12 Years a Slave actor Alfre Woodard: 'World is not going to open up for you - find a way in'

After a 40-year career in television series like Desperate Housewives and films like 12 Years A Slave, Alfre Woodard talks about the barriers she has faced as a woman of colour in Hollywood.

Veteran actor receives career achievement award at Toronto Black Film Festival

12 Years A Slave, Annabelle actor Alfre Woodard received a lifetime achievement award at the Toronto Black Film Festival Saturday.

Alfre Woodard can't believe that after an eclectic 40-year career, she still has to answer this question.

After starring in popular series such as Hill Street Blues, The Practice and Desperate Housewives and films like 12 Years A Slave and Love & Basketball, the award-winning actor laughs to herself for a second when asked about the barriers she's faced as a woman of colour in Hollywood.

It's not the question itself - it's the fact that decades after she first started in the business, the question still needs to be asked.

Making the most of blocked roads

"I would be an entirely different person in terms of my career if there was access all along," she said. "I have made a really great situation out of blocked roads."

Woodard received an achievement award Saturday at the Toronto Black Film Festival. The 63-year-old has starred in dozens of films including Cross Creek, Annabelle and the 1997 HBO film Miss Evers' Boys, for which she won a Golden Globe Award.

Actor Alfre Woodard talks about the lack of access in her career and how she handled them 4:19

"I came to Hollywood thinking I would be a film actor but because the roads, they didn't even exist - not only were they not blocked, there were no roads - so it caused me to look, 'OK where else?'"

She says she learned to "follow the material," which took her career into television first. Looking back, Woodard says the reality of our time is that diverse actors paved the road for her, as she will do for future ones. She says the "inaccessibility" she experienced also happened to land her a varied career.

"But let's not fool ourselves," she said. "If you are a person of colour, if you are a woman, if you are an LGBT person, if you are a Caucasian person without money and access and connection, the world is not going to open up for you," she said. "You find a way in. You let nothing stand between you and the ability for you to deliver the gift.

"If I was sitting around waiting for Oscars all this time, I wouldn't have accomplished anything," said the Academy Award-nominated actor.

About the Author

Zulekha Nathoo

Reporter, L.A.

Zulekha Nathoo is based in Los Angeles and has sat down with some of Hollywood's biggest names, including Denzel Washington, Cameron Diaz, Robert Downey Jr. and Matthew McConaughey. She's spent more than a decade as a CBC News on-air reporter, working across Canada.