One of the most amazing things about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel The Secret Life of Bees is the cast she brought together in bringing Kidd’s story to the screen. The director of Love and Basketball found three strong women from the world of music who’ve made their mark in three different avenues of the business, before each of them successfully made the move to acting: Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson.
The novel and film tells the story of Lilly, played by Dakota Fanning, a 14-year-old girl living with her abusive father (Paul Bettany) in the South during the early ’60s, who runs away with her housemaid (Hudson) and ends up at the home of the Boatwright Sisters. Queen Latifah plays August Boatwright, the matriarch of the family who takes Lilly in, while Alicia Keys plays her sister June, a stubbornly independent and outspoken music teacher. Hudson, the newest of the trio to both music and movies, plays Lilly’s housemaid whose struggle against racism leads to them running off in the first place.
ComingSoon.net talked to the entire cast up in Toronto where the movie was premiering as part of the annual Toronto International Film Festival, and we found out more about why these three women wanted to be a part of this anticipated adaptation.
ComingSoon.net: What about this movie and your character appealed to you?
Queen Latifah: Oh, God. So many things. It was a good book first of all. You know I love the idea of this progressive family, do you know what I mean? In my mind, this was the kind of family that I wanted to be a part of. They’re females, they got their own business, they have their own land, respected in their community, despite all of the racial tension that of course existed at that time. I think so often we see the heavy hand of racism, and you get all that anger and hatred and this clear side of it from that side, but you just don’t see that people went about average every day life and they did their business and they got along until they met on this line of “You can’t sit at this counter” kind of thing, those kinds of things. I just saw August as being the kind of woman who people say, “Good morning, Miss Boatwright” and “Afternoon, Miss Boatwright, well how’s it going today? Well, how’s May?” ‘Cause this is the kind of South I grew up in, in Maryland, in Virginia, where my family is from, and I spent a good amount of time down there growing up. There’s a thing called Southern hospitality and there’s manners to this day that us Northerners have forgotten about, a lot of us, and you still get a “Ma’am” and a “sir” and a “good morning” and a “thank you.” It’s just a little bit different and I think we see so much of the other side of it, especially portrayed in films and television that it’s nice to just see that there’s another side of that too. There’s just average life, people living life, you know, who have to confront change or some who don’t want things to change, and that’s the lines that they differ upon. That’s when it gets sticky. Does that make any sense? (laughs)
CS: Alicia, how did you get the part? What did you do in the audition to show you could pull it off?
Keys: This is an interesting story. I’ve been a fan of the book since it came out. I was so enraptured by it, so it came down the line that they were going to do a “Secret Life of Bees” movie, and I was like, “Omigosh, this is my favorite book in the whole world.” I actually wanted to play May, so I basically went in and met with a lot of people at Fox Searchlight and just said, “I love this book, I really support it. I know you are just getting it together, but I just want to let you know I love it.” So that was cool, but they didn’t quite know what they wanted to do and they were not really sure, so later on as time passes, they kind of got Gina into it and they started to revamp an they rewrote it and it came to life again and I was excited again and I was like, “Wow, they would audition and get it together and la, la, la, la’ and then it was kinda like, “Hmmm, no, we have the cast that we want. We love you no, but thanks. Nah.” I was crushed because I loved the book and I was a fan, so honestly, I groveled my way into this thing. I begged and pleaded and really tried to express my passion for this piece. It came to a place where they started putting together the cast. They got Queen on board, they got Jennifer on board and they realized that the person who would be great for it was me, so I actually never auditioned. Gina and I had some great conversations and my passion for the book and the piece and I realized June was the right one for me. (Gina) obviously realized that was the right one for me, they had the utmost confidence that I would be able to do it, and we worked really hard at pulling it all together and making it all authentic. So it’s an interesting story because it’s not quite conventional, because it happened and it wasn’t quite going to happen and then it came back in and then it left and then they thought they had the cast they wanted and they didn’t and time was of the essence and they worked on it and we talked about it, so that’s how it worked out, but I like to say I begged for the part.
CS: Had you met Latifah or Jennifer beforehand so the three of you were already friendly when you got on set?
Keys: Myself and Latifah, we definitely had met at different events and things. We were always very friendly. Myself and Jennifer had met at a couple of events. In fact, before the movie came together, when it was still kind of in negotiations with everything, you know, Latifah called me and said, “Y’know this movie, I really hope it works out that we could do it together” and she’s like, “It looks like it will be real special” I was like, “Everyone knows I love it, so I’m ready for sure.” So yes, when we walked on set it was a very family thing and we all just connected anyway, all of the players.
CS: Jennifer, now that you’re making your fourth movie, do you feel more comfortable on set?
Hudson: The more work I do, the more comfortable I get. I guess that’s just me, but I feel like I’m getting more adjusted. I’m far more used to singing than I am acting, but I’m finding my comfort zone and level with that and just knowing what my range is and what I can do to be better able to perform and do what I need to do.
CS: Did you relate to this character more than any of the other characters you’ve played?
Hudson: If I didn’t feel like I could relate to it, I would at least go to someone else who maybe could, but I think I would have reacted the same way she did during that time, so I guess that’s probably my biggest relation [to her].
CS: In researching that time period were there things that surprised you?
Hudson: All of it surprised me. Like that’s probably the biggest thing that surprised me. I didn’t realize how unaware I was to what happened during that time. I did “Dreamgirls” as well, but we didn’t really focus in on the civil rights era, and I’m like, “How did I miss all of this?” and in the middle I’m like, “Wow, this happened.” I had DV’s and footage after footage and the chronicles of the civil rights movement and I’m looking all the way back into slavery and all the way into now and it’s like, “Wow, look how far we’ve come.” If I had not experienced racism before, I might not have known it, but when I look back at it, it’s like, “Wow, so that’s what this incident was and that’s what happened.” It opened my eyes in a new way.
Q: Alicia, like Jennifer, you haven’t had that much experience making movies so what was it like working with more experienced actors in this?
Keys: It was very, very calm and very encouraging. Everybody really came to the set and wanted it to be a brilliant piece, so everyone just really wanting to bring the best to the piece. No matter what your experience, it was really about banding together, especially because we had very limited time and the resources were limited. It was freezing cold. We were supposed to be in the summer. Everything was about totally being focused so that’s really what it was about. My personal preparation took months that I did by myself, before I met anyone, and then I had to learn my dialect. To my own personal research about June and how her story develops and how it relates to my personal story to give it authenticity. When we got on set it was more about creating a family environment, and Gina was really good about research too. She made us do things on the spot as the character. Right there, right now, do it. You felt crazy and uncomfortable, but it forced you to become your character and associate with the people who were part of that life.
CS: Did any of those improvisational bits or rehearsals make it into the movie?
Keys: Where there was a lot of improv in the movie just because of the nature of it, but I remember specifically myself and Nate, to get to know each other and to understand our stories and how we fell in love and that kind of thing, we had to talk about our parents. When we have this improv session about the memories of our parents. I’ll never forget the way he described his character’s mother on the spot and about how she loved the smell of gardenias. He had so much detail that obviously that inspired my detail and I’m a writer, so it’s natural for my mind to kind of be in that way. So it was very creative and she was really like she threw Jennifer into a situation where all these people in a restaurant started challenging her and how would she react? It was really about submersing ourselves into the environment and into the understanding of the family and the culture and the time. It was incredible.
CS: With that in mind, can you talk a little bit about working with the bees? You didn’t have your hands covered during your scenes, did you?
Latifah: No, and you know it was very, very challenging I must say. (laughs) I have the utmost respect for beekeepers, but you know what? It was really very challenging. I’ve done a lot of things in my career and I haven’t been afraid of a whole lot, but that it was like, “Woooo.” The day I had to shoot a lot of my bee scenes, it was cold, and bees don’t really like cold weather. They don’t like it when it’s cold outside, so they were a little bit irritated you know, and my suit wasn’t the most… I’m supposed to be the one who’s used to all this, so I couldn’t get the most protection on my suit, and I’m wearing a shirt and my hands are exposed, and I’m trying to keep my hands from shaking so you guys didn’t see it when you’re watching the movie, like “Gee, her hands are shaking” (laughter) “She had too much coffee this morning, that Boatwright woman!” But I mean, it was actually really interesting. It’s easy when you’ve got gloves on and you’re looking… I’m fascinated by that kind of stuff. I read Scientific American and I watch Discovery Channel and I’m just fascinated by nature and animals and insects period, so it was like that was cool but to have to take the gloves off and work free-hand and remember my lines, it required some work, it definitely did, and we didn’t have a lot of time to shoot this movie or rehearse for that matter, so I had to dig deep to do it, but it was really rewarding.
CS: And you didn’t get stung?
Latifah: Nah, I didn’t get stung. It was a cool ’cause thank God I’d been stung before, a bunch of times growing up, so I wasn’t worried that I was allergic to bee stings, so I didn’t have to worry about that part. I’m going to DIE if I get stung! (laughter)
CS: What did you do in bee school?
Latifah: Well, there was a guy named Julian who brought the bees up, and we would look at the hives and see which bees did what and way down deep were usually the queens. I got good at recognizing the queens and the drones, the boys, who couldn’t wait to fly off and hopefully die for their love of the queen (laughter). But it’s really interesting, and the little larvae, they come out fully grown, the bees. They go in but they take care of ’em and feed ’em and all the pollen and all that stuff, you just learn everything about bees and how they’re operatin’ in these hives, and they feed ’em extra honey and they keep ’em going and keep ’em energized, and that’s kinda interesting. I was fascinated by a bee coming out fully-grown, but still being a baby, so yeah, you learn about all that kind of stuff, and getting comfortable and why they check the hives, and what you’re looking for and seeing how the honey is made and everything and all that kind of stuff.
CS: Can you talk about the strong messages that this movie has for women?
Hudson: I think it definitely gives messages to women and coming together shows that look what we can do and look what we can accomplish. There are so many women who may be catty towards each other, but if you come together, there is a change you can make and you can strengthen each other through that.
CS: What was the most difficult scene for you to do? Was it all the dramatic stuff later in the movie?
Latifah: The most difficult scene for me was working through them damn bees! (laughter) Crying? It was sad, I cried, but the bees, I kid you not. Working with those bees, remembering my lines, and just trying to be relaxed and comfortable and teach this little girl about the wonderful life of bees in the hive with no gloves, and you don’t want to smash one of them, because if you kill one of them, they release a scent that tells the other bees somebody killed one of us! Get her! (laughter) So you have to be very gentle and you have to do it quick, because it’s a movie. We don’t have all day. How much film can we blow on this? Honestly, that was the most challenging thing, just trying to be August and handle these bees at the same time.
CS: Since you’re a writer yourself, did you ever feel the movie departed too much from what the core audience might expect after reading the book?
Keys: No, the cool thing was that because I had read the book, I felt really aware of everything that was going on. That was nice. The only thing that we departed from… everything is very close to the book. The only thing we departed on was little things like June is really the middle sister in the book, but I’m the younger sister in the film, just because it made sense and because for June’s character she is really about the time and the civil rights movement and encouraging people to get involved and that was really a younger generation’s movement at that time. It made sense to make me the younger sister and my anger and kind of my defiance is kind of like a younger kind of vibe. Sue Monk Kidd, she’ll tell you, it’s very much like the book and, the things that were a little varied, she was like, “What? Why didn’t I think of that? That was good” so I think she’d agree.
CS: You’ve been very much a pioneer in the world of music and rap and made a fluid translation to acting. Did you have any advice for Jennifer or Alicia about their own transition? Did they come to you for any advice?
Latifah: Not really. I tend to share whatever I know in general. I’ve never been a person to horde information for the sake of my own skin, you know what I mean? Not share so somebody doesn’t take your job, I’ve never had that kind of insecurity. I also had a management company, too, so we were always one of those companies that shared information with our artists. Whatever they wanted to know, as much as they wanted to know, they could know. If they didn’t want to deal with it, that’s our job anyway, to handle all this stuff. In owning a management company, you’re careful how you speak to other people’s clients, so I’m not coming in there like, “Hey, you can do better over here.” (laughter) But you know I share whatever I can. One thing, I definitely share as much as I can with Alicia. We’re probably the closest out of the whole group, because we’ve known each other the longest. Jennifer, we sat down to talk with her about management as well when she was looking for one with this whole thing, and she’s with JLM, who are great friends of ours, and in good hands. But it’s really whatever I can share that you know. For me, it was more important to lead by example on this film, to be the big sister, to be the veteran, to be the matriarch, in the sense that this is really what I have to do in my role anyway, and I actually kind of felt like that with them around. Dakota, she’s an old soul, she’s older than all of us. She’s definitely been here before, and she’s just fun times, but anything they have a question about, they can know, but for me it was just important to be prepared and be present and be in that moment and be an actor right then and there. I’ll be Queen Latifah. Cut, we can be whatever, but when we’re there, we’re there, and to help them being there myself and being that example. But I talked to them about the challenges of wearing all those hats.
CS: I was thinking more of Jennifer because she’s releasing her first album and will be touring soon.
Latifah: That’s what I’m saying, that it’s important to have as much support as you can. For me, I had an acting coach with me on this particular movie. Sometimes I take my acting coach Richy with me not because I need him to teach me how to act, but because sometimes I have to shut the other mess off, you know what I mean? I’m wearing a lot of hats, and I may have a conference call at lunchtime that may have nothing to do with this movie, and it’ll take me in a completely different place, and I just need to come back right here, right now. This is where we are, this is what happened, this is what’s going on, and just to get back to that place, and that’s kind of always why I had ‘im. So he’s helpful in those ways and as long as they can just do those kinds of things, you know, have that support system then I think they’ll be fine. They have all the talent in the world and they got good people around, so I think they’ll be okay.
CS: Did you get a chance to talk to Queen Latifah or Alicia about the process of touring behind an album?
Hudson: I dunno. I think our touring schedules don’t match up. Alicia, I think she’s already toured if I’m not mistaken. ‘Cause I went to a concert this summer, but Alicia pretty much gave me more advice on… because, I was like, “God, I didn’t know the recording process was going to be this long. I’ve been recording over a year. How long…? I filmed four movies in-between!” (laughs) I just literally finished recording my album, like a week ago, if that, and she was like, “It always takes me at least a year or so to record my album, so it’s nothing out of the norm or whatever.” I was able to tour with the Idols, although it’s still no comparison to an Alicia Keys tour, but that’s kind of how I got my feet wet I guess.
The Secret Life of Bees opens on Friday, October 17.