Queen Latifah Interview: ‘Star,’ Her Character, and Working with Lee Daniels

Star Queen Latifah
Queen Latifah stars in ‘Star’ (Photo by Wilford Harewood © 2016 FOX)

Oscar and Emmy Award nominee Queen Latifah stars in Lee Daniels’ Star airing on Wednesday nights on Fox. The dramatic series follows an up-and-coming group, played by Jude Demorest, Brittany O’Grady, and Ryan Destiny, who dream of hitting it big. Queen Latifah stars as Carlotta, a beauty shop owner and surrogate mother to the troubled young women.

In support of the series’ first season, Queen Latifah participated in a conference call to discuss her character and working with creator Lee Daniels. Queen Latifah explained why she found the role of Carlotta so appealing and her support of the show’s approach to timely, relevant topics.

What do you like most about this character? What part of her really drew you in?

Queen Latifah: “I think how much she’s been through and how many mistakes she’s made in life, but how gifted she is at the same time. She’s a character who is extremely flawed, who’s been hurt, who’s made mistakes that have had dramatic consequences on her life and her future. Yet, she still has a huge capacity to love, and she never gives up. She still wanted to be redeemed in many ways. She’s never all the way there, but she never gives up. She never stops trying. She never just completely gives in to one side. She always keeps trying to challenge and grow and change, and it doesn’t necessarily look like it because she may play it real cool and calm sometimes, but she’s always going through a lot underneath.

I think she’s much more complicated and much more challenging for me as an actor to play than people might think because there’s so many layers underneath what Carlotta is feeling that I have to find so many angles into her at all times. Then, of course, when Lee throws in twists and turns which is always fun, I have to find more angles into her, which is always fun. It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it’s exciting for an actor. I don’t get bored doing it.”

Can you talk about where the idea came from for Carlotta to own a hair salon and how much input you have into the different wigs that you wear?

Queen Latifah: “The idea definitely came from Lee (Daniels). Carlotta is not a stereotype. She is someone we know. The women we know love to spend time on their hair. Hair is very important, particularly in the black community. So, even though she’s busy running a business and has many hairstylists around, she doesn’t really have time to really do her own hair like that, so wigs are a way of her changing up her look, expressing herself, doing something a little different, and keeping it fresh. Also, part of how she does have a lot of expression and difference inside of her that she kind of gets to let out through these wigs. She’s not afraid to take chances on it. It’s also maybe a little advertisement, a little display of what the shop can do and connecting to the community.

These wigs are not primarily very expensive wigs. I think if anything costs over $20, then Lee will pretty much call me and tell me to take it off because he makes sure that we connect to a community that is really shopping in that price point but still wants to look good and still wants to express themselves, even if they don’t have a lot of money. That’s something people connect to. This is still a way of her feeling special even in the midst of everything going crazy around her.”

What have you learned and what’s it meant to you that Carlotta has a trans daughter?

Queen Latifah: “That was also one of the big draws of Carlotta is the fact that she has a trans daughter. Queen Latifah, completely different. Carlotta, completely different between Queen Latifah, but they cross over in certain ways. The topic of being trans or having a trans child or becoming trans later in life, these things are very topical. More importantly, the thing that Lee and I talked about when we developed the concept of this show and what we were interested in about this was the fact that everybody doesn’t know the right thing to say. It’s a new experience for a lot of people and if we could only communicate about it, we could grow to understand each other.

Queen Latifah in Star
Queen Latifah in ‘Star’ (Photo © 2016 Fox)

You’ll find that theme along a lot of lines in this show, but this particular thing is very important to us, especially since our whole relationship in beginning this whole movement came after we were at the afterparty for Precious. We kind of hung and we got on the topic of Paris is Burning and how much we both loved that movie and how some of the people in that movie were high school classmates of mine or friends that I knew from hanging out in the clubs in my teenage years. His young years he kind of crossed a lot (of) the same places and how we wanted to build that understanding.

At the same time, you can’t always fault people for what they don’t understand. You always have to try to build a bridge. We wanted to show the conversation. We hear about those conversations, especially when Caitlyn Jenner became Caitlyn Jenner. It became a huge topic of conversation, but some of it was sort of trivialized or stereotyped or overblown. What was missing was the actual conversation that was had to get from point A to point Z. We wanted to show those actual conversations, what challenges people go through, what Cotton is feeling. Let’s just start with what Cotton is feeling and why Cotton feels this way and what Cotton is going through. Then, let’s deal with Carlotta and what she’s feeling and what she’s going through and how can a mother and child build a bridge between each other when they both love each other but they’re worlds apart on so many other things.

Those were the things that were important to us to really show, and not just show in one episode, but really to carry it through a whole season, carry it through a whole arc and really, really get down and dirty with it. Not just show the pretty sides of it, but show the uglier sides of it so that everybody can gain a better understanding on their own, form their own opinions. We’re not trying to answer every question for everyone. We’re just trying to show what the situation can really be like. To both of us, I think that’s a more interesting way to show it rather than just say, ‘Here’s what it is. Here’s the perfect politically correct answer to everything, and let’s go with that.’ You know what I mean?

Lee isn’t afraid to tackle those subjects, which is why I love him because I’m not afraid to tackle those subjects, especially when it’s coming through the talent of his lens.”

Pastor Bobby just found out Carlotta’s daughter is trans. How is that going to change their relationship going forward?

Queen Latifah: “Well, I think what’s interesting about Carlotta and Pastor Bobby is they are both very flawed people who had a very checkered past and found Jesus and found some peace and growth and forgiveness in Jesus by following Jesus. But, their lives are still what their lives are, and they come with the baggage they come with and their experiences. They also greatly care for each other. They’re in love, so Pastor Bobby is one of the few sweet spots in Carlotta’s life. All of these truths are going to make it a lot more messy, and it was one of the easy escapes. It was like going to the movies for her. For a couple of hours, she could escape from everything going on in her life and just be in church and be in his arms and have someone who could care for her for a change where she’s normally caring for everything else.

I think she tried to protect that relationship from her life to just hold on to this little piece of Heaven for as long as she could. But now that things are starting to come out, he wanted to be more in her life, he wanted to get into it, and now he’s going to get it. She may be surprised by his response to it.

She still loves him and there’s a lot of love there, but the fact that she kept secrets from him is probably what hurts him most. The concern about how he’ll react to the whole truth of her is what may concern her most, so we’re going to see that explored. There’s going to be some powerful television coming up. Like something you’ve never seen on TV in the next couple episodes. So, I think definitely tune into that because it’s something I’ve never seen and I’ve never done, and actually knowing Tyrese (Gibson) and Amiyah (Scott) in real life and them knowing me, it was one for the hardest things we’ve had to play this whole season because we have such love and care for each other. To go where these characters had to go, to be honest, oh man, we all had to hug each other afterwards and cry. The tears did not stop when they said cut. We needed a moment to pull ourselves together just to go on the next take because it took so much out of us. So, I hope everybody checks it out.”

Did you get to work with Paris Jackson? Did you share any scenes with her?

Queen Latifah: “No. No, but I was very, very excited to know that she was doing this role. This is such a fun role. I can’t wait until you all see it. This is a fun role. This character, Rachel, gets to give the business to these girls who think they know it all, who think they’re so smart, so tough, so strong, and they know everything and so determined. But, this character that she plays gets to give them the business and be funny at the same time. It’s so shady.

I came in the next day after Paris shot and everyone told me she knocked it out the park. They said she was fantastic. She rocked it. So, I’m glad she chose us to be that first getting her toes wet in acting. I’m glad she chose us and chose Star and chose this role. God bless Lee for his connections because this was a good one. I hope this is the beginning for some great things for her.”

Politically, we’re in a very, very strange time in this country. Do you think it’s important for culture to follow suit in the sense that is it up to our television shows and our movies to bring up more about the issues, from either viewpoint? Or, are TV and film purely for entertainment? What do you think?

Queen Latifah: “Well, I’ll tell you. I think music and art are one of the greatest ways that have moved the conversation along throughout history. So, absolutely I think I’ve always felt like we should … I don’t know if we should take on the fight in terms of I can’t advise someone to choose a particular side here or there or tell them what their opinion should be. To me, what’s important is not being afraid to bring up the conversation. You have to at least bring up the conversation. Why would you not? To me, for any brave, creative person, to not be afraid to deal with what’s going on in our actual world we live in is to be part of the greatest creative thing they’ve ever done. There’s so much to choose from, so much to be on, so much to draw from. So, would we not want to go for it?

It’s what made Norman Lear one of the greatest ever is the fact that he wasn’t afraid to jump into these topics and push the envelope and made some of the greatest TV ever invented. The flip side of that is the escapism of it all. It also creates on the other side an opportunity for people to allow everyone to check out from all that serious s*** for a minute and just escape, have fun, make a musical, or have some fantasy, something that would never happen on real earth.

So, I think it feeds the other side of it. I think it feeds the escapism as much as it feeds the reality. Now, it’s just a question of what you want to do with it, but I think we should definitely move on it because these have always been serious times. There’s always been important things going on to be discussed. I think for all the up-and-coming talent to not capitalize on that, and not just up-and-coming talent, but everyone who’s around, whoever is not afraid to put their dollars to projects that push the envelope, I think will be rewarded at some point for sure.

On the flip side it also gives an avenue to all the things that are not so serious, that are not so deep, or rather kind. I’m not going to say not deep, but not just topical things you’re going to see on CNN or Fox News and MSNBC every night. You know what I mean? Or all day and 24 hours a day to talk about every day or worry about every day, but really some place to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to be all right. Everything’s going to work out. Stay positive by just taking a moment to breathe away from all that and remind yourself that we make our world.’ So, we can make it different. We can make it better. I don’t ever want to become a cynic.

I’ve worked really hard all my life to stay positive because I don’t like the other side. I know the other side and I’m not giving into that. So, for me, I always want to encourage people to not be afraid to just create a new future and hopefully a more positive one.”

Do you have a song you consider your personal theme song?

Queen Latifah: “I come from a music world, so I have a million songs that speak to me. But I think it depends on what mood I’m in, but I think Bob Marley is a go-to at all times. I think he’s probably the greatest artist ever because you can always throw Bob Marley on at a party, and I don’t care what kind of crowd is in there, there’s always a Bob Marley song that somebody will dance to or connect to. He’s super universal, beyond comprehension, and even that connects to me. So, if I feel like I need ‘Every Little Thing Gonna Be All Right,’ then that’s fine. If I need ‘So Much Trouble in the World’ to just deal with what’s going on at the time, I have that. So, I think Bob would be my go-to if I were to say what artist is my go-to.”