Queen Latifah Talks to Tim Nasson about Hairspray
Queen Latifah – born and known in the music world as Dana Owens – was one of the members of the original version of the Flavor Unit, which, at that time, was a crew of emcees grouped around producer DJ Mark the 45 King. She was also a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths, a Faradian Islamic sect. After becoming successful, DJ Mark the 45 King began to abuse drugs, and Latifah took over the crew, forming it into her management company with the help of Jake Abrams.
Queen Latifah started her career beat boxing for the rap group Ladies Fresh. In 1988, local DJ Mark the 45 King heard a demo version of Latifah’s single “Princess of the Posse” and gave the demo to Fab Five Freddy, who was the host of Yo! MTV Raps. Freddy helped Latifah sign with Tommy Boy Records, which released Latifah’s first album All Hail the Queen in 1989, when she was 19. In that same year, she also appeared as Referee on the UK label Music of Life album “1989—The Hustlers Convention (live).” Her debut managed to be both a critical and a commercial success and was followed by the albums Nature of a Sista and Black Reign, which contained the Grammy Award winning hit single, U.N.I.T.Y. In 1998, she released her fourth hip-hop album Order in the Court. In 2004 she released the soul/jazz standards The Dana Owens Album.
On July 11th, 2007, Latifah made her singing debut at the famed Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles as the headliner act in a live jazz concert. Before an enthusiastic crowd of more than 12,400, she was backed by a 10-piece live orchestra and three backup vocalists, aka The Queen Latifah Orchestra. In the concert, Latifah performed new arrangements of standards including California Dreaming, first made popular by ’60s icons The Mama’s and The Papa’s.
Queen Latifah had a starring role on Living Single, a FOX sitcom; she also wrote and performed its theme music. She began her film career in a supporting role in the 1991 films House Party 2, Juice, and Jungle Fever.
Queen Latifah first attracted notice for her role portraying a lesbian in the 1996 box-office hit, Set It Off and subsequently had a supporting role in the Holly Hunter film Living Out Loud (1998). She later played the role of Thelma in the 1999 movie adaptation of Jeffrey Deavers’ The Bone Collector alongside Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. Although she had already received some critical acclaim, she gained mainstream success after being cast as Matron “Mama” Morton in the Oscar-winning musical Chicago, the recipient of the Best Picture Oscar. Latifah received an Academy Award nomination for “Best Supporting Actress” for her role. In 2003 she co-starred with Steve Martin in the film Bringing Down the House, which was a big success at the box office. Since then, she has had both leading and supporting roles in a multitude of films that received varied critical and box office receptions, including Scary Movie 3, Barbershop 2: Back in Business, Taxi, Kung Faux, and Beauty Shop.
Wild About Movies recently sat with “Queen Latifah,” costar of “Hairspray The Movie” at The Four Seasons at Beverly Hills Hotel.
Wild About Movies: QUEEN! WERE YOU FAMILIAR WITH THE STAGE MUSICAL AND THE PREVIOUS MOVIE?
Queen Latifah: Yes. I hadn’t seen the movie in quite a while but I definitely went and saw the play. And that’s where Tevin Campbell is. Tevin Campbell, he’s on Broadway. That was pretty much my extent of it.
Wild About Movies: HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED WITH THIS MOVIE? WHAT WAS THE PROCESS?
Queen Latifah: The idea of it came up. My agents called me. We came and met with Neil and Craig here at the Four Seasons and sat down and had some lunch and there was no script and most of the cast was not in place but I worked with them on “Chicago.” I know how they work. I have a good relationship with them. Adam was directing. I’ve worked with Adam. We had a great relationship so I knew that was going to be a breeze and it’s his element. I think John was involved, too. John was probably the only person cast other than me. And so I kind of banked on the quality control of those guys that the script would be right and they talked to me about the character and how important she is to these kids really making a change. And I thought that was cool. And that I would have some good music to sing. That was nice.
Wild About Movies: DID YOU BASE YOUR CHARACTER ON SOMEONE FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD OR DID YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR PERFORMER OR SINGER IN MIND?
Queen Latifah: No. Not so much a performer, well, I tried to use some of the rap rhythm that I have in the repertoire. Some of the disc jockeys that used to kind of talk very rhythmically. This character usually speaks in rhymes, and although that was changed for the film, we still wanted to keep a little bit of that rhythm. So there’s certain places where I was able to inject that into it. But a lot of her is based on my mom who was a high school teacher and was one of those teachers that was really cool with the kids and they would come to her if they had some problems at home, if they got pregnant, you know whatever was going on, they would come to Ms. O because she respected kids and she understood they needed to have respect just as much as give it. You know people are always trying to tell kids what to do like they have no mind and they’re stupid and all this kind of stuff but when there was no heat in the school or when the books weren’t there, she was like, “Hey, you need to organize and protest, you know, sit in.” Of course, the administration didn’t know why suddenly three hundred students were in the auditorium quietly sitting there. But she was that kind of teacher that would help empower kids. And so that spirit is part of who I think Motormouth Maybelle is. She wants to see the future for them change. She wants them to have the same opportunities, black kids for sure to have the same opportunities, and even a pleasingly plump little girl named Tracy Turnblad. So nothing should stand in the way of your dream. And I think that’s kind of who she is. I got a lot of that from my mom.
Wild About Movies: “HAIRSPRAY THE MOVIE” IS FULL OF GREAT MUSICAL NUMBERS, BUT IT SEEMS YOUR NUMBER IN THE MARCH WAS THE SHOW STOPPER. YOU DO HAVE EXPERIENCE WITH MUSICALS. WE SHALL NOT FORGER YOUR OSCAR NOMINATED PERFORMANCE IN “CHICAGO.”
Queen Latifah: Thank you.
Wild About Movies: TALK ABOUT FILMING THAT SCENE? WAS IT EMOTIONAL TO YOU?
Queen Latifah: It was definitely emotional to me. It was something I would not allow myself to forget. And it’s easy when you got a bunch of young people around you and they’re cracking jokes all the time and they’re talking. But I didn’t feel that type of seriousness where I needed to make everybody be quiet, where I was so in the moment that I needed to have that. Sometimes it’s like that on a movie set and you’re in it and you don’t want to hear a bunch of crazy stuff going on, but I would never have so much fun that I would allow myself to forget that somebody marched so I could do this. And someone got bit by a dog and hosed by fire hoses so that we could do this, so we could sit at this table together, all of us, of different nationalities and races and talk. Or dance. Or make music. Yeah, that scene was emotional, too. It was weird because they wet the street down, one of the streets we shot on. And it was like I’m looking at all these kids, these black people, and this truck is shooting this water out and I’m like, it just reminded me of seeing images of people getting hosed and falling down and running and fear. So, yeah, all that was in the back of my head. All that was like underneath.
Wild About Movies: I THINK I SAW A TEAR COMING DOWN YOUR CHEEK. WAS THERE A TEAR COMING DOWN?
Queen Latifah: You might have. You might have because I love that song. The song alone just gets me there. Just the lyrics, the melody and the emotion of it, so I mean I’m glad because this movie stays here for the whole time and there’s a couple of scenes that give you a minute to catch your breath and just sort of go into a different place and then it shoots you right back up. So you leave feeling good. I got you on that.
Wild About Movies: DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU’RE DIFFERENT FROM THE REST OF HOLLYWOOD FOR TAKING THESE CHANCES?
Queen Latifah: To do musicals?
Wild About Movies: TO DO THE INTERRACIAL MUSICAL – THIS AND CHICAGO?
Queen Latifah: No. No, not really. I think if anything Hollywood’s going to be mad because they didn’t get a hold of that properly first. Neil and Craig scooped it up. They did what they had to do. No. That kind of stuff is interesting to watch. And I think what’s different about this movie is it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. It’s all over the movie, it’s there. But it’s a comedy, you know what I mean? Some people I think get nervous going to watch movies that involve some racism or size-ism for that matter because they feel like they don’t want to feel guilty about things or they don’t want to feel like, “Yeah, my grandfather owned your grandfather, but that’s not me.” You know what I mean? They don’t want to feel bad about it. And black people don’t want to feel like “Oh, there they go, dogging us out again.” You know? But this is not really that kind of movie. It speaks to it, it says something about it, but the way it deals with it keeps you in the right… It keeps you in a light place at the end of the day.
Wild About Movies: ARE YOU DOING THE LILY TOMLIN ROLE IN THE “ALL OF ME” REMAKE?
Queen Latifah: Yes. I got the cush job. [laughs] Whoever’s not going to be Lily Tomlin is going to be doing some serious work. Yeah. But we’re hearing a bunch of pitches. We’re supposed to pick one next week, pick a writer next week. Everybody’s been coming in and pitching. Adam’s sister and New Line and they’re kind of just weeding through the pile and then we’ll decide.
Wild About Movies: HAS ANYONE ELSE BEEN ATTACHED?
Queen Latifah: No, no, no. Just me, New Line and Adam Shankman. Adam’s company. But Adam’s not directing necessarily. We’re just producing it together.
Wild About Movies: ARE YOU WORKING ON ANY RECORDING RIGHT NOW?
Queen Latifah: Yes. I’m about to finish my album in the next two weeks. It’ll be done by the 30th. Another half like jazz and eclectic stuff, you know, all covers. It’ll be out on September 18th.
Wild About Movies: WHAT’S IT CALLED?
Queen Latifah: “Trav’lin’ Light.”