By Ty Burr
Updated June 25, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Angela Bassett isn’t herself just at the moment. ”Okay, I’m scared the first time-it ain’t going to happen again,” she’s saying, her normally fluid voice icing up. At the outdoor cafe on Sunset Boulevard where she is holding forth, the white brick walls seem to bend in to hear the tumbling secrets. ”All right, I’m going to stay because I’m broke. Okay, it ain’t going to be better- but we’ll just live our separate lives under the same roof.” Rationalization by rationalization, she is ticking off Tina Turner’s litany of denials, speaking as Tina, her voice rising to an imperiled cry that sends the cafe owner’s wife rushing out to see what’s wrong. ”When have I had enough? Six months-I haven’t had enough yet. Sixteen years-I’ve had enough.” Suddenly, she’s Angela again, murmuring thoughtfully: ”Her tolerance level was very high.” Off screen, Bassett, 34, doesn’t look the Serious Actress. Her hair is gathered into loose cornrows. Wire-rim glasses give her the air of a rebel straight-A student. She’s wearing a black-and-orange outfit that shows off arms with as little fat as her acting. But this actress has seen her reputation grow quietly by portraying women who simmer with vitality, whose inner fires are banked by outer poise: Trey’s upscale mother in Boyz N the Hood. Betty Shabazz, the calm at the eye of Malcolm X. Katherine Jackson, a grace note amid the cacophony of growing up Motown in last year’s ABC miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream. Bassett’s vivid, already talked-about performance as rock legend Tina Turner in the biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It is both culmination and change: the end of a path that started at the Yale School of Drama and the beginning of a whole new stage for the single, Florida-raised actress. It’s a starring role, and as the Wild Woman of 1960s R&B, it’s a part with all the showy noise that her previous roles have repressed. What’s Love is a story of wife abuse set to a big boss beat: a stark, eventually triumphant tale of how musician Ike Turner transformed little Anna Mae Bullock from Nutbush, Tenn., into a rock & roll sensation-then beat her bloody for 16 terrible years. Based on the singer’s 1986 autobiography, I, Tina, cowritten with Kurt Loder, What’s Love lets Bassett sink her teeth into a rich and tragic irony: She plays a woman who had total power on the concert stage and none the moment she set foot off it. Is Bassett up to the challenge? ”She’s one of the very few actresses, period, of any color, who are carrying movies of substance,” says Denzel Washington, who played opposite her in Malcolm X. Marvels Suzanne de Passe, who discovered the Jackson Five in 1968 and 24 years later produced the miniseries based on their lives, ”I watched Angela Bassett disappear into the role of Katherine Jackson.” De Passe recalls seeing a videotape of Bassett’s audition for the role of Michael’s mom-just the actress in street clothes reading a scene to an off-camera assistant-and bursting into tears. ”Usually that doesn’t happen,” she comments dryly. As for Laurence Fishburne, who plays Ike Turner-don’t get him started. Fishburne resisted taking the role until he knew Bassett was cast-and was sure that he could work with her and director Brian Gibson to give Ike’s character more depth. ”She is 100 percent committed to the moment when she is working,” he says, telling of 6 a.m. makeup sessions with the actress already in character, hairdressers dodging her wild movements as she listened to Tina Turner classics on a Walkman and worked out the day’s moves. ”It’s like Angela’s not there anymore. She becomes who she’s playing.” Both physically and emotionally, What’s Love was a grueling shoot. Thirteen-hour rehearsal days led to 17 hours in high heels shooting the ”Proud Mary” sequence. Bassett recalls doing take after take of the scene in which Ike drags Tina down the hallway by her hair. ”You take a step and you feel like you’re going to bust a blood vessel,” she says. ”And I’m the type of person who doesn’t want to kid it. I have to really go there, or I feel like I’m cheating. It’s painful to go there, but, hey, it’s painful not to go there.” If it was painful for Tina Turner to relive such experiences, the singer kept it to herself: Bassett recalls her brief presence on the set as a confidence builder. ”She sat on the sidelines, applauding, and laughing, and enjoying,” says Bassett. ”She came and she did my makeup. She was my biggest fan. Can you imagine?” There was another, less welcome visit as well-from Ike: ”He came to the set one day. We were (shooting) at their old house. I didn’t even get to meet him; they hustled me back to the trailer. I wasn’t scared, but I guess they thought it might have been a potentially negative situation. I wanted to meet Ike Turner.” Despite a brief stint in a soap (The Guiding Light), a handful of TV movies, and a few resume oddities like Critters 4 (not quite as bad as it sounds), Bassett’s post-Yale career path has been high-minded indeed. She debuted on Broadway in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and seems drawn to such maverick filmmakers as Spike Lee, John Singleton, and John Sayles (she’s in both City of Hope and Passion Fish). But a question hangs over this blue-sky day: If Bassett has the potential to become an above-the-title star, will the movie industry let her? Or, to put it bluntly, if modern Hollywood has trouble finding good parts for any actresses, where does that leave an actress of color? Says What’s Love director Gibson, ”Unfortunately, as soon as you have a black woman’s role in the movie, there’s likely to be some kind of relationship interest. And in America, where 95 percent of the time whites relate to whites and blacks relate to blacks, that would mean she would have a relationship with a black person. Which keeps her in a black movie and ghettoizes her talent. Nevertheless, there are an infinitude of parts that would be open to her. I mean, you know, she could play the Jodie Foster part in The Silence of the Lambs.” Fishburne is less equivocal: ”Angela can do anything. That’s the way it is. Whether or not anybody’s willing to accept that, that’s something else.” What would the lady herself like to do next? ”A little action, that would be nice,” she muses. ”Like La Femme Nikita.” In her mind’s practiced eye she tries on the character type as though stepping into an off-the-rack dress. Her shoulders hike up and narrow, her arms flex unconsciously-jumping to attention at the mere suggestion of a new role to play. This is what Angela Bassett was trained to do. It’s what she gets paid to do. And by all appearances it gives her a deeper pleasure than anything else in this world.