“I think it’s interesting because it’s being told through the eyes of a young boy,” Leal says. “I found it fresh and touching. It touches on a very serious subject but takes a very different tone.”
“White Water” is based on true events that unfolded in Opelika, Alabama, during the summer of 1963. Michael, a 7-year-old black child in the segregated South, becomes obsessed with the desire to taste water from the “whites only” drinking fountain. Michael sets out to do the unthinkable — drink from the forbidden fountain.
Leal plays the young boy’s loving and protective mother, Annie.
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“Racism is a learned thing. So, to have it come from there, to springboard from that place was really special and different,” Leal says. “And as a mother, I think what’s great about Annie is, yes, she’s tough and she’s Christian, but she’s also kind of winging it.
“You can still tell that she’s very vulnerable and doesn’t have all the answers, and she’s struggling, so that kind of imperfection and flawed attempt at motherhood is really beautiful to me, and I like that she was written in that way.”
Leal says the timing is right for such a movie. Events in “White Water” occurred just a little more than 50 years ago, but racial tensions are as current as today’s headlines.
The film wasn’t made in reaction to recent events as it took almost five years to get the project off the ground. But director Rusty Cundieff saw what was going on across the country while he was making his movie.
“This was timely in a way that I didn’t imagine that it would be when I first started to work to try and get this film done. Sadly, it became more important. I’m not happy that it feels more timely. I wish it didn’t. But it is very odd that we’re dealing with some of these same issues right now,” Cundieff says.
Although she wasn’t born when all of the real events were unfolding in the ’60s, Leal found it easy to step into that era as soon as she slipped on the period clothes.
“I find that costumes are so important. I’ve been on projects where the costumes aren’t right and I had to fix them,” Leal says. “It gives you a real sense of where you are coming from. It also helped that we filmed in the town where this really happened.”
“White Water” is the latest acting credit for the former Good Company player since she left Fresno to spend three years on the stage in New York City and Arizona before landing a role on “Guiding Light.” That was followed by a starring role on the short-lived series “Legacy.”
She also was in the film version of “Dreamgirls” and in two Tyler Perry movies, “Why Did I Get Married?” and “Why Did I Get Married Too?” Her TV credits include “Boston Public” and “Hellcats.”
Her 2014 film, “Addicted,” the story of a woman who puts everything in her life at risk when she enters into an affair, was a surprise hit.
“We hoped it would do well and it did surpass the expectations by the studio,” Leal says. “I knew that based on the audience it was geared at, that if they were smart about the way it was publicized, that it could do very well.”
“Addicted” and “White Water” are examples of the wide range of roles Leal has been looking for over the years. The rule for Leal when it comes to work is to find parts that push her as an actress. Next up along those lines is a new series for ABC Family, “Recovery Road.” The series looks at a teenage girl dealing with addiction.
She’s mixing work with frequent trips to Fresno to visit family and help her sister plan her wedding.