When the sun breaks through a canopy of rain clouds at the exact moment that Kimberly Elise enters a Los Angeles tea garden, it doesn’t seem coincidental. Maybe it’s the effect of the sun’s rays falling around her shoulders, but she seems to radiate light. Her small frame layered with tiers of her black skirt and cinched in a blue velvet, satin and lace bodice, her large doe eyes luminous, you can’t help but think, Here stands a powerful woman, a mother, daughter, sister, actress and now ex-wife who’s completely right with herself. But where does that self-possession come from?
Having moved at the age of 9 with her parents, two brothers and a sister from North Minneapolis (“the ’hood,” as she calls it) to Wayzata, Minnesota, where her family was one of the first to integrate the neighborhood, she was teased and ostracized in school. The kids called her “monkey butt” and mocked her full lips. That made her go inward, which, she discovered, was the best place to grow. “It made me be quiet and really search and find who Kim was at 10, at 14, at 16,” she says. “And that’s helped me become who I am today. So it’s an experience that I’m really thankful for.”
Elise made her film debut a decade ago in Set It Off, then astounded us two years later with her performance in Beloved. It’s not hard to see how Oprah could have imagined Elise as her on-screen daughter, picking her from a stack of eight-by-ten glossies, or why Cicely Tyson reached out to her as a mentor. “What I love is that Cicely Tyson called me before anybody even knew my name,” she says. “She had seen my work and must have felt some sort of connection. That was maybe five years ago. We created a friendship that has lasted till this day. She really cares about me and my daughters. She’s just a rock for me; a hero.”
Like her mentor, Elise has managed to avoid the one-dimensional fare served up to Black actresses. Instead, she’s played a range of complex Black women, sometimes transforming herself into characters so devastated, so deeply submerged in the quagmire, we wonder not only how they’ll come through, but also how Elise herself will recover once the cameras stop rolling. There’s the death row inmate sexually abused as a child, for example, a character she played in Woman Thou Art Loosed, whose core of rage and pain seemed to consume her. Now, sitting in a West Hollywood tea garden on a cool morning, Elise serenely explains that she doesn’t call these personalities up from any place within herself. “I don’t pull from anything personal because I don’t carry that stuff inside me,” she says. “I really just allow the characters I play to use me, and I pay attention to what it is they’re going through.”
Drawing on such experience, Elise continues to bring a singular depth and range to her roles, including her weekly TV character Maureen Scofield on CBS’s legal drama Close to Home. “She has evolved so much,” Elise says of the no-nonsense prosecutor she plays on the show. “I’ve been really protective of her image. In the pilot I felt that she was just too hard, a stereotypical mad Black woman. I was adamant about how that’s not what I’m here to do. I did that in Diary, and that was it!” She bursts into laughter.
She returns to seriousness when expressing her sense of responsibility to create a full character in Maureen Scofield, whom she describes as a woman of intelligence, strength, drive, devotion and reliability. “I was proud of the NAACP Image Award nomination for that character,” she says. “I didn’t win—but to be nominated was just so satisfying. I said, ‘Okay, I’m still on track.’ And that’s incredibly important to me.”
THE JOURNEY INWARD
But Elise demands more from herself than merely being on track. At 39, she says she’s striving to live with consciousness and intention. Kim’s example? Her parents. “Every day my father told me, and he still tells me, how beautiful I am, how much he loves me,” she says. Kimberly’s mother is one of her best friends. Both parents encourage her to always seek the best in herself.
Lately, doing so has meant ending her 16-year marriage to Maurice Oldham, the father of her daughters, AjaBleu, 16, and Butterfly, 7. He had followed her to Hollywood all those years ago so she could reach for her star. Elise insists the breakup was amicable, and it’s all good. Maybe that’s because her decision to separate wasn’t made precipitously. She arrived at it slowly, through five years of inner work, which led her to the conviction that to become her best self in the next phase of her life, she had to commit to growing solo. And though she says she still loves Maurice, she’s celebrating this moment, not searching for anyone or anything. “It’s been like a rebirth, really,” she says, speaking of life since her divorce became final last year. “I feel like a newborn baby in the world.”
Read more in the June issue of Essence! On newsstands May 23, 2006.