In 'Associate,' Whoopi Shatters Glass Ceiling

Empowerment is key to her role in the film

Whoopi Goldberg knows all about women in the workplace. Her grandmother and mother were working moms, and the actress has earned a paycheck since she was 7.

When she signed on to star in the new comedy "The Associate," she had plenty of input. As Laurel Ayres, a financial analyst on Wall Street, Goldberg shares her ideas with a fellow employee, played by Tim Daly. He takes the suggestions and uses them to get a promotion for himself, not her.

"I never felt the movie was about the glass ceiling," Goldberg says. "I felt it was more about what we put on ourselves. Instead of taking responsibility for our ideas, we empower others."

The Oscar-winning actress was referring to the plot when Laurel lets her co-worker take credit for her ideas, and later, when she invents a man as her boss because she doesn't think, as a businesswoman, her financial strategy will be accepted.

"She didn't have enough confidence in herself to say, 'These are my ideas, which I've worked hard to come up with,' " Goldberg explains.

"I grew up with a woman who worked all the time, a single mom, who never hinted the world wasn't my oyster. I had to be willing to work, and do what I could, and throw out what I couldn't do, and to keep going, even if I got beat up in the process.

"It never occurred to me that there was anything on the face of the earth that wasn't possible, so this idea of the glass ceiling is alien to me."

Goldberg's career has been a blueprint of persistence. Instead of becoming a major star when she was nominated for an Oscar for the 1985 film "The Color Purple," she was given a list of slapstick comedies that dulled the glow. A devoted trekkie, Goldberg wrote the producer of "Star Trek" saying she wanted to be in the series and would play any role. She ended up playing Guinan on "Star Trek: the Next Generation" from 1988 to 1993.

She campaigned more consistently than a politician to win the role in the 1990 film "Ghost" that later brought her an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress.

Goldberg is far from timid about offering suggestions for tweaking a script. One particular suggestion made producers of "The Associate" laugh at themselves: In the original script when her character quits her job, she goes shopping.

"No way," the actress insisted. "Forget that old misconception about women. She goes out and opens her own business, even if it's in her apartment, and she has to take out a mortgage."

Another suggestion she had was changing a minor secretary role into a larger one. Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest plays the executive secretary brilliantly, and at the end of the film it isn't Goldberg's face, but Wiest's, that wraps the movie.

One of the most hilarious scenes of "The Associate" is when Laurel has to produce her boss, Robert Cutty.

"Three hours of mask and makeup changed me into a white businessman," the actress says. "My only request was: Make Cutty look like Marlon Brando."

At the test screenings, in between gales of laughter, someone said, "She looks like Brando!" The laughter increased.

Acting is an essential part of her life. She's learned how to appreciate and protect it. Currently, she has three unreleased films; her most recent is playing Myrlie Evers in Rob Reiner's "Ghost of Mississippi," a film about the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Now, she's taking time off from movies to replace Tony-winner Nathan Lane in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." Goldberg appeared in a one-woman show on Broadway in 1983, but this is the first time she will have a major role in a Broadway musical.

She'll take over Lane's role of Pseudolus, a part previously made famous by Zero Mostel. It's the first time an actress has been cast in the role. The producers haven't decided if she'll play it as a man or a woman.

Whoopi Goldberg may have a few suggestions about that.

* 'The Associate' is rated PG-13. Directed by Daniel Petrie, it contains profanity, some nudity, and comic violence.

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