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Alfre Woodard says 'Mississippi Grind' was sure bet

Oscar-nominated actress appears in small but memorable role in

By Tim Lammers, DirectConversations.com

Alfre Woodard's presence has dominated films and television for more than three and a half decades now -- all the way from her Oscar-nominated role in the 1984 biographical drama "Cross Creek" to 1992's acclaimed drama "Passion Fish" to the 1996 crime thriller "Primal Fear" -- and more recently on TV with starring turns in such hit series as "Desperate Housewives," "True Blood" and "State of Affairs."

Woodard has also proven, though, that a little of her can go a long way, including small but memorable  roles in the Oscar-winning biographical drama "12 Years a Slave" and in the new gambling addiction drama "Mississippi Grind."

"I tell people that I'm in the film, but once you see me, don't look for me -- if you keep looking for me you'll miss the whole movie," Woodard said, laughing, in a recent phone conversation from New York.

In "Mississippi Grind," which is expanding to more theaters nationwide Friday, Ben Mendelsohn plays Gerry, an addicted gambler who experiences a reversal of fortune when he hits the road on a poker run with Curtis, a successful, charismatic card player who appears to be his good luck charm. Woodard plays Sam, a bookmaker who ominously tells Gerry that the load of money he owes her is due in a matter of days with no hopes of extending the deadline.

While Woodard is only featured in one scene in the film, the 62-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma, native said her attraction to the project wasn't so much about the size of  her role as it was who she was acting with.

"The reason to go to work for one scene depends on who that scene is with, and this time it was Ben," Woodard explained. "It was just the two of us and the scene was well-written. Ben was really the draw. It's also why I did the one scene in '12 Years a Slave.' I wanted to have the chance to work with Steve McQueen, even if it was only for half a day. That's how I choose the work. It's really about who I get to create with. If we deserve a chance to be in the same space, I don't want to pass it up."

Woodward couldn't say enough great things about Mendelsohn -- a veteran Australian-born actor who in has been featured in such films as the 2012 Christopher Nolan blockbuster "The Dark Knight Rises" and the riveting 2010 Aussie crime thriller "Animal Kingdom" -- and who was nominated this year for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his role in the Netflix dramatic thriller "Bloodline."

"I don't think he gets the attention he deserves at all. You can't get a better actor than Ben Mendelsohn. I put him in the same category as Michael Fassbender," Woodard said of the "12 Years a Slave" Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee. "Fassbender gets the attention, but it's almost as if the people who comment about him, still don't get the complexity he brings to a role. He's so believable at what he is that the average eye, or even the critical eye, don't contemplate until afterwards that it was an actor doing the role. I also feel that way about Ben in everything he does. In 'Mississippi Grind,' he creates and fleshes out a character that is so flawed, but the humanity that he gives this person is beautiful at the same time."

Woodard said she was thrilled with the way Mendelsohn made you care for Gerry -- a gambling addict who just can't get out of his own way.

"He really makes you realize that no matter who it is and what kind of dire straits they're in, or what kind of bad deeds they may be up to, there's a human being there," Woodard said. "It had to be Ben playing the role or we wouldn't have gotten anything like that at all."

Like Mendelsohn, Woodard will soon be joining the Netflix ranks in the role of Harlem politician Mariah Dillard in the Marvel series "Luke Cage." The 13-episode series is set to start streaming next year.

Tim Lammers is a nationally syndicated movie reporter and author of "Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton" (Foreword by Tim Burton).