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Q&A with Phyllis Yvonne Stickney

Exclusive Interview by Karen Beishuizen
Photos courtesy of Phyllis Yvonne Stickney

Phyllis Yvonne Stickney is an American actress, comedian, poet, playwright, producer, and motivational speaker. She is best known for her role in the series “New Attitude”. She played in many movies: “New Jack City”, “Jungle Fever”, “Malcolm X”, “What’s Love Got to Do with It” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”. She was one of the first comedians of color to perform at the Juste Pour Rire Comedy Festival in Montreal, Canada. She was noted in the twenty-fifth anniversary issue of magazine as one of 200 African American who have changed the world.

KB: Did you always want to be an actress growing up?

I don’t recall a specific time or event as a child that inspired me to think about acting. I took ballet, violin, and viola lessons which filled my slot for artistic pursuits. Dance was my first love and discipline in the arts.

I studied ballet and loved to dance modern, and social dancing. Later I was introduced to Dunham and traditional African dance techniques. So, it was actually my love of dance that led me to attend a performance of The WIZ in the city of Wilmington, Delaware.

I loved “The Wizard Of OZ”, which is a favorite film of mine, so a “Black” version of that favorite production was fascinating. I watched in excitement and admiration as the dancers and actors brought this fantasy tale to life on the stage. The performers were Black, like me. George Faison was the choreographer, and I did everything I could to get backstage and meet him and the performers. I wanted to show him I could dance, and I think that was what gave me the desire to be on stage. I never thought I could really make a career with this.

KB: Who were your acting idols as a kid, and are they still your idols?

I didn’t remember seeing many actors who looked like me growing up. I remember the late Juanita Moore from Imitation of Life; she was brown like me and reminded me of my mother. Beah Richards, Ruby Dee, Rosalyn Cash, Madge Sinclair, and Cicely Tyson are some of the actresses who inspired me, and I am still inspired by them today. The words of wisdom and encouragement that I was given by these artists fuel me today. I do not have any idols, just examples and motivators.

KB: Your first movie roles: what were they?

My first movie role was as Fredrick Douglass’s first wife, Anna Douglass. The film was directed by the late William Greaves and produced for and by the Fredrick Douglass Home in Washington, DC. I was able to portray the character from her early age to her latter years; a 40-year age progression was required of me. Special makeup helped me visually age, and my acting brought Anna Douglass to life on the screen. The film is titled “Fredrick Douglass: An American Life”.

The next and first commercial project was the ABC movie of the week, “Daddy’s Girl” (ABC Afterschool Special), followed up by “The Women of Brewster Place” (TV Mini-series), consisting of an all-star cast, including the late Cicely Tyson.

KB: How did you get the part in “New Jack City”, and how was working with Mario Van Peebles?

New Jack City was the first film I appeared in that was produced by a major studio. I was cast in the role of Miss Hawkins after Chris Rock got the role of “Pookie.” The late George Jackson and his business partner Doug McHenry had been spending a great deal of time discussing me in that role, and the test of my acting skills was that the audience wouldn’t know that “Pookie” was a female until she fell off the bike being chased by actor ICE T’s character.

In fact, I was caught off guard when a neighborhood associate told me that a film was being shot on 145th Street. I gathered myself and my then-roommate and brother and walked a few blocks to the set. On the steps of a carriage house near the set sat Preston Holmes, whom I approached and told him, “I know you are not in Harlem filming and hadn’t even called me!” I asked what role I was going to be portraying. Preston quickly told George Jackson that Phyllis Yvonne Stickney was on the set…go to channel 2. This was a bold move in hindsight. I was just in disbelief that after all the time we’d spent talking about the reveal of “Pookie” as a girl and how it was going to be an impactful scene, etcetera, and here I had not even received any acknowledgment.

After Mr. Holmes had been very clear that I was on the set, and my question could only be answered by either George or Doug McHenry who had led me to the “Pookie” role expectation. I was escorted to the production office, and I asked Mr. Jackson “if Chris Rock was playing “Pookie,” who am I playing?” Keeping the unscheduled meeting simple and straight to the point. The role of Miss Hawkins was the consolation prize I received instead.

I’d met Mario Van Peebles when I arrived in New York City and worked as an actor under the tutelage of the late great Roger Furman.

Mario was a colleague, and I was trusted to deliver the character as I envisioned her. He was adequate, and I appreciated him for letting me conceive and portray the role as I saw fit. I even was allowed to select the wardrobe for the character as I saw her.

KB: You played in a few Spike Lee movies: Jungle Fever, Malcolm X: how did you get these parts and what kind of a director is Spike Lee?

Spike Lee cast people in his projects with whom he was familiar enough to recognize their talent and abilities, such as their ability to think on their feet. As a director, he trusted me to be the whip in the scenes that I was in. He often allowed us to ad-lib during the filming of our all-girl scene when he felt our dialogue was better than what he’d scripted.

The role of “Nilda” in Jungle Fever came about the standard way: an audition. Spike Lee knew of my comedy career and proficiency as an actor who thinks on my feet. This film is an example where Spike gave me full rein to ad-lib the scene with the women discussing their attitudes about relationships. The scene is mostly ad-lib and is often called the “War Council.”

KB: You played Alline Bullock in “What’s Love Got to Do with It”: How did you get the part? Did you meet Tina Turner on the set?

“What’s Love Got to Do with It” was directed by Kevin Sullivan, whom I considered a friend. I auditioned for the role in the movie and was once considered for one of the Ikettes; however, the role of Alline was offered and accepted.

In “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”, I was excited to have been cast in the role of “Delilah” and was ecstatic until a couple of months later, I received a call from Mr. Sullivan, who informed me that he had good news and bad news and asked which I wanted to hear first. I wanted the bad news first; he said Whoopie Goldberg was going to play the role of “Delilah.” Well, what’s the good news? I asked, and he said he would give me extra days to vacation in Jamaica. The role of Mrs. Shakespeare was the role I ultimately portrayed.

I am so glad I had the opportunity to meet the late icon Tina Turner one day on the set. We met on the day that the scenes in the studio with Phil Spector were filmed. The icon Tina Turner was gracious and focused on lending whatever support she could to Angela Bassett. I was in awe of the moments spent in her presence. We took a picture with Angela Bassett, Laurence Fishburne, Tina Turner, and me!!! I cherish that memory and picture.

KB: Are there any people out there you would love to collaborate with or people you wished you had?

I would love to collaborate with Ava DuVernay, Don Cheadle, Neema Barnett, Euzan Palcy, Malcolm Lee, Katt Williams, Dave Chapelle, Steven Spielberg, and Laurence Fishburne, to name a few.
I wish that I’d had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Octavia E. Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, Richard Pryor, Ntozake Shange, Beah Richards, Diana Sands, Oscar Micheaux…a list too long for this interview.

KB: Lead Roles you would like to play?

I desire to lead in a remake of the “Three Faces of Eve” or “The Bad Seed,” and most definitely to play lead roles in my brother actor/writer Timothy D. Stickney’s original scripts. He has written some of the most exciting sci-fi scripts; I can hardly wait to bring them to the screen. Our debut projects will be Timothy’s “The Complex”, “The Coven”, and my romantic comedies “Pen Pals” and “Card Talk”.

KB: What are your current plans?

I am currently working to accomplish and complete projects that speak to my legacy. I’m preparing to lead a revival of the Theatre Arts Department at an HBCU in my birth state. As a professor, I’ll be able to share the many levels of experience, knowledge, and information I’ve gained over these years with talented students.
Also, I am rewriting a one-woman play and making connections with creative, business and comedy influencers with whom I plan to collaborate.

I anticipate returning to the comedy stages and writing content for the many broadcast mediums, including podcasts, talk shows and tours. Preparing to reemerge onto the scene with a brand… Not the Queen of Comedy, not the How Ho of Ha Ha… The Empress of Entertainment: Still Funny Still Fine the World Tour.

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