Getting To Know Queen Latifah
What’s Your Favorite Sports Team?
Have to be the [New York] Giants.
If You Could Only Have Three Shows On Your TV, What Would They Be?
It would have to be Grey’s Anatomy … let’s [also] go with CSI … and somebody’s 6 o’clock news so I know what the hell is going on!
Have You Ever Been Starstruck By Anyone?
What Has Been Your Strangest Fan Encounter?
This girl once gave me a bat. A dead bat wrapped up in a nice box. I think she was witch — San Francisco, you know, it’s crazy the type of people you get there. She really meant it as a sincerely nice gift. I was like, “What the hell is that shit?!? It’s a fucking bat! Oh, my god, it’s a bat!” It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever gotten. No one’s been able to top that, and I don’t want them to. Don’t top it!
The fact that Dana Owens’ more recognizable entertainment name, Queen Latifah, means “delicate and sensitive” in Arabic makes perfect sense upon meeting her in person. She fits that description entirely as she gracefully floats into a suite at the Ritz-Carlton, appropriately singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” to herself as she grabs a little lunch before sitting down for an interview. And Latifah admits that she’s a very sensitive person, describing how just listening to a Hezekiah Walker gospel song brought tears to her eyes when she realized how blessed she felt.
But don’t let her sensitive side fool you. She’s just as strong and outspoken as she was back in the day when she first started making waves in the often misogynistic “boys’ club” of hip-hop and rap. And much as her music helped fight back against the sexist rhymes prevalent in that industry, her acting career has helped Latifah get across other messages, such as the fact that women need more confidence in themselves, regardless of their dress size.
In her latest project, Latifah’s role helps address another vitally important topic — the often-ignored predominance of HIV and AIDS within the black community, particularly among women (who are diagnosed at 20 times the rate of white women).
In the HBO original Life Support, premiering March 10, Latifah plays Ana Wallace, a woman who has been living HIV-positive for many years, ever since contracting the virus from her husband (played by an excellent Wendell Pierce) via his use of dirty needles during their drug-filled younger days. Now that they are both clean and sober, the stubborn Ana is working with an HIV/AIDS outreach group, and has pretty much learned to fight through the pain of her disease. But she is now facing other consequences of her past actions, mainly in trying to reconnect with her oldest daughter, Kelly (newcomer Rachel Nicks). The film is inspired by the true story of writer/director Nelson George’s sister, Andrea Williams.
“There was a lot that was on the page, but I had to talk to [Andrea],” says Latifah about the model for her character. “She and I had real conversations about things. I felt like we had a bond, not just because we’re both Pisces [laughs], but because we kind of hung out around some of the same areas [growing up]. I really could relate to that character, I could relate to her life, what she went through, because I went through some of that. Outside of HIV, there were a lot of things we actually had in common [in our youth] — just hanging out, experimenting with things, being adventurous. Kind of that ‘living on the edge’ as a teenager thing. Looking for love, of course, along the way. Her passion, I think, is really important, too. She’s a real passionate person. She’s probably a little more hardcore than me in certain ways, I guess. But underneath that, there’s a sensitive side.
“I think [Andrea] gave me pretty much what I needed before we even started the movie, just us talking. I didn’t have time to go to support groups [for research], really. They came to us and did a demonstration of what one of their groups would be like, explained a lot of the drugs that they deal with, a lot of the things that they encounter on the streets. So I kind of got the luxury of having them explain where we were, as opposed to going to any presentation they might have done in the neighborhoods.”
Filming in Brooklyn took Latifah back to her younger days, and she knew that was vital for her to fully inhabit this character.
“From the moment I said ‘yes’ to the movie to the moment we were shooting was a month. That’s not a lot of time. I was [in L.A.] working, and by the time I got to New York — I knew I had to come home and, like, just breathe Brooklyn again, just breathe New York again — it was so quick. My [producing] partner Shakim [Compere] grew up in Brooklyn, too, so it was kind of weird for us to be back [there] when half our lives we spent trying to get out of Brooklyn. That was good, being able to bring that back home. It’s always fun to shoot in New Jersey and New York.”
Talking about her old stomping grounds is a good example of Latifah’s balance between sensitivity and strength. After a moment of nostalgia about the old neighborhood, she explains some of the changes that have taken place.
“It’s changed a lot, it’s built up. For the good, to a certain degree. I like to see areas that were kind of not in so good of shape now becoming viable. But, you know what comes along with viability is gentrification half the time. So I hate to see Brooklyn lose its flavor. Its flavor is its big West Indian community, its big Jewish community, its big Hispanic community, its big black community, its big white community — there’s so many cultures in Brooklyn, that you want to see it keep its flavor, you know what I mean? I just don’t want to see it become all corporate. Just everybody from Manhattan who needs a spot to crash takes all the sweet stuff. It’s nice to see some of the areas. They’ve done a good job with a lot of these buildings. Of course, it makes certain areas a lot safer, so it has its plusses, of course, and its minuses.”
Latifah is no less outspoken when we return to the subject of her film — the women living with HIV and struggling to halt its spread.
“What pissed me off, I think, the most about this,” she says, “is that the Bush administration [doesn’t] want to federally fund non-faith-based organizations that are trying to prevent [the spread of] AIDS and HIV, or trying to educate people. It’s like, if you don’t abstain, you don’t get government money. When I see what these women are doing every day … they’re saving lives on a daily basis on the ground level. They’re testing people in neighborhoods, young kids and guys — people who would never think of going to a clinic and taking a test. Finding certain people that are positive and making them aware of it. [These women are] our infantry. It’s just like in Iraq — to not give them armor, to not give them weapons — the tools they need to fight this war — it’s really sad. It makes you angry. It shouldn’t be about your religion, what you believe in. It should be about the fact that a disease is waging a war against our people, and we need to fight it, it’s that simple. I’m kind of upset about that because I see how hard they’re working and how they’re limited in their funds.
“[People will] get the message [about HIV] when they [are allowed to] get the message! They need to get the information and the knowledge first. Some people will get it, and some people won’t, but at least you give them a chance to digest it for themselves. And a lot of women deal with a lot of pressure, whether it’s pressure to stroke a guy’s ego and fake — I mean, come on, how many women fake orgasms? Why do you fake orgasms? Why not be honest and say, ‘This is not pleasing me’? Because we have been trained to be nice to guys, trained to be submissive to guys, stroke their egos. And that’s killing us. Not only is it killing us, it’s really deluding them and makes the situation worse. So for a guy to say, ‘I don’t really want to wear a condom, it doesn’t feel as good,’ we’re used to taking that. Why are we still taking it? [Women] really need to say, ‘Well, if you don’t wear this condom, you can’t have any.’ That will change the tune fairly quickly for a lot of guys. They just need to be confronted with another, ‘I see that and I raise you one’ situation! I think it’s cultural, societal, could be religious, [the fact that] we’re always put in this second-class place. I also think there are, of course, guys who are out there who are bisexual, and committing adultery, and trying to cover it and come home, and don’t wear condoms at home and don’t wear condoms out there. Women just have to protect themselves more, and so do guys. You can’t [always] trust these women. There are a lot of scandalous women out here, too. You used to think, ‘Okay, men cheat.’ Well, women cheat, and I know a lot of them. So you can’t go with that anymore. We have to protect our sons and daughters.”
This passion of Latifah’s reflects that of Andrea Williams, who has become a strong crusader as she continues to live with HIV, so it’s easy to understand why Nelson George considered Latifah to be the logical person to play his sister.
As Williams adapted her life to become the person she is today, Latifah herself has had some revelations upon getting older. “The older I get, the more I want to give,” she says. “There are certain things I had to remove from my life, certain people. That’s always hard. I think I’ll always try to keep friends and family close, and if anything, I’ve tried to learn how to balance this career with family and friend time. And myself — taking time for myself. Because if I’m not balanced, it’s hard to keep this whole thing going. My career is always demanding; [it] always says, ‘Give me more, give me more.'”
More indeed. Three days before we spoke she had hosted the People’s Choice Awards “That was so much fun!” she enthuses. “It wasn’t my first awards show, but it was my first time hosting People’s Choice. It was just a totally different vibe. It was, like, simple. It wasn’t so meticulous, celebrity over the top. It was just fun from the beginning right to the end. And it’s the people’s thing — that makes it special.”
In January she was to begin recording a jazz album for Verve Records. Her next film, the big-screen adaptation of the musical Hairspray, hits theaters in July. And this month, she begins shooting Mad Money with Diane Keaton.
Even with all of this action, she remains balanced. “I’ve learned how to make those [career] decisions a little better and really keep my spiritual side fed, try to get to church more. I really feel better; I feel stronger. Other than that, I just try to live and have fun, because it’s not promised. Especially since [my film] Last Holiday, I sort of have been living every day as much as I can like it’s my last. That movie was probably more of a revelation [for me] than [anything else].”