Moments after the credits started rolling at the premiere of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Angela Bassett’s son, Slater, leaned over and whispered in his mom’s ear: “Oscar.” Months later, Bassett laughs at the memory because her immediate response, at least in her head, was “Aaaaaw, you’re my son. You’re supposed to say nice things to your mom. But thank you, darling!”
Ever since the January announcement that Bassett had earned an Oscar nomination for reprising the role of Queen Ramonda and, in the process, becoming the first actor to win academy recognition for a Marvel movie, Slater has reminded her more than once about that evening.
“At the time, the Oscars were the furthest thing in my mind,” Bassett tells me. It’s a Saturday, and we’re seated in a booth in a noisy breakfast spot not far from her La Cañada Flintridge home, a cozy spot where Bassett stands out because she’s wearing a stylish pantsuit and has ordered only tea, forsaking the bulging breakfast plates that the wait staff carries by our booth. Also: She’s Angela Bassett! No matter the setting, her magnificence doesn’t exactly blend into the background.
We’ve been talking about transitions, thinking about Slater and his twin sister, Bronwyn, high school juniors about to make their first trip back east to check out colleges. “Thank you, Lord, for one more year,” Bassett, 64, says of their looming departure from home. “As they say, it does go by quickly. I was telling that to someone the other day that we always say that, maybe thinking time will slow time down. But it doesn’t slow down, does it?”
Not long ago, a friend asked Bassett if she was ready for an empty nest. Ready? She was practically incredulous. She has been preparing for her children leaving from the moment they were born, she says, realizing it was inevitable. That hasn’t stopped her from scrolling through pictures and videos on her phone lately, watching her babies dancing and singing, the years passing, cartwheels turning into car wheels, as the song goes, and here she is today, readying them for visits to Yale and Harvard.
“The other day I asked my daughter, just fishing, saying, ‘Oh, if you go to Yale, I’m going to get an apartment just down the street from you,’” Bassett says. “And she’s like, ‘That’d be great, Mom!’” Bassett shakes her head, laughing. “Just fishing, you know. Like, ‘I’m going to miss you! So I’m going to go back to college too.’”
But, talk about time passing: To Bassett, it doesn’t feel like it was all that long ago that she moved to Los Angeles, five years after graduating from the Yale School of Drama, ending up crashing at a friend’s Hollywood apartment just behind Sunset Bronson Studios. She’d walk down Sunset Boulevard to the gym, getting strange looks from motorists. “Like, ‘What’s wrong with her? Is she crazy? What’s she up to?’ All because I was walking,” Bassett says. “I’d just come from New York and didn’t have a car. In New York, you walk. If you do that here, you feel weird because there’s no one else on the sidewalk.”
Her mother and aunt wanted Bassett to go into nursing or teaching. “You want to be a princess?” Bassett bursts out laughing at the memory of how they felt about her career choice. “To them, understandably, it was a pipe dream.”
Bassett brings up the 1992 sci-fi comedy “Critters 4,” which I’d never have pegged as a career milestone. For her though, as a young working actor, it was a role in a horror franchise in which her character survived to the closing credits. “You mean, I don’t die?” Bassett recalls thinking, laughing. “That was a transition.”
One year later, Bassett earned an Oscar nomination for playing Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” showcasing the full range of her talent and ability to shift between vulnerability and strength as well as dance in 5-inch heels while singing “Proud Mary.” During the shoot, there was chatter in the trades that the movie was in trouble and that Bassett had been miscast. Bassett heard it and asked to watch the dailies. She looked at two scenes — the “Proud Mary” performance and a small moment that had Turner finding peace through a Buddhist chant.
“I bought what I did,” Bassett says. “After that, I didn’t need to see anything else. I knew I was on the right track. I’ve always believed it’s better to be underestimated and then deliver.”
Bassett extends that philosophy to any and all expectations for industry approval. That first Oscar nomination came 29 years ago. And despite all the strong praise for her commanding turn in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” as a queen working through grief while standing strong for her people, Bassett never assumed she’d ever be back at the ceremony as a nominee.
“I’m not 30, you know,” Bassett says. “You’re looking for those great roles and for women of a certain age, it takes more effort and concentration, more creativity for the people who want to work with you. It takes some belief that it is possible. I didn’t quite believe it. But I’ll tell you who did — Courtney.”
That’s Courtney B. Vance, Bassett’s husband of 25 years and the fellow actor who kept telling her that one day a role would come along to take his wife back to the Oscars. Bassett could never bring herself to verbalize that dream. “But I would not speak against what Courtney hoped for me,” she says, smiling. “I wouldn’t speak for it! I couldn’t chime in! I didn’t have it in me to chime in. It’s been 30 years! I’m thinking, ‘I’m 60-whatever. Stop wishing. Stop hoping. Stop dreaming. You’re just my husband. I know you love me. Husbands have to say that.’”
Vance, reached by phone, says: “I kept reminding her: ‘You just have to keep going. The world will come around to you. You haven’t changed a bit. You’re the same hard-working actress and queen that we all know.’”
Bassett probably would have slept through the Oscar nominations announcement had her publicist not called her the day before with a reminder. She set the alarm for 5:25 a.m., but she woke up a couple of hours earlier, stressed and nervous. She lay in bed tossing and turning, finally giving up to get out of bed and check the clock. It was 5:25. She nudged Vance, asking if he wanted to watch. Bassett tells me more than once that she likes to downplay things, but she figured this could be a twice-in-a-lifetime moment and she wanted to share the memory with her husband. Maybe they could look back on it someday and say, “Remember when …”
Now if she could just figure out how to turn on the damn television …
“Smart TVs have made us dumb,” she says with a laugh. “I had one remote in each hand, trying to figure it out.”
Supporting actress was the first category announced. And as nominees are revealed alphabetically, Angela Bassett was the first name called. “I was filming it,” Bassett says. “I let out a little bit of a whoop.” She watched the rest of the announcement, answered a couple of texts and then went back to bed. She had a long day of filming ahead for her hit TV series “9-1-1” and had to be at 20th Century Fox by 8. Sleep came easy. The anxiety had evaporated.
Asked what it means to her to be nominated again, nearly three decades later, Bassett takes a moment.
“It means I did what I came to do,” she says, speaking slowly, her gaze holding mine. “I did what I came to do. And I did it well.”