Bringing Down the House : An Interview with Queen Latifah
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Interviewed by Wilson Morales
Bringing Down the House: An Interview with Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah is one of becoming one hell of a role model for African-American women. She first came out in 1989 with her ground breaking album debut, All Hail The Queen. She has won a Grammy and established her own musical production company. Wanting more, she started acting and her first film was Jungle Fever. From there, she got her own TV show Living Single, which had a loyal following. When the show folded years later, she hosted a one-hour syndicated talk show. Subsequent film roles came along. Her roles in Set It Off, Living Out Loud, and The Bone Collector garnered some attention. Last year was her biggest film year so far as she was part of talented ensemble films Brown Sugar and Chicago. Her role as Mama Matron Morton in the latter was so good; her acting peers have nominated her an SAG Award and an Oscar nomination. Now, in her biggest film role, Queen Latifah has a lead role opposite Steve Martin in Bringing Down the House. In an interview with blackfilm.com, she talks about her nomination call and her choice to make her current film less offensive.
WM: Whatís it like to get the call (Oscar Nomination)?
QL: Itís pretty intense. Itís pretty high. You just take off. I wasnít expecting that call. Iím glad I wasnít that call because I got to feel it. I wasnít like sitting in front of the TV and waiting for the announcement. I was coming off one of hell of a weekend at the NBA All-Star game. I was recovering on the way back from all the parties and the game and everything. I was up all night watching the first season of ďGood TimesĒ on the tour bus on the way back home. It was very drafty on the bus and I couldnít sleep, and it wasnít our normal and I was feeling all weird. I fell asleep an hour before I got home. I was drowsy when I got home, and just got under my covers when the phone rang. It was my partner Sha-Kim (Compere), and he was like ďYo, we got the nominationĒ, and I was like ďWhat nomination?Ē He said ďThe Oscar nominationĒ, and I was like ďNo way.Ē So I just went jumping and running around the house and screaming and woke up my best friend. She was the other side of the house and my assistant was downstairs sleeping and I dived on top on her and woke her up. I said ďYo, we got it.Ē So it was pretty exhilarating. I was shocked.
WM: Back in December when we first spoke about Oscar nominations during interviews for film, you said you werenít optimistic as a Black woman. Has the nomination reevaluated your thinking?
QL: Theyíre getting hip in their old age at 75. Theyíre getting sharp. I havenít really evaluated all my thinking. I still we live in a country that judges people by the color of their skin unfortunately. Thatís always going to play a part in various elements of human life in America. But, I thought the movie was great and Iím just glad that everybody got a nomination. I thought Richard (Gere) should have been nominated as well. I really think he did and Oscar worthy performance. Iím just glad the movie was recognized in the way that it was and everyone from wardrobe to editing to sound editing to screenwriting got recognized. Itís not just about the actors all the time. Rob and I were on the phone and asking ourselves if we could believe this. Itís a disbelief that everyone is recognizing what we already thought was special.
WM: Some say the fun part about going to the Oscars is picking out the dress. Do you feel the same way?
QL: Picking out a dress is the stylistís job. You should not let her do all the running around and leg work and I just look at pictures and I tell her how I want to feel and what I want to wear in terms of my level of comfort and colors and things like that. Iím not really taking on the stress of that whole thing. Iíve been working and doing other things. I havenít had time to get totally caught up in it because I handling business with this film and things down the road. I let them (the stylists) do the stressing and I just say yes or no.
WM: Can you talk the avalanche of designers that come to you and say ďPlease wear our dress?Ē and do you have to wear a dress from the big names?
QL: I could wear whatever I want to wear. If I see something fly enough thatís not a dress, I will wear it. Thatís the thinking I had for the Golden Globes Awards. My thinking was that everyone will out in some long black dress, and I wanted do something different. This guy I know had the perfect choices, clean and classy and sexy. Everything was really working, so we stuck with it. As far as the big names, who doesnít like to wear a million dollars worth of jewels? Imagine walking with 4-5 million dollars worth of jewels and a bodyguard, who doesnít care about you, but as long as the jewels donít stolen, will be by your side all night. Itís definitely an avalanche right now. Everyoneís calling, and trying to dress me up, which is a good thing, because they know who they are addressing. Some of them are calling just because Iím full-figured and they want to show what they can do in my size range. So, thatís kind of cool. Thatís the important part of it. You got to know how make a girl look good. Iím just looking forward to that basket. Once you get over the shock of being nominated and join the academy, that means I get free tapes next years, and I get that basket with all those goodies. I performed on the Oscars before and I got a basket full of stuff and it took me a good hour to get through it all the things in it. It was just so much. There were tickets to fabulous places, spa treatments, hair products, and jewelry, and watches, and clocks, and scarves, and I wasnít even a winner and even nominated at the time. I canít wait to see whatís in the basket this year. Itís always fun.
WM: You mentioned that we still live in a country where some get judged by the color of their skin. Do movies reflect it?
QL: I think so. I think they show how ridiculous it is; how ridiculous racism is and we could all wind being ponds to that mentality and to that attitude, especially when weíre not in a position of power or worried about our position in power. For a lot of people, it about the environment they live in. Being sheltered and not being exposed to lot of cultures, and it allows you to live in a bubble and makes you fear the unknown.
WM: How tough was it to make the comedy work and a get a cross over appeal because there is fun poked at the both side and nobody gets out unscathed?
QL: Thatís the whole point. Thereís good and bad in everyone and letís laugh at it. Letís make of it all. But it (the character) wasnít hard to play. Once we got the script where it needed to be and chucked out a lot of the extremely offensive stuff and the stuff that didnít really work for these characters, it made Steve Martinís character a bit stronger because it was initially pretty weak and we had to punch that up. He had to have a stronger presence. And then you have ďHowieĒ played by Eugene Levy, who just loves thick black women period. He doesnít care what people say. This guy just does it. So, youíre looking at a guy who cares and a guy who doesnít. So you get to see different sides of people and by the end of the film, Joan Plowrightís character is turned around. Itís probably the most fun sheís had in years. Sometimes it just works like that. It was easy to do.
WM: Were there any jokes in the original script that offended you and that you wouldnít do?
QL: Yeah, there were some, but like I said before, thereíre gone. There were some scenes my character would have been cursing if she done the things she was asked to do, but we chop the scenes down to make it shorter and make it work. But the scenes are funny as hell.
WM: Was there any concern that some scenes may not work and that some may see them as over-the-top racism be offended?
QL: People still might get offended. Thereís always that possibility. You canít please everyone all the time. We are willing to take chance with it. We think that itís a comedy and itís meant to be laughed at and not taken too seriously anyway. Itís almost like you have to give the audience permission to go to the movies and laugh. Just go watch it and laugh because itís funny as hell. Iím willing to bet on the fact that you will laugh if you go and see it. The chances are that you will laugh more than be upset or angry about it. You sort of roll the dice with it anyway. So, Iím rolling the dice.
WM: You have been a pioneer on some many levels of the music. Can you talk about the challenges of being an executive producer of a studio film and making some of decisions for the soundtrack?
QL: Well, we did executive produced the soundtrack and we let Michael McQuarn, the music supervisor, do his thing and have free reign. We made some decision, but overall we let do his thing. As far as the movie, this was the capacity that came to me with and I thought it was a great opportunity to be in on the creative side before it was done instead of just taking a job as an actor. We were looking to produce a number of films anyway as Flavor Unit Films. This was a good way to get our feet wet. So, it was cool to me.
WM: How was working with Steve Martin?
QL: Steve is just a pleasure to work with. He will whip out a banjo on you at any given moment. He so damn talented itís amazing. Watching him and Eugene Levy rehearse was probably more fun because they would come up with funniest gags for the movie. Just watching those two guys work together was great. Everybody came to the table willing to be like little kids just to watch these guys make us laugh. Thatís what like the joy of working with Steve and making this film.
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