Actress Vanessa Williams sparks an open dialogue with her provocative play
Actress Vanessa Williams has sex on the brain these days. It’s a far cry from the matronly and doting housewife she portrayed on the defunct series Soul Food or the drug-dealing, ride-or-die female apprentice in the gritty cult classic New Jack City. Nowadays, Williams letting it all hang out in her one-woman show Feet On The Ceiling, a coming-of-age tale of a young woman’s sexual revelations based on her self-published book of poetry and prose Shine. Although the show closes its curtains at The Elephant Theater in Hollywood, Williams is already thinking about taking her sex education on the road. Essence.com caught up with the busy wife and mother of two to talk about her history with Eddie Murphy, why she’s sexually liberated and sharing her name with that other infamous actress.
Essence.com: How did the idea for Feet On The Ceiling come about?
Vanessa Williams: : I took a writing course when I was acting on Soul Food. At the end of the class, I compiled all of my stories and poetry and self-published my book, Shine. I ended up with these wonderful stories that sounded like conversations. In my mind, they were really monologues and I thought, Well I can perform this stuff. So out of those writings came Feet On The Ceiling. No one ever does movies about young women, especially young Black women, experiencing a sexual awakening. That’s the story that I’m interested in. It just became its own theme and took off.
Essence.com: Where you at all intimidated by putting a piece about sexuality out there?
V.W.: Absolutely not! I’ve been well groomed because I’ve done the Vagina Monologues five years in a row. The vagina is one of the most divine and holy places on the planet. There is nothing unholy about it. Plus, I always felt like I had my own story to tell. I’m a bit of an exhibitionist and I like art that disturbs people. I’m driven to issues that get people talking and push the envelope, particularly in regards to women’s sexuality, which is a huge part of who we are as women.
Essence.com: Lets take a trip down memory lane. How did you end up on The Cosby Show as Theo’s girlfriend?
V.W.: That was my first big job. Mr. Cosby was so generous. At the time, I didn’t even realize I would have a desire to work behind the camera one day but I remember he told us we could come back any time and watch them put the show together. Had I known what film school cost, I would have taken him up on that.
Essence.com: Growing up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood has to be a world apart from La La Land. How has your upbringing influenced you?
V.W.: .: I always give props to Brooklyn! The place where you grew up really nurtures you and is truly the beginning of your world. It was a great place to grow up and has left me with many full, rich, yummy memories.
Essence.com: What made you move out to Hollywood?
V.W.:Well, if you want to get to the Academy, you have to get to L.A. I was having such a great time in New York but every year my friends would go to L.A. for pilot season. Since I had already done Broadway twice and starred in New Jack City, I decided to see what I could do in Hollywood. They loved me right away and within a month I booked a movie called Candyman and then Melrose Place.
Essence.com: What was it like to be the first Black woman on Melrose?
V.W.: It’s wonderful but I don’t put a whole lot of stock into that. I’m so proud and happy to have been the first, especially if it eventually helped someone else. But it doesn’t take a lot of my thought time.
Essence.com: Soul Food meant so much to the Black community. How did its end affect you?
V.W.: Well it never ended in terms of that love and family that we created. Nicole Ari [Parker] and I are bridesmaids in Malinda’s [Williams] upcoming wedding. Many of us flew out to Germany when Boris [Kodjoe] and Nicole got married. But in terms of the show, we were so proud of what it meant to the community. Once we shot that first episode, we knew how important it was to people. I remember one of my prayers wasthat I wanted to act in something really meaningful and being a part of Soul Food was really a prayer answered.
Essence.com: You were one of the actresses featured in Terri Vaughn’s documentary, Angels Can't Help But Laugh, which talked about the plight of Black actresses in Hollywood. Do you think it’s still difficult for Black actresses in Hollywood?
V.W.:For sure, they’re not checking for us like they are for the 25-year-old blonde girl but at the same time, we have it so much better than Black actresses back in the day. Yes, of course there is so much work to do but all of the sisters in the documentary have had marvelous careers.
Essence.com: Who are some of your close girlfriends in the business?
V.W.:Of course, Nicole Ari Parker and Malinda Williams,Tichina Arnold, Tisha Campbell Martin, Tasha Smith, Sallie Richardson, Regina King, Regina Hall—we’re all friends.
Essence.com: Back in the day there was a lot of talk about the confusion between you and actress and former Miss America Vanessa L. Williams fighting for the rights to your name. Are you two friends?
V.W.: I’ve never met her. We’ve been at the same functions and have some mutual friends but that’s about it. It definitely became an issue for me more so because of her infamy but it’s not problematic in that it stops me from getting work. I roll with it because it’s not an issue as much as it is an interesting piece of conversation.
Essence.com: Recently you teamed up with Eddie Murphy to film Nowhere Land which is due summer of 2009. How was it rubbing elbows with the funny man?
V.W.: Honestly, it has been a dream of mine to work with Eddie since I met him years ago at this nightclub in Queens, New York. At the time he was working on Saturday Night Live My girlfriends and I were such big fans and found out that he was going to be at this club. We weren’t trying to be groupies because I knew that one day I would be working with this man. I didn’t want him to have some flashback of me as some stalker chick. I told him that story and reminded him of the club. It was so cool working with him.
Essence.com: So you and your BFF reunite on the big screen in this film. What is your role?
V.W.: Yes! It was like an old family reunion. Nicole plays Eddie Murphy’s ex wife and I play their friend and D. Ray Davis plays my husband. Nicole and I get to hang out and be in scenes together. It was really like a lovely nod to living your dreams and getting to see something that you wish to come true in terms of working with Eddie. The movie is going to be amazing and darling. Its classic Eddie where he is a workaholic dad who has to decide to do the right thing by his daughter or make this huge deal at work. She has this magic blanket that takes them to this new, magical place called Nowhere Land, where she can get information that helps her dad.
Essence.com: Sounds like a great film for a family outing. Eddie’s character struggles with balancing his personal and career life. How do you juggle family and work?
V.W.: The movie is going to be amazing and darling. It’s classic Eddie. I have a very hard working village including my husband and friends who are moms and help me. We all had babies around the same time and we support each other by sharing information.
Essence.com: You’ve done theater, television, film, and published your own book. What’s next for you?
V.W.: I’m planning to make a CD. I’ve been working with a couple of producers and I hope it’s available next year. I’ve been singing all my life and this is just another expression of that kind of storytelling. I’m still also expecting to thank the Academy one day. I still have plenty of goals on my dream list.
Photo Credit: Inez Lewis