Digital EXCLUSIVE: MS native, actress Aunjanue Ellis talks Clark Sisters movie and more

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PIKE COUNTY, Miss. (WJTV) – Mississippi Native Aunjanue Ellis is back on the big screen with the Lifetime original movie, The Clark Sisters: First Ladies of Gospel. The movie aired on April 11, drawing in more than 2.7 million viewers according to entertainment critics. 

12 News Lanaya Lewis spoke exclusively to Ellis about the film industry, playing Dr. Mattie Moss-Clark and how she’s dealing with the pandemic. 

Below is the full transcript of the nearly 25-minute-long interview: 

LL: For the younger generation who may not know, what are your ties to Mississippi?

AE: I grew up in a town called McComb, Mississippi. It’s in Southwest Mississippi, about 80 miles south of Jackson… I grew up there, and I still live there. 

LL: You’ve been in some hit shows like Quantico, movies like Undercover Brother, the phenomenal When They See Us. How did you get your start in acting?

AE: I went to Tougaloo College for two years… There was a visiting professor named Jim Barnhill, and he did a play while he was there, and I was cast in the play. He encouraged me to continue to study it. I ultimately left Mississippi and then I went to another college, and then he said you should go to graduate school. So I did. I went to graduate school at NYU (New York University) for acting… I’ve been lucky. It hasn’t been easy at all… lot of ups and down. At least when I started I did pretty well. I’m glad I did well when I first started. It didn’t last that long, but when I started I did pretty well because, I don’t think I would have continued if I had had to struggle out of graduate school. 

LL: What challenges do you all face as actresses? You’re a woman. In particular, black woman in film. What challenges have you faced?

AE: I think the biggest thing for me is the uncertainty of it. I provide for my family with acting. It’s not like a job where I can always count on having another job. I have to keep pursuing, keep auditioning… You audition, but you’re not guaranteed to get the job… I’m essentially a freelance person. 

LL: Speaking of uncertainty, with this coronavirus and things like that, how has that impacted you all in the film industry right now?

AE: The movies I was shooting had to be shut down. They tried long as they could to keep the production up. Ultimately they decided for the safety of everybody involved to stop shooting.

LL: Are you worried this is going to last longer than what it should?

AE: I don’t know. I kind of don’t want to talk about it…. I have no idea. I have no idea. I feel like, I of course am thinking about my income and being able to be what I can be to my family, but I also want people to be okay, and that’s about all I really want to talk about it.”

LL: Everyone is talking about this right now, the Lifetime movie of The Clark Sisters. Why did you want to take on this role Dr. Mattie Moss Clark?

AE: Dr. Mattie was a legend to me. I did not grow up in a COGIC church, Church of God in Christ. I grew up Baptist, and one of my best friends growing up in Pike County, her name is Tracy Grady, she was COGIC. She would go to these workshops that Dr. Mattie had, these choir workshops that Dr. Mattie conducted all over the world. She would go to them and she would come back with these stories about her. She became this mythical figure for me, and I knew her, heard her name, before I heard the Clark Sisters music. 
Of course I started hearing the Clark Sisters music, “You Brought the Sunshine,” that was on the radio and loved that song. As the years progressed, I just became really like a student of their music. I know that they are one of the most significant figures in American music. Significant in consequential figures in American music. When I got the offer to play their mother it was consonant to me. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, but I was so excited. I felt like my love for them, I could return the favor they did for me all these years… like being about to do the best I can to play this role. 

LL: Playing her [Dr. Mattie Moss Clark], what would you say you learned most about her character?

AE: I talked to the sisters about their mom, and just knowing how they said, you know Dr. Clark had to deal with a lot of persecution within the church because she was trying to do things in a way that’s never been done. She was an innovator and then added to that she was a woman. In the church community, particularly in the Pentecostal tradition, there is a role that women are expected to play, and a lot of time, those roles don’t include leadership roles. When they are in leadership positions… this is cross-denomination, this is not just within the COGIC community, this is in all denominations, women are sort of held within sort of the parameters of behavior, and she was defying all of that. Because she did that she was treated horribly. 

One of the things that the movie shows is that she was separated from her daughters as a consequence of what the patriarchy or the men in church did to punish her, her vision. This is heartbreaking for her because she felt like – we call it vision – but for Dr. Mattie it was an anointing. It was why God put her on this Earth. So for her not to operate within her anointing felt devastating to her. 

So what I learned was, I had heard about these things, but I did not know the extent which she suffered for being a visionary at that time.

LL: There’s different clips floating around on the Internet where some of the Clark Sisters got emotional with you, learning that you’re playing the mother, just reacting to you playing her. How was your interaction with them?

AE: They were very lovely to me. Couple things I’ll say about that. I can’t imagine, I’ve never been through this, but I can’t imagine walking on a set and seeing someone play a loved one of mine. I’m sure I would be all up in my feelings because of that. I can’t image the emotional toll of seeing someone embody someone who you reverie, in the way that the Clark Sisters still reverie their mother. They were overwhelmed by that and before they really seen me do anything. I appreciated that and everything, but I couldn’t collapse into that. I couldn’t get involved. I couldn’t immerse myself in their emotions or be swayed by their emotions because I still had a job to do. I felt like I had to earn how they felt and I hadn’t earned it yet. When you were looking at those clips I had not earned that yet. I still had to go on camera and portray their mother. I had a job to do. 

I have talked to them since the movie has come out and they seem very pleased by the film, and I think to me that’s the biggest joy for me beyond any reaction that the world would have or anything that would come out of the film. They are feeling pleased that the movie paid tribute to them and honor their mother, and show her the respect that she deserves. 

LL: You all had 2.7 million people watch this movie – me included, because I definitely watched it with the hubby. One of our favorite scenes was when the choir was singing and someone was chewing some gum and you took that shoe off like, “listen.” What would you say is your favorite part of the movie? 

AE: I don’t know. It’s so hard because we had a script, right? 

LL: Yes.

AE: Then I didn’t feel, the Director Christine Swanson, we both felt that this could be it more work. So I’ll say from December until almost literally the last day of filming, we were still working on the scripts. Trying to get it to where we felt that we needed it to be, and we did a lot of rewriting of it. 

It’s hard for me to talk about what’s my – and I actually have not seen the film – so it’s a lot of stuff that I don’t know really what’s in the film, of what we shot… I don’t know what ended up on screen, but what I will tell you is what I had the most fun doing. 

The most fun for me, were the fun scenes where they sang. For me one of the reasons I wanted to do the job in the first place is because I felt like okay, I can do this job… I can get paid to go to work every day and listen to the Clark Sisters music. Why wouldn’t I want to do this job? I want to do this job every day. Right? So when we would shoot through those scenes where they would sing, I would be over the moon! Over the moon! There was so much fun for me to do and also I did have a good time with the shoe throwing scene [laughing]. 

You can look at this on paper, Dr. Mattie on paper, and you go like – she’s mean, she’s horrible, she’s a villain. Right? There’s a way to play her that you can walk away from this film and think of her as a villain and I think one of the most affirming things is, someone sent me something that said ‘I have a lot of feelings about Dr. Mattie. I don’t know how I should feel about her. I don’t know whether I should love her or adore her, or hate her.’ I felt like, okay! I did my job. Because I don’t want anybody to look at that film, look at that movie and know how to feel about her. She was so many things, but what she was most all is a mother… a fiercely protected mother and a mother who had a vision for her kids, and not just her children, but a vision for these folks in these choirs. The reason why she was throwing that shoe at that girl was not because she was mad, she wanted her to be better. She wanted her to be better. That was her driving force, seeing talent in young black folks and wanting to bring that talent into fruition, and she was driven by that. Woke up in the morning feeling that way, went to bed at night feeling that way. 

There’s a video of Dr. Mattie with Dorinda, and she had diabetes later on in life, she actually had a partial amputation. She was in a wheelchair and Dorinda was actually directing, but Dr. Mattie was right next to her in that wheelchair still trying to direct that choir. Still directing that choir. That’s how driven this woman was. So I loved doing that scene because I got to do that in this way where I heard this term about, another actors practice portrayal, or something where it was just reckless. There was just I don’t care, I’m throwing this shoe at you, I don’t care how you react to it. I just got to do that and embrace that and not look back and have any regrets about it. So doing those scenes were the most fun for me. 

LL: Do you think that you learned anything about yourself playing this role?

AE: Yeah. I feel in our attempt to make a screenplay better Christine, the director, she and I would be staying up until three of four o’clock in the morning working on it. Then when that was over, she would come to my room at six o’clock in the morning – meaning two hours later, and finish so we could take it to set that day. When I was doing this with her, and we would be in her room and working on this, I had this feeling that I had never done anything like this before. I write but never done anything to this extent before. She would challenge me. I would present the ideas to her and she would say, ‘no that doesn’t work. Come back with something else.’ So I would have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something else, and there were moments where we having those nights, marathon nights of staying up to three o’clock and four o’clock in the morning, and I just had this moment of just sheer exhilaration. Just happiness. Just joy. I felt like I was doing something that I had never done before, and I was pushing myself as far as I can go. I did not care what the result was.

I’m glad you want to talk to me and I appreciate that. I’m glad people appreciate that film. It might not be everybody’s cup of tea but a lot of people are enjoying it, but in that moment I did not care whatever the result was. I just knew I was going to dang near kill myself to make this right. I felt like the result of that was just the experience of doing it. 

Here’s the thing, I’m a scaredy cat. I’m always operating in fear. In that moment, I was not scared. I was not scared. I did not care. I just knew that I wanted to commit everything to making it right. Making it better. That was the biggest joy for me. Now I’m addicted to that – like okay, I can do that some more. So that’s what I learned about myself. I learned that I was capable of that and sort of convicted me to continue to operate like that in other things that I do. 

LL: I know you probably hear this question all the time, but what encouraging words did you want to tell actors/actresses out there?

AE: It’s not easy. It’s not easy, but what I tell people, I’m not a person who gives advice at all. I do not do that. I try to give the advice I give by living by example. I think that’s the best advice you could give anybody and just live by example. I hope that the path I have taken is an example to, especially Mississippi. When I started, and I was doing what I was doing, it wasn’t like my family was standing in my way or anything – they certainly didn’t do that because they knew from when I was very very young that I was going to follow my own path – whatever that path was going to be. I also was really independent and I didn’t ask for money or anything like that… so I took care of myself. I didn’t have any examples – certainly back then I didn’t have any examples, but it didn’t stop me. I just want folks who are there, who have experiences and know what it’s like, still to go places and be in situations and you tell people you’re from Mississippi and they look at you like you’re crazy. They think that you’re from a Third World country. You may as well say you’re from El Salvador or somewhere like that when you tell people you’re from Mississippi. But thank God for lower expectations. I think Oprah Winfrey talked about that. People have low expectations from you when you are from there. I feel thank God for it because you can clown those folks and make a fool out of them for having a low expectation of who you are because you’re from Mississippi.

Think about this… we are the state of Fannie Lou Hamer. Fanny Lou Hamer. The woman who single-handedly changed politics, the Democratic party forever – came from Louisville, Mississippi. That’s the path that we’re walking in as people of conscience, as creative people. That’s the path that we walk in. I don’t forget about it, and I just want to remind folks that this is who we are. We are the standard of excellence, and we just need to walk in it. 

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