PANEL DISCUSSION WITH ACTRESS
NICOLE BEHARIE AND REAL-LIFE HEROINE, REGINA KELLY
Reported by William
published April 17, 2009
now playing in select theaters
In the new film American
Violet, Nicole Beharie portray Regina Kelly, a woman who was wrongfully arrested and went through a harrowing ordeal to clear her
How did you get involved in acting, Nicole?
Nicole Beharie: My father was in the foreign service, so we
moved around a lot. Being away from extended family, my immediate family was my entertainment. We would play board games and make up plays.
When we moved to Orangeburg, SC, the public schools were so bad that I applied to Governor’s School just to get a decent education. I had to
declare a performing arts major to get accepted. I was accepted into the acting department and fell in love with acting there. After
graduation, I went to Julliard.
Nicole, how did you get this
Nicole Beharie: I was in a showcase and a casting agent saw me
and sent a tape of me over to the writer, Bill Haney and the director, Tim Disney. I had to audition about four times before I finally got the
When did you first get to meet
Nicole Beharie: I first got to know her character via DVDs from
the writer and director. I watched the DVDs for weeks and weeks, listening and watching the interviews Bill Haney did with Regina, the
attorneys, and other folks in her town. Then two weeks into shooting she showed up on set. I really wanted to meet her before we started
shooting and I was begging the director if I could go to Texas and meet her. The director and producer did not make that happen and she came
to the set while we were shooting the deposition scenes. It was a little nerve wracking at first because I had not met her in person, but I
did have a feel for her. I had photos of Regina and her family, and I had really studied her, her
hairstyle, gestures, everything, and then she came to set and I had to rethink everything. [lots of
Do you think that not meeting
Regina initially was better for your characterization?
Nicole Beharie: Once I meet Regina, I realized that my
characterization was close to who she is as a person. No actor can completely morph into someone else. I do feel that the one-on-one
interviews with Bill were intimate and gave me more insight into her than meeting her on set surrounded by lots of people.
What was it like for you to meet Nicole for the first time?
Regina Kelly: I thought that she was short. [lots of laughter] When I got to the set for the first time, they were shooting the deposition scene and
immediately I knew who was playing which characters based on the dialogue. When Nicole started to do her scene, I had to leave the set because
it was like reliving that horrible time in my life all over again. When the film editor showed me scenes that Nicole had already filmed, I was
amazed at how on point she was with her portrayal. I was made comfortable by the fact that Nicole wanted to give such an honest portrayal of
Were you born and raised in
Regina Kelly: Yes, I was.
The district attorney that you
sued and won your case against for wrongful arrest and incrimination has been re-elected to office. How do you handle
Regina Kelly: The DA has been in office unopposed for a
long time. No one will challenge him. He is a very powerful man with too much influence over things that are outside of his jurisdiction. The
population in Hearne, Texas is just over 5,000 people. If anyone attempts to stand up to this man they might lose a bank loan, even their
livelihood. So, most residents of Hearne are too fearful to stand up to him. I handle it by continuing to be an activist against race-based,
wrongful arrest and incrimination.
Was there any hesitation about
getting your story on film?
Regina Kelly: I never hesitated about getting my story
out. I experienced a horrible injustice, but I believe my activism is worthwhile because millions of people are experiencing wrongful arrest
due to the war on drugs. The war on drugs is really a war against people of color.
Were you aware, before your
arrest, that the African American community was being unlawfully targeted in your town, and that you could be a target?
Regina Kelly: I believed that because I didn’t do drugs
or associate with a certain element, I wouldn’t get caught up in any of the drug raids. Although the drug raids happened annually, I just
didn’t think it would happen to me. I couldn’t
believe that the criminal justice system was so rigged against poor people of color until I experienced it first hand.
Has the buzz around the film
and your case brought you any financial gain?
Regina Kelly: Because of the DA, I cannot work in my
hometown, so I have had to provide for my family the best way I can. I wanted to stay in Hearne because most of my family is there, but that
has not been possible. It has been extremely hard to manage financially. To answer your question, I have had no real financial gain from the
film and only a small settlement from my case.
Motherhood is so important to
this story. What did you draw from to be able to play an impoverished young woman with four kids living in public
Nicole Beharie: Alfre Woodard, who plays my mother in American Violet, helped me a lot. I tapped into the internal drive of the character and was able to draw
from that. I also drew from Regina’s drive to create a better life for children and not be hampered by the criminal justice system or
anything, for that matter.
A single mother raised me, so I was able to draw from that as well. What is so interesting about American Violet is that many of the upheavals and difficulties that single black mothers go through is
detailed in a way I haven’t seen in other films.
What artistic licenses did the
filmmakers take in translating your story to film?
Regina Kelly: American Violet is 98% true to life. The heated scenes in the courtroom were actually much more heated in
real life. I was not respectful to the DA because he wasn’t respectful to me. Also, the scene where the courts were trying to take my kids
away is played down in the film.
Alfre Woodard’s character
initially did not support you in the civil case against the DA. Was that initial reticence true to life?
Regina Kelly: My mother was really there for me. She
didn’t want me to go ahead with the civil case because she knew what a difficult time I was in for. She initially felt it was better if I took
the plea bargain and find a way to muddle through. She felt that if I lost my case, I wouldn’t be there for my children. But she came
By the fighting the DA, I knew I had a good chance of not winning my case and subsequently going to jail. It never occurred to me
to accept the plea bargain. I felt if I am going to lose, I am going to lose fighting. I wanted to show my children that you have to fight
for what you believe in regardless of the possible outcome.
Nicole, this being your first
feature role, how did you deal with the pressure and attention that goes with being the lead in such a powerful film?
Nicole Beharie: That thing that was daunting for me was working
with such incredible actors like Alfre, Charles Dutton, and Michael O’Keefe. I had watched these actor’s films and now suddenly I am on set
with these actors. I had very little film experience going into American Violet. I went to Julliard
where the training is mostly for the stage. I never took a camera class at Julliard because when I was there, those classes weren’t
available.. I was just acting my scenes, not even thinking about those basic things. So, I had to learn basic things while I was doing work on
this film. And, now doing press junkets and being interviewed is something that I am adjusting to. I shot American Violet in 2007, went back to Julliard and graduated. So, the film was kind of out my head when I
started doing press conferences.
Was there any trepidation
around your story being told by white, male filmmakers as opposed to a woman or black filmmakers?
Regina Kelly: I am very pleased with the film. At one
point, I was afraid I would not be able to relate to the film because it wouldn’t reflect my life and what really happened. But, I think the
filmmakers did an incredible job on such a small budget.
In the film you got a lot of
support from the African American community. Was that true to life, and what has been the
reaction in your hometown?
Regina Kelly: The church that I originally belonged to
in no uncertain terms let my family know that we were not welcome there when I started the civil suit. The church in the film is actually the
church I joined after being booted out of the other church. The pastor was very welcoming and so supportive. At the time, I really had no one
to turn to. Remember, I was trying to get my case together, I had four children to take care of, and I was jobless. My pastor was really there
The community was very supportive initially because there were 27 people involved in the civil suit, with me being the primary
plaintiff. When we settled the civil suit, most of the community felt like we had won a victory. But that was not a complete victory
because nothing has really changed in Hearne, Texas. The DA can’t do drug raids anymore, but he can still arrest people individually on
trumped on charges.
When we recently did the screening of American Violet in Hearne, there were posters all
over town that were pulled down by the police. People who supported the film were threatened. The DA is still in office; he has not been
disbarred. So, my victory is this film.
Do you consider yourself an
Regina Kelly: Yes, I do. Since 2001, I have been doing
public speaking against the injustice in the criminal justice system around unlawful drug raids. I will continue to speak out until things
Nicole, how is your career
going since American Violet?
Nicole Beharie: After graduation, I did The Express. I feel I kind of got my footing in American Violet
because everyone helped me out so much. I am now able to look at myself on screen and see things I need to work on. I received a grant from
the Annenberg Foundation in 2008 and with that grant I am creating some things for the stage. I also just shot a CBS pilot for a hospital
drama. I play a social worker in the pilot. My path has been very different than a lot of young actresses, post-Julliard. I haven’t appeared
on Law & Order or held a spear at the Public Theatre. I am charting my own
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
read William Gooch's review of American
read the panel discussion with screenwriter Bill Haney and director Tim Disney