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Stop Asking Angela Bassett Why She Looks "So Young" for Her Age

Allure logo Allure 10/9/2018 Christian L. Wright
Angela Bassett standing in front of bushes © Angela Bassett’s look can be re-created with the following: ImperialLash MascaraInk, Essentialist Ey...

Last spring, Angela Bassett posted a photo on Instagram.

She was lounging in a chic black one-piece bathing suit, looking out from under a wide-brimmed black hat, one knee cocked and marble-smooth skin glistening. Every site picked it up, from Pop Sugar to People. Why? Celebrity selfies are hardly novel. And this was no champagne glass balanced on the gluteus maximus. It was simply a lovely shot from Cap Maison in St. Lucia, where Bassett had gone for the weekend with her family. The Daily Mail’s headline brought the fuss into focus: “Black Panther Star Angela Bassett, 59, Flaunts Incredibly Toned Figure in Caribbean.” The issue, all along, was age.

A little while after Bassett and I settle in for pedicures at the cheekily named Bed of Nails salon in Harlem, New York City, with its lacquered floors and tall, velvet wingback chairs, I ask her about the response to the black swimsuit. “That was surprising,” she says quietly, curled up by the arm of her chair, closest to me. Then, on reflection: “Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.” Because people have been asking her forever, “What do you do, what do you eat, how do you stay...?” Being in Bassett’s close proximity, I can attest that she is gorgeous: trim in a tropical-print sheath dress and cool with an Afro in the shape of a gentle triangle, a couple of gold hoops glinting underneath. She’s not very tall. Petite, really, with her trademark strong arms and skin that suggests a deal with the devil.

“It feels good that they wonder,” Bassett says, about the people who want to know her supposed youth-sustaining secrets. On the other hand, the world’s preoccupation with the way women look as they age makes her feel a touch impatient — and brings out a sarcastic streak. Not long ago, she was in the checkout line at a Whole Foods in Los Angeles, where she lives. A woman bagging up her groceries next to her leaned over and whispered, “You look so young.” “I said, ‘Hearing that is a wonderful thing — seeing as I’m 80!’”

© Gap shirt. Stella McCartney jeans. Jennifer Fisher earrings. Ring and bracelet, Bassett’s own. Makeu...

Bassett lets out a deep and resounding laugh, totally unselfconscious and in abrupt contrast to her soft speaking voice. It breaks the hush of the salon and echoes the lion’s roar she’s employed, most judiciously, since 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It. She played Tina Turner so plausibly that she was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress in a leading role and would rarely have to audition again.

In an episode of American Horror Story: Coven, Ryan Murphy’s spectacle of witchcraft and taboo, Jessica Lange’s formidably vain witch, Fiona Goode, squares off with her immortal enemy, the voodoo queen, Marie Laveau, played by Bassett. “I want what you have,” says Lange’s character to Bassett’s. “Whatever it is that’s kept you young all these years....” Before I can finish recalling other parts of the episode to set up my question, Bassett says: “Oh, ‘Black don’t crack,’” quoting Goode’s line. “Yeah, black don’t crack. I appreciate that about Ryan Murphy’s work, the stories he’s interested in telling. He has a brave voice; he’s outspoken. [Coven] was a gumbo of social and feminist issues — femininity and womanhood, also ageism and racism, provocative and topical. It was a really powerful season. What it gives you, the actor, is filet mignon, when you’ve been used to Twinkies.”

Bassett, now 60, has never been in greater demand. When we meet on a sunny day in June, she’s in town to make Otherhood, a Netflix movie directed by Cindy Chupak (who was an executive producer for Sex and the City) and also starring Patricia Arquette and Felicity Huffman. They play three suburban ladies — all distant from their adult sons — who get together on Mother’s Day. Tears, hilarity, and a trip to New York City to confront their boys ensue.

This project fit nicely into Bassett’s schedule, with two months in the city — her old stomping ground, where she had settled into a rent-controlled apartment on West 150th Street after completing graduate school in 1983 —while her hit TV show 9-1-1 (with Murphy again, this time a procedural about police and first responders) was on summer break. The timing also coincided with the release of Mission: Impossible — Fallout, in which Bassett plays the steely and sharp-tongued head of the CIA. Anyone else surprised to find her in the Tom Cruise franchise? Bassett was.

“My agent called at 7 a.m. and said, ‘They want you for Mission: Impossible,’” she remembers. “I said, ‘Mission: Impossible what? Like, the TV series?’ ‘No, Mission: Impossible with Tom Cruise.’ ‘What?!?’” Locations would include Paris and New Zealand. “They’re going to pay me for this?” she says, still a bit wide-eyed long after the job’s been done.

a person posing for the camera © Michael Kors Collection dress. Koché ring.

Bassett was born in Harlem in 1958. After her parents split up, she and her sister moved with their mother to St. Petersburg, Florida. These were formative years. You can hear it in Bassett’s speech, especially some of the vowels: Out of her mouth, red is “ray-ed” and whatever is “whutevah.” It’s not an affectation, but with the overlay of her classical training, her vocal dynamics can be quite disarming: One moment she’s Angie From the Block, and the next she’s delivering a line from Macbeth in a way that would impress Judi Dench. Bassett attended a small public school and one summer joined an after-school academic program run by a distinguished educator. She had fun in the classroom and on trips to the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, and to Washington, D.C., where she was transfixed by James Earl Jones in Of Mice and Men at the Kennedy Center. Later, the man who ran the after-school program wrote to Bassett’s mother, suggesting her daughter apply to Yale, Harvard, the University of Virginia, and the University of California, Berkeley.

“Looking at these pamphlets,” she says, “these white kids sitting on the grassy knoll with their books...” Today, she seems amused by the culture shock. “There was no idea at that point that [my mother and I] would go around to these campuses and speak to the kids,” she says. “It was like, You’re going to college. Soon as you graduate, you’re outta here. Pick any college and go. Lo and behold, got into Howard — thought that’s where I’m going. A historically black college, Washington, D.C. Then Yale! You don’t get into Yale every day, and my mama is freaking out on the sofa over there. And I only have to take out a loan for 1,200 bucks.”

She’d go on to get a BA in African-American studies in 1980 and an MFA from Yale School of Drama in ’83. She met her husband, actor and producer Courtney B. Vance (Yale School of Drama, class of 1986), there, too. They’ve been married for more than 20 years and have 12-year-old twins, Bronwyn and Slater. Bassett — an actor, producer, and director who blazed a trail with her commitment to strong black women up to and including the Queen Mother of Wakanda in Black Panther, for crying out loud — was invited back to Yale last May to accept her third degree, an honorary doctorate of fine arts, alongside the scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

60 is the new 40, or 70 is the new 50. It keeps getting pushed. Butyou have to keep the stress down and the attitude hot.

“It was great to go back to that campus,” she says. “Those corridors. It comes rushing back, that feeling of being 18 and meeting new folk from around the world, negotiating stuff you never saw before. The food. What is this called — London broil? I’d never been around so many choices in my life. And who are all these people? What is Exeter? Oh, your daddy’s a what? Senator, doctor, lawyer. My mother is a data processor for Health and Human Services. Welfare.” Bassett laughs. “But I’m here. On financial aid. Doing theater.”

The improbability of her achievement has given her a deep confidence: deep enough to make her own choices artistically (she went to Jamaica for two months to make How Stella Got Her Groove Back, leaving her newlywed husband behind), deep enough to endure the public scrutiny that comes with the territory (she does have a trainer, with whom she works out twice a week when she’s home), deep enough to weather being a person of color and a person of age in an unforgiving culture — though maybe things are changing a little, thanks in no small part to Murphy, the influential patron of vintage actresses, including Susan Sarandon and Kathy Bates.

“As we advance,” says Bassett, “60 is the new 40, or 70 is the new 50. It keeps getting pushed. But you have to keep the stress down and the attitude hot.” And deep enough to be philosophical about how far women have come in society and how far we still have to go.

a woman posing for a picture © Victoria Beckham dress. Ana Khouri earrings. Khiry bracelet.

Bassett was at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center the night Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. “Everybody throws around the word ‘surreal,’ but it really was,” she says, eating seeds from a ziplock she’s pulled out of her Fendi handbag, which also holds a paperback copy of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics by Donna Brazile, Yolanda Caraway, Leah Daughtry, and Minyon Moore. Bassett tries to put a positive spin on it: that the human spirit is hopeful. “We’re not ready, right? Do you think a lot of white women weren’t ready?” It seems an implicit comment on the fact that exit polls indicated 94 percent of black women voted for Hillary, and white women...didn’t. She lets the question linger.

Bassett defines feminism as “being able to do what you want to do and [being] respected for it and paid fairly for it.” Freedom and respect — twin pillars of progress that can all too easily be undermined, even in liberal Hollywood. “Now we’re dealing with #MeToo,” she says. “Who even knew to the degree that it was [prevalent]? I certainly didn’t know. But I wasn’t sitting in my apartment in Harlem thinking, How do I deal with the casting couch? I’m not going to suffer that. If I ever encounter that, I’m going to back the hell up. It’s like when you least expect — oh, my God, the devil! A bogeyman! My self-esteem in terms of acting is pretty satisfying. Now, I might have some other issue: Uh, my butt too big, uh, my hair too nappy, uh, my lips too big, uh, my mama too po’, you know? But in terms of [acting], I’m feeling fine. No man can come step to me with some bull like, ‘I control your destiny.’”

[Feminism is] being able to do what you want to do and [being]respected for it and paid fairly for it.

Once the orangey-peach Deborah Lippman nail polish (name: Happy Days) has dried on Bassett’s toes, and she’s given the salon’s owner, Candice Idehen, a genuine hug, we pile into a car to have a look at the old neighborhood. When Bassett lived here, it was drug-infested, Morningside Park was burned out, and her walk-up building was heated by a coal furnace. Since then, an asylum on Central Park West has been converted into condos, Morningside Park has become leafy and green, and an old boyfriend who owned a corner bodega oversees a couple of nice restaurants. Bassett is animated, craning her neck to look back at a storefront she recognizes, pleased with the sharpness of her memory.

When she left New York for Hollywood all those years ago, she was supposed to stay for six months. But she was getting work. She called her wise uncle, who lived in Harlem, for advice. “I said, ‘Oh, Uncle Charles, I was supposed to be out here for only six months, but I’m working,’” Bassett remembers, gazing out the window with her bright brown eyes. “And he said, ‘Baby, don’t get off a winning horse.’”

Fashion stylist: Jaime Kay Waxman. Hair: Randy Stodghill. Makeup: D’Andre Michael. Manicure: Emi Kudo. Set design: Bryn Bowen. Production: Rosco Productions.

A version of this article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Allure. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.

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