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As a part of Dove’s Real Beauty Productions’ campaign to build self-esteem in women, young and old, Debbie Allen partnered with writer Shonda Rhimes to direct a new film called “An Hour With Her.” We had a chance to speak with Allen about the project, her mentors, tackling sexual harassment on “Grey’s Anatomy” and future projects with her sister, Phylicia Rashad. 


MadameNoire: There’s a big emphasis on mentorship in the short film. Could you speak to the people who helped mentor you when you were coming up and throughout your career?

Debbie Allen: My mother, Vivian Ayers, was my greatest mentor. She always kept a sharp eye on what it was that I could achieve, my talents and opportunities and keeping me on track. And inspiring me to believe that I could do it. That was my mom and I had some wonderful teachers who became mentors. I had a Russian teacher that was mean as a snake! She’d teach me. And she kept me at a time when there were no Blacks being allowed to take ballet in Texas. She was so loving and tough love is what I mean., Then there was George Faison, who was a soloist with Alvin Ailey, who brought me into his company when I first left Howard University and kept me close for many years and I learned so much from him and inspired me to become a choreographer. So people that are really terrific that have loved me along the way and giving me tough love along the way.

MN: In the press release, I read that the cast and crew for this project were solely comprised of women. Can you speak about how the energy is different when there’s, is a room full of women working toward a common goal like this?

DA: Well, you know, I’m so used to working with the A-List crew and they all galvanize around me. I think it has to do with leadership. My energy is always pretty infectious, a lot of energy and I move quickly and I talk loudly and I dance on breaks. So I will jump out and do a dance number and make everybody laugh. But it was just wonderful to look around and see a female dolly grip, and see a female gaffer, and the female DP and the female camera operators and you know, the female Best boy. You know, all down the line. So I think what’s impressive. Starting today, I’m going to start to share that list of who those women are. And it was incredible.

MN: Nice. Speaking of self-confidence and self-esteem. My co-worker and I were discussing how some women feel maybe less desirable as they age. And so I went to ask you, how do you feel like issues of self-esteem and self-image change for women as they enter their fifties, sixties, seventies?

DA: Yeah. Well, things change. I mean, I’ve been in it so long and I’ve looked at myself for so long and you start seeing these changes. If you are with people that love you, like my husband loves me. And he never wants me to do anything to myself, ‘Don’t you dare. Don’t you think about it.’

It’s just a matter of, of the industry because for example,  OK Denzel Washington who’s one of the greatest actors on this planet is a dear friend of mine. We love him like a brother, you know. We’re all close to the same age but Denzel, when they go for leading lady, they’re not going to call one of us. They’re probably gonna call, you know, Gabrielle Union. They’re not going to call someone his age, not specifically. That’s the business. It’s not him. So women of a certain age start to fall off the list, unless you’re playing to a grandmother or something else. You know, women that are older, rarely are even sexualized. Which is why I love my character on Grey’s Anatomy. Catherine and Dr. Webber go at it! They are in it to win it.

That is just the industry and that has nothing to do with ethnicity. That’s just men being in control and this is the image of what they want to see. You know, when a woman does it, it’s like blasphemous. When a woman decides she wants to be with a younger man, you’re going to hear, ‘Ooo, what’s wrong with her?’ Child, nothing’s wrong with her. She’s doing just like they do.

MN: You mentioned Grey’s Anatomy. My sister and I watch that faithfully and we fell off for a minute and then came back around. The show is still, so, so great after all these seasons. They’re always tackling these controversial topics and recently there was a topic about sexual harassment in the workplace and so I wanted to know how you felt tackling that topic because Catherine Avery was so like in the center of it, even though she wasn’t the one who is responsible for the behavior.

DA: I was very excited that Krista Vernoff, our head writer, decided to tackle this issue because we need to address what’s happening in the world. You know, our safety is part of our health. That’s something that the medical profession is very involved in. To do that kind of a story on Grey’s Anatomy says that we’re of this world and of this time. And then, you know, the portrayal of Catherine is giving voice to women of a certain age who would have viewed it different then. You couldn’t complain, you lost your job, you didn’t have anybody to help. So Catherine basically did what she could to help the women, which is give them some money, even a leg to stand on, give them something. And I appreciated that. I enjoyed playing that part.

MN: I want to ask…you and your sister have both been in the industry for so long. Is there any chance you guys are going to work together again?

DA: Me and Phylicia?

MN: Yes.

DA: Oh yeah, we, we have a movie we’ve been trying to get made. Maybe now it would have gotten made, things are changing. We love working together. We actually have one project that I can’t speak on til we see if it’s going to happen. We did The Old Settler together, on PBS. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It’s so good. It’s about two sisters who live together in Harlem alone and one of them, Phylicia, falls in love with a roomer who comes and rents a room and then he abandons her. It’s a beautiful story. We would love to do some more though. Yeah! Put it out there.

MN: Yes. We would love to see that. We love to see you guys together. Thank you so much.

DA: It’s my pleasure.

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