The four-time NAACP Image Award-winning actress of such films as “Beloved” and “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” participated in Florida’s recent “Choices & Consequences: Why Good Girls Like Bad Boys” conference that was arranged in the wake of the slaying of a young St. Petersburg mother whose boyfriend was a drug dealer. Elise gave a moving talk about a negative relationship out of her own past, before she went to college and was so anxious for validation from a man she “became a shadow of myself…I was so addicted to him.”
Now she says that talk was the beginning of what she hopes to do as she launches her Young Women Rising foundation, “to help young women develop their senses of self-worth, self-love and empowerment. We’ll be doing all kinds of initiatives in the months ahead,” she reports. A website, youngwomenrising.com, is planned for debut in a matter of weeks.
Elise’s “Hannah’s Law,” debuting tonight (6/9) happens to dovetail nicely with the cause she has taken on. In the Hallmark Movie Channel original film, she plays the real-life, larger-than-life Old West character Mary Fields, a.k.a. Stagecoach Mary — the ex-slave who became a legendary cross-country mail carrier. “I had to use my imagination a lot, because there’s not a whole lot out there to research — and there are tall tales about her that might or might not be true,” notes the actress.
She does know that Mary “was very brave, and she got into fights. She would break at nose at two and be gardening by four. She had a very soft side, and was very beloved by her town that she lived in. She was one of the few women who were allowed to go in the saloon. Not only was she a woman, but she was a black woman, so to be able to go into the saloon with the men was pretty phenomenal. There is an old picture of her with the town baseball team — all these white guys and Mary. She just loved the baseball team.”
In the movie, Mary is best friends with the fictional Hannah Beaumont (Sara Canning), a bounty hunter, and the two have each other’s backs through their dangerous adventure. Danny Glover and Billy Zane also star. Elise spent weeks learning to drive a stagecoach — for real — and to shoot antique weapons to play her role. The biggest challenge, she says, was coping with Mary’s multi-layered wardrobe that included bullets and gun belts, as Mary was known for packing a pair of six-shooters and a ten-gauge shotgun. “I had to be dressed by like, three people — and a whole team would have to come and undress me just so I could use the bathroom,” she admits. Still, “I loved every minute of playing her. It was an honor.”
Certainly, Stagecoach Mary serves as example of female empowerment. “I love that aspect,” says Elise, “and I love the relationship between her and Hannah, taking care of each other. That’s how it works in real life, too.”
MEANWHILE: Elise is up for American Black Film Festival Grand Jury Prize honors for her work in the Ghanaian film “Ties that Bind,” to be announced June 23. She’s also awaiting word on “Bounce.” The latter is a prospective VH 1 dance drama series for which she recently shot a pilot.
“It’s set in the world of professional sports…basketball. It’s a really interesting piece,” she says. “Me and Dean Cain and a lot of brilliant young actors are in it.”
First up: she’s giving the commencement address at the Cicely Tyson Academy in New Jersey come June 15. Elise and the renowned actress she resembles are good friends and “I am so excited and honored that she asked me.”