LOS ANGELES — It’s a good thing that “Hairspray” is just a movie because had Queen Latifah been around in the post-Jim Crow era ’60s, it might have been a tad difficult for her to endure some of the discrimination her memorable character Motormouth Maybelle did.
The brash, but never disrespectful, singer-actress would probably have been forced to fire off a few rounds — verbally and literally — kind of like what the Transformers had to do when they found themselves in an unwelcoming environment.
“The ’60s were kind of hard core,” Latifah, 37, said during an interview to discuss her role in the remake of the 1988 musical that hits theaters on Friday, as well as some of the film’s not-so-subtle messages about racism. “I might have had to be hosed down and bitten by some dogs. They were also pretty damn creative times, but knowing me, I probably would have had to take some folks out. So, I’m cool with where I’m at now.”
She’s definitely in a good place now. The Oscar-nominated actress and Grammy-winning rapper is playing a plus-sized, blonde-haired business owner and TV host alongside an ensemble cast that also includes: John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, James Marsden, Amanda Bynes, Zac Efron, Brittany Snow, Elijah Kelley and newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who plays the overweight high school kid who someone manages to use dance to break down physical and racial stereotypes.
The film also reunites Latifah with her “Chicago” bosses Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who indicated that the actress-singer on their very, very short list of Motormouth possibilities.
“We had this horrifying moment where we said let’s make a list for Maybelle,” Zadan said. “And we thought Queen Latifah and we went ‘uh’ and then nobody else. I mean literally nobody else. And then we freaked out and went ‘omigod, what if she says no?’ We had no second choice.”
They didn’t even have a script. But Latifah, who had also worked with director Adam Shankman in “Bringing Down the House,” was so impressed with their track record that she stepped out on faith and into a multi-colored, sequined caftan.
“I knew they would do right by me,” she said.
Finding dignity in every role
They did. Although Motormouth is a little over-the-top with her blonde wigs and wild costumes, Latifah, who made her film debut in 1991’s “Jungle Fever,” always manages to bring her own special brand of dignity to every role. She was also taken with the film’s subplot that gave all the character s an opportunity to address a couple of isms.
“We talk about the racism, we talk about the size-ism, but I relate to the confidence that Motormouth tries to get people to feel,” Latifah said. “She has to be a pretty confident woman to own this record store, to be a host on TV and to make all these kids think that she’s actually cool enough to hang out with. I think a lot of people make bad decisions when they don’t have high confidence. When their self-esteem is low, they’re willing to tolerate things that they shouldn’t.
“I think ‘Hairspray’ is one of those movies that has some messages in there but we just don’t knock you over the head with it and tell you what to do.”
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Slideshow: Celebrity Sightings No one tells the Queen (aka Dana Owens) what to do either. The Newark, N.J. native burst onto the scene as a rapper back in the ’90s when very few women were even allowed to penetrate that good ‘ol boyz club. After establishing herself in movies with roles in films like “Set it Off,” “Living Out Loud,” “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” “Chicago,” “Stranger Than Fiction”; and on television in the long-running sitcom “Living Single,” Latifah, whose confidence cup overfloweth, has learned how to turn “no’s” into “yes, ma’ams.”
It’s easier to do that when you’re the CEO of your own company, Flava Unit, but it doesn’t hurt when the people who control the traffic lights in Hollywood, see nothing but green once they get past your color and size.
“People are who they are in Hollywood and you certainly run into people who have certain biases, but at the end of the day you don’t stop pushing,” she said. “If there’s one hard-headed person who doesn’t get you and refuses to change, you go around him. There’s somebody else who’s going to get it and those are the people you want to reconnect with.”
‘She doesn’t judge’
It appears that her “Hairspray” co-stars get her.
“She reminds me of Oprah in a lot of ways because she’s so wonderful,” Travolta said. “There’s this graciousness about her and richness of spirit. She always makes you feel so comfortable, in good hands and cared for. She doesn’t judge. She’s rich in personality.”
And while Blonsky went on about how cool it was to work with one of her “idols,” Pfeiffer found the Queen a bit distracting.
“The hardest thing about working with her is that we’d just crack up,” Pfeiffer said. “There was one scene in which I was particularly hateful to her and I was being so stupid and I was really having a hard time not laughing. I’m so grateful that she’s so (cool) because and has such a great sense of humor because I couldn’t do those scenes with anyone who wasn’t. She enabled me to really go for it and really commit because I knew she was feeling how hard it was for me.”
With two more films in the can and a summer concert tour to complete, one of the only things Latifah is feeling these days is tired. When asked what was the one thing she hadn’t had an opportunity to do in her career, she responded, “Sleep.
“I hear about it, but it’s just this elusive thing that people keep telling me about — especially people who don’t work, they know about it. And people who drink a lot — no, I’m just playing. Um, I want to do some kind of smart thriller, action kind of crime drama. I want to shoot a gun again because that’s always kind of fun for me because you don’t get to do that in real life. And I wouldn’t mind doing some type of sci-fi thing. I like sci-fi.”
Could there be a “Transformers 2” in her future?
“Sure, as long as I get to shoot something.”
Miki Turner is a freelance TV producer/writer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com
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