Written By: Ray Dademo
Kimberly Elise’s career as a supporting actress just may be finished.
With “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” Elise makes the perilous jump from featured performer to lead, a move that has proven treacherous for some (Wherefore art thou, Mira Sorvino?) and quite lucrative for others. For Kimberly Elise, however, the result is a decidedly favorable one. While the movie — which opened at the top of the box-office chart — has left a sour taste in the mouths of critics, its leading lady has been universally praised for her star turn as Helen McCarte, a divorcee regaining control of her life.
“A lot of things attracted me to this film,” Elise confided. “As an actor it was a great opportunity to take a character through a full journey versus how in so many of my films I’m supporting and sort of servicing another character in the film. Also as an actor to be forced to display and work through every emotion you can think of was great exercise.”
Elise’s role in the film would be considered a treat for any actress — at turns miserable, vengeful, hopeful, and proud. While running the gamut emotionally Elise’s biggest challenge was keeping her character in perspective with her female audience. “I think the character I play is very much a woman — a very realistic woman and represents many, many women in society who are in relationships that are bad for them, that haven’t found the courage or the strength to leave those relationships and discover their own self-worth. It’s always important to me to represent women who are real human beings and come out stronger than they came in.”
One of the greatest rewards of Kimberly Elise’s work on “Mad Black Woman” was the friendship she cultivated with the film’s screenwriter and co-star, Tyler Perry. Already a well-known playwright, Perry adapted “Mad Black Woman” for the screen and brought his most well-known character, Madea, into multiplexes along with him. “I didn’t know Tyler, I hadn’t seen any of his plays or anything so I didn’t know Madea at all. When I first read the script I wasn’t so sure — a guy dressed as a woman, didn’t Flip Wilson do that? When I got to sit down with him and got to meet Madea and see what she was about, I could barely keep a straight face. Everyone knows Madea and loves her and what she represents. Somehow I was in the dark. I see Tyler as a risk-taker and a visionary. I love to align myself with people like that who aren’t afraid to do the unexpected and to have it come out so effectively for audiences. He wrote a great part for me, so I’m glad to know Tyler now. ”
Playing the lead in a Tyler Perry-scripted film allowed Elise to stretch her long dormant comedic chops. “I loved the idea of serving as the straight man/woman to Tyler and setting up his jokes and participating in the whole comedic aspect of storytelling. I was looking for something lighter in a lot of ways that would allow me to tap into some of the other comedic things I’ve done in the past. And sort of give my spirit a little rest after all the drama.”
Elise refers to her experience on “Mad Black Woman” as a “new adventure every day.” The cherry on the cake was the chance it gave her to work with friend and acting-legend Cicely Tyson. “We’d wanted to work together for a long time and when this one came up I suggested her. I said ‘I don’t know if she’ll do it or not but she’ll make her own decision.’ And I talked to her and she decided ‘yes.’ She said ‘I’m not going to sit around forever waiting for an opportunity for us to work together and this is a wonderful opportunity. Let’s go have fun.’ It was truly a dream come true. If I have any dream in my acting career it’s to work with Cicely Tyson — and now I’ve got to. It feels so comfortable and so at home.”
Ultimately, whether the film succeeds or not has no bearing on Kimberly Elise’s experience. She feels “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” is worthwhile, not for critical response but for touching a chord with its audience.
“You sit in an audience with women watching this film and it’s a lot of women’s stories and finally seeing their story told — and seeing a happy ending — it gives some hope. Women love to cheer her on and love to take the journey with her and tears are just flowing by the end of the film.”