April 21, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Could there be a more intimidating interview subject? We’re talking about the woman tough enough to take on Laurence Fishburne’s abusive Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, and so coolly vengeful in Waiting to Exhale that she torches her husband’s prized car and never looks back. Surely you can imagine this reporter’s surprise when Angela Bassett — she of the bulging biceps and icy glare — exclaims, minutes into our conversation, ”Oh, I cry all the time!”

Turns out that the legendary badass also quotes Scripture (Bassett is voicing Esther for an audio performance of the Bible that features Blair Underwood and Denzel Washington), and refuses to speak an unkind word about the people and projects in her past (”It was a training lab for me,” she says of Critters 4). ”I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” the actress explains. Even when questioned about Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning role in Monster’s Ball — which Bassett famously shunned — she skirts the issue. In fact, the closest she comes to criticizing anything is when she pulls out an old adage of her mother’s: ”Just because a cat was born in an oven, that don’t make him biscuits.” Our translation: Just because a film has art-house cred, that doesn’t mean its portrayal of African Americans is positive. ”There are people in the world who will never see or know our struggles. They see those images,” Bassett elaborates. ”Sometimes you have to say ‘no’ so that your ‘yes’ means something.”

Which may explain why she seems to have fallen off the map since 1998’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back. ”I wouldn’t say she’s picky,” says Laurence Fishburne. ”I’d say she’s particular.” She’s also been busy raising 3-month-old twins with her husband, Law & Order‘s Courtney B. Vance. Finally, though, it looks like Bassett has found a high-profile role worth saying yes to: She’s currently starring in Akeelah and the Bee, the story of a girl — Keke Palmer of Madea’s Family Reunion — who competes in spelling bees and, as a result, uplifts her south L.A. community.

If you have a latte habit, you’ve probably heard of the film, which is being aggressively marketed by Starbucks. Bassett, for one, has no problem with the deal. ”I’m so happy they came aboard,” she says. ”It’s their first movie to support.” She also points out that ”everybody’s got something to sell; you just have to be sure of what you’re trying to sell.” And Bassett feels sure about this part. Ninja-sharp amid all the warm fuzzies, she plays Akeelah’s single mother as a stern taskmaster. ”That’s aspects of my mom,” she reveals. ”She had high expectations. She’d go to your school with her steno pad and take notes from the teachers.” Akeelah also reunites Bassett with Fishburne — albeit in a less violent way. (”I likes it when he beats me!” Bassett whoops jokingly of their Ike and Tina collaboration.) Says Fishburne: ”Like any great actor, Angie’s just gotten deeper, richer, fuller. I would love to see her do the things that make her happy, that illuminate her talent.”

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