Cassandra Freeman Talks ‘Kinyarwanda,’ Creative Freedom and Working with Denzel Washington
By Christion Peterman
Cassandra Freeman is back on Hollywood’s radar with her latest project sweeping up awards at film festivals everywhere. While Freeman’s performance in Alrick Brown’s Kinyarwanda screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year, the Fordham University professor balanced a teaching career, charity work, and a beauty blog at the same time.
She’s been seen as Denzel Washington’s wife in Spike Lee’s Inside Man, and as the funny best friend in Chris Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife, but this holiday season, the Florida-born Freeman has another movie hitting theaters, an epic war film that explores the actress’ tougher side.
Kinyarwanda casts her as the tough as nails, real-life heroine Rose Kabuye, a female lieutenant credited with helping to end the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Blackactors.net spoke with Freeman about her experience filming in Africa, working with famous directors (and actors),messing up her lines, and the incredible physical transformation she made for the film.
You’re the only American actor in Alrick Brown’s new film Kinyarwanda. How did you initially get involved in this project?
Technically. But Kena [Anae], who plays Srgt. Fred was raised in American and spent so many years here. So, he’s also American. I’ve always known Alrick. I’ve known him for the past six years. We both went to NYU. He was there for directing and I was there for acting. I had moved from LA back to New York, and he had an amazing script. I read it and I thought it would be great to be apart of it. But I’m horrible with accents. So basically, he took my name back to the Rwandan producer Ishmael [Ntihabose], and everyone knew me there from my work in “Inside Man.”
You play Lt. Rose in the film. Tell me about your role in the film and a little about your character’s background
My character is loosely based on a real woman named Rose Kabuye in Rwanda. It’s loosely based on her, but her life’s story is a little different. She’s soft of a Martin Luther King figure in Rwanda. She actually helped end the genocide, and she actually was a lieutenant.
Did you actually shoot your scenes in Rwanda?
Yes! The entire movie was shot in Rwanda.
What was that experience like?
It was overwhelmingly beautiful and such a blessing. I’ve always wanted to do a movie in Africa. While we were there, we shot during the rainy season. We also shot towards the grasshopper season, which sounds like a joke but there were millions of grasshoppers everywhere. But at the same time, shooting there was amazing because we were shooting on the soil of the genocide. It was overwhelming emotionally and all of those contradictory feelings were being absorbed left and right. Most of the cast and people behind the camera were all Rwandan.
How did you prepare for the role?
I had about a month to prepare for the role. And there was a lot of information online about Rose. Most of it was very contradicting. But after I gathered all of that information, I wanted to develop a character that was real. I had to locate where she was in my own psyche and body. I had to find music to really capture her. And for some reason, I wanted a rap song to inspire me. So, I picked Jay Z and Rihanna’s ‘Run This Town.’ This song really inspired me because in the movie, Rose knows the war isn’t over yet, and she’s constantly on the move to the next battle. I loved the rhythm of that song and I think it fit perfectly. I actually got to meet her [Rose Kabuye] while I was shooting the movie. This woman was fabulous! She had on jeans, a nice top and a blazer. Her hair was flowing like Condoleeza Rice. And all of my hair was shaved off at this point. I looked straight up Rwandan! She didn’t even recognize me. So while we were sitting there talking, she told me about her life and her phone rang– her ringtone was that song! She told me it was her favorite song.
I noticed you look a little different in the film from your normal looking-self. Did you undergo a transformation for the film? What was done?
I shaved off my hair. I shaved it off until there was about a half inch of afro and I let that grown in. I actually lived with a real Rwandan family, so I underwent a cultural transformation as well. I had a mom, dad, sister, and brother. So I really had the chance to absorb the culture of Rwanda.
Oh! So you actually lived with a local Rwandan family?
Yes! I sure did. I didn’t stay in a hotel. I lived with a family. They took care of me and taught me some of the local language, which is called Kinyarwanda. They taught me some more words and I learned more about the culture. Between that and meeting with Rwandans; hearing their stories of survival (or their stories of being in the war or the military) transformed me.
Were you at all intimidated by Kinyarwanda‘s heavy subject matter?
I wasn’t initially intimidated by the subject matter. Being here in America I though it was just another role. But after getting there and shooting my first scene in the rehabilitation camp, it was the first time in my life that I kept messing up my lines. I couldn’t remember my lines because I was overwhelmed with the emotion of all these men looking at me and viewing me as if I’m the actual woman. I thought to myself perhaps they think I’m being disrespectful or maybe my accent was horrible. But you know, it all worked out in the end. It took about five takes, and a lot of the men on set came up to me and told me that I was so much like her [Rose Kubyne.] I feel like them blessing me with those words gave me the freedom to be fully self-expressed for the rest of the movie. But that very first day, I was overwhelmed with the responsibility. And to know that they [Rwandans] would watch this movie and that this would be one of their stories was very intimidating and heavy.
I read somewhere that the film was shot in only 16 days.
Yes, you’re right. We shot it in just 16 days.
Alrick Brown. New Director. Both of you fresh out of NYU. What was it like working with him and what kind of director is he?
This movie is a very different movie. So, I almost felt like I didn’t get a chance to work with him in a way other people probably get a chance to work with him. He had so much on his plate. I actually helped direct people off-camera because there was not enough time in the day for him to get what he needed from everybody. You know, sixteen days is like go! go! go! He really gave me a lot of space and freedom to create, which was a blessing. I’m sure one of the reasons I’m apart of this film is that he needed to know that he had some people there who was just on his side, and who he could trust to do it. So off-camera, I would go work with other people. So to work with Alrick is the most freedom I’ve ever had. I remember the first day on set and I remember thinking ‘Well, whatever I do is because I’ve come up with it. Not because we’ve had a lot of discourse.’ With that being said, for him to give me that much trust was very empowering. He actually pulled me to the side [after flubbing lines] and told me I had to grab hold of the feeling that I trust you and that these people trust you as well. So that was my experience with him. It was a game of trust.
You’ve also worked with some other renowned directors. What was it like working with Spike Lee?
Spike Lee is amazing! Spike Lee is like a great uncle or something. He is a great teacher and he really gets how all of the elements support the actor and their performance. Him and Denzel [Washington] are both great teachers. It was like I had two directors on set whispering in my ear, giving me either acknowledgment or direction in how to play something. It was a blessing working with both of them. I can’t wait to do it again. And working with Chris Rock is the same thing. Chris Rock is so funny, and he really empowered me to want to be even funnier and not hold back. So much so I became a stand-up comedian for a while in Los Angeles. To be able to be that funny with him and for him to laugh was awesome. I feel like my career has been a lot about being in situation with people who’ve really allowed me to create my own voice instead of pushing to do some voice that they’ve already thought of. Most of the directors I’ve worked with cast people who they think will pull off the role so they won’t have to go at them a million times a day. I don’t think that’s what the process of film directing is.
What advice would you give aspiring black actors and actresses trying to make it in the industry?
I think it’s important that you have more than acting that fills you up as an artist. I think all great artist have other hobbies or other things that they are in love with. So, even though I’m an actor, I’m also a co-editor of a beauty blog. Because I love make-up and I love being able to transform. I also have a non-profit named KAP2010. My charity helps teach empowerment, unity, and self expression to children in Rwanda. And I’m also a teacher at Fordham University and New York Film Academy where I teach acting. So that’s my advice. If you’re an actor and you have a lot of things going on, it helps inform your work and it gives you a toolbox of emotions and different perspectives. You can’t just act all the time.
Why should people go see ‘Kinyarwanda?’
Many reasons. But I think the main reason is to support AFFRM. The African American Film Festival Releasing Movement is the company that is pushing us. AFFRM is an organization that’s about grassroots supported independent filmmakers and their stories. On one end, just to do it for a political statement is really important because, hopefully, this company will eventually be able to support more than just two movies per year. Just imagine if they get enough support with this movie and the next movie, which might allow them to do five movies next year. So that would be five different voices from our community with stores that are all unique and interesting being heard. That’s incredible! [Shouts] That’s a way to change the world. But on top of that, Kinyarwanda is like a movie no one has ever seen before. Though It’s based around the genocide, the film is really about love in the time of genocide. Going out to parties and being a teenager during the time of genocide. And what it’s like to be a freedom fighter in the time of genocide. It’s about so much more. It’s about what would happen to your life if you chose freedom and forgiveness instead of vengeance and violence. And that’s really the story of this movie. If America picked up that diplomacy within itself, we’d be a different nation. Most movies in Hollywood are a three-part sequel about how to get the bad dude and kill him. This movie (and that country) is the total opposite. It’s about how they saved themselves and how they chose forgiveness. And to forgive your enemy is so radical. It’s revolutionary. But it works and it has always worked whether it was Ghandi or Martin Luther King…or now Rose Kabuye.
Thank you so much for taking the time out to do this interview.
Thank you! I’m so happy that this publication exists because black actors need it. So thank you for including me.