Actor and Activist, CCH Pounder, Hangs with A&U's Dann Dulin and Reveals the Special Person who Champions Her Activism, Her Take on America's Apathy, and Her Remedy for Breaking Through the Shield Around President Bush
Upstairs in CCH Pounder's Caribbean-style home in Los Angeles, something unexpectedly slapstick is about to occur. A startled howl emanates from the bathroom. A male worker and close friend of Pounder's, Ian, has accidentally barged in on my assistant, Kelly, while she was having a private moment on the toilet. CC, having freshly moved into her new home, is used to the constant stream of workers. Despite the unfolding situation in the upstairs loo, Pounder sits in the middle of the living room, Buddah-like and indefatigable. Still, she can't resist interjecting herself into the action and, so, with raised eyebrows and a sly grin, jokingly yells upstairs, "Less likely encounters have led to marriage...!"
Pounder likes to get in on the action. This, along with her lively sense of humor, is apparent throughout the interview. She's a take-charge kind of woman, evidenced by her dedication and compassion toward those facing life-altering challenges. She recently participated, on a last-minute call, in Jenifer Lewis's [A&U, May 2005] Divas For Katrina, a benefit for the Gulf Coast hurricane survivors. From the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, CC has lent her support. In 1989, along with Danny Glover [A&U, June 2002], Alfre Woodard, Mary Steenburgen, and others, CC founded Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA), together raising more than eight million dollars since its start.
Originally, ANSA was known as Artists for a Free South Africa because of the fight at the time against apartheid. They concentrated on teaching people about the electoral process, and promoting the policies of Nelson Mandela. "Then when we thought we could lay our laurels down and fold our arms," CC explains, "the real issues of what apartheid created appeared--not only in poverty, but in AIDS. There was an impact of disenfranchised households. Men were separated and were shuffled all over in one area to work and they couldn't get back home. There was intermixing of sexual activities. It was the perfect formula to have a disease like AIDS come in and have a grand--I mean a really big, big time--occupation."
ANSA members concluded there was more work to be done and they needed to address the current crisis, hence the name change to "New." The organization was now a part of the rebuilding. Their focus became AIDS, and initially they got involved with orphans, how to feed them, how to care for them, and how to educate the population about prevention. "At the same time, we realized that we had a similar problem in the United States so we decided that South Africa was our cause," reflects Pounder, "but, since the AIDS pandemic was not specific to that particular country, we opened ourselves up to spreading AIDS information worldwide, and America in particular."
Earlier when we arrived at Pounder's home, she was smack-dab in the middle of a photo shoot. Between shots, her warm eyes, and wide, welcoming smile darted our way, and her tropical spirit shined through: friendly, earthy, genuine, and a take-your-shoes-off kind of gal. In fact, her essence exudes island fever, and she seems somewhat out of place in this metropolitan city. No wonder. She was born on Christmas Day in 1952, and was reared on a sugar plantation in Guyana. When she was a teen, her family moved to England, where she attended a convent boarding school. Her accent reflects a diverse combination of these cultural locales. Married to anthropologist Boubacar Kone for sixteen years, together they own the Boribana Museum in Senegal, which focuses on contemporary art from the African diaspora.
Early in her career, CC, which stands for Carol Christine (H stands for Hilaria), performed in stage productions on Broadway and off for seven years, until Bob Fosse cast her as a nurse in his 1979 film, All That Jazz. But it wasn't until 1987 that audiences began to take note of this talented actor in the mesmerizing, heartfelt film, Bagdad Cafe. Who could forget her captivating performance as Brenda, the overworked owner of a dilapidated cafe/gas station/motel located in the California desert? There are no car chases, special effects, nor violence--just good acting. (It won Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards, as well as in Norway and France; it garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Music, Original Song, "Calling You.")
Pounder's resume is a colorful tapestry of acting roles. After Bagdad Cafe, CC followed up with such films as Postcards From The Edge, Benny & Joon, RoboCop 3, and Face/Off. Her TV credits include L.A. Law, Justice League, an Emmy-nominated turn on ER, and currently, she is continuing her role as Detective Claudette Wyms in the fifth season on the trailblazing series, The Shield. Over the years she's received two other Emmy nominations, and recently she released her first CD, Smoke, which merges music and poetry.
Once the photo shoot is completed, CC jumps into some play clothes, and offers us homemade fruit compote. Delish! She then eases back into the satiny, silver-sheen sofa, in a living room filled with African art and artifacts. On the long, wooden coffee table that separates the matching sofas, there is a vase that holds long-stem blood-red roses. She received the flowers at an event last night for Maya Angelou [A&U, January 2001]. CC is garbed in a slightly oversized long-sleeved black dress shirt, fitted jeans, and sandals. Deep red lipstick and dangling amethyst-colored stone earrings complete her radiant face.
When you speak with CC, she is focused, upfront, and fully attentive. Modest about her humanitarian work, when complimented, CC responds with a "thank you" in a shy, soft voice.
"I went through the eighties and there were real disappearing acts," reminisces Pounder about the early stages of the disease. "I would ask for somebody and they would have literally disappeared. We didn't know what happened. It wasn't even called AIDS. It was 'cancer with pneumonia complications.' I was in New York at the time and people kept disappearing from the chorus line. AIDS was nicking away at our industry." She pauses briefly to adjust the collar around her shirt. "And then, when my mother entered her fifties, there was always a conversation about, 'You know, so and so is ill.' 'So and so passed.' And I was in my twenties saying the same thing!" balks Pounder aghast. "It was the mother and daughter discussing death news. It was very, very strange."
CC has lost many friends to the pandemic, but one death especially motivates her to carry the torch. "Fausto Bara was a chum-chum, a great friend, an exquisite actor and a gorgeous looking man," confides Pounder. "I was witness to his [AIDS-related] demise over a period of time." She briefly glances over at Richard Hoffman, her longtime publicist, who sits on the other end of the sofa, as if he too has his own memories of the epidemic. "Fausto was a gracious, generous man, and full of joy. His death hurt. But his death turned me into activity, as opposed to the 'slouch on the couch,' [whining], 'What are you going to do, you're losing all your friends?' I don't really need other people to encourage me to keep at it because Fausto's right there saying, 'CC, get up! Do one more speech.'"
Pounder mentions another friend, Pi Douglass, who nearly lost his life to AIDS but, in fact, is "healthy and living a productive life. This man is a triple threat," she declares. "He's an actor, a dancer, and a singer. We lived near each other here in Los Angeles, and I watched a very healthy young man come to…," she imitates a locomotive coming to a halt, "choo, choo, choo…choo…choo. But fortunately, we were able to catch it." She flashes those pearly whites again with a huge, satisfying grin.
Her grin slowly dissipates when we speak about keeping AIDS on the front page of the media. "I think, truly, that we have somehow projected AIDS to be a problem outside the United States," she insists. "The focus has become 'them' not 'us.' How do we bring this home? Hold on a second," she interrupts herself and calls to the other room. "Ian, I'm doing an interview, could you please lower your voice?" He answers, "All right." "Thank you!" she replies lightheartedly, and without a beat, picks up right where she left off. "We get bored so easily. We have the attention span of television: 'Can't you solve the problem in thirty minutes?' 'Isn't the good guy going to win, then the credits roll?' We've kind of ingested this sort of 'instant pudding' mentality. We get disgusted with wars that last too long and with diseases that are talked about too much. On the other hand, that can-do attitude of Americans is the same kind of detriment: 'Well, c'mon, let's all get together, build a barn and put on a show. Then it will be done.'
"When it's this massive disease, and it's affecting things in five thousand different ways, it requires great strength and power—and there is power in numbers. So we need to involve as many people as we can, like we do with ANSA. I call it my little engine that could," she boasts proudly. "It is a remarkable, tiny organization with a huge outreach. We use actors and artists with the biggest voices so they can use every opportunity to talk about AIDS."
As education is the number-one tool in fighting AIDS, CC believes that America's President could use a strong dose of it. "Right now for the Bushes, it's about morality. It hasn't affected them in their circle, probably," remarks CC, sitting on the edge of the couch. "If you're the President, the American people are your family, therefore, you've got family who are infected with AIDS. That is part of being the servant of the people, as opposed to the ruler who can't see anything at all." The phone rings several times and CC pays it no mind. Someone in the house evidently picks it up. "There's a great deal of protection around Mr. Bush. How do you get to a man you feel hasn't been fed the information? Or if he's been fed the information, it's not going through. Somehow you got to isolate him to get through to him. Use kamikaze measures to get to him, to let him see the effects of AIDS in a visceral way. Forget film or TV. That's why Mother Teresa walked from place to place so she could connect with the people eye-to-eye."
It seems CC's learned from the very best. Her advice to those of us who want to take action is to form our own local organization and/or help the orphans through ANSA. "Seven dollars gets them to school, and $250 provides education for the whole year. And hopefully, this kid will grow up, immigrate, and come back here and help us," she enthuses, in a serious, optimistic tone. "This effort is doable. America is still Top Dog, and seven bucks doesn't go far here, but, if we consider ourselves a village, then our outreach should be that long."
Just days after the interview, CC participated in yet another community event: paying tribute to Rosa Parks. Like Brenda's "magical" relationship with Jasmine in Bagdad Café, CC, a self-proclaimed "sponge," soaks up knowledge and then applies it to the advantage of others.
Oh, and by the way, directly after the interview, Ian and Kelly did strike up a friendly conversation. Could their encounter lead to marriage like CC remarked earlier? Once again, CC has lent a helping hand!
Where is you favorite place to disappear to, and recharge your batteries? Trinidad, a spit up the road from where I was born. It's warm and friendly. I'm truly, truly a Caribbean person and proud of it. I don't mind wearing stripes and flowers at the same time. I couldn't give a hoot, right?!
What is under your bed at this moment? Absolutely nothing. It's clean as a whistle, because Carmen [the housecleaner] was here today. Plus it's high up off the floor, so you can't use it for storage.
Out of the many people you have worked with, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you or inspired you the most? Bette Davis. She was my idol. The other person is Beah Richards [Guess Who's Coming To Dinner], one of the great African-American actresses. [In 1986, CC co-starred in the television movie, As Summer's Die with Richards playing her mother and Davis playing her aunt]. And to watch the two of them, it was a lesson and a half! [I ask, Were you intimidated?] No, I'm never intimidated. There's no time to be intimidated.
Whom would you like to work with that you haven't yet? Sidney Poiter. Every time I see him, we talk about it. If I get a chance to work with him it'd be great.
Name one of your bad habits. I would love to say it's a habit, but I have a feeling it's a disease. I have CRS--Can't Remember Shit. I have it Big Time, and it drives me crazy.
Do you have a favorite movie of all time? Bagdad Cafe. [She giggles.] Not because I'm in it, but because it's what people tell me what they did after they saw it. I never had that in any other movie I've seen. They don't come up and say, 'You were so fantastic in that film.' Strangers approach me, and say, 'After I saw that movie we had the courage to take all our savings and go do this, or, me and my partner did.' If you can get that out of a movie then you understand its power. Dr. Zhivago was one of my great cry's. And a current favorite movie? Crash is great.
She gives a reaction to some of her diverse projects
Bagdad Cafe: The greatest learning experience.
The Shield: Oh, boy [she takes a deep breathe]. It's a trendsetter.
All That Jazz: [a big smile] Roy Schneider was the kindest, kindest man ever. I had never done a film prior and I came with the arrogance of a woman who was from the Theater [she says in upper-crust tone]. God!
ER: It was the first time I participated in what I call a television hit. It was the fantastic spirit of watching an ensemble naturally separating and watching stars form. It was a great observation for me.
Benny and Joon: Who knew that Johnny Depp would become such "a thing?!" At that time he wanted to be a rock star. He had the band, and he looked like a rock star. He was already known in that world. He had a kindness and a softness that was really good for acting. I kept saying, [she whispers], I think he's going to be a good actor. And look how he turned out. Gosh.
Postcards from the Edge: Meryl Streep. I saw her in Trelawney of the Wells at Lincoln Center and I thought she was the most exquisite creature that lived. I watched that play with my mouth dropped open. No film has topped my "meeting with her" in Trelawney of the Wells. It made me burn to be an actress.
Cagney and Lacey: Ahh, that Tyne Daly. [She ponders.] Sharon Gless. That was just work; just a job.
She gives a one word reaction to these people who have touched her life .
Denzel Washington: ambitious
Morgan Freeman: sailor
Bob Fosse: kind
Sharon Gless: bubbles
John Travlota: laughter
Arnold Schwarzenegger: jolly
Fidel Castro: fox
Sidney Poitier: grace
Marianne Sagebrecht: a bomb
Jack Nicholson: aloof
Glenn Close: Hmmmmm….measured
Johnny Depp: young
Shirley MacLaine: professional
Name one word to describe CC: Introspective.
For more information about ANSA, log on to www.ansaafrica.org. Log on to CCH Pounder's Web site at www.cchpounder.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed Sylvia Browne for the December 2005 issue.