09/19/2013 05:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Alfre Woodard - An American Classic

She has done over 130 films, garnered an Oscar nomination, countless Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe award. When people hear her name, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is "Oh, I love her!"

That's why, when I was given the exclusive opportunity to sit down face-to-face with Ms. Alfre Woodard after the presentation of Crooklyn (a film she shot nearly 20 years ago) at the African Diaspora Festival, I was absolutely honored.

I found her to be more than I ever dreamed she would be and more: classy, poised, graceful and yet endearing in a warm in an inviting way that made you feel like you could tell her anything.

Even as the festival suffered technical problems, she graciously and intuitively went on stage and entertained the crowd without second thought, until all was resolved. That's the kind of person Woodard is.

It was partly those instincts that helped lead her to the success that has many calling her one of our greatest living American actors.

As Oscar buzz has already began about her role in the Steve McQueen film, 12 Years a Slave, I had to know, what was the secret of her success? How does she craft her characters so believeably, detailed and authentic?

You've traveled thousands of miles to help host the showing of your classic film, Crooklyn here in Costa Rica. Why?

It was Danny Glover actually that they got in touch with me, and it was Afro-Costa Rican, and that piqued my interest because I've been to Nicaragua. I'd been there years ago, right after the revolution. Also, I love film and film festivals. I go to them all the time. And when I found out that it was a fledgling effort, I wanted to support it. I've been at this business a long time and I know it's tough to get people's support before it's already what it is, so I'm attracted to those kind of situations.

We just saw Crooklyn. Do you remember what it was like shooting that particular film?

I saw it two years ago in Nairobi at a screening, and then I just saw it tonight and it reminded me of how much I enjoyed it. I do keep in touch with Zelda, who played my daughter. She came back into my life when she played my daughter again in The Piano Lesson that Lloyd Richards directed. She graduated from Princeton, and when I was looking for a tutor for my son at the time, who was in middle school, Zelda happened to help him out.

People look at you and your brilliance as an actor and want to know, when you prepare for a role, what process do you go through to create a character?

Once I read something and I decide I'm going to do it, I don't read the script again until the weekend before. So, I know the story, but what I do is I start thinking of my character beforehand. I work first with the dialect. I might be in my car, peppering it with the dialect, where that person is from, to make it specific. Then I start to use it, just so that it becomes natural to me, for example, in the grocery store.

And they all know me at the grocery store, but suddenly I'm speaking with a Swedish accent. And when strangers don't look at you strange, that means they're believing you as a person. I work the same way with the way the character moves. And then, I start thinking about different points in the story. Like if I know something has to happen one day, while I'm driving my car, I don't use the lines, I'll just talk out loud and emotionally try to tap into that one thing. Once I've done that once, I let it go. Then, the weekend before, I read the whole script again. Since you're shooting just scene by scene, I don't learn the lines and what the other character says until I'm sitting in makeup that morning. I don't put the lines down and know them until the camera is rolling, because we never know what we're going to say in life.

And so to be able to re-create that human action naturally, you should not know so well what you're going to say. And also, each take will have a little different nuance so that the director and the editor have a lot of choices when they get it.