AMEN - getTV Interview with Anna Maria Horsford
Anna Maria Horsford has had an incredible career - one that few actors can match. Her directors have included Steven Spielberg and Mike Nichols. Her co-stars have ranged from Morgan Freeman and Tom Cruise to Cicely Tyson and Lucille Ball. She's appeared in nearly 50 films, starred in multiple hit TV series, and acted in the theatre. And she's not done yet.
For Horsford, it all almost seemed pre-ordained. While growing up in Harlem, New York, she knew from an early age that she wanted to be an actress. Her mother fueled her passion for Hollywood with frequent trips to the movies, and this led to her attending the New York High School of Performing Arts. Horsford is an actress who loves the process and is so good that she disappears into the characters she plays. That said, she stands out in every role. This includes the lead of Thelma Frye in the beloved 1980s TV series Amen.
We recently sat down with Horsford to discuss the origins of Amen, working with the great Sherman Hemsley, and how she played a character so believable that fans still believe she's married to Reverend Reuben Gregory.
getTV: I'm so thrilled we're doing this, Anna. I'm such a fan. I grew up loving Amen. But I think I first saw you and loved you in St. Elmo's Fire.
Anna Maria Horsford: Oh, really? Was that before Amen? I'm really bad when it comes to dates.
Yes. St. Elmo’s Fire was 1985 and Amen premiered in 1986.
You know, an attorney I know was speaking with another who said, “There's a woman [in St. Elmo’s Fire] that looks just like this woman on Amen.” And the attorney I know said, "No, that is the same [woman]."
That's the same woman.
And the first attorney said, "No, it's not." And she says, "Yes, it is. It's called acting." He would not believe it.
It’s to your credit that you are so believable as each of those characters, Anna. I mean, you're a prostitute in St. Elmo's Fire…
…and then you're the most innocent thing ever as Thelma in Amen. I have always called you a scene-stealer. When you’re on screen, you're who everyone is watching.
Thank you! I try to have a good time. I remember the audition for Amen. The head of NBC casting - and I didn't know this until maybe two years after - didn't want me.
Uh-huh. And I said, "Why?" Well, his argument was “she doesn't have sitcom experience." Then someone finally told him, "Nobody [who is an African American actor] has sitcom experience except Isabel Sanford." There's only one black TV show. So they didn't audition me. But Ed. Weinberger brought me to [see him].
Producer Ed. Weinberger (center) on the set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Weinberger was the Executive Producer of Amen along with other series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. So he didn’t do the audition at the network?
This was outside the network. Me and this other girl. We did the audition. And then I went back to New York. I didn't even think it was such a big deal. Later people said, "Well, didn't you think something was wrong when you didn't go to network?" I said, "I didn't know what going to network is."
Right. You were auditioning. That's it.
The stars were lined up. I was doing a film with Marlo Thomas [in Vancouver] when I got the notice of the audition. I was actually shooting at the mental institution up there. And [the casting people] said, "Can you prepare a comedy monologue?" I thought, I will never be able to find a comedy monologue in this mental institution! But I was determined to find something.
So I found something and made up the audition. You’ve got to be prepared. I did it. But we ended up talking instead.
You and Ed.
Me and Ed. For an hour and a half. He said, "So what did you think [of the concept for the show]?" I said, "If you do it right, black people will love you. If you do it wrong, they'll hang you in 48 hours. Because you're talking about something sacred." And he said, "What's that?" I said, "Jesus. Every black person is a member of a church. Whether they leave it, they had their foundation in it. So you have to do it right."
I also said, "Make sure that you hire intelligent actors." And he said, "Why is that?" I said, "To tell you when you're doing wrong."
And this was the first time you had met him, right?
Yes. But he was open. He asked the question. Because again, it's personal. I told him that I'm Episcopalian and he started telling me about how it works in the synagogue. Then you realize we're more similar than we are different. Human beings are human beings. So we talked and enjoyed each other.
Then I forgot about all [the audition], and a month after that I had this callback. I said, "Oh my god, they're still doing it." Because you don't hear.
No, you never know with new productions.
No, you never know. And so at that point I flew out [to Los Angeles]. It was me and this other girl. And I was looking for some of the people that I had seen [at the first audition] in New York. And [Weinberger] said, "No, they didn't come.” There was only one other girl. I said to myself, “You really are closer [to getting the role].”
Anna and Sherman Hemsley
And you were - you ended up winning the part of Thelma Frye. Suddenly you're starring opposite Sherman Hemsley who had become a huge star with The Jeffersons. That series had ended just a year earlier – in 1985. Had you met him before?
So what was it like when you met him?
He's very quiet.
Very, very quiet. A real actor's actor. [In our audition] he said, "You need me to do anything?" I said, "No." And then somebody handed me a box of tissues. I said, "What do I need that for?" I think the other person who auditioned before me had cried.
Were they implying that Sherman had made them cry?
No. It was a scene where he was saying, “Thelma, you'd been jilted by 10 men. There might be something wrong with you.” And I [as Thelma] responded, "What? No, there's nothing wrong with me. Something’s wrong with them." I just had a different interpretation of the character [than the other actress]. And [Sherman] didn't give any hints whether it was good or not good.
He's so kind. And it lasted all through our five years together. Whatever, wherever, I was willing to go, he would go there.
What a great acting partner.
He wasn't a friendly, friendly type. But he was liked, you know.
Like not really social, right?
No social skills. We never had lunch together.
He would always go to his dressing room. We would talk on the set.
Roz Ryan, Barbara Montgomery, and Anna
Very polite. Jokes and this and that. But that's who he was. And if you accept people for who they were, you'd be better for it. He would occasionally, and probably more than most people, would bring gifts. For me, you know. He loved Barbara Montgomery [who played Casietta Hetebrink], so he bought her a dog. And her fish tank. Hundred-gallon fish tank. He just adored her.
I got little gifts.
So you didn't get pets. [Laughing]
No. Right. Which I was very grateful for. [Laughs] But it was such a good relationship on screen. And script-wise, if something was off in that, I would always tell the writers. One time, we had this scene where [Thelma] talked about boyfriends and sex. And I said, "Oh, no, you can't do that. In front of your father." And the guy said, "Yeah, but [Thelma is] 35-years-old." I said, "Still. You can't do that."
And then there were certain times when the other characters would talk bad about [Deacon Frye]. I said, “[Thelma] can't be there. Either [Thelma] will have to fight them or you have to remove me from the scene.” And everyone would always ask why. I said, “Because that's my father. I can’t talk bad about him. I still have to defend him. I may curse him out when we get home, but I can’t stand by and let somebody say something not nice.” So [the writers] respected me in terms of building that character.
It was interesting, too, because it was a double-edged thing. With some women. One woman, an editor at Ms. [magazine], hated it. And...
With “it” being…?
The character of Thelma. Okay. Because Thelma whined or something?
I have no idea, but she hated it. And [my publicist] said, "Please - when she comes to New York, you must meet with her." And I did. We had a meeting. She said, "Well, how do you feel playing a loser?" And I said, "Oh, I never saw [Thelma] as a loser. Usually when one parent dies, one of the children takes over the role of the dead parent. They do things that the missing parent did.” Then she said something like she was sometimes like that with her father. "I said, “Oh, so are you the Thelma?"
Wow. Did you see the light go on in her eyes?
Yes. She wouldn't do the [negative] article after that.
Your chemistry with Sherman Hemsley is so good. It’s funny because he sounds like an introvert…
…but he played an extrovert.
Always. He was raised in the Pentecostal church. His grandmother was a minister.
Well, you put a script in his hand, he became that. From Jefferson to this and that. But take it away, he's that same little boy.
Anna and Clifton Davis
Fascinating. And then you were also so great with Clifton Davis [Thelma’s love interest Reuben Gregory].
I read that he had a crush on you. [Laughing]
I think he has the biggest crush now.
Than he ever had before.
When I talk to Clifton’s wife, she says, "Anna, when they see me, they always look at the door to see if you're coming behind." I said, "Don't say that, Monica." She says, "No, it's the truth. Sometimes they look at me like I broke you and him up.”
[Laughing] Oh my god. People really do take the show to heart.
The funniest thing, Clifton and I did a personal appearance in Pittsburg on Valentine's Day.
Oh god. Recently?
No, this was a few years ago. A guy brought us in, we spoke, and we started singing together. Obviously that was the most wonderful thing the audience had ever seen. And then going up to our rooms, there was a couple that got on the elevator with us. [Clifton and I] said, "Happy Valentine's Day." A young couple. And they said, "Happy Valentine's Day to you." And the guy says, "You two are still together." And we looked at each other and said, "Yeah." [Smiling]
What can you do?
I know. It was so beautiful. We said yes because love means something.
Well, you know, getTV did a social media post for Valentine's Day where we featured four TV couples and then asked our audience to vote for their favorite couple. We included you and Clifton, and people kept saying, "Oh, we love them."
Yes. But I tell you, Clifton is the same kind of actor as me who looks to go to the subtext. We enjoy the process of acting. Some actors don't like the craft. They don't enjoy it or they don't know it.
Or both. We had one [storyline on Amen] that I will never forget - when Reuben decided to not marry Thelma after he fainted at the wedding. I made the choice [for Thelma] to ignore him. He felt strange that I ignored him. And he told Ed., "She's ignoring me." I said, "You're dead to me. You can't humiliate me."
Oh my god.
In front of my family, my father sends us money, and the whole church is full, and you're saying you weren’t ready? So I did a whole scene where he was like a ghost. He got so upset. He said, "But you love me." I said, "Not anymore."
That is an incredible amount of interaction between you and Clifton as your characters.
So Ed. comes over. "Anna, can you make another choice? Clifton's upset that you're ignoring him."
And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "What's the choice?" I said, “I can look at him and say, ‘Kiss my black a**.’” He said, "Well, I don't think NBC’s…" What department is that?
Standards and practices?
“…will allow that.” So I said, "I don't have another choice." And Clifton was so upset. "They're gonna boo me." He knew the audience loved Thelma. And they wanted Thelma and Reuben together.
That’s when Richard Roundtree came on. A woman in the audience said, "Go for it, baby. Go for it." To Thelma. They wanted Thelma to be happy. They like Thelma. If it's not Clifton, they actually didn’t care who it was as long as she was happy.
They're on Thelma's side.
They're on Thelma's side. [This woman] just screamed from the audience, "You deserve to be happy!" [As an actor], you have no clue that they have that much invested in that character. You really don't know until you play it and you listen to people talk.
That you're Thelma as a person.
Yeah, as a person. One woman told me she was trying to buy every outfit I had on that show.
I learned then, don't comment on the clothes. Don't comment on anything, because the audience doesn't necessarily think the same way.
You have no clue of your influence in the roles you play. And then it’s even more - it's two, or three generations. They'll say, "My grandmother loved you." Or “My mother loved you.” Here’s just one story. This man on a plane got up and helped me when my seat was broken. He said, "I didn't want to bother you before, but I just want to say thank you. My father had diabetes. He was in so much pain…except Saturday night [when Amen was on].”
Oh my god. Oh my god. [Tearing up]
I said “Stop.” [Also tearing up] He said, "I used to sit in the hospital with him and watch how he changed. He had no pain while he was laughing with you on Saturday nights.” And I said, “Boy, thank you for that.” What else can you say? You just don't know the impact.
No, you don't know the impact. Would you say that Thelma is the person that you're identified with the most? Is that who most people come to you about? You've been in just about everything.
Thelma and Dee.
Dee was with the Wayans [The Wayans Bros. television series].
But Dee came in uniform. So I’ll be walking down the street now and hear "Where's your uniform? Where's your stick? Where's your stick?"
Oh my lord.
Anna as Dee on The Wayan Bros.
And Friday is the most popular movie that I've ever been in. I have gotten more upgrades on planes.
Because of that movie? Wow.
I think I've been fortunate to have reached three generations of people.
You have. And you’re still working!
Right now I am doing Tracy Morgan's show.
The Last O.G.
Well, get ready for four generations to love you.
Yeah. Starting with Amen, which some used to watch when they were five and six and loved it. Loved Thelma. Thelma may have been jilted nine times, but it wasn't her. It had to be the dreadful men who just wanted to have sex with her. But she knew she wasn't that kinda girl. Thelma was the oldest virgin in Philadelphia, you know.
Was that always the producers’ plan for Thelma or was that your plan?
That was my plan. I had to justify why nine or ten men did not want me. I knew it was because it was something defective in them. And the defect was, they wanted me to be those kinda slutty girls. I wasn't gonna leave my father's house.
Well, and the funny thing is, you already knew that at the audition.
Because you played it completely different than the girls who needed the Kleenex.
Yeah. Right. Yeah.
You were already like...this is her backstory.
Yeah. Well, I think any acting role you have, no matter how small or how limited it appears, has to be something. I heard Bradley Cooper say that in a talk. He said if you know your character, anything can be pushed in your face because you know the person.
You know how you're gonna react.
You know how, you know the foundation that you're on, so you're not gonna get rattled. And the viewers are smart enough to know – it rings real to them or it rings false. And as long as you're real, that's why I get a kind of reaction. People come up and they say, "I like your work." You know, they see you. "You’re just like you are on TV. I knew that. You’re just like it." So thank you. That's a compliment.
Well, there's truth in your performances. There are plenty of actors who are good enough to get in front of a camera and recite the lines, but - to your point - if the script was taken away, they wouldn't know how to respond. They have to have the words. Speaking of words, for an episode of Amen, how many pages of script did you have?
29 pages. Because it's 22 minutes. Plus commercials.
That’s a lot to memorize every week. And 110 episodes total.
Again, the process is the wonderful part. It's the things in the character you find when you repeat it and do it over. And the thing about playing in a series like Amen, every week I found out something different about Thelma.
There was an evolution.
It was an evolution. We had a big fight one time because...
For real or on the...
Well, on the set. With the writers. Because they wanted Thelma to say something about bimbos. And I said, "No, women are not bimbos." And the writers stopped. “Men are paying women thousands of dollars to look at something we were born with? Who are the bimbos?” So all the men got quiet. They went back upstairs.
That is incredible.
I couldn't say bimbo line. I said women are not bimbos.
They were sick of me, but they knew I wasn't lying. You know what I mean? I just know that they respected me enough to say, "We have to change it." Because I can only say what rings true to convince the audience. That was one thing we had a big discussion about.
Another thing is when Clifton got jealous on our honeymoon. I said, “Danger.” He said, "What are you talking about?" I said, “The next [thing that will happen] is he's gonna beat me. You can't get jealous of the doorman.” He said, "Well, it's love." I said, "No, that's not love."
Wow. What a statement.
I know too much. And I'm too sensitive about the human dynamic. I knew he couldn’t raise his hand to Thelma. A woman gets beaten every three minutes. And if you [try and do the moment with] humor, there's no real humor in Thelma getting hit. Because it's gonna ring something in a woman who might have gotten hit five years ago. You can't take that memory away.
We had a big discussion about that. [Weinberger] called me to the office afterward. I said, "He can't hit me. We can't even pretend like we're fighting. You have to remember, I am loved by my father. If a woman has that in her life, she can beat anybody's a**.” I knew there was one man who would do the world for me and that was Sherman - the character Deacon Frye would do anything for his daughter.
We had to take all of that into consideration when we are painting this picture of this family. And 20 years after, people not only laugh about the show, but watch it religiously. That’s what you celebrate, that you created a person that does stand up for something.
You were so good creating that character that that audience instinctively knew what Thelma would put up with and not put up with.
Yes, exactly, they knew.
Well, can we just give a huge shout out to Ed. Weinberger for having the kind of environment where you could come forward and say, "We need to have a discussion about this"?
Yeah, I have to take my hat off because this man respected my truth. You know what I mean? I didn't know whether you were supposed to do it or not do it. I just said, I might never get the opportunity to do it again in terms of a script. But I know, I understood, and I respect [the character of Thelma]. And he respected me. We had mutual respect.
You’re fortunate to have done several productions that made a lasting impact on our culture.
Sometimes a show gets bigger than we know. You know what I mean? Because it impacts people's lives. We play a big role in people's lives without knowing it.
You're living proof of that. Well, thank you Anna. It has been so wonderful speaking with you and hearing all these incredible stories about Amen. It makes me appreciate the show even more.
Happy to do it. I had a great time!