Queen Latifah on New HBO Movie 'Life Support'

Hip-hop artist and Oscar-nominated actress Queen Latifah stars in a new film that explores the impact of AIDS on the black community. The movie, Life Support, premieres Saturday night on HBO.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This song put Queen Latifah on the map.

(Soundbite of song, "U.N.I.T.Y.")

CHIDEYA: After making her hip-hop debut in 1988, Dana Queen Latifah Owens has become so much more than rap's first major female star. Her talent and charisma catapulted her into just about every area of entertainment, from books to television to movies.

Here is Queen Latifah in here Oscar-nominated role as Matron Mama Morton in the musical "Chicago."

(Soundbite of movie, "Chicago")

Ms. CATHERINE ZETA-JONES: (As Velma Kelly) You know what, Mama? I always wanted to play Big Jim Colosimo's. Do you think you can get me that?

Ms. QUEEN LATIFAH (Actress): (As Matron Mama Morton) Big Jim's?

Ms. ZETA-JONES: Yeah.

Ms. LATIFAH: I don't know. It's going to take another phone call.

Ms. ZETA-JONES: And how much is that going to cost?

Ms. LATIFAH: Oh come on, Vel. You know how I feel about you. You're like a family to me. You're like one of my own. I'll do it for 50 bucks.

CHIDEYA: I recently had the chance to talk with a very open and very funny Queen Latifah. She started out by telling me how her first audience was her family.

Ms. LATIFAH: I remember being able to do people's accents pretty good, and there was a commercial with Rula Lenska. And she'd go, hi, I'm Rula Lenska. My family, even my Aunt Elaine, would always make me do the commercial, do the commercial and I'd do it. I don't know. I was maybe five, six, seven - I'm not even sure how old I was.

CHIDEYA: You had taken such an interesting path. Part of it is the path of hip-hop. I can't say for sure that you didn't foresee all of this. But how do you think your life has played out in terms of how hip-hop has played out?

Ms. LATIFAH: For me, hip-hop has been the catalyst for everything, a form of expression, a way for me to kind of get my feelings out and, you know, release whatever is going on inside. Initially, it was poems and songs, and then it kind of became the spoken word through hip-hop.

And, you know, it's just the energy that comes with the music, you know, being able to kind of get up and, you know, you could brag and boast at the same time. You can talk about political issues. You can talk about things going on in the world. You can talk about your pride as a woman and so many different things.

(Soundbite of song, "Ladies First")

Ms. LATIFAH (Singer): (Singing) I break into a lyrical freestyle. Grab the mic, look at the crowd and see smiles because they see a woman standing up on her own two. Sloppy slouching is something I won't do. Some think that we can't flow.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Can't flow.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) Stereotypes, they got to go.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Got to go.

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) I'm going to mess around and flip the scene into reverse.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) With what?

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) With a little touch of ladies first.

Ms. LATIFAH: Hip-hop and music and culture is going anywhere I go. It goes with me. It has been to the Oscars and back.

CHIDEYA: Absolutely. I remember - I lived in New York for 10 years and I just remembered that your voice was part of the soundscape of New York. Was there ever a moment where you got sprung on yourself where you were, like, wait, that's Queen Latifah.

Ms. LATIFAH: I got a little swooped up the first time I heard my record on the radio, I mean, that was exciting. I screamed it out the windows of my apartment, my second floor apartment. My record is on the radio. My record is on the radio. I was kind of going nuts but I never lost my head. I never lost sense of who I was. I never got conceited, swooped up, you know, bigheaded, any of that stuff because, you know, it was exciting. But at the same time there was a lot of work involved. And I had to deal fairly quickly with the loss of my anonymity.

As soon as my first video came out, people started to recognize me. It was weird. It was disconcerting in a way. It was exciting in one way, but it was scary in another way because it was like, you know, I couldn't just be me and I had to behave. I mean that's…

CHIDEYA: But it sounds like you found a way to be centered about it.

Ms. LATIFAH: Well, I found a way to carve out my own little world, if you will, you know, to have my place where I feel comfortable. I don't have to be Queen Latifah 24 hours a day. And that would be around my friends and my family, and certain places I go where I know people know me and I can just be me.

And I think that's important, you know? I think if you don't really have, you know, a foundation, a base of people to, you know, who really care about you and you come into any kind of entertainment business, it can be, you know, it can be kind of scary because people are going to tell you what you want to hear and they're going to say, you know, tell you you're great, you're fantastic, you're wonderful and you're the best and all that crap, basically. Because you're never always the best, and you're never always wonderful, and you're never always great. You know, sometimes you're just good, you know, and sometimes you're not so good at all.

And I think it's important to have people around you who can tell you those things in a caring way because, you know, it's coming from someone who cares about you, not from someone who's just trying to tear you down. But I think it gives you a sense of always knowing who you are and where you are, you know? When I go home, I'm just Dana. I'm just La. I'm Auntie Dana to my niece and my nephew. I'm a sister to my brother and sisters, and a daughter to my mom and dad. You know, and it's not Queen Latifah in the room.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me move on to your HBO project, "Life Support." Now you are portraying a woman, Ana Willis, an AIDS activist living with HIV based on a real-life woman. Tell me how you got into this project, and why - what was your motivation to get in to the project.

Ms. LATIFAH: You know, there was a few things had contributed to me to deciding to do it. One, you know, it was me meeting with Nelson and - Nelson George and Shelby Stone and hearing what they wanted to do and what is what about, and just hearing from Nelson's heart where it all came from. That was one.

CHIDEYA: He was the writer on this.

Ms. LATIFAH: He was the writer and director and this is his sister. He sort of removed himself from it and kind of made it about the women. But, you know, it's loosely based on his family. And then it was HBO, too, because I know HBO just puts a lot into projects like this.

So I felt like, okay, this is something that they'll push. It will be seen as something that needs to be seen, it's something that needs to be talked about and needs to be humanized. And so it will be good project to get into, and then we just kind of came on as producers.

CHIDEYA: So when you say we, Jamie Foxx also was a co-executive producer of this show.

Ms. LATIFAH: Yeah, Jamie's company actually had already been involved in it.

CHIDEYA: People in our age bracket roughly think of age, you know, we weren't necessarily the first people to have it hit, but we are I think people who were in their late 30s or mid-30s have seen a lot of people pass…

Ms. LATIFAH: (Unintelligible) to it

CHIDEYA: Yeah, yeah. Was that one of the reasons why you decided to make this happen?

Ms. LATIFAH: Definitely. And, you know, part of the issue is that, you know, we're still losing people to it. We're still getting it at a totally unbalanced rate as African-Americans.

I mean it just makes no sense that we are 50 percent of all new cases, yet 12 percent of the population, which means we definitely need more education. We need more information. We need to get tested. We need to do whatever we can to save our people and our kids. And women particularly are getting hit at a disparaging rate as well. So we just have to do more. And this story is a woman's story.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. LATIFAH: And it's also an African-American woman's story. So it was definitely important from that aspect to make it happen.

CHIDEYA: In the film you had actual women who attended support groups featured in the film.

(Soundbite of movie, "Life Support")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: He was older. He looked nice. I asked him, he said no and that was it. The condoms was sitting right there in a basket. They were sitting right there. All I had to do was pick it up an open it.

Ms. LATIFAH: (As Ana Willis) Me and Slick(ph) used to get high together, then he got locked up. He called me. He created a story about his friends in jail had gotten tested, you know, some of them, and they came up positive. And he thought that I should get tested. As soon as he said that, I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I was ready to kill his (bleep). I was ready to kill myself. I was ready to kill somebody.

CHIDEYA: What was it like to be completely real in scenes like that?

Ms. LATIFAH: It was deep because most of the women who were sitting in that scene, in discussion, those support group scenes, you know, are actually from Life Force, which is the organization that "Life Support" is based on. So they're all pretty much HIV positive, contracted it in many different ways. And the reality is to hear their stories is to really get a true picture of it.

Unfortunately our, you know, our government wants to, you know, make it a religious thing, you know, preach abstinence or we're not going to fund your organization, yet we're dying. We're losing people. It's not really about that.

I think what we need to kind of look at it as is, you know, let's look at kids. Let's look at teenagers. Let's look at us, okay. We are in that age group where we were some of the first adolescents to experience the AIDS crisis, you know? I think I was maybe 14 in 1984, you know, in freshman year of high school. Come on, that's like the age when all my emotions and all my sexuality was blooming and budding and driving me nuts. And everyone was attractive and, you know, any boy could tell me he loved me and I was ready, you know what I mean, not quite ready.

But, you know, it really got through to my heart because I was young. I didn't know any better and my emotions were, you know, everything I was experiencing was being experienced for the first time, you know, and that still happens to this day. It hasn't changed.

What has changed is that we have diseases. I mean, first it was herpes, you know, that was the big thing. You can't get rid of it. And then it became HIV, then AIDS. You can't get rid of it. And so, for me, my whole sexual experience, my whole sexual life has been about using a condom. I mean I remember, like, my - one of my first boyfriends, you know, we dated for a really long time. We never, never had, you know, unprotected sex, ever. And it wasn't even a big deal.

CHIDEYA: Well, that was because you are smart. But a lot of folks will do it, you know what I mean?

Ms. LATIFAH: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: I mean just to be real, it's like, you know, I feel the way that you feel but a lot of people…

Ms. LATIFAH: Well, in the heat of the moment, I mean, things happen. I mean things happen in the heat of the moment, and that's why, you know, it helps to have something in your pocket in the heat of the moment. You know, you just can't take those chances.

CHIDEYA: But, you know, I…

Ms. LATIFAH: Whenever I come close to that with anyone else and they just haven't had one on them, I'm kind of looking at them like, what did you think was going to happen here. Everything you're doing is trying to get me in this position, yet you don't have a condom. What did you think?

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. LATIFAH: You know what I mean? What were you thinking? We were just going to go for it? And it kind of turned me off, you know? It really made me feel like here is somebody who doesn't care about me or themselves, you know. But that's just the way I think.

I mean I know a lot of people, we have these emotions that tell us we need it and we want it right now. And we need to feel this affection and this love and this attention and all this kind of stuff, and so you're always going to have new cases. I mean I don't know, you know, why people expect that everyone is going to make the right decision all the time. It's just doesn't happen.

CHIDEYA: A lot of people - it's not even that they think, oh, this couldn't happen to me, but they kind of think, well, it's a done deal already. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen no matter what. And people have this, kind of, fatalistic attitude. Do you ever run into people who have that kind of attitude?

Ms. LATIFAH: I did run into a lot of people who just did not see themselves as old people. Not that I do either, but I always imagine in my mind, I'm going to live to get old. Maybe it's because I had a cool grandma that was 94 when she passed a few years ago who was spunky and energetic and funny and really the inspiration for Mama Morton, you know, like she was…

CHIDEYA: Uh-huh.

Ms. LATIFAH: I've always had people, you know, who made me want to get older. You know, who made it look okay. So, like, you know, some of my friends, when they turned 30 they freaked out, you know, they thought life was over and they hadn't done this and they hadn't done that. I'm like what are you whining about? Let's get it going. Thirties have been the bomb. You know what I mean? All that stuff I had to figure out at twenties is out of here. I've been cruising since I turned 30. It has been great.

I figure if my friends probably would have say anything about me, they'd say she's the one who would jump off the cliff in Jamaica. You know what I mean? She's the one that would to get on the motorcycle and ride hard, you know? She'll make us what to do it. To me, life is for living. You only get one and every day is a gift to me.

(Soundbite of song, "California Dreaming")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray. I went for a walk on a…

CHIDEYA: Recording artist, Oscar-nominated actress and platinum-selling recording artist Queen Latifah is the co-executive producer and the star of the film "Life Support." It premieres tomorrow night on HBO. And if you believe as we do that the AIDS crisis merits more attention, tune in or podcast our special report on black teens and sex this coming Wednesday.

(Soundbite of song, "California Dreaming")

Ms. LATIFAH: (Singing) California dreamin' on such a winter's day.

CHIDEYA: That's NEWS & NOTES. Visit us at npr.org.

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