Kimberly Elise talks about her role in Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Imagine being cheated on, made a public laughing stock, and then kicked out of your own home. All this in full view of your husband's smirking mistress. Oh, and then, after a 20 year marriage, not getting a dime in the divorce settlement. Such is the plight of Helen, Kimberly Elise's character in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. You'd be a mad black woman, too.

But on a winter morning in New York's Regency hotel, Kimberly doesn't show even the slightest hint of rage. Wearing a crisp dark business suit—something serious but sexy, the kind of thing that the female lawyers wear on David E. Kelley shows—Kimberly chats about "Diary," working with Tyler Perry, and why she, personally, would be able to forgive a cheating bastard like Helen's husband.

So what was it about "Diary" that grabbed you?

Kimberly Elise: As an actor, it was a great opportunity to take a character all the way, to go through a complete transition and have a complete arc, versus supporting and servicing other people's storyline. So that was fun. And I was looking for something lighter. Y'know, give the spirit a little rest. What better than to play opposite a man dressed as a woman to lighten things up? Tyler, he's such a comedic genius. I thought, wow, this would be great to work opposite him.

Tyler Perry is known for his improvisational antics. Was he just throwing random stuff at you? What was that like?

Kimberly Elise: [Laughs.] Well, yeah. He stuck to the text quite a bit. But as he got going, he'd ask for one take where he could be free, he could just be free. He would just go and then this brilliance – there would just be this brilliance coming out of him.

What's an example?

Kimberly Elise: When I first got the script, it was kind of scary. I was like, A guy dressed as a woman? That's not funny. I don't get it. It wasn't until I sat down with Tyler, basically, and we all sat around and read the script. I couldn't make it through the script without absolutely dying. Tyler's so different than Madea. He's like, [talks in a low quiet voice], "I'm so happy you're here. It's so nice to meet you. I really respect your work." And blah, blah, blah. I was like, okay. And then [high-pitched whine] when he gets into character. It was just startling. And he played three characters at one time, and I couldn't make it through the script. I was laughing so hard, and I was like, Okay, you got me. I'm in, I'm in. It's been pretty amazing.

Who are your role models?

Kimberly Elise: Well, Cicely Tyson of course. She continues to be my North Star and my gauge when I get a script. I ask if Sis would do this, and she'll tell me in my head and that helps me know. Of course, my parents and … but I didn't have any acting role models. There weren't any performers in my family and I really had to find my own way in that.

What made you decide to pursue this career?

Kimberly Elise: It wasn't a decision. It was just the way I was. It was just how I came, and I never went to a play and was so struck that I said, "That's what I have to do." I just came this way. It was more a matter of figuring out how to get there, how to make it work. Because like I said, I didn't have any role models, really, to sort of guide me. I just figured it out, just the process. Get an agent, get head shots, do auditions. I mean, I knew nothing. I had to figure all that stuff out.

Your character in "Diary" is awfully forgiving. Would you be able to forgive him in real life?

Kimberly Elise: For me, I would actually. The thing is, you forgive but you don't forget. Y'know, that whole experience was a lesson in life. First, she got out of it and didn't lose her entire life to it. She could forgive him, because you have to. For me, I understand that. I'm mature enough to know that if I live with this hate and anger, it's just going to swallow me up and they're going to be just fine.

Who will win the Best Actor Oscar?

Kimberly Elise: I haven't seen everything, first of all, but I loved Jamie and I loved Don. Either one! They're gifted. I'm happy. I think they're both deserving. Jamie had a great year. He did great work. Don has done a trillion great roles. He's had a trillion great years. Whoever wins, wins. But I'd love to see one of them get it.

You worked with Jamie in "Bait." What type of progression have you seen in him?

Kimberly Elise: I always thought that Jamie was incredibly talented. Even when we were doing Bait, he's a master of impressions. He could impersonate anybody in this room within five minutes. So it didn't surprise me at all. That's what he does. That's his gift. I was happy that they found a project that suited him, that matched his gift, so he could showcase it and show everybody what he could do, and then take that imitation and then really give it a soul, so it's not just puppetry. I've always had faith, and when I heard he was doing it, I was like, "Oh, that's going to be great. He's going to be able to knock that out." He's a trained pianist. He's been playing all his life. He's a trained singer. It was just designed … it was his time, it was his piece. I wasn't surprised at all.

What's next for you?

Kimberly Elise: I'm looking for the right thing. It's always a big long process for me. When I find it, I'll let you know.

What's a dream role for you?

Kimberly Elise: Nothing specific. I really don't think that way. It's more about, with each one, I want it to be different in some way, a step up in some way, a challenge in some way, so hopefully … this was something completely different than "Woman Thou Art Loosed," so that was a great part for me. It was next dream part. I wanted something lighter, something completely different, something fun and romantic but also it had a dramatic tinge to it and all of that – and I got it! So next time, I'll want something different from this. Something probably more complicated and more intricate and more whatever it is – something that's going to require me to operate on a different frequency.

Any chance we'll see you kicking butt in an action movie?

Kimberly Elise: Sure. If it's a good story and a good arc and it has something to say. If I was going to do action, I would like to do something like the "Bourne Identity," There's intelligence, suspense, there's a great plot, it's well-written. That kind of thing would be interesting to me.

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