Queen Latifah talks “Steel Magnolias,” cooking with Dolly and digging deep for a role

Understandably, there are some mixed emotions about this weekend’s remake of Steel Magnolias. If the knockout cast hasn’t helped buoy your feelings, you should also know that two of the producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, are a superstar duo who also worked with Queen Latifah on Chicago and Hairspray. In other words, they know how to redo big stories right.

At a recent press roundtable, Zadan, Meron, and The Queen took some time to answer some questions about this highly-anticipated film, to air on Lifetime on Sunday night.

Q: Can you talk about how this version is going to be different than the original?
Craig Zadan: We approached it as though it was a new piece of writing. We’re not doing anything to copy the original production, because the original play was amazing and the original movie was amazing. And the same way as if you work in the theater, you do what they call revivals. 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.

Q: OK, great. And will we get to hear any of your music on the soundtrack, Queen Latifah?
Queen Latifah:
I wish! No. I mean it wasn’t really about the music. It was really more about performances. I mean if you were to hear my music you might as well hear Phylicia sing, and you would want to hear Alfre sing because that would be the best worst thing you’ve ever heard, which would be awesome. But no, I mean I think the music is going to be really beautiful and really apropos to what we’re trying, you know, really apply to the material.

Q: Given M’Lynn’s journey throughout the story, how much support did you receive from the other actresses in order to play her effectively?
Queen Latifah:
I think we got a great cast, and of course I got a great amount of support from our veteran actors. You know, in Afemo and Phylicia and Alfre. 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 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.

And so I got a great amount of support. And on the off times, there was great conversation. I mean how can you have “Clair Huxtable” and not pick her brain? This is the world’s mom. I mean she was the Michelle Obama before Michelle Obama. But she’s not Clair Huxtable. She is Phylicia Rashad, and has so many more cool points than Clair ever even had. 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. 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.

Q: We talked a little bit about this incredible cast and I wanted to hear a little bit about the down time that you got to spend with each other. I mean did you all go out to dinner or…?
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 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 hair and makeup trailer together just playing music and watching videos. Because Adepero and Condola were always on the iPad playing Ms. Pac-Man, and I’m always playing house music. You might as well go to XM Studio 54. I’m taking them to the club, you know.

Our down time sometimes was just a little conversation. And every once in a while we would just give pause because we actually appreciate the fact that we were doing this film, the fact that we were all together – we felt like we had come to a place that was so important.

But then you’ve got to count on Alfre to always be the one that’s going to break up the monotony. 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. 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. 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.

Q: The movie is going to be really important for all people that watch it, but especially for the African American audience. I was wondering if you ever experienced any kind of push back from the film? Because when some films are recast with minority actors in traditionally Caucasian roles, there’s sometimes a bit of a thing with some people. So have you had any kind of negative response or is it mostly just positive?
Neil Meron:
If there is push back we’re not aware of it. When we go out and we talk to people they’re so excited about seeing this film because it means so much to them. So no, I don’t think we’ve experienced any push back at all.

Q: Queen Latifah, what is your personal criteria for choosing which projects to do?
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 who is it going to service. 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, or 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 very varied. I definitely service my African American audience but I also want to service other audiences of different cultures. 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 different cultures.

Q: It sounds like no matter what you’re doing, the three of you, no matter what you’re doing music in some ways seems to inform your process. Would you say that that’s true and in what ways?
Queen Latifah:
I can say for myself music definitely informs my emotions. And I can literally play a song that will get me where I need to be emotionally. I don’t have to, you know, think about the tragic things that happened in my life or the greatest things that happened in my life. I can just play a song that reflects that. And I think that’s a good gift to have. You know? Because, you know, a lot of actors have to really dig deep and go into deep parts to their lives and I don’t have to do that.

I can just play a song, and it’s great or it’s not so great — it feels some sort of way that makes me engage immediately. Maybe it’s the harmony on that song. Maybe it’s the strings or maybe it’s the horn or maybe it’s a jazz song. Maybe it’s a hip hop song. Maybe I’ve got to go hard. You know? Maybe I’ve got to go light and it’s a hip hop song. But either way it can connect you immediately and it makes it feel – it kind of actually shortens the time to get into that emotion, an emotional connection that you need to really portray whatever you need to do.

Q: Have you gotten any feedback from any of the original cast of the first movie? Have you gotten any feedback from Dolly Parton? because I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan. 
Queen Latifah: Can we digress for a minute and just talk about that new ride [in Dollywood]? Did you ride that ride?

Q: No, I have not ridden it yet.
Queen Latifah:
Oh man. Well, she got the new one that came out this summer. I’ve got to get down there and ride that thing. And she, you know, she can burn a pot. She cooks. She cooks every day. OK. All right. So now OK, let me back up off that though because you just sent me into a whole other world. So listen, I want some Dolly Parton cooking. I definitely want some of her — some chicken gumbo, you know?

Q: Some biscuits and gravy.
Queen Latifah:
Some dumplings. Oh yeah. I want some dumplings and some fudge and I want to get on that ride. OK. Now well, the movie hasn’t even come out so we haven’t gotten any feedback. Honestly, knowing a few of them, I don’t think they’re looking for us to, you know, knock them off the block. Do you know what I mean? That’s not the attitude that we’re approaching this with. This is a whole different scenario. And so we’re not calling all of them like okay, well what do you think about &mdsah; because you can’t — that’s a whole separate scenario. I don’t think anyone is looking at this and saying well, did she do as good a job as me? Absolutely not. You know?

I just hope that people 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.