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Queen Latifah: 'You have to be fearless' in taking on Bessie Smith's life

 Queen Latifah: 'You have to be fearless' in taking on Bessie Smith's life
Queen Latifah says she first tried for a role as Bessie Smith when she was 22. Now she is nominated for starring in "Bessie" on HBO. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

She was a 22-year-old rapper when she auditioned for the part of hard-living, Depression-era blues icon Bessie Smith. But Queen Latifah believed, even as a new actress, that she could bring something valuable to the role.

"I had experienced a fair number of things when I was 22 years old," says the now-45-year-old multimedia force, in the offices of her production company on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. "I had been running my own company for four years, I was managing some of the biggest artists in hip-hop. I was performing myself from the time I was 17 and my first single came out. I had traveled around the world a little bit, I had been around all kinds of people. I had partied my ass off through the '80s. I was actually a little burned out by the time I was 22, from the partying.

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"So I knew what it was like to be on tour, on the road, and be responsible for a lot of people. And I had definitely had my heart broken by then."

In the 1920s, Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues," rose to become the highest-paid black entertainer in the country. She was known as fearless and unapologetic, standing up for herself and entertaining lovers of both sexes. Her impact rippled through the decades, as artists as varied as Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin cited her influence.

For Latifah, however, it would be two decades before she would get the role, as the biopic "Bessie" went through an odyssey of development and rewrites. Around 2006, she was brought on as a producer, working with a draft by Horton Foote. Dee Rees ("Pariah") would later come on board to direct.

"I think it took a change when [Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois] came on and did that rewrite. They got into that life, the wild years of America and New York at that time, the subcultures Bessie would get into, the trouble this girl could get into, the fun trouble. Then it was not just showing the salacious things but giving more of a purpose to why she was who she was. I think that's what Dee was able to identify and capture — show her vulnerability."

Balancing Smith's power and weakness became a point of focus.

"A lot of her strength or anger comes from having had to defend herself or protect herself," said Latifah. "It comes from a place where she was taken advantage of or abused in some way. You have to see those sides. You can't play this role worrying about what people will think or say; you have to be fearless."

The film depicts Smith standing up to Klansmen outside a performance and mixing it up with abusive men. She also quietly accepts it as her longtime girlfriend leaves her and breaks down before her mentor, blues legend Ma Rainey, as she faces losing custody of her child. Much has been made of Latifah's first nude scene, sitting alone before a mirror, but it's the low-key moment's emotional nakedness that is most revealing.

"Walking into that empty house that you are paying for, for all these people to share your love with them and hopefully for it to be reciprocated — and you walk in after this great performance and you're alone. All she has is herself. I know how that feels," says the actress.

Critics responded warmly to Latifah's performance, with The Times' Robert Lloyd saying, "Latifah, an extraordinarily charismatic presence herself, rises to meet" the challenge of portraying Smith. Variety's Brian Lowry noted that Latifah's "gutsy embrace of the role requires laying herself bare in every way imaginable."

While she's glad for the extra depth that the 20-plus-year delay allowed her to bring to the performance, Latifah still thinks what she could have done at 22 would have been interesting. She likens the ride to another of her passions: motorcycles. Whereas the rider has to look hundreds of feet ahead and even through the nearby cars, "at 80 mph, it's just you, God and the road.

"The fun is in letting go and being true to who she is. Be there, be in her shoes, don't be afraid to be her. Kiss girls, kiss two different guys, have sex, sing songs, get drunk, pass out, cry, love too much, not love enough. I had a good time doing it. And I was definitely ready to step out of her shoes when it was over.

"I was like, 'Bessie is wearing my ass out!'"

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