INTERVIEW: Queen Latifah and “The Secret Life of Bees”

In the movie “The Secret Life of Bees” (opening today), Queen Latifah plays the role of August Boatwright, who along with her two sisters May (Sophie Okonedo) and June (Alicia Keys), own and operate a successful bee farm in South Carolina during the tumultuous Civil Rights era. The three women befriend a fourteen year old Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) and her caretaker Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) on their journey to discovering the truth about Lily’s mother. Lily and Rosaleen quickly become part of the Boatwright sister’s family where they are embraced with love and a sense of belonging, something they both have been searching for.

I sat down with the Queen to discuss her role as matriarch and big sister to this incredibly impressive group of women both on the set of “The Secret Life of Bees” and off. We also talked about being confident in knowing who you are and how being comfortable with yourself in life can bring great happiness.

EM: Was the role of August Boatwright tailormade for you? You were the matriarch in the film and it seems in real life with your co-stars from an experience standpoint.

QL: I would say that I agree with that. There was definitely a point where Gina (Director Gina Prince-Bythewood) and I kinda talked and I’m like “Do you need me to step up and try to be more of a leader, do you need my help with anything?” It was really about me being supportive of Gina who I know has her hands full in a short amount of time to make a lot happen. I felt comfortable in that role. I felt like ok, these are my young sisters. I gotta look out, I got be the big sister, I have to set the example. I think I’ve kind of grown into that.

When you’re young they say that you have an old soul, I’m one of those people that would say I had an old soul. Now that I’m older, you say I’m young in certain ways. But also I’m comfortable where I am at all times for the most part. I don’t feel like oh I’m getting old and I don’t feel like I’m seventeen. I’m ok right where I am. I think just me being comfortable in my own life translated into me being comfortable on that set everyday, I’m comfortable with my acting career and what I’ve been able to accomplish by the grace of God. I feel like I’m comfortable in my own personal life so I’m relaxed on a set, I’m joking. If somebody wants to focus I’m there. If we’re just chillin’ out, I’m chillin’. I’m not the person that comes on the scene all wound up in a bad mood acting like a diva and demanding things. And if anybody can…I can!

But I don’t think that that’s a good tone to set because once again, you’re going to be working together fourteen hours a day. You’ve got a short amount of time with these budgets, with this particular budget especially, to get a lot done. It’s much more fun to just click it up and have fun, connect with each other because we do have to translate this; we have to feel like family. We’re family in this movie so the quicker we gel the closer we can get to having that chemistry on screen. Luckily I met Sophie (Sophie Okonedo, “Hotel Rwanda”). I didn’t know her but I met her before with her whole experience promoting Hotel Rwanda. The same thing with Jennifer. Alicia I already knew for a while. And Dakota is just puddin’. Just precious. She’s just cool beans, you know. Not one of those bratty kids. She’s a kid but not a silly little kid. You know what I mean?

EM: She has that old soul you were talking about.

QL: She’s as much of a vet on this…she’s just so cool. You definitely want to hang out with her. If you were fourteen you’d want to be one of her friends. I was comfortable with that.

EM: When I was sat with Jennifer (Jennifer Hudson) she was talking about the realization of the moment when she was in a scene with you and Alicia and she was like “Oh my God, I’m here with Alicia Keys and Queen Latifah!” Did you ever have a moment where you think I’m here and these folks look up to me. And not in an egocentric way but do you really know who you are Queen Latifah? Do you really know?

QL: Apparently I don’t because my partner says, “La, sometimes you just gotta be selfish and be you. You gotta use who you are.” And I’m like ok…and it kinda goes in one ear and out the other. I mean I kinda know who I am but I’m never gonna know who I am in the way that other people know who I am because I’m just drawn to too many different kinds of things that are not quite as materialistic. I knew early on that I had really expensive taste so luckily I couldn’t wrap myself up in certain things because I couldn’t afford it, I was broke! Even now if I was to get caught up in all that…I can’t afford a twenty million dollar house! My boys that I ride motorcycles with laugh at me because they’re like “You’re still from the hood!” It’s just something don’t make no damn sense and some stuff I definitely indulge myself in.

I am a huge fan of Alicia Keys. She just put out an incredible album. It was cool because I got to go see her on tour after we finished wrapping, and of course Jennifer Hudson. I’m getting to hear her new music before you do. Yeah, I know who I am then! I enjoy those sides of it. She did such a good job in “Dream Girls” so I’m looking forward to where she’s gonna go to from here because she kinda got it all up front. Now you get to build the body of work that kind of goes along with getting all the accolades. She got accolades for exactly what she was supposed to get it from and there was nobody better. Now, the career if you will, that usually leads to that, is what she gets to build now. So it’s like keep working at it, challenging yourself. They’re just cool people (the cast). Sophie…cool as hell! We enjoy each other company. We like having conversations and laughing. I’m the joker of the gang usually. I’m always laughing. I’m happy unless people steal my joy!

EM: Ok, I have to ask about the bees. I’ve talked to Tristan (Tristan Wilds) and Dakota about “Bee Camp” if you will. I wanted to get your take because personally, the bees would freak me out.

QL: I’ve always been fascinated by bees. Luckily I have been stung by bees before growing up so I kind of knew what a bee sting is about where there’s some people who’ve never been stung. It was very nerve racking, I’m not gonna lie. Bees are very temperamental. They don’t like cold weather, they can get a little irritable in cold weather and when its warm and they’ve got plenty of honey and the Queen is happy; they’re just as happy as can bee. They’re just going on about their business. They aren’t even thing about you unless you do something to put them on alert. In which case you know…watch your back!

EM: Did you get stung?

QL: No I didn’t. Tristan got stung once maybe like on the hand on something but Julian the bee keep was just so cool and he just made us feel so comfortable. I was very neverous when I had to come out of…I’m pretty much in minimal protection. Gina really, really worked with me. She really worked with me to get the shot as quickly as possible or let me blow as much film as needed to relax and get through the scene to connect the words to actions to everything and holding these bees at the same time without smashing one of them because if you smash one its trouble. I think I did all right.

EM: Gina had said that the actors took a huge pay cut to make this film. What about this film made you say this has to be made no matter what?

QL: The fact that I didn’t take a huge pay cut! I took ALL of the money! Whatcha giving up? Ok send it to my account directly…no I’m just kidding!  You do take a pay cut in these situations and that’s just good business. That’s just realistic.

There’s a time when I literally have said to the studio head “If you back the truck up I’ll do the movie!” and they back the truck up so I did the movie. You have those times when you can make a lot of money and then there are times you have to make creative deals. With films like this you wanna see this kind of movie get made. You’re not gonna get these kinds of scripts very often where it’s based on a book that everybody loves, whose read it and you can assemble a really cool cast with great marquee value that can get this thing to the public and get it seen. That’s the main thing. You’ve got a director who’s passionate about it enough to write a great script and put everything she has into it and you feel comfortable and you got great producers, people who are really gonna try to make it happen…you wanna do it.

For me it was very simple. It was “Is Dakota doing the movie?” That was my prerequisite. Honestly, that was my deal breaker. I would not have done this movie probably if she didn’t do it because nobody else was cast but her. To me that character is really critical. You can’t pull this movie off without Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) being able to bring it. She’s gotta go so many places and then wow, to get Sophie Okonedo. May is a very challenging character to play. It can be done right and it can be done wrong. We were so fortunate to get someone like her who’s a fantastic actor, really brought it to life the way it was suppose to and of course everybody else. So it’s like I’m honored to be a part of it like everybody else. So yeah, you take a pay cut!

Interview by Tiffany N. D’Emidio