Khandi Alexander: More Than Mama Pope

Photo Credit: Charles Bush
Photo Credit: Charles Bush

In the last 8 years we have been privy to the unique writing and story telling skills of Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer of hit television series, “Grey’s Anatomy”, its spend off, “The Practice,”How to Get Away with Murder” and the jaw-dropping “Scandal” on the ABC Network. Two seasons ago, a new character was introduced to viewers—Maya Lewis, the terrorist and cunning mom of Olivia Pope.

Viewers whose followed the career of actress, Khandi Alexander was happily surprised when she made her debut on the show playing opposite of Kerry Washington. Fans of the show immediately tweeted their praise to the casting selection of Shonda Rhimes because if you know what ‘Shondaland ‘knows about Khandi Alexander—she is a tier A actress and one of the most sought after.

As a native New Yorker, Alexander entered the entertainment world as a professional dancer on Broadway. As a young dancer, coming up in the 1970’s one of her earlier influences was dancer and actress, Paula Kelly.

I refer to her as my ‘spiritual mother’ because when I saw her do the big spender number in ‘Sweet Charity’, I knew that’s who I wanted to be. I’m going to be Paula Kelly. Her and also, Lola Falana–I just love that mixture of technique and glamour. The hard work that’s behind all of that. A trained dancer is an athlete so I enjoy working hard. It was very gratifying,” she said.

During Khandi’s time on Broadway, she’s starred in Chicago, Bob Fosse’s ‘Dancin’ and Dreamgirls breaking her chops into the world of choreography. She played the recurring character of Jackie Robbins in medical drama series ER. Alexander has made a number of guest appearances on other television shows, including Law & Order: Special Victims UnitNYPD BlueThird WatchCosbyBetter off TedLa Femme Nikita, and Body of Proof.

Working her way through smaller acting roles, she began to transition from dancing making appearances in movies including, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Sugar Hill and Poetic Justice.

It wasn’t until the Emmy-winning HBO miniseries, “The Corner” where we saw Alexander as Francine ‘Fran’ Boyd, a drug addict mother of two young boys growing up in the inner-city of Baltimore. The love affair with HBO kicked off the love affair with viewers.

I love HBO. It always starts with the material and HBO gets the best materials and the best ‘creatives.’ The executives are brilliant. I love them and I’m very proud of my affiliation with them. Everything they do is at a higher quality. I’ve been very fortunate – very fortunate to work with them for so long.” she said.

Her longest role thus far has been playing the character of Alexx Woods, the medical examiner of the hit CBS television series, CSI: Miami from 2002-2008.

She recalls: “CSI: Miami, was absolute wonderful. I like to be as flexible as I can with my instrument and sometimes in this business, if you’re not—you can get pigeon holed and type cast. If you want to have range, you have to take risks. You have to be brave, save your money so that you can flex your muscles, and spread your wings.” she said.

If you keep the level of your work high and your professionalism on set – most times, the producers will sadly but kindly let you move forward. That’s what happened with CSI: Miami. I’m forever grateful. Once I left that, then David Simon had called me to come to HBO again for ‘Treme’.” Alexander explained.

HBO Series Treme
HBO Series Treme

Treme” opened the door for Alexander to spread her wings as the tough New Orleans bar owner who fights to rebuild her business post-hurricane Katrina while juggling the challenges of wife and mom.

It was interesting because I wasn’t expecting a call to do “Treme”. When I left CSI: Miami, I didn’t leave to go anywhere. I didn’t know what was coming. I just knew it was time to explore and it was time for me to use my instrument in a different way. I knew it was time to move forward. It was more so to work with David again. The material came second and I hadn’t read the material. I just knew if he was on the phone – I said ‘yes’.” she said.

Without losing a beat, when the award-winning series ended four seasons later in 2013 Sooner than later, she received the call from executive producer, Shonda Rhimes to join the cast of the hit television series, “Scandal”. She had no idea that her role would survive after her first season playing ‘Mama Pope’.

I know that when Poppa Pope put me in that hole, I just thought-‘Okay, it was nice knowing you guys. I had a good time here.’” she laughed. “I even told Shonda, thank you for getting me out of the hole. It’s that kind of crazy, where they like to keep people on the edge of their seats. I wasn’t sure but I trust her completely so if she chose to leave Pope down in that hole I know she had her reasons.”

Whatever Shonda wants to do is good, because she is so wonderful to work with and to work for. I just trust her instincts and her talent. Her staff has been so kind to me.”

HBO Film Bessie: Khandi Alexander plays Viola, Bessie Smith's sister.
HBO Film Bessie: Khandi Alexander plays Viola, Bessie Smith’s sister.

With another season of “Scandal” on summer hiatus and her character surviving the fate of Poppa Pope, Alexander takes on the role of Blues singer Bessie Smith‘s older sister in the HBO made-for-television film, Bessie starring Queen Latifah as the lead character, which aired in May.

She explains her character, “The bulk of my research was more about the time period and there wasn’t much about her sister. I really needed to find out everything around her so that I can make her sister’s reality feel right and authentic. Her sister wasn’t in show business or that world so it was very important that I grounded that role.” she said.

So, when Bessie came into orbit, you have a sense of what it took for her to get out. How phenomenal her career really was.”

This summer, Alexander will be in production, filming the “Unknowns”.The film is based on the life of author and civil rights activist, Zora Neale Hurston. “I’m very excited about this. It’s pretty big shoes to fill.”

That’s exactly what the actress portraying Khandi Alexander’s life years from now will be saying.


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