By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—With the success of their 2014 faith-based family drama “Heaven is For Real,” film producers Joe Roth, T.D. Jakes and DeVon Franklin have followed up with the big screen adaptation of Christy Beam’s similarly inspiring “Miracles From Heaven,” based on the Texas mother’s true-life story about a miracle that saved her gravely ill daughter. The heartwarming drama stars Golden Globe-winning actress Jennifer Garner (“Alias”) as Beam, a loving wife and mother of three whose faith and determination helps her cope with the challenges of caring for a sick child.
Playing one of the “small miracles” who come into Beam’s life at just the right time is acclaimed actress/rapper Queen Latifah. She plays Angela, a thoughtful and generous Boston waitress who befriends Beam and her sick middle daughter Anna (played by up and coming actress Kylie Rogers), who has contracted a rare intestinal disease with no known cure. Mother and daughter arrive in Beantown in hopes of seeing a highly regarded specialist who may be able to treat the girl, if they can only snag a hard-to-get appointment. Seeing how distraught her customers are, Angela (Latifah) offers to take them on a tour of the town, which helps the visitors relax for a little while.
“Angela is kind of an angel,” says director Patricia Riggen, who previously helmed the acclaimed Chilean miners rescue drama “The 33,” which also carried themes about faith and hope.
Queen Latifah says it was nice to read a script with an uplifting message about the strength and love of a family.
“I think people want to see hopeful stories like this brought to them,” the Academy Award nominated actress explains.
Having suffered loss in her own life, Queen Latifah (born Dana Owens in Newark, N.J.) says that when she read the script she immediately understood why her character stepped in to help the troubled strangers.
“It’s a beautiful thing to be so giving and loving when you have your own life to deal with,” she says.
Latifah, who turns 46 on March 18, says she was pleased to be asked to play the character, who in real life is a blond Caucasian Boston native.
Having demonstrated her acting and singing chops as murderess Mama Morton in the big screen musical adaptation of “Chicago,” Queen Latifah has proven herself a gifted comedian in films like “Bringing Down the House,” “Mad Money” and “Hairspray.” She also has demonstrated a gift for dramatic roles in films like “Life Support,” in which she played an AIDS activist and her Emmy-nominated performance in the HBO biopic about acclaimed blues singer Bessie Smith.
Dressed in black with her long hair in a high ponytail, Queen Latifah recently sat down to speak about her role in “Miracles From Heaven” and her views about the power of faith.
Q: It was funny when your boss in the diner facetiously calls you “Your Majesty.”
Latifah: Everybody in that diner scene was pretty funny. I think they were part of a comedy troupe, though. Seriously, they do like a Second City kind of thing. They were funny between takes. They had a million jokes. I’m thinking, “These guys are nuts.”
Q: That’s nice though, right?
Latifah: Yeah, we had to brighten up the story a little bit.
Q: Your character Angela is like an angel. She is there at the right time and embraces these strangers and takes them on the town. Is that like you or someone you know?
Latifah: I’ve done some pretty amazing things but I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that. I truly admire Angela and what she was able to do. To be that conscious and to change your life to make someone’s life better; to see that need and be able to step in there, almost to the detriment of her own job, was pretty cool.
I love this character and the fact that she’s a real person who really did this and then meeting the real people that this happened to and hearing their stories. I hope to meet her one day. I I’ve seen pictures of her and it’s kind of funny because we don’t look anything alike. She’s a blond, white woman from Boston. I’m from New Jersey. That’s already contentious. I mean, I’m a Yankees fan; she’s a Red Sox fan. (She laughs.) But I’m told she now sees herself as Queen Latifah, which is hilarious to me because when I talked to the Beams, they were like “She’s going to love that you’re playing her because she loves you.” She said, “I see myself like Queen Latifah.” It was perfect. It just adds to the magic of this woman.
Q: How was it working with Kylie Rogers, who’s just 12?
Latifah: She’s an amazing actress. Just being there watching her and watching Patricia (Riggen) direct her, and ask her to try it this way or here’s what you’re thinking about right here and to watch her make those adjustments so quickly and naturally was a joy to watch. She’s extremely talented.
Q: What was your experience like working with a female director from Mexico?
Latifah: It was great. I’m glad I speak a little Spanish so it was perfect. Patricia was cool and her husband. I thought that was interesting to watch two lovers work together. They’re kind of romantic those two. (Checco Varese, the cinematographer on the movie is her husband.) It was really kind of nice. I’m used to working with strong women who lead the way so it was great to have a female at the helm and stars; young and older. It was great for me. She was really able to tap into the sensitivity of all these characters and the story and what we needed to show emotionally, which I thought was great.
Q: Can you watch the film and not cry?
Latifah: I’m a Pisces. There is no way I’m getting through. I’m already sensitive so definitely not. Just reading the script, it was so powerful at that time. But that’s not the intension. Doing movies like this is a gift to guys who think they’re strong. Go see this movie and you can finally have that cry you need. Movies like this give you permission to just let it out and then pull it together. It’s important to be able to be moved. I love that there’s a movie that moves you that you feel connected to that really makes you moved inside. That’s a good thing.
Q: Have you experienced a miracle?
Latifah: Yeah, all kinds of miracles big and small, simple and very deep. I feel connected. Things happen in the strangest ways. I remember when I lost my brother, I was 22 and he was 24. It was a motorcycle accident. I was really sad. Soon afterwards, I was on the plane. I flew the redeye back from New York to L.A. and I would be alone and cover my head with a blanket and kind of talk, pray and talk to him, then cry. I was so sad. I was looking out at the sky one day and really crying saying, “Winkie, I really miss you,” and whoosh, I saw a shooting star going across the sky.
My brother and I rode motorcycles, rode fast so I was like, “No way, did you get to become a shooting star?” So, on another flight, the same thing happened. I had the blanket over my head. I was praying and crying, and then I see another one. I started to say, “Wait a minute! Now this is getting weird.” So the next flight I was like, “Okay, if you are really a shooting star, I dare you to fly across the sky right now.” And whoosh, a star went flying across the sky. “Oh snap!” (She laughs.) So that’s my little story of my little miracle. I believe. I was like, “Okay, that’s cool. We’re good. Pull yourself together. Life goes on. You’ll be all right.”
Q: With the outcry this year over the lack of diversity at the Oscars, what is your take on getting more diversity in Hollywood?
Latifah: It’s pretty much what you’ve seen. We need diversity. We need to see more stories told from people from different walks of life and I think it would reflect more of America and the world how it really is. I also would love to see more inclusion, not just for minorities but for women too.
To me the Oscars are supposed to be the best and, as a member of the Academy (of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences), I want to vote for the best and be a part of the best. You have to include the best in order to really hold yourself to that standard. You win a gold medal knowing that you competed with the best in the world in the Olympics. That’s how you want to feel (as an actor) so I think the more inclusive it is, the more you get to really show the best of what the world has to offer and really celebrate that because it should be celebrated.
We work really hard to create this content and bring these stories to the world but we are bringing it to the world and the world needs to see something reflective of them. They need to see themselves in the stories—and also the directors, the producers, the crews and even the locations where we shoot. I think that’s a very important thing and I think they’re moving toward fixing that. The rest we have to do regardless of what the Academy does.
Q: What are you looking for right now in your career?
Latifah: Right now I’m promoting this film and then I have a movie that we produced called “The Perfect Match.” I’m doing a pilot with Lee Daniels for his next scripted TV series tentatively titled “Star,” so I should know pretty soon when that’s going to air on Fox. I have a couple of movie projects that are happening soon.
Q: Are you ready for the busy pace of doing TV?
Latifah: I don’t know. It seems easier than my talk show was so I guess that’s okay. I’m just kind of wrapping my mind around it. When it gets here, I’ll be fine with it. I’ll adjust to it. I’m pretty fluid. I’m pretty used to adjusting to whatever and whenever I need to be. I’ll be fine. I’m excited about it.
Q: Is music still a big part of your life?
Latifah: Yeah, music is big. I have about 50 records that I’ve done in different genres so I’m trying to complete this major project of releasing all these albums in different genres in one day.
Q: Has your musical style changed?
Latifah: My style has grown and it’s different styles because I love different kinds of music. Me and (singer/songwriter) Sia just finished one of the songs for the “Hamilton” (musical) soundtrack, and that’s my style. That’s rapping and singing but there is jazz and an electronic feeling and hip hop still and bluesy kind of stuff as well. I really draw from all the influences of music that I love. There’s a little reggae in there as well. I’m true to all of that because it’s naturally me. It goes in there and turns around and comes out and most of it is live. It should be really fun to get out there and perform.