discussing with a friend the other day, when was the last time you’ve seen a black film that was about a black male story, we both scratched our heads and went silent. Do you feel there has been a trend in black cinema to focus specifically on the black woman’s story?

We certainly have seen some really interested projects that have come through. I think it’s important to note that For Colored Girls is not just a black women’s story. I think the play resonated so well with many different women of all colors who flew, took buses, took planes, to see this play again and again because it spoke to them and their experiences. It’s the same with the film. The women are just women. We just so happen to be wearing brown skin, they’re just women who are having these experiences. We are blessed as actresses to be playing these women but it’s certainly not exclusive to women of all colors.

What was it like working with just a fantastic ensemble? Do you have any funny behind-the-scene stories?

I think the best part of it for me was seeing the women that I’ve seen their work but never having a way to contact them and celebrate their good work. Being in this film gave us access to each other. Now we say what we want to say to each other directly. We walked away with phone numbers and email addresses. So now when I see one of my sisters doing great work, I can now text them and let them know what I think. So that was the real benefit of working with these women.

Is there anything you’d like audiences to take away from this film?

I think it’s important to say that the title, For Colored Girls, shouldn’t sway you away. It’s speaking to colors of the spirit and the soul, the internal colors that any woman has. You may wake up in the morning and feel blue because something sad has happened the day before. By afternoon, someone has cut you off in traffic and you’re fire red. By evening you have some wine and you’re mellow yellow. And later that night, your boyfriend comes over and you’re fuchsia. That’s what For Colored Girls has always been to me. What is your color in this moment? When you’re in your 20s? or 50s? Come and see the film. It’s for all women of all external colors and the many internal colors.