Coming to television this Sunday on LIFETIME is a world-premier event with Golden Globe, Grammy and Academy Award nominee Queen Latifah. Along with being an executive producer, she reunited with producing team Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.
The cast also includes some amazing talent including Tony winner Phylicia Rashad as Clairee, Independent Spirit nominee Adepero Oduye as Annelle, Tony nominee Condola Rashas as Shelby, Grammy winner Jill Scott as Truvy and Golden Globe and Emmy winner Alfrie Woodward as Ouiser.
I got the chance to speak with Queen Latifah and her parterning producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron about the upcoming film on LIFETIME.
How did the producers prepare to make this version different?
Zadan: We approached it as though it was a new piece of writing and we’re not doing anything to copy the original production because the original play was amazing and the original movie was amazing. And we wanted to do something that was brand new and we wanted to do something that would be done our way with our cast and our production. And it’s using the material as the basis of that. And the same way as if you work in the theater, you do what they call revivals. And, you know, it may have been done originally the play earlier, you know, on and then it’s done later on with other casts. And each production is relevant because they’re done with different directors, different producers, different actors. So we feel like what we’ve done is fresh and different from the original and yet as relevant as the original.
You are playing the role of M’Lynn, how much support did you get from the other actresses to play this character?
Queen Latifah:Well first of all, I mean when you’re working with veteran actors I – first of all, I received a great amount of support. But I also tried to give a great amount of support because we had a lot of young actors who are extremely talented who you should watch, you know, in the years to come. I think we did a great job in casting this movie. Well Kenny did a great job and we supported Kenny. But I think we got a great cast who can do a great job.
I can tell that means a lot to you.
Queen Latifah:But I think we got a great cast and the thing about the support of it is of course I got a great amount of support from our veteran actors. You know, in Afemo and Phylicia and Alfre who I know all of them and they’ve always been supportive. But I think we got a lot of inspiration and also support from the actors who have come after us and I think it was a very, you know, very much a – it was almost like a whirlpool of acting talent, love, support, pushing, you know, challenging because it’s not all about just a love fest. It’s about challenging each other and really expecting you to do your job, you know, at the end of the day. We all have to show up and do our job regardless of our life circumstances or situations. We just – we don’t have to do it with an attitude or whatever but, you know, maybe we do that day. You know, but it really – everyone understands that life happens and we have to create a whole other life where our life doesn’t even exist. You know, our real life doesn’t exist, these characters exist. And that is our life. And that’s who we are. And so I got a great amount of support and on the off times there was great conversation. Of course I mean how can you have “Clair Huxtable” and not pick her brain? But she’s super – she’s super – this is the world’s mom. I mean she was the Michelle Obama before Michelle Obama. You know, so it’s like, you know, how can you have her around and not pick her brain a little bit? But she is not – she’s not Clair Huxtable. She is Phylicia Rashad and she’s a different person and she has so many – so much more cool points than Clair ever even had.You know, she’s got all that and then some. And it’s so much more. And so I mean it was really about us all bonding together to make sure we got the job done, to make sure we really delivered for Kenny, delivered for Neil and Craig and most importantly, delivered for you, the viewer. That you could feel an experience that felt as real as it possibly could because this material, you know, is so – it’s great in itself. And so everyone had to kind of show up and do their best job and get off of, you know, your real life and get into this life. And so I think it was pretty awesome. I mean, you know, ups and downs – the crew had to deliver. You know, the support didn’t just come from the cast, it came from the crew. It came from everyone from the, you know, the person – the security guard at the gate or the person turning on the heat. You know, the grips, the lighting, you know, our DP, everyone, you know? So the support was, you know, everywhere to accomplish something in such a short amount of time but to make a great piece of work.
You’ve talked about your grandmother who had diabetes. Do you think that helped with your portrayal now having a daughter with diabetes?
Queen Latifah:It did in a sense but my grandmother is so cool that you would never know. You know? Shelby is trying to do more than she can ever – I mean Shelby is really more like me in real life. She’s going to put her mind to something and go for it. I don’t care if she has to rappel from a five story building or, you know, shoot some guns or ride a motorcycle or drive NASCAR or just be a mama with five kids, you know, instead of three or two and a dog. No. My grandmother, she has a life that’s very stable and she already raised seven kids so she’s like I’m good, you know, I’m cool. No. Diabetes didn’t really play a part in that. What it did do though is because I know diabetes is just one disease but, you know, when you have a family as big as mine there are many things that affect my family members in many different ways. So it could be high blood pressure, it could be cholesterol, it could be obesity, it could be, you know, sleep deprivation, you know, or sleep apnea. It could be so many different things so, you know, an illness is an illness. You know, and especially if it affects younger kids, you know. If you’re prematurely born or if you have, you know, things happening when you’re like a baby being born. If you have to learn how to walk right or if there’s something wrong with, you know, your gait or, you know, just, you know, physical things that are happening.
Illnesses affect your family and they impact you because you want to do the best you can to help your family member become more healthy. Just – as well as my family members want me to be healthy. So you – it doesn’t have to be diabetes specifically. But when there’s something that impacts a family member or friend that is difficult for them you want to do what you can to help. And sometimes you can’t do anything and it makes you feel like you’re kind of helpless. So that emotion – those emotions, they cross a big barometer.
Can you talk a little bit about what you think about the cast and this particular version of the story with an African American cast as opposed to we had already seen it with a White cast.
Meron: I think that our point of view is that we think Steel Magnolias is a timeless and universal piece and it just works in whatever community you set it in that you don’t even have to underline it. It just works. And I think that that really defines what classic material it is. And part of the reason why we also wanted to do it is because, you know, women roles are written as well as these roles. And we want to show off our great actresses.
Zadan: In terms of casting I think that you have to understand that, you know, we were looking at it again based on what’s on the page not on what’s been done previously. So, you know, I – when you see I – I’ll pick a name. When you see Jill Scott’s performance it does not make you think of Dolly Parton remotely. Scott is doing her performance as an actress for that role as written on the page. And she’s not trying to do Dolly Parton. She’s not trying to recreate Dolly Parton. And I’d say the same thing goes for everybody in the cast. They created the roles and we cast the roles based on finding great actresses to play those great parts.
Queen Latifah, can you talk about the time you spent with the cast?
Queen Latifah:Well we shot this movie in 18 days. So there’s not a lot of down time when you’re shooting basically a feature film in 18 days. So, you know, a lot of our down time was just hanging around the set and then getting touched up. I think some of the best of our down time was just being in the makeup trailer – hair and makeup trailer together just playing music and, you know, just kind of watching videos or, you know, because Adepero and Condola were always on the iPad and we, you know, she’s always playing Ms. Pac-Man on her iPad and we – I’m always playing house music. You might as well go to XM Studio 54. I’m taking them to the club, you know. And, you know, and Alfre is telling us the stories of things and crying because her kids are, you know, moving onto college and running out the house and – but it’s very serene. Like it – our down time sometimes was just a little conversation. And every once in a while we would pause and just every once in a while we would just give pause because we actually appreciate the fact that we were doing this film which, you know, was – the fact that we were all together that, you know, we had – we felt like we had come to a place that was so important. And we were appreciate – we would just sometimes just have appreciation. Jill’s birthday – Jill had her birthday like barely into shooting, like maybe four days – two or four days into the first, you know, couple of days of shooting and we had, you know, we celebrated her with a cake and stuff. But, you know, we were shooting at this church and we were shooting kind of a serious scene because they were like either wedding scenes or kind of cemetery scenes, you know, like funeral scenes. And – but we had like a cake for her and we just kind of took a moment and we just kind of looked at each other. And we thought wow, you know, this is pretty amazing. Like we all admired each other so much. But we all encourage each other as well and we thought about things and we talked about, you know, Jill’s son and I, you know, Phylicia and I talked about kids, you know, her, you know, parent experience and, you know, all that kind of stuff, just regular, simple conversation. It wasn’t really – but then you’ve got to count on Alfre to be – to always be like the one that’s going to break up the monotony. So Alfre would always – I mean this is monotonous conversation, just regular conversations. But Alfre would gather us together and say this is a serious moment, I need to talk to you. We need – and she’d pull the whole cast, the whole crew and then she’d say this is what I want to say. Jelly roll. Jelly roll. And she’d just break into this dance. And I’m like, you know, this woman is crazy like, so it’s kind of just like fun, lighthearted stuff. We didn’t really have time to get all into the, you know, should we go to – where are we going to eat tonight? It was – it’s not the typical kind of movie because we had to function on all pistons – we were firing on all pistons and really trying to go there. But then she’d just break it up and then we’d just laugh because we thought it was something serious and then we’d just laugh and go right back into our serious work, you know? So it was kind of like that kind of thing.
Can you tell us about the partnering with Lifetime television?
Zadan: Well basically we had the idea of doing this production of Steel Magnolias. And we spoke to Queen Latifah about it and she got excited about it. And we decided to reunite because prior to this of course Neil and I had the greatest experience of our lives doing Chicago with Latifah. And then we had the second best experience of our lives doing Hairspray with Queen Latifah. And then we thought wait a minute, two is not enough. We need a third. And now we feel that we need a fourth. But we – so we decided that we had done really fun and exciting and quality work together as a team. So we wanted to be together again and then we went to Lifetime and we said, you know, we have this team, are you interested in this movie? And without a second’s delay they said to us when can you start shooting? You know, just like and me – don’t even talk to us about it. Just start shooting. Just like schedule it, put it together, go. Go. Go make the movie. And it turns out that this story and this piece is Nancy Dubuc’s absolute favorite play and original movie. And she thought that it would make a great new version for a new generation with this cast.
How do you think the Lifetime audience will receive this retelling?
Queen Latifah:Well I think they’re going to lose their minds just based on the fact that my assistant who works super hard 24/7 is a faithful, faithful Lifetime viewer like you can’t pull her off the couch on the weekends. You know exactly where she is. She’s at home. It’s so uncanny because it’s so not her exterior. It so doesn’t seem like her but if you want to find my assistant on the weekends she’s on the couch watching all the Lifetime movies all weekend long and – or any days off that we have which, you know, weekends or it can be any days. But she’s watching Lifetime. And I think, you know, for Lifetime viewers, you know, the die hard Lifetime viewers are going to absolutely love it. I think though that there’s a new audience for, you know, Lifetime viewers, you know, for non Lifetime, typically non Lifetime viewers to, you know, take a look at something that’s really special and find the network and find what’s happening there and find real, you know, emotional connections to what you’re watching rather than just some like quick hit and go but something that really resonates with you.
You took the role of executive producer, what did you do towards that end besides acting?
Queen Latifah:I got involved with this project because Neil and Craig called me. I worked with them and I trust them and if they love it and they’re going to work – I know how hard they work and how much they’ll put into it, I wanted to be a part of it. And my role I think outside of just being an actor was really to help facilitate – helping to create a great cast and then also to really create a great tone on the set. To make sure that everyone was taken care of whether it was cast or crew. You know, you have to take care of your crew and if there were things that needed to be dealt with that were critical I was there on the ground to be able to see it in the – maybe a different aspect than Neil and Craig were so I could, you know, relay that to them or relay things to Kenny Leon.
My role is not to be, you know, the boss on the ground so to speak or the director, you know, to wear everyone else’s hat but really to be someone who sees things from the gaps that need to be filled in my respect or from conversations that I hear of things that need to be taken care of. And that’s what I do. Then I take that hat off and I give it back to them so that I can be an actor. So it’s not to, you know, kind of act like I’m, you know, running the joint, you know? It’s a team thing. And that’s kind of where I come from when it comes to wearing these two hats. And of course to make sure that everyone knows about this film, you know, about how great it is and what we did when we, you know, what we’ve made and what we want you to share, you know, what – the experience that we want you to share in Steel Magnolias. That’s my part. You know? So I have – it’s not like a very clear one line version of what I actually do but that’s primarily what you would see. The rest is way behind the scenes that you can’t get access to bro. So, you know, back up.
You always seem to attempt to chose positive roles, do you have a criteria for choosing your roles?
Queen Latifah:Well first of all it’s the quality of the material and also it’s who’s involved, you know, who’s a part of what we’re going to do. And then it’s also, you know, I like to kind of service the full audience of America at least. So I try to do things that are maybe just real artistic. They don’t have the most money but it’s a great piece of work. Then there’s like big, fun comedies, big animated movies for kids like I want to do things for my nieces and nephews. So I mean my – it’s always been a kind of a full circle moment for how I choose material. But I think, you know, a lot of it is based upon, you know, what the material is and then who’s involved, you know, and who is it going to service. You know, because ultimately we’re trying to deliver something entertaining to an audience. So as long as it can entertain the audience, if it makes me laugh I think, you know, if it makes my, you know, my nephew laugh or my niece laugh then I think it’s good. You know, if it makes someone laugh or cry then those things are good. I mean it’s a very varied, you know, I definitely service, you know, my African American audience but I also want to service other audiences, you know, of different cultures. So if there are other cultural things that can be involved in it I like to make it diverse because I grew up in New York and New Jersey and so I’m used to growing up around a different, you know, different cultures. So if there’s something that can, you know, kind of be involved in that sense I always want to, you know, give a little something there. So it varies, you know, but ultimately those are the main things. As long as we service the audience, we give people the entertaining night, you know, that’s kind of how I choose things.
xWhat would you like to tell viewers?
Zadan: We just hope that people watch the movie and we’re very proud of it. And we hope that this being the third project that Queen Latifah has done with us we can’t wait for the fourth.
Queen Latifah:For sure. I like it. Well I just hope that people watch – tune in and watch it and experience something unique. There is so much to watch out there but I think this is extremely special and I think it will be something that will live in people’s hearts for years to come. So I hope everyone tunes in to watch.
This Sunday at 9 p.m. on LIFETIME, an all star cast comes to television for the world-premier Original Movie Event!