TONY COX, host:
Hollywood's depiction of love relationships between African-American men and women has traditionally shown little to no depth. But for celebrity couple Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance, this is far from the truth. Both acclaimed actors have played compelling characters, Angela for her award-winning performance as Tina Turner in "What's Love Got to Do with It."
(Soundbite of movie, "What's Love Got To Do With It")
Ms. ANGELA BASSETT (Actor): (As Tina Turner) I'm Tina Turner. My husband and I just had a fight. I'm supposed to open at the Academy tonight. I have 36 cents and a mobile card. But if you would give me a room, I swear I will pay you back.
Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) No, no, that won't be necessary. Now, Ms. Turner, I'd be honored, really. We'll take care of you.
Ms. BASSETT: (As Turner) Thank you.
COX: And Courtney in the film "The Preacher's Wife," where he portrays the Reverend Henry Biggs, a minister who has lost his way until an angel helps restore his faith.
(Soundbite of movie "The Preacher's Wife")
Mr. COURTNEY B. VANCE (Actor): (As Henry Biggs) The angel Dudley? Dang, that must have been that a part above that got lost.
Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (As Dudley) See, I knew you wouldn't understand this. I know you don't believe me. It's hard even for you, but angels cannot lie, Henry. We're not allowed to. It's in the angel handbook. I'll show it to you. No, no, I'm going to show you.
Mr. VANCE: (As Biggs) That's okay.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Dudley) I'm going to show you.
Mr. VANCE: (As Biggs) Okay. Thanks for everything. Say hello to the big guy, and the Easter Bunny too, when you see him.
COX: Now married for 10 years and with one-year-old twins, the couple opens up about their closely guarded personal life in their new memoir, "Friends: A Love Story." They sat down with NPR's Farai Chideya and told her how they knew it was right for them to marry.
Mr. VANCE: We waited and we worked on ourselves and we took the time and so couldn't have - we had nothing to do with it. The timing was right.
Ms. BASSETT: Courtney's parents never divorced. And my mother had been through two divorces, so it was Courtney who said that.
FARAI CHIDEYA: What did you -
Ms. BASSETT: Of course that's a wonderful thing to agree to. And I appreciated that, because once we were married, you know, you have to negotiate and live together and consult one another and all of that. And sometimes you come to an impasse, and I would just get so frustrated that I thought, oh, and it would seem so overwhelming that I would think, maybe we did this too soon, you know.
And Courtney, he's really good at talking us down. No, couples goes through this, da-da-da-da, it's going to happen. It does happen. This is just a minor event. This is a blip in the thing, we're going to go through, we're going to get over it, it's going to smooth out. And I would just look at him and listen and hang on to that.
And sure enough, we did, because when you're going together, it's easy, you're making your own decisions, you can walk away, you can call it a day at anytime. But when you're finally together and you made that commitment, you know -
Mr. VANCE: In that period of time where two - how two become one is a mystery and it just takes time, those first two years, for a woman to trust a man that he is the man that he says he is. And I had to learn through - because I started working with - training with somebody who is a marriage counselor, working out with somebody who ends up being - turned out being a marriage counselor. And he counseled me, Courtney, you just have to stay the course. Angela is fine. It's you that's out of order. You've got to be the man that you say you are when you got on one knee and said will you marry me.
CHIDEYA: Did you bristle with that? That sounds like the kind of thing that could upset some people.
Mr. VANCE: It's hard - it was hard for me to understand that it was, what do you mean? I've got a problem? What do you mean I've got a problem? I think I'm - I've worked on myself. He said, Courtney, you have to be the consistent man that she responded to right away. You were helping her. You wanted to take care of her. You wanted to help her do what you - what anything that she needed done.
That's the man that she is responding to. That's what you've got to do. And there was - I had to go through a period where I had to just stop focusing on what Angela is doing and not doing or whatever.
Ms. BASSETT: You were trying to make me fix myself. Or you were trying to fix me?
Mr. VANCE: Just stop focusing on Angela.
Ms. BASSETT: Nothing was ever wrong with me when we were dating.
Mr. VANCE: Just stop focusing on Angela. She's fine.
Ms. BASSETT: That was the courtship. Oh, I was perfect then.
Mr. VANCE: She was perfect then.
Ms. BASSETT: I was perfect then.
Mr. VANCE: Just stop focusing on Angela and just do. It transformed my life. And I think it began to help transform the marriage.
Ms. BASSETT: But isn't that human nature, when you're in a relationship with someone? Whatever the relationship is, whether it's romantic or whether it's a working relationship or a friendship? If you would just not do that. It's human nature to say that.
If you did that, everything will be fine, but you can't change people. The only person you can change is yourself. So when you change yourself in the relationship, then the other person has to respond to that new you. But usually we want the other person to change.
Mr. VANCE: And that's really hard for us, as men, to do. It was really, really hard for me to just serve, just help, and stop focusing on what's negative in the relationship. Focus on what's positive, what is happening, and let God do the rest. And that's - that was the lesson that I took away from it, and still am. And it's still the - because that's the main thing for us, is that we're in process.
We wrote the book, but there's day when Angela looks at me and goes, Courtney, what are you doing? How come you didn't tell me about that? And I just have to go, you're right, boo, I messed up, yeah. I'm going to work on that. And she goes, you better work on that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHIDEYA: So both of you had very serious relationships before you got together. You were with Charles Dutton, Angela, who is someone who you went to school with.
Ms. BASSETT: We went to drama school together. Yeah.
CHIDEYA: In school with and had a relationship.
Ms. BASSETT: Yeah.
CHIDEYA: And Courtney, you also had a very serious relationship. You give some advice at the end of the book. I want each of you to name one thing that you did in your previous relationships that you changed so that you can be in a partnership right now.
Ms. BASSETT: I think maybe I gave, you know, too much of myself. He and I lived together - as my mother said, shacking up. We did that so I cut that out. I wasn't going to do that, you know, really giving too much of my power. But that wasn't something that I was going to do with Courtney. We chose not to even have a sexual relationship until we married because I wanted to really see him for who he was, and I wanted him to see who I was.
CHIDEYA: A lot of discipline you exercised over yourself.
Ms. BASSETT: Yeah. Well, I think the hardest part was just saying it. Then after a while, you know, this is how we do. I think it got easier for him.
CHIDEYA: So Courtney, what about you? What did you do in the past that you changed your attitudes about?
Mr. VANCE: Before I was one foot in, and one foot out, and always have a safety valve, always - in case something goes wrong, be able to - and emotionally and physically. So I, you know, was encouraged to put the other foot in. I learned to say this is my first and my last marriage. So I'm putting both feet in.
That's where I think the divorce is not an option came, is that for the first time in my life, and you know, it's hard for guys to just, you know, because we're, you know, in the world people encourage you -
Ms. BASSETT: There's more of you than - there's more of us than you.
CHIDEYA: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Mr. VANCE: People encourage you to, you know, sow your oats and, you know, just, you know, have a good time. But when a man actually commits himself - that's why I think guys, when they're standing up at the altar and about to get married, we all cry. We finally, you know, once we commit ourselves, we're like, I'm so emotional, I don't know what to do. You know, so we - because I cried.
CHIDEYA: You cried on your wedding day?
Mr. VANCE: I cried. I was right up there. I knew I would. It overwhelmed me. I was just - this is it, my whole life is flashing by me.
Ms. BASSETT: And I was like, da-da-da-da-da-da.
Mr. VANCE: So it's, you know, that's what I - I put the other foot in.
CHIDEYA: I want to talk a little bit about your careers. And certainly, that must impact your relationship, because you have another love in your life, which is acting. What makes you shape a role as an actress? Are you following a thread of what you think needs to be transmitted about black women on the screen?
Ms. BASSETT: I don't know if any moment I think I have a feeling of - what stories need to be told, but I'm aware of what images, you know, make me proud or make me shamed. And when I read a script, whether it's a "Monster's Ball" or whether it's a "Boyz n the Hood" or "Rosa Parks" or whatever it might be, I try to find some good in it.
And if it makes me at my - in soul, in my spirit, if it brings me angst, I as an actress, I couldn't pull that off. I can't shape that so that we as black women come off as the strong, amazing individuals that we are. We can go anywhere, do anything, you know, achieve any height.
But media lasts forever. And us on screen sometimes is the only black person, someone way on the other side of the world, who I've met and they may not even - as we say, they don't even speak English good. But they - they've seen us.
CHIDEYA: They saw you.
Ms. BASSETT: And they've recognized and they've come up to me. And I have been around the world enough to know that it travels.
Mr. VANCE: Mm-hmm.
Ms. BASSETT: You know, and it's what they think. And I want to have a hand in us being portrayed as the beautiful people that we are.
CHIDEYA: Courtney, what about you? You've done roles - "Six Degrees" on stage -that were very unusual portrayals of what a black man is like. You have been - you've done TV movies, all of it, what do you seek?
Mr. VANCE: There's got to be someone who's trying to do - to say something positive about us. And it's not that, you know, Morgan Freeman did "Street Wise," or - I forget - I think that's the name of that piece that he did about the drug dealer.
But there was a redeeming quality. He was a whole character, he was full.
Ms. BASSETT: He was a pimp, wasn't he?
Mr. VANCE: He was a pimp?
Ms. BASSETT: Yes.
Mr. VANCE: A pimp, drug dealer. He was a pimp but he was, you know, he - there was something redeeming about him. If I'm going to do something that, you know, just like when Denzel did "Training Day," you know, a part of all of us, as black people, said, now you know he did "Malcolm," he did all these positive roles -
Ms. BASSETT: Hurricane.
Mr. VANCE: You know, Hurricane Carter. He did all - why, when he finally does something that's, you know, playing - to stretch as an actor, would you award him with the Oscar? We'll take it, because it's the Best Actor award and all of his other performances kind of are like, well, yeah, he did "Malcolm X" and all that.
But "Training Day," he got the Oscar. So that's what we always fight against, because there's not a lot of positive things out there about us that are done on a large scale, that are done like a big movie. So when something comes out that's negative and it's in a, you know, 3,000 theaters, people around the world see that as about - that's who we are. That's not all who we are. Just like one film about white folks, that's not all who they are. They have many different facets.
But the problem is we can see that in all the different films that we see about them. And when I go see a film, I put myself in, if the person is white, he's Asian, I can do that in my mind. But because we don't have a lot of films about all of the different facets of us as black people, white folks don't know how to do that. And we want to help them do what we have to do on a daily basis, which is just learn how to share images and -
CHIDEYA: Seek the universality.
Mr. VANCE: Seek the universality. And it's - we all need to do that.
CHIDEYA: A final question. You have twin children. When you struggled to have them yourselves, Angela, and ended up using a surrogate, I just want you to leave me with a little love note. Angela, maybe you can talk to your son; Courtney to your daughter. What do you want them to know about this world?
Ms. BASSETT: I pray that he grows in the love and appreciation of the god of this universe. And I hope he grows in his character, and that at the end of the day he'll be able always to lay his head on his pillow and sleep with peace and tranquility in his soul.
CHIDEYA: What would you say to your little girl?
Mr. VANCE: I would say to my little girl and to my little boy - because I'm going to talk to them both - that there's pain in life and people will disappoint you, but the only thing we can do - and this is a line from "Fences" - we take the best of what - who we meet, and we take that and we go on and make a life with that.
Well, yes, people - there's other things you can say about them that are negative and that happen. But it's like, just let that go, baby, that's okay. But they did that nice thing. Take that and go along with that. To take that kernel from that person and take another kernel from another person, and before you know it, you got a nice little meal. You know, let it go. You don't have to seek the bad. The bad will find you.
Ms. BASSETT: Be resilient and go forward. Forward. Forward.
Mr. VANCE: Go forward. Go forward, babies. Go forward.
CHIDEYA: Hmm. That's beautiful. And of course the late great August Wilson, author of "Fences."
Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett, thank you so much for sharing your time with me.
Ms. BASSETT: You're welcome. Thank you for having us.
Mr. VANCE: Thank you.
COX: Husband and wife Courtney B. Vance and Angela Bassett are acclaimed actors and co-authors of "Friends: A Love Story." For an extended version of the conversation and to hear Angela and Courtney read from their book, log on to npr.org.
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