Queen Latifah turned to her mother for inspiration in her role as Motormouth Maybelle in the big-screen remake of “Hairspray,” which opens in theaters on Friday.
“My mom was a high school teacher,” the Queen of Hip-Hop told TODAY host Meredith Vieira in front of a crowd of screaming fans Monday on the plaza at Rockefeller Center. “She was like the cool teacher, the one that kids would go to if they had problems. Motormouth Maybelle inspires these kids in the movie to go for their dreams. In that sense, she definitely reminded me of my mom. I took a bit of my mom and injected it in the character.”
A musical comedy dealing with racial integration, music and high-school romantic rivalries set in the 1960s in Baltimore, “Hairspray” was originally released as a movie in 1988 and subsequently produced as a long-running Broadway hit. The new movie is produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who have resurrected musical comedies as a cinematic staple, and directed by Adam Shankman.
The movie also stars John Travolta, who plays the supersized and curvaceous Edna, along with Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, teen heartthrob Zac Efron and Long Island teenager Nikki Blonsky, who plays the movie’s heroine, Tracy Turnblad.
Motormouth Maybelle is a platinum blonde in the movie, and Latifah told Vieira she loved the role, even wearing the platinum wig to the movie’s premiere.
“Nobody told me how dangerous platinum blondes could be,” she said. “It was fun. That’s part of the joy of acting, becoming another person. Every time I put that wig on, I felt like Motormouth Maybelle.”
In her last role in a musical comedy — also produced by Zadan and Meron — Latifah was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actress in “Chicago.”
Such movies, she told Vieira, “don’t come along very often. It’s just about having some fun with it. I can’t say blondes have more fun, but me, as a blonde, I definitely have more fun.”
The producers came to her, asking her to take a part in a movie that didn’t even have a script. But Latifah said she wanted to work with them again, as well as with Shankman, who had directed her and Steve Martin in the comedy “Bringing Down the House.”
Burger King beginnings
The real star of the show, she said, is Blonsky, a 4-foot-11, plus-sized girl who was working part time in an ice cream shop on Long Island when she sent in audition tapes to land the lead role. Latifah said she could relate to Blonsky, because she was working in a Burger King when she started her singing career.
Also, Latifah told Vieira, “She is extremely talented, but so poised and so humble. In that sense she reminds me of me. She can be around all these big stars with this big-budget movie, but she’s just the same person. I can’t imagine somebody else playing this roll.
“She was born to play this role.”
The role is of a high-school girl, the daughter of the oversized Edna, whose dream is to appear on TV on the Corny Collins Show, a teenaged dance and talent show. Once a month, the program devotes a show to “Negro Day,” co-hosted by Motormouth Maybelle. Along the way to winning the boy and vying for the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray, Tracy and Maybelle integrate the show.
Latifah said that Travolta is so good in his role as Edna, that after he came out of makeup, she’d forget who was really underneath all those curves.
“I’d start holding the door for him,” she laughed.
Latifah is scheduled to return to TODAY on Friday with other cast members to perform some numbers from the movie.