Star and executive producer of BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE, Queen Latifah was also honoured with an Academy Award nomination earlier this year for her performance as Mama Morton in Chicago. A singer, actress, businesswoman, talk show host, author and more she plays Charlene in her latest film. A feisty escaped convict, she is determined to convince the unsuspecting, uptight lawyer Peter (Steve Martin) – who she has been flirting with in cyberspace – that she is innocent of all charges. And as he reluctantly sets about reviewing her case, she begins remedying his life.
How much were you involved as Executive Producer?
I was brought on in that capacity from the very beginning, as well as being the star. Nina Jacobson at Buena Vista asked if I would be interested in doing this, reading the script, checking it out, seeing what I thought of it. There were a lot of racy kind of things in there, a lot of over the top humour and a lot of things that needed to be corrected. She wanted to bring in someone who could not only represent African-Americans who could say this ain’t gonna fly or this has to go but to also have a sensibility, someone with intelligence and sensitivity who could ask if we wanted to play the humour as real humour or do ridiculous things that could never happen in real life. In the end we decided we wanted the humour to come from more real places.
Was Steve Martin always the obvious choice to play opposite you?
We always wanted Steve as the star, because there is a lot of physicality in the movie, and as a kid THE JERK was one of the first movies I saw. I was a fan of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, I’d watched him do these mainstream movies as well as these quirky films and we just thought that he could pull off playing this recently divorced guy who’s worried about what everybody else thinks. He’s trying to keep his family together but you have to believe that at some point in the movie he could turn into this hip-hop cat, dance on the floor and talk all of the jive and try to help solve this crime.
The film treads a fine line between the comedic elements and potentially dangerous areas of political incorrectness – such as the hilariously inappropriate spiritual sung by Joan Plowright.
The funny thing about it is that I’m the kind of person who believes that just because you’re politically correct doesn’t mean you’re not a racist. That was the underlying factor for me. I think one of the greatest shows on television was ALL IN THE FAMILY with Archie Bunker [the US version of TILL DEATH US DO PART, with Alf Garnett]. Some people who are ignorant show their ignorance just by being themselves. If you look at people who are part of the Aryan Nation or Ku Klux Klan and hear the reasons they’re in it, a lot of it is either superiority complex, or inferiority complex or a lack of education. Sometimes you have to show those things. This film was not meant to be a gigantic social commentary, but it was trying to show someone – especially at Joan Plowright’s character’s age – with an arrogance and a superiority complex and a right to privilege that she just assumes.
The scene that plays in the film was originally a little longer, wasn’t it?
We had to chop it down because there was a point at which she asked that Peter and the kids join in and sing this song with her. We all felt that was a little too much, but we shot it just to see how it played before cutting it. There were a bunch of places in the film where we figured we would try it and lay it out there look at it before cutting them out. Disney was very vigilant about screening this film to a lot of different audiences and getting their comments and reactions and seeing what things really bothered them and what didn’t. You can never please all the people all the time. What we wanted to do was make a funny movie, something that was really ridiculous and would have you wishing you’d gone to the bathroom before you sat down in your seat. I think we accomplished that.
Eugene Levy makes a striking impression as Peter’s colleague who develops a nifty sideline in street slang as he tries to get to know Charlene better. Did that whole relationship develop as the film went on?
One thing I realised in rehearsals was when I started giving Eugene these slang lines he would say it one time exactly the way I said it. These idioms that the hip-hop kids would know, or anybody from the local neighbourhoods or watches a lot of MTV or listens to a lot of rap. Once I realised he could deliver it I started giving him more stuff to say. He plays it so deadpan, and that makes it even funnier. To seriously say to a woman ‘I’d like to spread you over a Ritz cracker and eat you up’….is just funny. Sitting across the table Charlene is like: ‘you are like some kind of freaky’. He is totally comfortable with his self and doesn’t care what comes out of his mouth which relaxes her. So they hit it off.
Steve’s character is quite different, very uptight and nervy by comparison, but did he find it easy to adapt to the change his character undergoes at the end of the film?
Steve had a whole tape of things, somebody recorded all that stuff that he had to say. A lot of it got cut for time, but there was a whole lot more stuff he said in that club that was hilarious to me. Steve has always been one of those versatile kind of people, he can play different types of characters and he’s really a professional at what he does and works hard to get it right. So he had a tape of some homeboy speaking, saying it the way it was supposed to be said and he got to learn it that way. It was something he had to work at a little harder than Eugene, I don’t know why but I think he nailed it.
There is a memorable scene where you are teaching him how to relate to a woman. Was it hard keeping a straight face while you were shooting that?
That’s one of my favourite scenes in the movie, because all of this stuff is happening. Those ornamental balls were already sitting on the table in this decorative bowl when we were rehearsing. We were ad libbing, and I said ‘you need these’ and grabbed them and he went ‘yes, and I’ll put them in my pants.’. He stuffed these big woven, wooden things in his pants and I was thinking ‘he is gonna hurt himself somehow!’. But I thought it was cool. Charlene is a big, sexy woman and she don’t want no little, scrawny guy touching her all soft and stuff. She wants a man who will grab her! Who will make her feel like a woman, even if he is scrawny. Sometimes a woman wants to be held and know that she’s in the arms of a man who’s assertive and is going to take the lead.
The other overtly physical scene is a protracted fight scene in the country club with Missi Pyle. Was that tough to do?
We were hoping for an MTV Fight Scene award next year, so that’s all that was really on our minds. That fight took two days to shoot and we have to give credit to the stuntwomen who worked with us, and John Medlen the stunt co-ordinator. These women got hurt doing some of this stuff, but they’re troopers so they kept going. It took about a week to shoot the whole scene, because we had to shoot the whole of the stunt double work and then we had to shoot the entire thing ourselves as well. So it was very physical and we were all sore the next day, but we had to keep practising, especially jerking our necks without getting whiplash. We were looking forward to it, that’s actually my favourite scene in the movie.
It’s curious because despite being the rough, tough ex-con Charlene does not intimidate this thin, rich, white girl does she?
The film goes against the stereotypical thing about the black girl always being able to beat the white girl thing – there are a lot of stereotypes challenged in this movie. This girl can actually throw a punch, she can actually fight, whether it came from Tae-Bo or wherever, she actually gives it to Charlene which makes it more fun. We were excited to shoot the scene, it took us a couple of days and we did pretty much everything that the stunt women did and they only cut when it was something really difficult to fake. I had to lift her up and put her on that coat hook…………we went the whole nine, with all the running and jumping and kicking and sliding into the wall. And when Missi’s doing all this Tae-Bo stuff I’m on the other side of the room trying to keep from laughing, I think all that is hilarious.
What was it like for you to be sharing the screen with actors of her stature and American legends like Betty White and Steve Martin?
It’s weird for me, because these are the times when you go ‘damn, I’m an actor!’. You come on a set and meet Joan Plowright and Steve Martin and Eugene Levy, and Betty White – she’s a card, so quick-witted and funny. You meet these people that you’ve seen all your life growing up and you feel like ‘wow, this is cool’. You have to stop and chuckle and then you go back to being a professional.
Question and Answer Text Copyright Buena Vista International