By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Grammy winning music artist Mary J. Blige was the first performer filmmaker Adam Shankman thought of when he was casting his newest big screen musical adaptation “Rock of Ages.”
“I think I just wanted (her) to sing around me,” says Shankman, who previously helmed the hit big screen adaptation of the hit musical “Hairspray.”
The Bronx native is hardly a veteran movie star, but she has had some experience in front of the camera, appearing in Tyler Perry’s “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” as well as performing in a number of music videos for her chart-topping songs.
She plays Justice, the savvy operator of a Sunset Strip gentleman’s club in “Rock of Ages,” set in the ‘80s and filled with hits from that era, who opens her doors to a young woman whose fallen on hard times trying to break into the music industry by giving her a job. She sings a duet with co-star Julianne Hough—Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart”—and joins in an ensemble of Journey’s “Any Way You Want It” and “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
Sporting a platinum blond bob and sunglasses, Blige sees acting as an extension of her creative output, and “Rock of Ages” as a cautionary tale about the excesses and the pitfalls of fame, particularly in the recording industry.
Front Row Features: What has been your process of getting into movies?
Mary J. Blige: Getting an acting coach and preparing for the acting part of the whole thing.
Front Row Features: Do you see it as a transition to something else?
Blige: No. It’s not a transition because I’m not giving up my day job, which is singing. It’s something that I’m attaching to my career.
Front Row Features: Were there parallels you could draw between yourself and Justice?
Blige: Yes, the fact that she’s always this strong person. She works in a strip club, first of all, so she has to be strong for all the other women, and be the light in a dark place, and believe in herself regardless of her circumstances and never let her environment dictate who she is. She’s teaching the same thing to the women who work there by being strong and letting them know they’re better than this.
Front Row Features: How did you get along with your “Rock of Ages” co-star Julianne Hough, who’s character you take under your wing?
Blige: She was very supportive on the set. It’s rare for me to find people like that or to end up around people like that. This girl was so down to earth and so wise to be so young and yet so old. She was mothering me and she helped me when I was nervous with my acting skills. She loosely and calmly said, “It’s alright. That was great what you did.” And if it wasn’t right, she’d say, “Don’t worry about it. It will come. I’ve got you.” She just made me feel good. I love her and we created a bond and a friendship.
Front Row Features: Can you talk about your experience working with director Adam Shankman?
Blige: It was pleasant because Adam just knows exactly what he wants and he tells you what he wants. He’s also a beautiful person and fun to be around. He makes us all feel comfortable to the point where it doesn’t intimidate you to work next to Tom Cruise or anyone else in the movie.
Front Row Features: Did you know when he cast you that you were his first choice?
Blige: Yes. He told me at Jennifer Lopez’s housewarming party that he was going to put me in a movie but I didn’t pay attention to that because people in Hollywood just say stuff. But six months later, he showed up with the role and I didn’t even have to audition.
Front Row Features: We’ve just lost a few icons recently from the ‘80s – Donna Summer, Robin Gibb and Whitney Houston. What influence did their music have on you?
Blige: Whitney was a huge influence on what I do.
Front Row Features: What kind of music did you listen to in the ‘80s?
Blige: Anita Baker was everything to me. I was listening to a lot of Melissa Morgan, Tina Marie and just all those women that were out back then. It was mostly R&B that I was listening to.
Front Row Features: What did you find surprising or exciting when you started acting and what turned out to be harder than you thought it would be?
Blige: The coaching part I love because it’s therapeutic. You have to find your character. Who is she? And you’ve got to dig into yourself to bring her to life. So, as you’re digging into yourself, you’re finding all this stuff in there that needs to come out, especially if your character’s depressed or doesn’t trust men. That was the only thing that was challenging.
Front Row Features: What was your own experience in terms of being introduced to fame? What have been the pitfalls and joys of being a famous artist?
Blige: You constantly have to fight for your identity as a female artist. Everyone just says, “yes” to everything. When you have people that just say “yes,” it can really be bad for you because no one’s telling you the truth. What I learned to do is to be more confident so I make better people choices in my surroundings. If you’re not confident, you’re going to lean on those people that are lying to you. But if you’re confident, you’re like, “You’re lying. Get out of here. I know what it is, who I am, what I want.” Thank God that part of my life is gone.
Front Row Features: What would you go back and change about your life?
Blige: I wish I’d had parental guidance. Then, I wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble. I would tell anyone with a 19-year-old daughter who’s getting into the music business, please go with her because it’s hard out there.
Front Row Features: Do you still party like a rock star?
Blige: Not like I used to, but I still have fun though. (She laughs.)
Front Row Features: What’s a night out on the town mean for you now?
Blige: My girlfriends and I go to dinner, we laugh, we have drinks. We go to bed and go to work the next day. There’s no more hanging out until 7 a.m. and then doing it all over again. The body just can’t take it.
Front Row Features: Would you consider playing Whitney Houston onscreen?
Blige: I’m not going to say yes and I’m not going to say no. I don’t know.
Front Row Features: How do you stay motivated to keep making music?
Blige: The fans loving the music and buying tickets to come to the concerts and buying the albums. That’s what keeps you going.
Front Row Features: So many recording artists end up destroying their career or themselves with drugs and alcohol. You’ve managed for 20 years now to avoid the pitfalls. How did you do it?
Blige: It’s called God. (She smiles.) I’m serious. I would be dead. I would be finished if I didn’t know him, if I didn’t pray, if I didn’t believe that there was something better than human beings in this universe, something good. That’s really it.
Front Row Features: Is there an album in the works or a tour coming up?
Blige: We’re on rehearsal for tour right now and we’re restriping a new album.