Cassandra Freeman is best known for playing Denzel Washington’s love interest in the Spike Lee directed film, “Inside Man” and as “Morgan” on the hit television series “Single Ladies.” The actress is also no stranger to playing true life characters, as she starred as Lt. Rose in the 2011 war drama “Kinyarwanda.”
Now she taking on the persona of Wanda Pratt for the Lifetime Network biopic “The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story,” which chronicles NBA star Kevin Durant’s mom, and her compelling life struggles and success in helping Kevin and his brother stay on the right road, which has led to his success as a basketball superstar.
Directed by Nelson George, with Queen Latifah serving as executive producer, the biopic came about due to Durant’s heartwarming MVP acceptance speech where he in turn saluted his mom, Ms. Pratt, calling her “the real MVP”.
In the first part of our two-part chat with the actress, she reveals the challenges she faced taking on this real life persona, and how exploring Wanda’s heroic journey of overcoming the odds helped Freeman discover something new about herself.
Speak on some of the emotional challenges you faced while playing Wanda Pratt.
Cassandra: I walk into a project with such humility because the person is living to see it, and you hope that the resonance of your performance resonates with their truth. Because really you’re going for their essence. I was lucky enough to meet with Wanda, and have some personal time to connect with her and the thing I’m really trying to connect with this is, was the outlook and rhythm on life. The challenge is take on her point of view, and not just my made up point of view that I would usually do for a character. She said to me, when she watched me onscreen, that she felt like she was watching herself.
Also I think it’s a very spiritual thing when someone gives you permission to be them, and to tell their life story. I think something spiritual and out of my control happens to make that even happen. And hopefully other people see that. Hopefully other people take home the experience as truth.
Does your life journey so far share any parallels with Wanda’s journey?
Cassandra: Ya know, the funny thing is, I feel like every character I play there are multiple parallels. So I think for me, and I think this is reality for women in general, the parallel was: how do you present a face to your family and to your work life – the face that you’re so strong, when really at home you’re barely keeping it together emotionally and financially. That’s the thing that really resonated with me because her boys saw her as superwoman. The people who worked with her look at her like superwoman, but at night when she was by herself, she was quite depressed. To me, that’s sort of an opportunity to unlock the archetype of the strong black woman, and what does it cost to be a strong woman? [Wanda] was a teenage single mom on her own, and there’s a lot of cost to be that strong.
Was there a specific moment from Wanda’s struggle, which she had to overcome and did so admirably, that truly defined her superwoman abilities?
Cassandra: The thing that made me want to do this part is at the end of this journey, she says, and I’m paraphrasing, that she realized she had been living her life, and not owning her story. She realizes now that if she owns her story, the good, the bad and the ugly, that her life could be a gift for other people. Now she’s into motivational speaking. That was the moment for me because she gets through all that struggle and she realizes how to communicate that to other people.
At the end of this when she speaks to a room full of teenage mothers, she says to them she understands where they are because she was too once a teenage mother. I don’t know how many movies I see where people embrace that they were a teenage mother. It’s usually a secret that comes out accidentally in a conversation. That’s a big part of her story, that she was ashamed of it. But when she stopped being ashamed of it, it became her power.
Did you learn anything surprising about yourself while exploring Wanda’s journey?
Cassandra: That archetype of the strong woman that I was talking about, really made me so much more compassionate for my parents and stepparents. It made me realize what a duality it is to be parent. I would’ve never known that without playing this part. There’s a duality that’s a play when you’re a parent, and you’re trying to convey stability and strength and warmth, even though you yourself don’t feel that. It made me really appreciate and become much more humble to my parents. It makes me realize kids are so self righteous with their parents about what they would’ve done, but you really don’t understand until you become a parent, or play one.
I have three sets of sons in the movie, who play my two boys. I have the five-year old version, the teenage version and the adult version. And it doesn’t mater what age they are, I could feel the responsibility of trying to convey parenthood to them.
The second thing that I didn’t know coming in would be, this is the first time I was the lead for a film. It made me realize the energy I bring and how it trickles down to everyone else. The responsibility of that. I always wanted to be the lead of something and bring on a collaborative and open spirit. And from Nelson George, to our cinematographer down to our producers, I really felt that spirit.
“The Real MVP: The Wanda Durant Story” will air on Saturday, May 7 on Lifetime.
Check back soon for part two of our chat with Cassandra Freeman, where she talks about the creative energy women bring to the set, such as Queen Latifah and Denzel’s wife, Pauletta, who plays Freeman’s mother in the Lifetime biopic.