While most Hollywood marriages crumble and fall, Courtney B. Vance and Angela Basset are still going strong. The two recently published a book called Friends: A Love Story which chronicles their life together and gives insight into surviving a marriage under the spotlight. We recently talked to Vance to try to find out the happy couple’s secret.
Where are you originally from and where do you call home now?
I’m originally from Detroit, Michigan and Los Angeles is my home now.
You graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts degree and you received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama. What made you decide on such prestigious schools and what were your experiences like there?
For undergrad, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I knew I wanted to go to Harvard. My uncle went there. When I got there, I thought I’d figure out what I wanted to do. Of course, when I got there, I found out that everybody seemed to already know what they wanted to do, so I felt out of the loop and a little silly.
But I continued to look, to try to find my way and discovered theatre my second year there. I started doing theatre in college and found my calling. I became very focused in drama school and my work-study job. My life was all about my theatre and my studies and seeing my girlfriend. I was going nonstop from sun up to well beyond sun down. I didn’t start out planning to do theatre, I knew zilch about it. So when I actually discovered it, I threw myself into it with both hands.
Then, I did several plays at Harvard. But I found it very “cliquey,” so I started to go into Boston to audition for things and to look for workshops. I ended up at the Boston Shakespeare Company, becoming a company member my last few years at Harvard. All while doing my work-study job, which was delivering the Harvard Crimson, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Harvard Yard. So I was a very busy camper between my job and my studies and being a full-time company member at the Boston Shakespeare Company. It was thrilling.
From there I took a year off and worked as a security guard, the midnight shift at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and prepared my pieces for drama school. I walked the gallery doing my two monologues for about nine months. Then, I applied to drama school, got in and that’s where I met Angela. She was just finishing up there.
Once you decided to pursue acting full-time did you find steady work or did you have a tough time landing roles?
The main thing for me is that I ended up there at the absolute perfect time for me. I was cast in my second year there in Fences. We did it at Yale, and then we thought it was done. In my third year, we took it to Chicago. Then, I graduated and the show ended.
Over the summer, my girlfriend at the time and I, we had no money and we barely got an apartment. It was very, very tight. That summer, I got my first film, Hamburger Hill. Then, I found out Fences was going to become pre-Broadway. When I came back from doing the movie, we went into rehearsals and took the play to San Francisco. After that, it was coming right on to Broadway.
I had a movie opening and a play on Broadway at the same time. That was very, very thrilling. Fences launched my theatrical and my cinematic careers because everybody came to see the play. I was blessed because I had a career “ready made” for me.
You’ve appeared in The Preacher’s Wife and Space Cowboys. Tell us about your experiences working on those two big-name projects.
The Preacher’s Wife was a film that took me three or four auditions to land. I really, really wanted to do it. It was a wonderful piece, shot in New York, and took about four or five months to shoot. Penny Mashall is an amazingly wonderful director and we really connected. I had a great time, with a great cast. Winter was very, very cold there and we had a huge snowstorm hold up our shooting. At the last moment, just as we went to Maine to shoot an ice skating scene, the temperature rose to about 60 degrees and melted most of the ice.
That was one of the funny things – it wasn’t funny at the time because I really wanted to ice skate because nobody could ice skate in the cast except for me. I was really looking forward to ice skating, then I got up there and I couldn’t. But anyway, we faked it and it worked.
Then, Space Cowboys – Clint Eastwood is an icon. He’s just an amazing director and everybody waits for him to do his next project because he’s the kind of director that’s in there at six in the morning and he’s out of there at six in the evening because he’s hoping on his helicopter to see his family. He’s a family man. And everyone loves to work for him and with him.
It was quiet on the set. Nobody yells. There’s no cut, there’s no action. He just starts and when he thinks he’s got it, he asks if it’s good for everybody. He takes two takes, at most three, and then he’s done. We’d rehearse the heck out of things and we move on. He basically showed me – the way most people shoot films these days is they rehearse on film, but it doesn’t have to be. He cut his teeth on the spaghetti westerns. They didn’t have a lot of money, so you rehearsed a lot and when you were done rehearsing; you shot it – maybe once. And, the studios love him because he comes in on time under budget. It was a great time.
You are probably best known for your work on Law and Order: Criminal Intent. How did you land the role of District Attorney Ron Carver and what was it like working on that show?
I had done a couple of episodes years prior of Law and Order for Dick Wolf and he gave me a call and wanted to know if I wanted to do something where I would go back and forth, LA to New York. I said I’d love the opportunity to do that. Great cast, great crew. Did it for five years before I felt it was time to move on. I’ve got a set of twins and the flying back and forth to shoot in New York was too difficult with our twins.
I had a great time. I learned what shooting a one-hour show is like, how much work it is. It’s like shooting a film every eight days. You really have to love the people that you are working with – cast and crew. One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch. Sitcoms are different, you don’t shoot everyday; you shoot one day out of the week.
As I said, we’re shooting a movie every day for eight days and in the midst of that, we’re getting ready for the next episode. It’s very, very intense work and if the roles are spread out nicely enough, it really precludes you from having a life. So I learned that also, being a lead in a one-hour show, unless it’s an ensemble piece, is a nightmare.
You and your wife, Angela Basset, have written a book on relationships called Friends: A Love Story. What made you decide to write the book?
We didn’t really decide to write it. I was at a cocktail party at our friend Wynton Marsalis’ apartment in New York. He lives two or three floors below us. I was sitting at a table talking to four or five guys – and you know guys, we’ll sit at a table and talk sports for hours and not even know the names of the guys we are talking to. I was talking to people and there was a lull and people got up and got some more gumbo.
Only two of us remained at the table. The other guy leaned over and introduced himself – he ended up being a book agent and said, “You and your wife, I’ve followed your career and your work. You should write a book.” That’s how it happened. It was very organic.
He and I then talked for about a year, and I began to gradually talk to Angela about it. She was reluctant, as was I. I was in New York a lot talking to the book agent and we gradually started to talk more and more, and he gave me more insight. I related that to my wife and we sat down with a writer in New York, her name was Miss Hillary Beard. The four of us sat down over lunch and we all hit it off.
We thought we maybe could do a 150-page book, but the more we started to talk to Hillary, we were very comfortable with her. We realized as we went along that we had much more than 150 pages. She started to see a format and a shape to the book. It was very organic and we were just sharing, the three of us together. As things got a little more hectic, we started doing it separately and over the phone. It evolved into something that was quite remarkable. What separates it is that we’re very candid about our lives. It wasn’t all pretty, it was a lot of pain, but we’re survivors and we also focused on the fact that when we got married, very untraditionally, divorce was not an option.
The honeymoon after a certain period of time is over and then it’s time to actually get down to work and to figure out how we are going to navigate this life together. Two are going to begin to come together as one. It’s a mystery and it takes work and it takes commitment. We committed to each other and we also told our business people, “You’ve got to leave us alone and we’ll tell you what we have time for, what we can and can’t do because we’re trying to lay down a foundation for life. Our lives are more important than our work.” It’s all about decisions. The reason I think that a lot of Hollywood marriages don’t work is because the business is more important than the individuals’ lives. The problem with it is that before you get married and before you have children in our profession, your agents and managers and publicists rule your life, but when you get married, that cannot continue. A lot of managers, agents and publicists don’t like to let a spouse in between them and their client.
When you were writing the book, did you ever worry about sharing too much or giving away too much of your relationship? How did you keep that balanced?
We just started talking. We knew we could always go back and edit. We decided to leave in as much as possible. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be our story. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to share. We wrote about our lives and it’s not all pretty. It wasn’t all fun, it wasn’t all funny. But the victory is that we came through it. Our focus is – God first, each other second. It shapes who we are and the direction of our lives.
You did a play with Angela two summers ago. What was it like working with your wife on stage for the first time?
I hadn’t been on stage in 12 years. She and I had never worked together. I made the decision I was going to be exactly like we do in our marriage, which is she’s first. Whatever she needs me to do, I’m going to do. We have very different acting styles. She has a photographic memory; I have to put things into my body before I remember them. I think one of the best decisions I made was that we kept our extra apartment in Minneapolis. I had an apartment and she had an apartment and we stayed in one, but we had an extra one. The extra one is where, when we came home from rehearsal, I walked my blocking. She can sit in front of the TV and look at commercials and learn her lines, I can’t do that. I’d be up late, but gradually I got my lines and my blocking. Then we were able to run lines together and help each other. And we always said a little prayer before we started the show. It was comforting.
There’s no one else like her. At the same time, she’s my best friend. It’s comforting to be able to be on stage with her knowing I’ll be taken care of and if something goes wrong, she’ll cover me. I know she feels the same way about me. At the same time, I know the cast and the director appreciated the fact that we were a team and we were all in it together, trying to figure it out together.
Do you plan on working with her again?
Absolutely. We’re trying to find another play to do right now.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into acting?
I don’t know. I was pursued by General Motors. I worked there for a couple of summers and they wanted to put me through business school. So, I probably would have been at General Motors.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you.
I’m very funny and silly and like to have a great time.
We’ve got one last thing for you here. I’m going to do a word association. We’ll just throw out a name and tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.
Law and Order.
Courtney B. Vance.
A good man.
Interviewed by Joel Murphy, February 2007. Friends: A Love Story is available now.