MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is All Things Considered from NPR News, I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. The best-selling novel the Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is now a movie. Judging by the cast, you might think the movie adaptation is actually a musical, three of its stars, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys have successful music careers. But they, along with Sophie Okonedo and Dakota Fanning, manage a different kind of harmony in the film.
MICHELE NORRIS: It's a story of a young white girl in 1960 South Carolina who runs away from her abusive father and winds up in the home and care of the three Boatwright sisters, all named for months of the year - May, June and August. Queen Latifah plays August Boatwright, the eldest sister and the matriarch of the home. She runs a business making honey. And Queen Latifah joins me here in the Washington studio to talk about her role in this new film. So glad you're here.
Ms. QUEEN LATIFAH (Singer, Actress): Thank you for having me.
NORRIS: I'm just curious, given your name, Queen Latifah, and a film about bees and honey.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: It must been all kinds of jokes on the set about Queen Bee.
Ms. LATIFAH: There was a case, yeah. And one - one or two occasional jokes daily. Yeah.
NORRIS: Daily, yeah. I figured, I figured, hourly probably. Did you see yourself initially as August or was there another character that spoke to you?
Ms. LATIFAH: I just always connected with August because this character is so nurturing and loving and confident and comfortable in her own skin, that she just seems at peace. She reminds me partially of my mom and my grandmother is in there. Parts of me, you know, she's an entrepreneur. She owns her own land and she's a big sister who's really more like a mother.
NORRIS: She lives a big pank house.
Ms. LATIFAH: Big old pank house.
NORRIS: The P-A-N-K, pank.
Ms. LATIFAH: Definitely.
NORRIS: You are the matriarch of the family, you help run the family business - Black Madonna honey - and you spend a lot of time with bees. And before we continue, I'd like to listen to a clip. This is a scene with you and Dakota Fanning who plays Lily Owen, and you're giving her some wisdom.
(Soundbite of the movie The Secret Life of Bees clip)
Ms. LATIFAH: (As August Boatwright) You see, the world's really just one big bee yard, the same rules work in both places. Don't be afraid as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. But don't be an idiot. That's why we wear long sleeves and long pants. And don't swat, don't even think about swatting. And above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.
NORRIS: And you set out to work there. Now you are so calm and so poised in that scene. Are you normally that calm around bees?
Ms. LATIFAH: No. No, absolutely not.
NORRIS: Do you have a secret fear of bees?
Ms. LATIFAH: I don't have a fear of bees. I mean, I've been stung enough times so I do have - I guess I have a fear being stung. But actually, I'm fascinated by bees. I just - the bees are going through a little something. They're struggling with this collapsed hives syndrome thing that's been going on with bees. But I just had it work with the beekeeper and learn more about them and just tried to be as calm as I could. I was definitely nervous though.
NORRIS: This film takes place in the 1960s.
Ms. LATIFAH: Hmm.
NORRIS: How did you get yourself in a 1960s mindset? How did you take yourself to 1964 South Carolina?
Ms. LATIFAH: It's easy for me. I don't have to really be in the 60s to connect to it. Every time I try to hail a cab in New York and they pass me and pick up the white person that's further back than I am, then I get a dose of it. Or your mother not being able to get a home loan because she's black, you know, this is what I know that my family has experienced. And it made it more difficult for us until I was able to buy her that first house. But it only takes one experience for you to connect to that pain. It's painful.
NORRIS: Did you spend any time in the South?
Ms. LATIFAH: Marilyn, Virginia, yeah. I mean, not Deep South but I sort of grew up here, you know. So I - that's why I kind of felt like I related to this character even more. I feel like, you know, there's a lot of films where you get to see the angry side of racism, bigotry, the violent side of it, the blatant side of it. But that - I mean there's a different side of the south as well. A very hospitable side, a side that says, good morning, Miss Boatwright. How are doing today? And how's that May doing? But this would be a white guy, you know. It just be when you want to sit down at counter that you would see that that's an issue, that's a problem. But other than that, people sort of went about everyday life. And I felt like it was interesting to show that side of life. There were a lot of black people who own their own homes and own their own property, especially with segregation. There would be a lot more of black-owned businesses because who else she going to deal with. It was just kind of nice to see that side of it, to see these people who own their property, they own their business, they are respected in their community. There are white people here were straight up racist. There are white people here that want to see all this change. And I thought that was some thing that would make it a little bit different than what other things you may have seen.
NORRIS: How did you find each other as sisters because there's something very natural between the three of you?
Ms. LATIFAH: I think we just click it immediately. I felt like I was their older sister. Because in a way I mean, you know, I've been acting for a while, and you know, Jennifer and Alicia are pretty new at it. But Dakota is more experienced than all of us. She's much - she must have been here before, as they say.
NORRIS: Told so.
Ms. LATIFAH: And Sophie is amazing, you know. But I'm the oldest, I've been doing this a while. Kind of be the example, sort of be a leader, being supportive. You all right, you need anything, we good? Keeping the spirit light, you know what I mean? Keeping the No Diva attitudes, like no pretentiousness.
NORRIS: Did you stay with the script? There's a scene in the kitchen with Jennifer Hudson, Sophie Okonedo at the stove and they're dancing and there's a song on the radio and they're singing and they're dancing. They're flipping pancakes and making eggs.
(Soundbite of Jennifer Hudson and Sophie Okonedo singing)
I can't break away, because you make me cry. I can't break away. I can't say goodbye.
NORRIS: Your kind of moving your head a little bit but there's a sense that you want to get up and dance to but you're the big sister so you have to sit down at the head of the table. And I wondered if that scene was carefully scripted or if that was a moment of pure improvisation.
Ms. LATIFAH: It wasn't pure improvisation. It was definitely on the page. We just kind of had to make it light and natural and then if something happens, that come out your mouth then if it fits they'd keep it, you know what I meant? But yeah, my character, I got to paint these labels on these jars so I ain't got time to get up and dance around but I will sing this song a little bit. So yeah, it was a lot of fun.
NORRIS: Queen Latifah, thank you so much for coming in and spending time with us. It's been a pleasure.
Ms. LATIFAH: Thank you.
NORRIS: Queen Latifah's new movie is The Secret Life of Bees based on the best-selling novel by Sue Monk Kid. To hear more of my conversation with Queen Latifah, including what she learned about The Secret Life of Bees, go to our website, npr.org.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I've made my reservations. I'm leaving time tomorrow. I'll find somebody new. They'll be no more sorrow. That's what I say each time but I can't follow through...
(Soundbite of acknowledgment)
NORRIS: Our program is directed by Brendan Bandasack, edited by Allison McEllen and produced Neil Coruth. The technical director is Bill Deputy, assisted by Peter Aleena. The engineering supervisor is Robert Jackson. The staff includes Susan Feeny, Melissa Gray, Franklin Cater, Greg Dixon, Senari Glinton, Elizabeth Tannen and Billal Careshi. We had production help for our series Contenders from Andy Lancet at WNYC and the Gordon Skeen Sound Collection. Our Executive producer is Christopher Turpin. The managing editor for NPR news is Brian Duffy. I'm Michele Norris.
BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. You're listening to All things Considered from NPR News.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Though you make me cry, I cant break away…