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Alfre Woodard has a secret

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BEVERLY HILLS -- Something wicked is happening behind the doors of 4351 Wisteria Lane. The colonial home on the Universal Studios back lot is now occupied by the newest of TV's Desperate Housewives: Betty Applewhite and her handsome son, Matthew.

Oh, yeah -- there's also that guy Betty has shackled in her basement.

Lunching on scrambled eggs at the Four Seasons Hotel, Alfre Woodard, who plays Betty, chooses her words delicately. "Betty never means harm," she says of her seemingly saccharine character, a former concert pianist turned neighborhood piano teacher. "Let's just say she has flaws. She had to make some really tough decisions quick and if the law ever catches up with her, she'll have to serve time. ... But they'll never catch her."

Apparently, Matthew (Mehcad Brooks) got himself into some trouble in the past. But all ABC series creator Marc Cherry will say about the mysterious Applewhites is that "they've got a secret. And it's pretty gothic. It's real and human and awful all at the same time."

During Cherry's appearance on Oprah Winfrey's talk show last fall, Winfrey suggested the need for some color on his mostly lily-white Wisteria Lane. But he had not originally intended for Betty to be played by a woman of color. Two white film stars had turned down the role over financial and time-commitment concerns.

But Cherry, a longtime fan of Woodard's work, says once he verified that Woodard was as easygoing as she was talented, he knew he'd found his Betty.

"I wish I could work with her more," says co-star Marcia Cross, whose uptight character, Bree Van De Kamp, might have to deal with her daughter growing closer to Matthew. "Alfre's soulful, powerful and smart. I love talking to her."

Woodward, 52, a four-time Emmy winner, had only appeared as a series regular on the hospital-set soap St. Elsewhere (1985-87), though new NBC drama Inconceivable was banking on her becoming a regular before she was lured to Housewives.

Before signing on, though, Woodard first had to familiarize herself with a show she'd never seen. The producers of Housewives sent her 15 episodes, and her family and friends divided up the tapes and watched them in different rooms of Woodard's house. When they gathered together to share story lines, all were instantly hooked.

She purposely avoided reading the Housewives expose in May's Vanity Fair so that she would enter with a fresh perspective. Besides, she says, "where am I going to work where I'm not going to be around people who don't have emotions? I would be out of work for the rest of my life if I was going to only go where people treated each other with kid gloves. You can't create anything without conflict."

The role of sadist is one Woodard assumes with glee. She covers her mouth to stifle the laughs as she confesses to a reign of terror that began as the youngest of her family's three children in Tulsa. As a 5-year-old, she once smoked a cigarette her brother found in the dirt. During a game of Cowboys and Indians, she tied up her sister -- and threw lit matches near her feet. Twice, she feigned death after rough-housing with her siblings. "We got spanked every day," she recalls. "Our parents spanked us. The neighbors spanked us. If they were spanking one of us, they'd tell the other, 'C'mon, let me get you now because I know I'm going to have to spank you before the day is over.'"

Her penchant for exploring the dark side of human nature served her well in the 1997 TV movie Miss Evers' Boys. She played a 1930s nurse who knowingly allows her black, male patients to be denied medication as part of a long-running government syphilis experiment. It was a complex role, and she won an Emmy for it. "I love to play the bad ones," she coos. "It's so fun."

Woodard has two films coming up -- a ballroom dancing drama with Antonio Banderas called Take the Lead (no release date yet) and a "fabulous interracial falling-in-love story" coming out in February titled Something New, in which she plays a disapproving mother.

Woodard's own interracial love story (she's been married to producer/teacher/activist Roderick Spencer for 22 years) defies the odds of any Hollywood marriage. "Our families have always been very supportive," she says. "We were both taught 'you pick your friends on how they treat you -- not by what they have or what they look like.' We get twice the cultures."

They have two children, daughter Mavis, 14, and son Duncan, 11. Hearing her children, both of mixed race, referred to as "adopted" catches the proud mother off guard. "Yes, I did adopt my children, but I'm so grateful that we did all find each other through adoption," she says. "If I had tried to carry a baby, I never would have got to my real children -- the ones I was meant to parent."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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