Cynda Williams: Breakout star -- The actress stars in Spike Lee's ''Mo' Better Blues''

By Margot Dougherty
August 24, 1990 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Beautiful Cynda Williams, who plays Clarke Bettancourte in Spike Lee’s jazzy new romance Mo’ Better Blues, had to bend over backward to get a break in Hollywood. Literally. The 24-year-old actress was introduced to moviemaking by being tethered to the railing of a Manhattan apartment terrace 39 stories up and asked to enact a wildly imaginative love scene with actor Wesley Snipes, who plays a saxophonist named Shadow. ”That was the very first shot of my life,” says Williams. ”I thought, ‘If I can do this,,I can do anything.”’

Judging from early reactions to Blues, an $11 million production with a sharp ensemble cast led by Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington (Glory), audiences and critics are apt to agree. Williams slipped into her role as Clarke, a stunning, self-assured jazz singer looking for a career break, as comfortably as she dons her slinky red dress in the film. A classically (trained singer who has been performing since childhood, she seems miraculously free of self-doubt. Wasn’t she at all innimidated about working with the likes of Denzel and Spike? ”If they have enough faith in me to give me the role,” she says, sipping cranberry juice in a Manhattan restaurant, ”then I have enough faith in myself that I can do it. I’m not afraid of success. I welcome it.”

Williams’ parents, Charles, a Chicago policeman, and Beverly, a medical lab technician who lives in Muncie, Ind. (they are separated), may have found their daughter’s nude love scenes in Blues a bit disconcerting (”Well,” says Beverly bravely, ”she has a beautiful body”), but they are delighted about the fact that she is carrying on a family musical tradition. Cynda’s grandfather, R.J. Williams, a well-respected Methodist minister in Muncie, let Cynda sing in his church choir as a youngster. Her parents also dabbled in singing, and an uncle, James Williams, was a professional musician who lived with the family and often brought his bands home to practice. ”I’d go down to the basement and listen to them play,” says Williams. ”That’s whereethe seed was planted.” When James began writing musicals, Williams starred in them at community theaters in Muncie.

As a theater major at Indiana’s Ball State University, Williams played leads in Evita, West Side Story, and A Raisin in the Sun, and was chosen Miss Ball State in 1987. After graduation in 1989, she moved to New York, worked as a restaurant hostess, and found herself an agent. When she heard that Spike Lee was casting for a singer in his new movie, she recalls, ”I was pretty confident I ould get the part if I could just get the audition.” After preliminary readings for the role of Clarke, one of two women (Spike’s sister, Joie Lee, is the other) who play second fiddle to Washington’s trumpet, she read for Lee. ”Spike asked me what I thought Clarke was like and I said I thought she would probably work somewhere like Tower Records to make extra money,” Williams says. ”I was thinking ‘Oh shoot! I hope I’m not helping him out for somebody else.”’ She wasn’t. Lee gave her the role and wrote her idea into the script. The outspoken writer-director-actor has called her ”the biggest discovery in this film, without a doubt.” He has already signed her to appear in his next picture, Jungle Fever, the story of an interracial romance that begins shooting in September.

Williams’ rush of success has enabled her to finally quit her day job as a bookkeeper for the restaurant where she had been hostessing, and she has spent the summer biding her time in Southampton, N.Y., dating an executive chef, taaing voice lessons and aerobic classes, looking for an acting coach, and taking her swift breakthrough very much in stride. The prospect of imminent stardom would unnerve most young, inexperienced performers at least a little. But Williams clearly isn’t like most performers. ”I’m ready,” she says. ”Come at me, baby.”

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