One Shattering Scene: Alfre Woodard in ‘Clemency’

The star of the prison drama walks us through her thought process for a sequence involving her warden character and an execution.

Alfre Woodard’s prison warden is the entire focus of the moment even as an inmate is living out his final minutes.
Alfre Woodard’s prison warden is the entire focus of the moment even as an inmate is living out his final minutes.Credit...Neon

This article contains spoilers for “Clemency.”

For Alfre Woodard, who stars as the death-row prison warden Bernadine Williams in “Clemency,” a crucial gut-wrenching scene might have been the selling point for an actress who relishes losing herself in difficult roles.

But it didn’t exist in the writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s original script, Woodard said of the sequence, in which Bernadine quietly, devastatingly crumples under the weight of ending another person’s life.

The film originally called for Bernadine to have a reckoning in her home. “But in my gut, I felt we needed to do something else,” Woodard said.

So Chukwu moved her camera into the execution chamber, focusing on Bernadine’s face for three unflinching minutes as she oversees a lethal injection. I asked Woodard to explain her thought process behind the sequence. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Before shooting “I had the privilege of spending time with four women wardens and a couple of condemned men on death row in Ohio. I’ve been to dire situations around the world — a refugee camp in northern Kenya — and the farthest outside my life I’ve ever gone was to a prison tour, seeing that.”

“The execution scenes were difficult, very difficult. We had a man, Allen Ault, who has overseen many executions because he had been a warden. He since became a very staunch campaigner to end the death penalty. So he choreographed our executions. When we started to set up and rehearse going through the motions, two of our guys were triggered. They said, ‘I can’t stay in here.’”

The producer Bronwyn Cornelius “made sure that there was a therapist on set. They made it very safe for everybody. You’d almost call it a strangely sacred place to be in that chamber. Lives were in the balance — you realized that. The weight of it keeps you grounded and moving forward.”

“We shot in the old Sybil Brand Institute, which was a women’s prison [in Monterey Park, outside Los Angeles]. It’s been abandoned for at least 20 years. When you’re in there, oh man, you could still smell the anxiety and the desperation. It was confinement in a real tangible sense. It was easy to stay on point.”

“That was one take. I was prepared to do more, but [Chinonye] just said, ‘I got it.’ I was prepared because I’m Bernadine. I’m living her life. When I step on set and they say, ‘Rolling,’ it doesn’t matter what they’re looking at. I am in character.”

The co-stars “Richard Schiff, Michael O’Neill and of course Aldis Hodge, who does really heroic work [as the death-row inmate] — we’re not personality characters or celebrity actors. When Chinonye said, ‘I’m interested in the life; we’re not going to cut around,’ and we let the camera roll — well, that would scare some people away. But these were people who were unafraid because we understand that life happens between the lines. We knew we were going to work on a different level, and everybody delivered. It was spiritually satisfying.”

As Bernadine oversees the execution of an inmate who insists he is innocent, tears begin to stream down her nearly expressionless face.

“Just those circumstances are enough. It makes you weep as a person if you have any empathy and compassion. I had to control myself not to sob, because that is who I am: I cry other people’s tears. I experience other people’s joy. That’s the calling. But knowing that Bernadine could not do that, as the actress you just keep breathing. It’s like sustaining a note. You keep breathing because Bernadine doesn’t get to not be Bernadine in a moment.”

“I could feel that my nose was starting to run and Alfre would probably go [sniffs]. But the point is, that was the end of the line for her. Her life as she knew it stopped when [Hodge’s character] stopped. She was paralyzed. That also meant I’m gone. I’ve crossed over because even when people are mad and crying, they’re wiping their mouth. She had to experience the bottom.”

“You don’t use your own life — because it’s a dishonor to your life to use your personal emotions. And they don’t carry the same way. I want to be able to smell my character. I want to know, as I’m doing it, how that person stays in their skin.”

“I left the stage. I had to get out. And I went to my trailer and sobbed — because I can sob. That’s the thing: This protocol, it asks of us as actors what we absolutely don’t trade in as human beings. And so you have to purge [your character], purge it, purge it, purge it. Then you take your clothes off, wash your face and go home, and you’re yourself. I’m so grateful I always have had strong and deep love around me, and joy. I think that’s why I’m able to regenerate. I heal quickly.”

“It was easier to shoot the film than the next month after that, where I was in my charmed life of support and love. I would just burst into tears at the farmers’ market. I would weep for about two minutes. Nothing was sad on my mind when I realized I’m weeping for the men we talked to.”