Michael Michele: Fighting the Good Fight
Confession time: When I read the title I assumed Michael Michele was an actor. Nope. Turns out she is an actress who was finishing up her third season on E/R when she was interviewed for this article. She also had a supporting role in Michael Mann’s boxing biopic, Ali, playing one of Will Smith’s wives. The interview ran in the Jan/Feb 2002 issue of Movieline and it suggests that Michele was on the verge of breaking out in a big way. That didn’t really happen. After supporting roles in Dark Blue (2002) and How to Loose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), Michele returned to television where she has mostly appeared in guest spots.
After years of paying her dues with solid television work on shows like “ER,” Michael Michele knows what it’s like to fight for respect–a skill she put to good use opposite Will Smith in the big-budget biopic Ali.
Michael Michele is in denial.
“I am not in denial,” she says, tucking into a mushroom-and-cheese omelette at the Raffles L’Ermitage Beverly Hills hotel. “I haven’t moved here. I rent a small one-bedroom apartment here. I go home every week.”
“Home,” insists Michele, is New York City, where she has lived since she was a teenager acting in commercials. Michele is currently operating under the delusion that she is the very first actress on the cusp of happening in a very big way who is having problems letting go of Manhattan. Never mind that it’s Burbank where she works every week as Dr. Cleo Finch on “ER.” And it’s Hollywood where she has landed what could be the most important role of her career since she played Wesley Snipes’s girlfriend a decade ago in the 1991 thugfest New Jack City. That role is Veronica Porsche, third wife of boxing legend Muhammad Ali. The movie, Ali, stars Will Smith. The director is Michael Mann.
“Forget about his success in movies–I’ve seen all of them, including the show on A&E that he did years ago,” Michele enthuses about her director. She didn’t even care that he had no idea who she was, or what she had done. “I found him direct, to the point, in-your-face, slap-dead honest,” she says, which may have something to do with Mann’s reputation for getting surprising work out of everyone he hires.
Apparently, Michele delivered, because Mann has compliments aplenty to heap on her. “I was delighted to hire her,” says Mann. “When she came in and first read for Veronica, she was able to hit that in-between ‘not performance’ part. She could play the spaces between what one could expect. She’s a very authentic actress in that she could hit those hard notes.”
At the time covered in the film, Mann notes, Porsche was young and very beautiful. But like many beautiful women, Porsche looked more sophisticated and worldly than she was. “That’s a very difficult thing,” observes Mann. “To be very attractive, and people define you by that, and you know that, and at the same time, that is just your surface. She was a little out of her element.”
Michele doesn’t have that problem. The daughter of a white father and an African-American mother, she acknowledges compliments on her appearance and moves on. “As much as I enjoy being a woman–the high heels, the clothes, the hair, the makeup–it’s not what I’m typically attracted to as an actress.”
Excuse us? Three words here, lady: “Central Park West.” Not the street, the show–producer Darren Star’s delightfully inane pre-“Sex and the City” potboiler in which everyone was under 30, gorgeous, successful, and, most astoundingly, able to afford amazing Manhattan apartments. Michele played a gallery owner having an affair with one of her peers’ fathers.
Michele smiles. “All my fashionista friends in New York and the people who cover that lifestyle loved it, but I have to tell you–and no disrespect to Darren Star, who is a great guy–it was all about the hair, the makeup and the clothing, and after a few months, I was ready to jump in front of a taxicab. I’m offered more of that than the other thing.”
Is it any wonder? Kathy Bates is a wonderful actress, but it’s not really about her making an entrance in some Givenchy confection. Michele can pull that off easily, and lists a few actresses who inspire her. All of them were glamorous when the role called for it, but able to get down and dirty in the same reel.
“It’s unfortunate that I can’t look back and say there were numerous actresses of color who had the opportunity to do great dramatic work. Lena Horne did. Cicely Tyson is a great dramatic actress, and I’m always trying to hone my skills as a dramatic actress. I tend to look to Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and very much Bette Davis, because during that period, women really ruled the movies.”
They also ruled their lives–on-screen, at least, and many times, off–and Michele says she’s heartened by that. Not long ago, the former high-school basketball star attended a game of the WNBA finals. “I went with two male friends, and the audience was almost all young girls, and I realized: It’s changing. Young girls are seeing people like that, and like Hillary Rodham Clinton, and they’re realizing they can do it, too.”
Michele just wants to keep doing what she’s doing, only more of it. “I want to do the work that some of my peers are doing, but it hasn’t come around the table yet.” Peers such as? “Jodie Foster has done amazing work. Angelina Jolie has something different, something left-of-center, which I like. Ashley Judd is smart, intellectually she can stand there and talk with you about anything. If I were a guy, I’d say Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, the kind of work they do.”
She knows, however, that Mann’s imprimatur is no small thing in a business where everyone’s gut instinct is based on everyone else’s gut instinct.
“He gave me an opportunity I never thought I would have,” says Michele, whose next film is 4-29-92, a gritty drama about the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “It’s incredible for me as an actor and as a professional person that someone in the business who has a great deal of respect said yes.’ He had many, many, many, many choices, and he didn’t know me from Adam.”