But what happens when women desirous of fulfilling the role of mother are unable to conceive? For any rationally thinking person, options such as adoption, surrogacy and other legal means likely spring to mind, but on the other side of that coin are the irrational that do unspeakable things to realize their dreams of motherhood.
Actress Aunjanue Ellis (pictured) sheds lights on that sordid “other side,” as she assumes the role of Ann Pettway, a woman who – straight from a real life story that recently made headlines – abducted baby Carlina White from a Harlem hospital and raised her as her own, in the Lifetime Original Movie “Abducted: The Carlina White Story.” Ellis is joined in the film by Sherri Shepherd, who plays White’s birth mother, and KeKe Palmer, the abducted, Carlina.
Ellis (“Ray,” “The Help”) signed on to play the title role as the abductee, because she saw a deeper issue that she felt compelled to expose through her involvement with the film. She spoke with EUR about this issue, which is possibly common among women, her perspective on color in Hollywood and her respect for the “art” of acting.
EUR: Aunjanue Ellis, what is the origin of your first name? It’s very nice.
Aunjanue Ellis: My mother and her girlfriends kind of came up with it … it was a magazine or something … it was a French word, but my name is spelled differently.
*Ironically, Aunjanue phonetically leads to “ingenue,” which not only is the name of a magazine, but also means: a naive young girl or actress who plays the role of such…*
EUR: As revealed in your bio, you have a profound respect for your craft … describe it in your own words.
A.E.: I just feel like most roles are works of art created by actors … like paintings or great albums, people that do great acting that transcends and resonates throughout the ages, I think that sometimes get lost in celebrity, but it doesn’t take away, it doesn’t diminish how when an actor says a word or says a phrase or a line that makes somebody cry or makes someone change their world view or makes someone see their reflection, there’s a great king of power, a great kind of influence in that and I feel like when you do it and do it well, that’s a power that’s not to be taken lightly. Some of the most life changing experiences I’ve had I’ve experienced in the theater … and cinema or watching television and actors were responsible for that.
EUR: your bio also states you want to create more spaces for black women in theater in film … do you feel we’re going in the right direction?
One thing I’ve stopped concerning myself with – and don’t get me wrong…I certainly agree that there’s a lack of faces of people of color, not just black women, black men, but people of all colors are being excluded out of the American experience on television and film – but I don’t really care anymore because I feel like I’m trying to … I feel like my life will be in vain if I don’t create those paths for myself. And I know, every job that I get, I know who creates these opportunities, you know, and a lot of times, the faces of those creators, I don’t see me in any of them … it kind of begs logic sometimes to not have that expectation.
I don’t feel like it just begins with representation. It’s not enough to just have black faces or faces of color on the wall we need to show the full experience of ourselves. One thing that I want to do is not just tell our story, but tell stories of, let’s just say for instance … like a classic novel like Nicholas and re-imagine that happening to black people. I think that we’re only limited if we limit ourselves by how we see ourselves and I don’t have that limitation at all. I’d like that to be articulated in what I try to make happen, not just in the jobs that I get, because I don’t always have that control, but in the things I try to make happen on my own.
EUR: You’ve been part of phenomenal films such as Ray and The Help … and worked alongside great actors and actresses … can you name your most rewarding experience?
A.E.: Anytime I get a job, it’s a profound experience. And I’m not saying that to be modest, or humble or anything like that, you know, to be able to get paid to act is a rarity. There are people every day who want to do what I’m doing or who wanted the job that I got and they didn’t get a chance to do that and may have even been better than I was and they don’t get a chance to do it for whatever reason, and I just feel like that is not to be taken lightly … and I don’t.
EUR: Speaking of jobs that you got, how did you connect with the Lifetime production, “Abducted?”
A.E.: It was offered to me in June. I didn’t know anything about the case, so my knowledge of the case happened after I got the job and when I found out about what happened to these women, this terrible thing that happened to all these women, I was immediately intrigued by it, because I don’t feel it’s a story of villains and heroes, I feel like it’s a story of a woman who was desperate and a family that was torn apart. What I tried to do, and hopefully what we were able to accomplish, was we tried to make it in a way, tried to do it in a way were people will walk away from it and not really know how to feel.
EUR: Tell me about the role you play and what went into preparation for it?
A.E.: I played Anne Pettway, and Anne was the woman who abducted Carlina when she was a baby and she took her out of Harlem hospital. I was asked earlier about what it was like to play the antagonist and I said she wasn’t an antagonist to Carlina, in her mind she was Carlina’s mother and so everyday that I came to work, I played a mother. That is my point of entry to this film, the woman who wanted desperately to be a mother.
EUR: It’s hard to believe that stories like this actually happen … what do you think drives a woman – or a person period to steal someone’s child and raise them as their own?
A.E.: Well, I think there’s a lot of pain there, just lack of knowledge as to how to articulate that pain. There’s a lot of shame surrounding that pain, and I don’t think that Anne Pettway is alone in that. She was having reproductive issues, she had had reproductive issues when she was a kid – she was a kid already – but she was even younger than that and trying to be a mother and you have this community, our community where you have women among us who feel like they are less of a female or a woman because they can’t conceive.
I think as we’ve been shown countless times, sometimes it’s a badge of honor for young girls to get pregnant. So it’s not just about this one woman. I didn’t see her as just this one woman who did a terrible thing, I saw it as a woman who represents thousands and possibly even millions of other women who are first of all, going through reproductive issues … I saw it as a woman who was going through larger pain and didn’t know how to deal with it, did not know how to deal with it effectively, I saw it as a woman who had had a lot of shame surrounding what she felt her image was as a woman and what it meant to be a woman and what it meant to be a woman and not a mother.
I believe that all those things made it not just this singular story, but hopefully it’s a story that many woman will maybe see themselves in and see themselves as not, if I’m going through this pain or going through this situation, how do I deal with this and not hurt someone else, including myself.
EUR: did you meet the actual victims of this horrifying tale?
A.E.: no, I didn’t have a chance to. We did our research and we looked at interviews and harvested those to find out who these women were.
Thank you for your time and best wishes on your amazing career.
“Abducted: The Carlina White Story” air this Saturday, October 6 on Lifetime at 8/7 Central.