The youngest of three siblings, Woodard took to acting during her teens and discovered it to be her passion, going on to earn her bachelor’s in fine arts and theater from Boston University in 1974. She continued to hone her skills, taking up improv with the Mark Taper Forum. By 1976, Woodard landed a role in a Los Angeles stage production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, by writer Ntozake Shange. She followed with film work in two Robert Altman projects—Remember My Name (1978), which he produced, and H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980), which he directed.
Woodard also began to take on roles for TV, as seen in the 1979 film Freedom Road, and her riveting performance on cop drama Hill Street Blues in 1983 earned her an Emmy. That same year, she appeared as the character Geechee on the big screen in Cross Creek, for which she earned a supporting actress Academy Award nomination. Throughout the '80s, a plethora of screen work followed, along with roles in Broadway productions.
Over the next two decades, Woodard developed a rich career, taking on roles that spoke to a variety of human experiences in many genres. She also made time for family, marrying Roderick Spencer in 1983, with the couple adopting two children.
Some of Woodard’s career highlights include an affecting turn as a nurse in John Sayles’s Passion Fish (1992) and a bit later working with director Spike Lee, portraying a mom in the 1970s coming-of-age tale Crooklyn (1994). After starring in the TV adaptation of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (1995), Woodard was featured as a lead in Star Trek: First Contact (1996), in which her character, Lily Sloane, faced the Borg menace with Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart).
Woodard continued her prolific pace into the new millennium, with big-screen projects like Love & Basketball (2000), The Singing Detective (2003), The Forgotten (2004), Beauty Shop (2005) and The Family That Preys (2008). And more TV work was had as well, as seen in the films Funny Valentines (1999), Holiday Heart (2000) and The Water Is Wide (2006), with the actress also joining the cast of Desperate Housewives in 2005 as Betty Applewhite. Woodard has done much voice-over and narration work as well.
Woodard has also dedicated her vision to the plight of South Africa. She portrayed Winnie Mandela in the 1987 TV film Mandela and was featured in another antiapartheid work, Bopha! (1993), co-starring in both with Danny Glover. Woodard was also one of the founders of Artists for a Free South Africa, a charity group that promotes political and social equality in that country as well as combating the AIDS epidemic.
As of early 2014, Woodard has received 17 Emmy nominations and won four, including for her role as Nurse Eunice Rivers in HBO’s Miss Evers’ Boys (1997), about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, and for guest starring in the drama series L.A. Law and The Practice.
The second decade of the 2000s continued to see Woodard taking on distinguished projects. She was part of the ensemble cast of the 2012 Lifetime remake of Steel Magnolias, co-starring Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad and Jill Scott, with Woodard receiving an Emmy nomination for her part as the curmudgeonly Ouiser. She also made an appearance in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), portraying an African American woman who is able to become mistress of a Southern plantation. Other films of Woodard’s include Annabelle (2014), Mississippi Grind (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016).
Woodard has also starred in a number of television series including in period drama Cooper (2013) and The Last Ship (2014-2015). In State of Affairs (2014-15), she played President Constance Payton, opposite Katherine Heigl.
Woodard lives in Santa Monica, California, with her husband, writer Roderick Spencer, and their two adopted children, Mavis and Duncan. Woodard follows Christian Science. Her daughter, Mavis, served as Miss Golden Globe for the 2010 Golden Globe Awards.
In 1989, Woodard is a founder and board member of Artists for a New South Africa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to combating the African AIDS pandemic and advancing democracy and equality in South Africa. Her charity has since raised more than $9 million and has provided healthcare to over 3,500 South African AIDS orphans. She is a board member of the Democratic Party. She supported Barack Obama at the presidential elections in 2008 and 2012. Woodard is also a supporter of LGBT rights and same sex marriage. In February 2009, she joined a group of American film directors and actors on a cultural trip to Iran at the invitation of the "House of Cinema" forum in Tehran.