McMillan, Bassett in a groove at 40 Movie: Writer and star of 'Stella' want the world to know how good life can be.

August 13, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

When it came time to cast the title role in "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," the tale of an attractive 40-year-old woman who falls for a man half her age, author Terry McMillan knew it had to be Angela Bassett.

The highly respected actress was the natural choice: She radiated beauty, she was talented, and the pair had already collaborated on "Waiting to Exhale," McMillan's other book-turned-movie. And of course it didn't hurt that Bassett had that killer body, which had shimmied as the ageless Tina Turner in "What's Love Got To Do With It," a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination.

"I want young women, particularly African-American women, to look at Angela in every little outfit and think: 'She looks good for 40,' " McMillan said. "It gives them something to look forward to and lets them know that life doesn't stop at a certain age. Being sexy at 40 and feeling sexy to me is much better than it was when I was younger."

The forty-something McMillan knows of what she speaks. Her 1997 best-selling novel was based on her real-life experience of finding a younger love in Jamaica during a difficult time in her life.

"I had just lost my mother and best friend," said McMillan, who with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Ron Bass co-wrote the screenplay for the movie, which opens tomorrow. "After I met this man, I looked up and said, 'I know you two did this.' "

Yes, she and her love are still together. And yes, she has a lot in common with "Stella," a successful single mother who travels to Jamaica with a best friend to relax, but McMillan says she can't say exactly how much of herself she infused into the character.

Sitting in Washington's Four Seasons hotel recently with Bassett, film director Kevin R. Sullivan and producer Deborah Schindler, it is obvious the author and the star share an easy friendship. One often finishes the other's thoughts, and they laugh uproariously with "sistah-gurl" verve at each other's jokes.

Bassett demurs when McMillan says she wanted her for the part despite the fact that Bassett is not as old as the character.

"Terry, I'll be 40 in two weeks," Bassett says softly as she smooths out her beige Calvin Klein pantsuit.

"Yeah, uh-huh girl, whatever," McMillan says, tossing her long braids and grinning saucily as Bassett bursts into giggles.

Both women have been trailblazers in their fields. Though sometimes panned by critics, McMillan is often heralded as the author who helped awaken the mainstream publishing world to the lucrative business of books geared toward black readers -- selling millions of copies and co-writing the screenplay for the hit "Waiting To Exhale," which starred Bassett and Whitney Houston.

Meanwhile, Bassett has risen from a small but acclaimed role in "Boyz N The Hood" to becoming one of Hollywood's most respected and sought-after actresses.

She said she enjoyed playing the role of Stella, because she is "strong, yet vulnerable," and because of the complex relationships in the film.

In addition to Stella's relationship with the much younger Winston Shakespeare, played by hunky newcomer Taye Diggs, the movie also focuses on the bond Stella has with her best friend Delilah, played by Whoopi Goldberg, and Stella's sisters, played by Regina King and Suzzanne Douglas.

Bassett said she was also attracted to the role because Stella is a successful, black career woman who doesn't fit the African-American stereotypes often seen in films.

"You don't see the ugly, you don't see an adversarial relationship between Stella and her ex-husband," Bassett said. "I had one person take issue with the fact that she lives in a fabulous house like that was beyond the realm of reality, and I was like, 'Why don't you come to my house?' "

McMillan agrees, pointing to movies that critics have lambasted as using violence, misogyny and buffoonery to depict African-Americans.

"You get rid of the 'Booty Call's and the 'How To Be A Player's and what do we really have?" McMillan said. "Thank God for the movies like 'Soul Food,' 'Eve's Bayou,' 'Hav Plenty' and 'Love Jones,' which I loved.

"We don't often get to see ourselves as gentle and loving, and that's important," she added. "It's like seeing ourselves as poetry."

That's why the filmmakers wanted to make a passionate film that was both sexy and playful, said director Sullivan. Bassett opted not to go nude or use a body double for the love scenes.

"For me, the sexiest moment in film history is in 'On the Waterfront,' when Marlon Brando picks up Eva Marie Saint's glove and he puts it on his hand because he wants to be inside her," Sullivan said. "When we were going to do these scenes, Angela told me what she was comfortable with doing, so we were all sort of finding this together."

"The whole film is very sensual in a positive way," added producer Schindler.

Sullivan said the audience will get to see a less intense Bassett -- her prior roles have ranged from the abused Tina Turner to the tough bodyguard in "Strange Days" -- as Stella enjoys all that Jamaica, and Winston, have to offer.

"One of my favorite scenes is when Stella is dancing with Winston and sees her friend and she goes 'Heyyyyyyyy,' " Sullivan said. "It's Angela just having a great time."

Though the movie might seem like a romantic postcard for Jamaica, McMillan doesn't want to convey the message to women that happiness can only be found in the arms of a younger man, she said.

"I hope that it offers women stuck in dead-end situations, be it a job, a husband or whatever, the opportunity to realize that when you take risks, sometimes you open up the possibilities," McMillan said. "Sometimes you have to break the rules to make changes, and that's basically what Stella did."

Pub Date: 8/13/98

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