The actress and playwright spoke with EW about introducing her work to a larger audience
When Anna Deavere Smith was working on her play Notes From the Field, an explosive performance piece about the school-to-prison pipeline in which she portrays 19 real-life individuals, the Obama administration was working to combat mass incarceration and the gap in treatment between privileged and not-so-privileged youth.
Smith interviewed more than 200 people in the years of research she undertook to adequately write and perform the project. It was staged across the country, including off-Broadway in New York, to much acclaim. Now, EW can exclusively confirm that Notes From the Field has been adapted into a film by HBO.
The film, directed by Kristi Zea, maintains the theatricality and intensity of the original play. But Smith hopes that, in a political climate very different from the one in which the original play was developed, it reaches a wider audiences: young people, teachers, police officers, and folks who don’t typically go to the theater. The film, executive produced by Gary Goetzman and Smith, will premiere Feb. 24 across HBO platforms.
Among the historical figures Smith plays in the film are Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, celebrated author James Baldwin, and Bree Newsome, an activist who was arrested for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds. The play moves from Maryland to South Carolina to California to Pennsylvania, with Smith bringing each place (and each of its citizens) to nuanced, bracing life.
It’s a tall order in the spirit of Smith’s previous work, which has netted her Tony and Pulitzer nominations over decades, but it also has a new, prescient urgency. Smith spoke with EW about her years of research on the project, how she managed to transform it into an HBO movie, and why she believes it provides a vital message for the current political climate. Read on below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you and HBO team up to adapt your play?
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: There’s not a whole lot of difference in the text itself, the play. How it came to HBO is, a bunch of people from HBO came to see it and really liked it, and felt that it could make a good movie. Simultaneously, or just before that, Jonathan Demme had come. In fact, I think he came during previews and he immediately sat down with me and asked how I would feel about him filming it. Of course, I said yes. I had worked with him before, and he is the king of performance movies. And then, as you know, we lost Jonathan last spring. When he knew he was very sick, he had asked for Kristi Zea to be the one to direct it. That put me in the company of Playtone and Gary Goetzman and Kristi Zea — all people who have worked with Jonathan for years and years. That’s how it came to be.
Just for readers who are not as familiar: You did an enormous amount of research to bring this to life in an authentic way. Can you describe your process?
I’ve written now a number of plays — probably about 20 of them, I think — all under the umbrella of something I call “On the Road: A Search for American Character.” This has been my life’s work, going around America and interviewing people and then performing them. When I was a girl, my grandfather said, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” I’ve been putting myself in other people’s words the way you would think about putting yourself in other people’s shoes. And that’s really my great love for this country.
Most of the plays that I have done do have a social significance. People in Los Angeles may recall a play I made about the Los Angeles riots in the ’90s that then became a movie on PBS called Twilight Los Angeles. And then this play, about what is called the “school-to-prison pipeline”: basically how poor kids a lot of times get disciplined really harshly in schools. Stuff that for middle-class kids or rich kids, it’d be considered mischief; for poor kids, it’s really that road to prison. It was when Obama was president that the Justice Department came up with all these statistics to show that poor kids end up suspended and expelled more than anybody else. As the Chief Justice of the State of California told me: If you’re not in school, you’re in trouble. If the schools don’t want you, the drug dealers sure do — they sure can use you to be runners. That’s really this journey that I’ve been on for this particular project, where I went to four different geographic areas and I interviewed about 250 people. In the play, I performed about 19 [people] out of that 250. So you could imagine I had up to 300 hours of material, of real material, and then I had to pick out of all that really great material what was going to become 90 minutes of performance.
Some of these real people that you’re portraying in this particular film, the material is extremely sensitive and, at times, intensely emotional. Playing people like John Lewis, what kind of care do you bring to these performances?
Well, I’ve been developing the way that I work since 1980, really the late ’70s. I hate admitting that, because anybody can Google — you’ll find out how old I am — but that really shows you how old I am! [Laughs] Over these years, I’ve worked very hard to develop my skills. The simple matter is that I really do study the people. I study them very carefully. I am not an impersonator. I have a different objective. An impersonator wants to make you laugh. It’d be great if people laughed at things — I think there’s some funny things in this — but that’s not my goal. My goal is not to mimic; my goal is to use my own voice and body to become like a documentary film of that person. I think of myself as making portraits. The sensitivity comes with paying attention to that person. When I started this work, I only had a tape recorder. But now, because cameras are so small and I’ve been able to raise enough money to take somebody with me to actually make a decent film — a pretty rocky one if it’s just me trying to set up a camera — I study these films and I study that voice of the person. I live with that. I hope that when they see it, when they get over whatever self-consciousness I’m sure they have — I sure would — I hope what they think they see is a portrait and not a lampoon.
Was there anything in your research that surprised you, or has stayed with you?
I hope none of my students are upset when I say this. I’ve been teaching for a very long time. I’ve taught — and I don’t want to use the word “privileged” — what I call “the fancy people.” I’ve been teaching in very elite places for my whole career; I’ve never stopped teaching, and I’ve taught at Carnegie [Mellon] and USC and Stanford for 10 years. Now I’ve been at NYU, at Tisch, for 16 years. I got disconnected from, frankly, my roots, which were my mother and all of her friends. Most of my aunts. I come from two big families — six on my father’s side, eight on my mother’s side. Most of the women were teachers, and I grew up with these women changing lives in the public schools. My mother taught very poor children, and there was always possibility. I left Baltimore, 16 going on 17, to go to college, and I’ve realized how disconnected I was from that mission, that was the beginning of what I came from. So I was, first of all, just shocked to find out how bad the public schools often were for poor kids. And then to find out that kids from a very young age — I mean, doing the research, you’d find out about 5-year-olds who are put in handcuffs for having temper tantrums. I was blown away.
The funny story about it is that the thing that made me go, “Oh, I’m going to make this as a play” — because to decide to jump on any topic, and for anybody I think, when you decide you’re going to take on a topic it’s a real commitment —is I’d heard a story about a kid in Baltimore, which is my hometown, who had peed in a water cooler, and they were going to take him to jail. If somebody told me that now I’d go, “Well, yeah, of course,” but at the time I just couldn’t believe it. I was in Nurse Jackie and there’s this great British actress in the show with us, Emily “Eve” Best, and we were in hair and makeup. I said, “I just can’t get this story out of my mind about this boy who peed in a water cooler and they were going to send him to jail.” Emily said in that fabulous Oxford-trained British accent, “Oh, well whatever happened to mischief?” That was it for me. I was like, “Okay, this is how I’m spending the next couple years of my life.” Because that’s right: Rich kids get mischief, poor kids get pathologized and incarcerated.
Did your approach change at all going from stage to film with Notes From the Field?
Oh no, no. All I did was use the opportunity of going back into rehearsal for the film, to refine what I was doing onstage. It’s really a lot of work, what I do, and so every single time that I get a chance to prepare for a performance — that I get to shut down the rest of my life, which is what it calls for — then what I’m doing is going back in and trying to get it more specific. Where the filmmaking part of it comes in is, I lived in the editing room with the director and the editor. I lived in the room with them for almost a month and a half, really. That’s where I’d say the filmmaking part of me comes into it: being in the editing room with them, and then some other ancillary things that we did, some choices of extra music, some of the musicians that I chose to come in and be with us. So yeah.
How would you describe that collaboration, in the editing room?
Kristi is just a great person to work with and Paul Snyder is a wonderful editor, very smart man — a very sensitive man. In a way, being in an editing room with the film is not unlike what I have to do when I have all those hours of interviews — 300 — and I have to go in and pick what I’m going to use in the play. And not just going to pick what I’m going to use in the play, but how am I going to structure it. With the film, at least I came with a play that had a beginning, middle, and end. When I’m starting making a play, I’ve got all this stuff, I don’t have a story, I don’t know what the story is. I don’t know what I’m doing! [Laughs] I gotta figure it out. So at least I had this solid thing with choices that took me a couple years, really, of workshops, to make. It wasn’t unlike the same process that I’ve been using for years to make plays.
This conversation does seem to be moving a bit more into the mainstream. Do you think that doing this movie can help further expand it?
Oh yeah, sure. Hopefully it will attract a bigger audience than is possible with a play, and hopefully a more diverse audience than is possible with the play. By diverse, I don’t just mean racially diverse. In terms of age, people who keep the theater alive are people over 40, for the most part. So hopefully I’m able to attract a younger audience. And also, there’s teachers and social workers and cops and judges who don’t necessarily come to the theater, but may watch HBO. That’s what I mean when I say “diverse” and I’m hoping that happens. The other thing that’s happened with my plays that PBS has filmed — they’ve filmed three — is that it takes a little bit of time for the work to make its way into schools. The way that happens is with films. Even though I’ve published my plays, and I’m very interested in high school students seeing this or performing this eventually, it’s unlikely that a school is necessarily going to get Dramatists Play Service. That’s how our plays get out — or Samuel French. It’s in the films that make their way into these schools. Kids are still performing Twilight now, and I wrote Twilight in ’92, ’93. There’s this way that my plays are history. They’re historical documents; again, they’re about American culture, America striving to become its best. My plays are all about that march to the more perfect union. These plays have a great potential for high schools and colleges. If it weren’t made into a film, it wouldn’t have that value, I think.
You mentioned you were working on this during the Obama administration, and obviously there’s been a dramatic change in leadership.
How does it resonate in the current moment?
I got involved in this profound problem, which in a way has to have us ask ourselves, “Who are we? What do we believe in, that we would allow this to happen to our country?” And in a way, I got involved in seeing it in what some people would call one of the more empathic times in American history. We’re all on different sides of the fence about that, but I do know, from conversations that I had directly with President Obama, how much this concerned him. In fact, during the time that I was doing the work, Valerie Jarrett invited me to come to the White House to address a conference on school discipline, and Eric Holder came to see the play in New York, and so forth. It was out of that Department of Justice that we get this chronicle.
Even as there would be people who would say that Betsy DeVos is not going in that direction — and certainly neither is President Trump — the fact that, as you say, people are aware now, means that something did happen to uncover it. If that happens in an administration, it’s our job to do something about. I think President Obama was always calling us to come forward as citizens and pick up the mantle. I think there are a lot of people doing that in a lot of different ways right now. In that way, this is, to be completely trite about it, the best of times and the worst of times. We read the paper and on many levels there are many, many distressing things, but I think it’s a wonderful time for people to get up and not just be spectators. And at the bottom of the Notes From the Field project is this desire for people to be moved to do something.