AWFJ Women On Film – Queen Latifah On “Just Wright,” Basketball and Her Love Life – Jennifer Merin interviews

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In “Just Wright,” Queen Latifah plays the hard-working girl, Leslie Wright, who generously gives to everyone else, supporting her family and friends unselfishly. But her gentle ways aren‘t helping her to find Mr. Right, the guy who’ll always be there for her. But, the film is a romantic comedy, and (without giving away details) it all comes right in the end.

In real life, Queen Latifah has achieved success in so many ways — as rapper and songstress, actress and producer, and businesswomen par excellence. Her life seems like any girl’s dream come true. And through it all, she’s won the unwavering loyalty of adoring fans by being down to earth and ‘real.’

“I’m imperfect,” says Latifah, “and I know that, and I want to continue to grow. Maybe the outside person — the me that the world gets to see — looks a lot more polished then my inner me, but I know there’s a lot more growin’ that I have to do, and I’m workin’ on it.”

“So I don’t get caught up in all the hype. I’m enjoying doing the work. I’m a fighter, I’m a team player…with my partners, we work and try hard and we always have. I’m a daughter, and hopefully some day I’ll be a mommy. But right now I’m a daughter and an auntie, and I’m trying to be a good woman and fight through whatever I have to fight through, and thrive. I have a drive to thrive. I’m not just a survivor, you know. I’m the type of person who, while I’m surviving, I’m goanna thrive. I’m gonna have some fun. I’m gonna do something that makes things interesting. I’m gonna make sure that life is lived to the fullest. So that’s just me.”

MERIN: Do you think that “Just Wright” is a sort of Cinderella story?

LATIFAH: It’s not quite a Cinderella story in the sense that Cinderella has those evil stepsisters and that mean ass stepmother who treat her like garbage. “Just Wright” is not so simple because Leslie Wright has loving and nurturing parents and even the villain, if you will, in this movie is not quite as villainous as she might be. The hero and the villain are actually tight like glue and they’re sisters. And they relate to each other. They know each other like the back of their hands. So, as much as they might be angry with each other, they tend not to go against each other in public. And that’s difficult, because they want to choke each other at times, but they can’t get away with it because there’s love underneath all of that. So that makes it tricky, you know, when you want to beat the hell out of someone, but you love ‘em, but you want to stomp ‘em, but you love ‘em. So it think that’s how this story is different from Cinderella, and in this movie, sisterhood is kinda looked at in a more realistic way.

MERIN: From what I know of your own story, it’s more like Leslie’s than like Cinderella’s. How has your own family influenced your outlook?

LATIFAH: I don’t really know how I learned how to be me. You know, I come from a Vietnam veteran, cop SWAT father and a queen of a teacher and nurturer and fighter of a mother. So between the two of them and betwixt, c’est tout, that‘s me.

And I also had a big brother who toughened me up a little bit, and also is a Pisces like me so he was a little bit gentle like me, too. And I kinda have those sensitivities, you know. I’m able to be me, and at the same time treat everybody like a human being. I’m not worse or better than anyone and that gives me an ability to see people, just look at them for who they are, as opposed to I have to fit into this and that. I’m over that, been over that for a long time.

MERIN: In “Just Wright,“ Leslie’s love of basketball reflects your own involvement with the game. What has basketball taught you about life?

LATIFAH: Basketball showed me a lot of things. One of the things it taught me was to be a team player, how to work with a team of people to accomplish one common goal. That’s no different from a movie, or anything in life. You can’t do everything by yourself. No man is an island, and so in order to get a movie done, you have 150 people that you have to move, to motivate and keep them going. And keep them working and excited. And they might not be getting’ the best check that they want, and we might be pullin’ long hours, you know, and everybody still ahs to fire on all pistons to make it the best movie it can be. That’s not easy to do sometimes. Sometimes it’s about letting’ people know that you feel their pain, and are in the trenches with them. Hey, I’m not pickin’ up all those wires, carrying a bunch if sandbags, but I’m workin’ hard like you, I’m in this with you and let’s all do this together, let’s get it done. You know, sometimes you’re in the studio and you’ve been there for, like, ten, twelve, fourteen hours trying to make the right record, to get everything done. The engineer has to energize, and he’s been sittin’ there and trying to drink some coffee and he want to go home. But we doin’ something special. He has to know that we need you right now, so he, when the vibe is right, you gotta stay and ride it out. I mean, but it’s a team effort.

Another thing I learned from team sports, from my high school coach really, is composure. Composure, composure, composure, composure. I mean basketball is quick — you gotta put it, you gotta run, and my coach would drill us. I mean, not just the drills running up and down the court. He would drill us in composure: Don’t lose your cool under pressure. Don’t lose your cool under pressure. Be composed. Keep your composure. It was drilled into our heads. And when we started to lose it– when we were playin’ this big team, they’d been winnin’ all these games– he’d say, “Come here. Where’s you f**king composure? Keep your cool. Handle this. Don’t forget what you learned. Composure, composure, composure.” And, boom, that would bring us back. And that was the kind of thing–that composure– that basketball teaches you. Alright we got ‘em. Let’s go out and get ‘em. And that has helped me in my career — to keep composed in the weirdest situations, with the strangest people, in the most interesting crowds. Ok, just keep composed and it’ll be alright. I know this is a very strange situation, but keep your composure and it’s all good. That was a long answer to the question. Damn!

MERIN: In the movie, Leslie does keep her composure, even when she’s the girl who’s having trouble attracting the guy. That’s such a difficult and tricky situation. How did you relate to that?

LATIFAH: Really, I was just trying to be true to Leslie. She’s not insecure, not the kind of girl who’s going to go home and cry about not having the great date. She’s just so over it.

You know, you see certain women — they’re pretty, they’re hard working, they’re well rounded, well spoken– and when you look at them from the outside, when they’re going out on a date, you want them to punch it up a bit and get the guy. You root for them as your coworkers and you’re telling them, come on girl, just throw that extra bracelet on. You look at them like a sister in a way. You want them to win. Leslie’s the type of girl you want to win. She’s the girl it’s hard to hate. She’s not an unfair person, she’s not a mean-spirited person, and she’s very helpful to everyone and she’s good at what she does. So you want her to have that guy on her arm who is the right guy who takes care of her while she’s taking care of everyone else.

MERIN: And what about you? When you go out?

LATIFAH: I’m not quite in the mix like that, but the girls I know, when we roll, I mean, I mean, if one girl chooses a guy, then everybody else steps back. So, what happens when the guy feels chemistry with another girl? I mean it may work out like that. But when the girl chooses, we all step back, and it’s just gotta take it’s course. If it finds it’s way back around, that’s fine. But we gonna lay low at that point. And that guy can be staring into my eyes — I love you, I love you — from across the room, but my girl liked you first, so I gotta wait. There are just certain unwritten rules. I think we address those things in this film in a different way than some other movies have done in the past.

MERIN: Well, most girls have been in that situation, and so the film is any girl’s fantasy. Does that apply in your own life as well? Is this a fantasy for Latifah as well as for the women in the audience?

LATIFAH: Am I living a fantasy? Well, yes. I’m kissing Common, for goodness sake. Oooohhhhh! Where else can I get away with that. I mean he ain’t single.

Well, I mean, I’m an actress, so a lot of this is fantasy. I get to enjoy myself with Djimon Hounsou and Henry Simmons and LL Cool J and Common. I get to live a girl’s dream and, trust me, I enjoy that. I’m in that moment, and I enjoy what I enjoy when I’m enjoying it.

But for Latifah, I mean, I don’t really have it easy. I have a crazy love life, I always have. It hasn’t been as smooth as my professional life, which is easier to navigate, as with most people. But I’m not unlucky at all, so I don’t have anything to be angry or upset about. I’ve had a good time in my life.

MERIN: Speaking about enjoyment, what about your multifaceted career gives you most joy?

LATIFAH: Today gives me most joy. I take pleasure in today. I’m looking forward, but right now I’m enjoying today. It’s a beautiful warm day and that what I enjoy in my career is being right here, right now. Takin’ it one day at a time. I don’t know what’s coming in the future, so I’m excited about what there is to see. I’m gonna work towards things, but right now is what I do now and I’ll just focus on that. And not bite off more than I can chew, or what’s done already ’cause we got a lot more to do, so that’s kinda how I look at it. That’s what gives me a certain edge. I don’t read my headlines — Wow, you did this and this and this. You know. Being an actor and producer on this movie was gratifying and interesting and a lot of hard work, but ultimately it’s what I love to do.

I wasn’t alone. I had my partner Shakim (Compere). I had my partner Debra (Chase Martin) and together we were able to navigate a lot of difficult issues and shoot on such a short schedule in New York on location in the summer through a lot of rain — like three out of seven days and we were thinking what the hell kind of New York is this? — but nevertheless, it was fantastic and really just being able to be a part of casting and hiring some amazing people who just se the example for me and had they not come I would not have come — like Phylicia Rashad and Pam Grier. And having the NBA and basketball players be involved in this project, and havin’ Paula (Patton) my girl and Common my boy– had they not been the people they are, it would not have been so much fun. So it was worth every moment and every minute, and I’m really proud of what we were able to do, and then be on the set with Sanaa Hamri, this crazy Moroccan chick, who comes out of nowhere and just directs the hell out of the movie — it was just worth every moment and I’ll keep riding my career like that.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).