Angela Bassett makes a suitably dramatic entrance in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, busting into a room while costar Henry Cavill trails deferentially behind.
Bassett needs no one to open a door for her, least of all Superman.
"I have to give it up to the director. That was his idea. But I loved it. It sends the right message for the character," said Bassett, who plays an ultra-tough CIA boss in the film.
It sends a message too, about the way Bassett has pushed through doors to succeed as an actress — in 1994, she became the first African American actress to win a Golden Globe, for playing Tina Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It.
That she would ascend to those heights was an unlikely proposition for Bassett, who was raised in Florida, where as a youngster the idea of acting didn't cross her mind. But as a teen, Bassett took a school trip to D.C. and saw James Earl Jones in Of Mice and Men, and decided on the spot that she wanted to be an actress. Her mother didn't see it as a likely or lucrative path, and advised her daughter to work hard in school.
She followed her mother's advice, but also her dream — all the way to Yale drama school, then to Broadway, and her breakthrough movie role in John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood, leading to steady work and her memorable role as Turner (for which she was also nominated for an Academy Award).
Impossible missions are old hat to this actress, who has succeeded in just about every platform available to her. She got her start on stage, has made dozens of movies (including an upcoming project for Netflix), and starred in several TV shows including American Horror Story, where she satisfied her itch to direct. Now she's appearing in the biggest movies Hollywood can make: Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Black Panther. Those movies will likely generate $2 billion this year worldwide.
>> READ MORE: 'Black Panther': A heroic achievement
Does the size of the production change the job?
"Not at all. You just get better craft service. And more costume choices, which is nice. But bottom line, you're standing nose to nose, eye to eye with another human being, and you're doing the work, and none of the other stuff matters," she said.
She wasn't looking for roles in big-budget movies, but is pleased the roles came looking for her (she says she missed a chance to be in Avatar and the X-Files franchise).
"It's just something that happened. And I'm glad it did. Who doesn't want to be in a big blockbuster? Or in a series or a franchise that offers sort of guaranteed employment, so long as you don't get killed in the first episode," said Bassett.
And she says she's been lucky to break into big-budget movies without sacrificing her principles — as Bassett puts it, she's always been more interested in what a project has to say than what it promises to pay.
It's an axiom that's taken her from Panther (she played Betty Shabazz) to Black Panther this year, a movie she's proud of.
"It gives a representation of a hero you've never seen before. An African American character in first position. Not in support of, or adjunct to. And what I loved also — these four strong female figures that [Chadwick Boseman's title character] seeks out for advice, for their wisdom," she said. "In the African culture, they say there is no king without a queen and here are these four queens."
She loved the Ryan Coogler script, and the way it integrated superhero boilerplate with substantial and meaningful material.
"There are social aspects that you can appreciate if you are sensitive to them. Issues of black-on-black crime, of absentee fathers, of self-esteem, of living up to your potential and ascending to your rightful place. I think it shows you can make a great movie, and a popular movie, and they can go hand in hand," she said.
It's one reason why Bassett, who admits to feeling "most free" on stage, has always wanted to make a mark on film, and to do it in the right way.
"They live forever. Not only on film, but in the minds of the people who see them. We look to movies to educate us, to validate us, as well as to entertain us. These images and ideas get ingrained in our psyche, our memories; they feed our imagination. You remember the first movie you ever saw, who you were sitting next to at that big blockbuster," she said. "Here's what I know: They have the ability to reach the heart, so I've been very conscious of the images I've been lucky enough to have been a part in creating."
Bassett is next going to star in the drama Otherhood — about three women redefining themselves post-marriage — for the streaming service Netflix. I asked her whether she has a preference for how stories reach people: streaming to devices, on television, in movie theaters.
"I do not. I care about the story. I confess that I do love theater, and it's my first love. I feel most free and liberated when on stage. I have a sense of that control. You work for four weeks and do the preview and the director is gone, and it's in the actors' hands. The actors and the audience. And every night is different. The performance is essentially the same, but the audience changes, and the energy changes, and that's why I love it," said Bassett, who appeared in Broadway in two August Wilson plays while still at Yale drama school.