(The Root) — In 1987 a woman named Ann Pettway walked into New York's Harlem Hospital empty-handed and left with a baby named Carlina White.
After abducting the 3-week-old daughter of Joy White and Carl Tyson, Pettway spent the next 25 years raising the infant, whom she renamed Nejdra "Netty" Nance, as her own in the neighboring state of Connecticut. In 2010 Nance, who was living in Atlanta and raising her own daughter, discovered that Pettway wasn't her mother when she found an image of herself on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children website.
Abducted: The Carlina White Story, a film based on those harrowing events, debuted on the Lifetime network earlier this month and can still be seen in repeat broadcasts. The movie, directed by Vondie Curtis-Hall, stars Aunjanue Ellis as Pettway, Keke Palmer as the title character and Sherri Shepherd as Carlina White's mother, Joy.
The Mississippi-raised Ellis, who honed her acting chops in films including Ray and The Help, spoke to The Root about working to portray the humanity of Pettway despite her crime that changed the lives of an entire family.
The Root: Why play a character like Ann Pettway?
Aunjanue Ellis: I wasn't familiar with the story. I started researching only after I got the part. When you have stories based on real events, the best thing that you can do as an actress is be as honest as you can. If you are honest, you won't fall into the trap of your character being easily identified as a villain.
I tried to play Ms. Pettway in a way that she wouldn't be codified and people wouldn't look at her as a villain at all. Hopefully I did that, because when people look at a character as a type, they can dismiss the choices that person made. I don't want anybody to dismiss Ms. Pettway's choices.
TR: Did you meet Pettway? Where did you focus to highlight her humanity?
AE: No, I wasn't able to meet her. We were only privileged to [see] interviews and court documents and things like that.
Whatever you think about what Ms. Pettway did — and it was despicable — she wanted to be a mother. Every day that I came to work, I played a woman who wanted to be a mother to this baby — under perverse circumstances, of course. Her life was geared toward maintaining this falsehood, and she had a couple [of] jobs: maintaining the veneer to her family and the world [that Carlina was her daughter], but the other job was the most relevant for her — being a good mother to this child.
TR: Sherri Shepherd plays Carlina's birth mother. How did you approach the scene where you two square off during a prison visit?
AE: What Sherri and I tried to do, along with Vondie Curtis-Hall, the film's director, was imagine what it would be like if there was a conversation between the woman who raised Carlina and the woman who birthed her. Those conversations are difficult even under circumstances [like adoption], so it was a tough but glorious experience.
TR: Since filming The Carlina White Story, you've gotten involved with the organization Black and Missing.
AE: I wanted to find out who was doing work surrounding the issues we were touching in the movie. I know that when people of color, particularly African Americans, are victims of abduction [or] kidnapping or [are] runaways, there isn't the same rallying cry that exists for young white children when they disappear. Black and Missing was founded in 2007 to deal with that [disparity], so I've been working with the organization, and I'm telling anyone who'll listen about the kind of work that they're doing.
So many families and communities are dealing with situations [like Carlina White's] and don't know what to do. One of the things Black and Missing talks about is that when people in our communities go missing, there's a resistance on our part to cooperate with law enforcement because there's distrust there. But then we lose because there is no responsibility taken by the community to do something about the missing person.
Hillary Crosley is The Root's New York City bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter.