Kimberly Elise is a veteran working mom: back in 1996 when she starred in the urban flick Set It Off, her older daughter was a preschooler. Now the work-life balance is old hat to the 42-year-old actress, who stars alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr., in the parent-boosting TNT movie Gifted Hands, to air February 7th. From her L.A. home, she talked to Babble about mothering two girls, winning awards, and the importance of not letting parental anxiety rule your world. – Tammy La Gorce
In Gifted Hands, you play Sonya Carlson, the mother of Ben Carlson, who overcame an impoverished childhood and early academic problems to become a best-selling author and director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkin’s Children’s Center. Must’ve been inspirational.
Yeah, it was amazing. She is an extraordinary woman. She had so many of her own challenges – depression, being abandoned by her husband – but she raised two amazing sons.
You’re a single mom and so was Sonya. Did that help you get into the character?
I could totally relate. I was married for many years and then I became a single mother, and that’s definitely a challenging life role. It’s powerful. You approach life in a different way – I could understand her sense of heightened responsibility. When you’re a single parent everything is on your shoulders in every possible way. My situation is much different than hers in that I’m not battling depression and mental illness, and I live in L.A. with my daughters and we have a couple of great family friends who help when I need it. I don’t struggle as much. But I get what it’s like to be by yourself.
Do you think raising two boys as a single mom the way Sonya did is harder than your situation, raising two girls?
I think it depends on the personality of the children. My children are easy, they’ve made my life better and they’re easy to accommodate. Boys are definitely different. But I’ve never had a daughter in a film – I’ve always had boys when I play mothers. But that’s good. That’s how I get my boy experience.
The film notes say Sonya raised Ben to value education. What else? Did you get a sense of what she instilled in her kids through talking with her before the movie was shot in Michigan?
I had an opportunity to chat with her on the phone, to get in her head a little bit. She wrote a chapter in one of her son’s books based on her child-rearing philosophies. Her belief in her faith was the No. 1 thing – instilling that in her children and letting them know there was a larger power assisting them in their life journey. She also definitely pushed education to the forefront. There’s a scene where she’s cleaning someone’s house and he has this huge library, thousands of books all covered with dust. You see her thinking about the power of knowledge, and how limited she was in her life when it came to education. It really drives home the importance, how much education meant to her.
What’s important to you as a single parent?
I make sure my daughters know they have no limitations, that everything about who they are is an asset. Being black is an asset. Being a woman is an asset. I also want them to know they should never let anyone tell them anything about them is a liability. And I think it’s important to let them explore the world and to investigate what speaks to them, not point them in any specific direction. But I also want to give them exposure so they can find things and not feel limited.
How was working with Cuba Gooding, Jr.? Is he a parent?
He is a parent. He was great – we’d never worked together before. I didn’t get to do that much with him because I was mostly working with his character as a young boy, but he was totally fun.
Tell us about your daughters, Ajableu and Butterfly. How old are they? How did you come up with their unusual names?
Ajableu is eighteen, in college off in Paris. She’s my butterfly flying. And Butterfly is ten. I came up with the name Ajableu because I loved the name Aja, and Ajableu just rhythmically sounded right. Butterfly, she named herself. She had a different name when she was born, but it didn’t fit her. So when she was two she renamed herself. Seriously. She’s been Butterfly ever since.
Does the name still suit her? Is she a spread-her-wings, flap-into-the-clouds kind of girl?
Totally. It still fits.
How is co-parenting with your ex?
Actually, he passed away a year and a half ago. But I should acknowledge my boyfriend. He’s been really amazing co-parenting with me.
Has acting been a good career choice for you as a single mom?
I always have a little bit of anxiety when a new project comes – I worry about childcare, extended stays, all of that. Although it always works out, and because it always does, my anxiety is lessening. But when I start a new project it has to fit Butterfly and her life – she’s getting to an age where she’s involved in ice skating, gymnastics, birthday parties. She likes to be here, where her world is. But sometimes I get to work with producers like on Gifted Hands who are amazingly accommodating, and her school here was really accommodating too.
Tell a little bit about your history. Did your role in Beloved alongside Oprah and Danny Glover in 1998 launch your movie acting career?
Actually, my first movie was Set It Off, and that movie surprised everybody by being a big hit. I won some awards for that and then did Beloved. Beloved made people aware of me across more ethnic groups, because Set It Off was an urban movie and Beloved was more the kind of movie everybody saw – so in that sense yeah, it kind of kicked things off.
You’ve also done TV: you starred in the CBS crime drama “Close to Home” from 2005 to 2007. Is having a TV series easier on family life than being a movie actor?
That show came at the most perfect time for my personal life and for my ability to stay home with my children when I really really needed to be there with them. I loved the regularity and predictability of it. It had a great normalcy to it. But it’s not necessarily easier to do TV always, because when I have great producers on a movie they make it just as easy. And my daughters love being on location.
You won a Black Reel Award for your role in Woman Thou Art Loosed and an NAACP Image Award for your role in Diary of a Mad Black Woman. Does it bug you that these are awards for black actors specifically? Do you feel there are adequate roles and chances at mainstream awards for black actresses?
Well, the way my mind works is from a position of gratitude. I’m thankful for the recognition I’ve gotten, and I know it’s just going to increase. I’ll accept it as it comes. It’s all good appreciation.
You’re compared to Cicely Tyson a lot; some people say there’s even a physical resemblance. Is that okay with you?
God yeah – she’s my idol. She’s also a great friend.
Can you think of fellow parent-actors you’ve worked with who’ve inspired you with how they juggle work and family?
For so many years I was the only one with kids. Now everybody’s having babies. So actually I’m the one getting the calls: How do you do it? And I’m glad to help.
What do they want to know specifically?
The same things you asked: How do you juggle it? How do you continue to find work? How do you continue to pursue your dreams? What they don’t realize is that a child will meld right in. Children are more malleable than you think. They’re pliable. My girls have been greatly enriched by the experiences they’ve had with me working. They’ve met amazing people and broadened their horizons. I never felt I had to sacrifice my career for motherhood.
Would you steer Ajableu or Butterfly toward acting?
I don’t steer them toward anything, only where they want to go. I know Butterfly wants to be an actress but I’m also going to continue to expose her to other things.
As a black mother, has the election of Obama affected you the way it has so many other black parents? Did you say to your kids, Now you can do anything?
Yeah, Aja and I were like, wow – we could be first lady! It’s something you never thought about before. We said, Butterfly, you could have a sleepover at the White House! You never know, you know.