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The third season of Treme reintroduces LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) at her bar, Gigi’s, smiling as afternoon light streams in through the dirty windows.
It’s a familiar sight for anyone who caught the inaugural run of David Simon and Eric Overmyer‘s ode to post-Katrina New Orleans — but entirely foreign to anyone who watched in 2011, when the character was beaten and gang-raped in that same room. LaDonna spent the subsequent episodes a shell of her former self and neutered of the spark and levity she added to a series that so often dwells on the bleak.
“There’s nothing worse than having a very strong female character and then suddenly having it go away,” Alexander tells The Hollywood Reporter, echoing some of the skepticism that left critics divided on the arc. “David Simon first described her as a woman who crawled her way to the middle class, so to see her go from that to being a victim, it was not something I originally wanted to play.”
LaDonna’s old self is more or less intact in this new batch of episodes, allowing for a welcome dose of comedic tension with an elitist sister-in-law (Valarie Pettiford). It’s a funny reunion for Alexander, who first met her onscreen nemesis dancing for Bob Fosse in the late 1970s.
Alexander, likely best known to audiences for roles in mainstream hits like NewsRadio and CSI: Miami, recently spoke with THR about her Broadway roots, her take on Treme‘s new season and approaching the end of the series.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve spent so much time in New Orleans. What do the locals think of the series?
Khandi Alexander: This is what I love about people from New Orleans. They’re very honest at all times, and they either really love the show or they don’t. And they don’t have a problem letting you know. The people who love the show, want you to know the love the show. And the people who don’t, they really want you to know. They’re very honest, and I appreciate that.
THR: The people who don’t like the show, what are their issues?
Alexander: It’s so rude. I don’t think you can print any of it. [Laughter]
THR: And the people who love the show?
Alexander: Season two of Treme, my character was gang-raped and beaten. And the people who love the show, they take me by the arm, take me into their restaurants and their stores. They feed me and hug me and cry.
THR: The rape arc was brutal, even by David Simon standards. What did you think of that turn for LaDonna?
Alexander: I’ve never played the aftermath in such an honest way, even though I have certainly played a rape victim in my career before. I never played the aftermath… the actual going to the doctor and everything that really happens. That was quite interesting for me as an actress, but what was harder for me was to see it happen to a character that I loved. I’d never seen such a strong woman with her own business and a successful marriage. David Simon first described her as a woman who crawled her way to the middle class, so to see her go from that to being a victim, it was not something I originally wanted to play.
THR: And now that it’s mostly behind the character, how do you feel about it?
Alexander: I feel gratified that she’s regaining a part of herself. There’s nothing worse than having a very strong female character and then suddenly having it go away. There’s nothing worse for an actress, because there’s nowhere to go. It was nice to find her way back to some semblance of strength. I had the good fortune of speaking to some women who went through that experience in the aftermath of Katrina when there were no police or even hospitals set up. They were raped and left to deal with that. For them to be honest and let you know their experience and to play that out and to understand how you get to the other side of that. I’m just grateful for that opportunity.
THR: There’s definitely a return to that humor Ladonna used to bring. You have some hilarious exchanges with the woman who plays the sister-in-law she’s staying with.
Alexander: Oh, I love her! I forgot about that! Let me tell you about Valerie Pettifroe, who plays that role. She was a dancer, as I was, with Mr. Bob Fosse many years ago. We’re both from New York, we both used to dance, and it was just a joy that they cast her. The actor who plays her husband, Vernel Bagneris, he is a dancer as well. So we just had a great a time. Vernel choreographed the movie Ray.
THR: You and Lance Nichols (Larry) seem to exist in your own bubble. What are your run-ins like with the rest of the cast?
Alexander: One of my biggest disappointments with that show is that I never work most of them. I didn’t meet John Goodman until they killed him off. I mean, you’re kidding me. I’m such a big John Goodman fan. What do you mean you’re not coming back? I have my own little world. I never see people. Occasionally I’ll see some of them in the makeup room. It’s a long-standing joke that Wendell Pierce will walk around and go, “Hello, how are you? My name is Wendell.” There are people I’ve never met. They tell me they’re on the show, and I’m like, “Oh, that’s nice.”
THR: Who do you hang out with?
Alexander: I’m really good friends with Steve Zahn. We hang out together… a good deal in New Orleans. And I love Kim Dickens, but I never work with them.
THR: Have you ever even had a scene with Steve?
Alexander: That you’ve got to save for the audience. But I’ve never worked with Kim, and I love Kim.
THR: You first worked with David Simon on The Corner. Did you ever talk about playing any part in The Wire?
Alexander: We hadn’t even wrapped The Corner when David offered me The Wire. I was playing a woman who was so addicted. We were filming on location, and I was surrounded by the real thing. Fran [the woman Alexander’s character was based on] herself was there on set with me every day. It was so hard I can’t even describe the place where I had to go emotionally. When he was talking about staying, I thought oh no… oh hell no. It was one of those things where I was so deep in character, and he had no idea because it was our first time working together. He still rags me about that.
THR: You’ve done a lot of drama for a long time now. Do you want to go back to comedy?
Alexander: Yes, deeply. It’s that Hollywood backhanded compliment. Once you do something, whatever you do, that’s what they keep wanting you to do. And as much as you love it, you have to keep reminding them, “Wait a minute, you guys, I worked with Phil Hartman … I worked with Chris Rock and Ben Stiller.” I have deep comedic roots, and I want to be funny. In the case of NewsRadio, I loved that show. I loved the actors and the producers, but I was longing very much for something more to sink my teeth into me. I think it was an incredibly smart show, but I found myself on the peripheral of a lot of it. I took a big chance by asking to leave. From there, I went back to theater and did Thelma Kelly in Chicago. I wanted the opportunity to end my dancing while I still had the strength the energy and the desire to kick out eight shows a week in a leading role.
THR: There has been a lot of talk of ending Treme after four seasons. Where do you want to see the show go?
Alexander: David has made it clear that he wants a conclusion, and it is my understanding that, as of today, we’re very close to being able to have a conclusion — and I’m looking forward to that. I think, often times, it’s the audience that suffers when a show isn’t given the opportunity to have a beginning, middle and end. I’m thrilled to be a part of a show where the creators are prepared, and I’m very excited to be a part of a show that clearly has a beginning, middle and end.
Treme returns to HBO on Sunday, at 10:00 p.m. ET.
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