Vanessa. Bell. Calloway.
The veteran actress has captivated global audiences for more than 25 years. Her latest role showcases her brilliance as Josephine Howard, the troubled bipolar mother of R&B singing sensation Alicia Michelle ‘Miki’ Howard. Calloway thrives in a short, but convincing image of Josephine whose relationship with her daughter changes the course of the singer’s life. Sheen caught up with the actress to talk about her journey, women in the industry and upcoming projects.
How have you been?
I’ve been great. Thanks for asking.
How’s the family?
Oh girl, we are doing well. My youngest daughter just graduated from Spelman and so we’ve been celebrating that. So now I have two Spelman graduates.
You’re coming up on 30 years of marriage. Congratulations.
It will be 28 years December 3. We’ve been together almost 30 years so you’re in there (laughing).
Do you know Miki personally?
Yes. I’ve known Miki for years.
How did you come to hear about this role?
Well my manager became aware of the project first and luckily for me the team appreciated my work. When my name came up to play the mother, everyone was very accommodating. I was also shooting a series called Saints and Sinners in Atlanta at the same time so I was appreciative of everyone for not allowing me to miss this opportunity. It was perfect timing and everything just fell into place.
You portrayed Miki’s mentally ill and abusive mother. How were you able to pull this role off when you’re the exact opposite in real life?
Anytime you have to play a character with complex issues it creates depth for the character. So it’s not just a one-sided character. However since I know Miki and I respect her, and playing her mother who was bipolar, I wanted to be very sensitive to how her mother was portrayed. These were actual events that happened in her life. That was her mother and children love their parents unconditionally no matter how they are. Especially mental illness. That is not her fault. That was something that she had to deal with.
So it was very important to me that I traded it off. It was almost like I needed permission from Miki to be what I personally interpreted as bipolar, which you know, anyone who throws a 15-year old out on the street has some issues. I did not just want to make a character up. So I found out little things like what color fingernail polish and lipstick her mother wore. I wanted her to be as close to her as possible. So we talked and became more acquainted. You always have to tell the whole truth if you’re going to tell a story and I really applaud Miki for sharing her story and not trying to color-code it. So many will grow and learn from her tribulations. Miki loved her mother unconditionally and you see that in the movie.
Did you learn anything new or about yourself from performing this role?
No not really. I’ve been a mother for 25 years and I’m pretty proud of the mother I am. We all have our own styles and I try not to be judgmental of her. Although it was out of my character to do what her mother did, I understand that mental illness has those boundaries on people. So I did not get any new revelations. It’s the same way in a marriage and my marriage. The things my husband and I did worked for us. We have a great solid marriage. That’s what we do. Now it may not work for some people. There is more than one way to skin a cat, as my mother would say.
How effective are biopics and would you want to tell your life story?
Well I think any story has to be a good story to tell. It has to have ups and downs. I’m not so sure my life is interesting enough to make a biopic out of it. I’ve had tribulations like everyone else, but it’s not out of the ordinary or extraordinarily different. I’ve been blessed. I cannot complain and God has shown me favor. I’ve had a good life. God has blessed me with a great husband, a dynamic husband. If you would have told me 20 years ago that I would love him more today than the day I said ‘I do’…it is all a testimony. He’s a great father and we are equally yoked. I have two healthy daughters. They are smart, employed and beautiful. They’re educated and both graduated with honors. They have purpose in life. They are focused. I have no slackers in my house, so that is a blessing. They have it together for their ages. My parents are still alive and my husband’s parents are still alive. I’ve had my bout with breast cancer and even that came out for my good. I was shown favor with that and so I am abundantly blessed.
What are you currently working on at this time?
I have a movie coming out this August called Southside With You where I play the First Lady’s mother. Saints and Sinners is also coming back for the second season.
I’m putting my bid in now to speak with you later in the year when Southside With You comes out. I’d be interested in knowing if you were able to meet the President and his wife.
No, I was not able to meet them. From what I know, they do know about the movie and a script was given to the White House and there was a thumb’s up. I’m not sure if everything in the movie is exactly what happened, but people responded to it very well. Tika Sumpter is absolutely beautiful. I am so proud of her and I’m proud of the movie. She got the story years ago and she met with the director. She got 100 percent behind it and they brought it to fruition. I applaud both of them because they made it happen and that’s what we all have to do. So the role of the mother came up and my name came up and the director did a lot of research on me and called me. And it was so – so good. It was a modest budget film. I flew myself to Chicago on my miles and they put me up.
Sometimes it’s what’s important to you and I was not going to allow anyone else to play that part. I could tell that it was going to be a good project, and I wanted to be part of it. I also wanted to work with Tika. I’ve worked for less money and damn near no money. I’ve also worked on big projects and got paid and they were not that good or they were just okay. Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture. I told the director do not worry about me getting there. I will get there. I’m very happy I did that. The lesson that I’d share with the young actresses is that you have to be about the work. You have to be about the journey. Not everyone can afford to fly themselves out, but always look at the bigger picture, the role and what these relationships will do for you later on. It’s not always about the paycheck. This was a profile job. Getting the chance to work with Tika was great. She and I laughed so much. To finally get the opportunity was really worth it. I am very happy I did it.
Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story starring Teyonah Parris, Darius McCrary and LisaRaye McCoy debuts Sunday, June 12, 2016 on TV ONE at 7pm ET.