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This week, Woody Allen unveiled the cast of his next untitled movie: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Bruce Willis and Blake Lively will head up the ensemble, which is striking, though unsurprising, in its starriness — and also in its lack of diversity. The writer-director last year told The New York Observer: “I cast only what’s right for the part. Race, friendship means nothing to me except who is right for the part.”
To this day, Hazelle Goodman is the sole black actress to land a significant role in an Allen film, playing the quirky prostitute Cookie in 1997’s Deconstructing Harry. (The other key black character in Allen’s filmography was played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in Melinda and Melinda.) Despite the controversy, the 56-year-old Goodman, who lives in Queens, doesn’t understand the fuss. “If Woody sees the world that way, that’s Woody’s world. I don’t trip about that,” she says.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Goodman, who still occasionally acts (she appeared in 2011’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) but has largely traded in her headshot for a pulpit, working in the ministry at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. She spoke about how she landed the role of Cookie, her experience working with the auteur and why Allen should be allowed to create his own vision.
How did you get the part of Cookie?
I auditioned. I didn’t get any [scenes] beforehand. Sometimes you get the script beforehand. But I didn’t. I went in to the audition in my tracksuit because I run, I work out, and I had no clue how to dress for the character or what he had in mind. What was interesting was there was actually a line where she was talking about health and fitness and working out.
How did you feel once you found out you got the role?
Describe your experience working with Woody Allen?
I had a great experience, quite frankly. He was very kind to me. I have a lovely hand-written note he wrote to me that I saved. He was very supportive [on set]. One of the things he did that I thought was wonderful was after the shot, he would come the next day and say, “I saw the dailies, and you’re doing great.” He was a really good guy to me. It was always a positive experience, and I will always remember that about him.
What do you think of the controversy surrounding the whiteness of his casts and the idea that he only really portrays white people?
Here’s my take on that: Any filmmaker has the right to create his vision. That’s his vision. That’s how he sees the world. And he has a right to that, just like if Spike Lee does a film, he puts a lot of black folk in it. Everyone is creating from their vision. If Woody sees the world that way, that’s Woody’s world. I don’t trip about that.
That said, he always sets his movies in very diverse cities — New York City, London, San Francisco, Paris. So, watching his movies you can’t help but say: Where are the black people? Where are the Asian people?
(Laughs.) The world is multicultural. But again, everybody has their vision. I just have that attitude about life. Whatever you want to see, you go create it. If that’s his reality, then that’s his reality.
Woody has said that he will only cast a black actor if the role calls for it. What do you think of that?
It’s not for me to judge it. If I’m not happy, it’s for me to create the stories I want to tell. These are his stories.
Did your role in Deconstructing Harry have an impact on your career?
There were some opportunities that came as a result of it. It opened some doors.
Are you and Woody still in touch?
No, not at all.
Do you see his movies?
I actually have not seen his movies in quite a while. My mother, who was a minister, passed, and my focus has shifted. I’m preparing to go to seminary. I minister to women in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility [Orange Is the New Black shoots in the same town]. It’s something I got introduced to when I went up there to do PBS special What I Want My Words to Do to You with Eve Ensler. I was never able to leave [those women]. I also have a YouTube channel for my online ministry for the past four or five years. I do empowerment Christian teaching. My vision is to become the female Billy Graham. That’s what I’m up to. Impacting the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Would you work with Woody again?
Do you have any thoughts on diversity in Hollywood today in general? Do you see progress since when you first started? Stagnation?
There seems to be progress. But it’s an ongoing saga that we see in Hollywood, on billboards, on covers of magazines. It’s a white world that we’re looking at many times. What’s always the challenge for actors of color is to stand out. Finding your voice and letting that voice be heard. And that’s the level I really connected with Woody. I had an HBO special at the time and had been writing and performing my own work. I never really bothered myself about what Hollywood was doing. I don’t really have that spirit that just waits on people to pick me. And that’s what’s most important is finding your voice and getting heard rather than getting in the conversation of: “Oh, they’re not casting us.” I hate that conversation. It’s such a victim conversation. Who cares? Go write, create, speak out.
Though you’re not acting much any more, you would make a perfect character on Orange Is the New Black. Would you be game?
(Laughs.) Yes. I see so much when I’m sitting in those visiting rooms. Every table is a story. I have so many stories.
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