Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose blooms on the big screen in Dreamgirls.
But nothing in her past has prepared for the frenzy surrounding Dreamgirls, Bill Condon's film version of Michael Bennett's 1981 Broadway smash, which opens in New York on December 15. She plays Lorrell Robinson, one of the Dreams, in the hotly anticipated movie. "It's everywhere," she says with a laugh. "I was at the airport going to L.A., wearing sweats, sunglasses, and a cap, and I got stopped at security because I had makeup in my bag. The guy was very nice about it, and then he asked me, 'Are you in Dreamgirls?' He was really excited."
Rose knows that this is, to quote a Dreamgirls lyric, only the beginning. "I've realized I don't know how to prepare for this kind of thing," she says. "Broadway was great preparation for it, and the Tony is the biggest honor, but there's still a reality to being in New York. So I'm preparing to continue to be me and be comfortable with me, because when you prepare for greatness, you end up with egg in your face."
Work on the film began over a year ago, and Rose remembers her first meeting with Condon as very emotional: "Bill is the sweetest thing in the world. We're sitting in his office and, on the walls, there's a picture of the original cast of Dreamgirls and all this Motown stuff. I just started sobbing on his couch, because it hit me then that I was in the middle of something very special."
By the time shooting began, Rose knew that Lorrell's big number from the stage musical, "Ain't No Party," hadn't made it into the final shooting script. "I auditioned with that song twice, but Bill just felt it wouldn't work in the context of the movie," she says. "It hurt my heart, but I knew it wasn't personal. And it was better than recording it and then having it cut afterwards; that would've seemed like it was cut because I didn't do it well. I hear my audition might be on the DVD, although I think that's crazy. Still, it would be nice if the fans can hear even a rough version. One day, I might throw it on record. It's a screamer, and people don't generally get to hear me sing like that."
Rose did copious research before making the film: "I looked at a lot of video of Motown groups, especially the Supremes. I watched Hullaballoo and a lot of old Soul Train tapes. There was a very different style of movement then; the 1960s were very ladylike. There was even a different way of reaching your arm out; back then, it came out from the shoulder. I also watched DVDs about the history of Motown. I'm from Connecticut, so I sound very different than people from Detroit. It was a city of people who migrated there, and you can still hear the roots of the South in their voices."
Otherwise, Rose says, capturing her character turned out to be surprisingly easy. "I don't want this to sound arrogant, but I didn't find Lorrell to be difficult, and I attribute that to the brilliance of the script," she remarks. "It was clear to me from the audition forward who she was and what I wanted her to sound like, which is not like me at all. I'm glad Bill was open to my ideas. I loved that you were able to watch her turn into this fully formed, fully realized person who understands herself."
Speaking of watching: Did Rose look at the dailies? "No, I'm not that girl. Bill kept asking me to and I kept telling him to get away, because I knew it would drive me crazy. Stage people never get to see what we do, so we learn to trust how we feel. One thing I did learn on the shoot is that you can't hold on to the good moments or the bad moments, because that will kill what you're doing." Rose first saw a rough cut of the film in September. "I had to go twice the same week," she says with a laugh. "The first time, it was crazy to see myself that huge on the screen. But the second time, I really took it in. I thought it was beautiful, and it struck me to see a beautiful movie about people of color. Too often, we don't get to see the glamour and the grace of our people. It's a glorious thing."
Indeed, Rose has nothing but happy memories of working with Eddie Murphy, who plays her lover, James "Thunder" Early. "We got along so well as people, outside of what we were doing. I really enjoyed him," she says. "He was open to whatever I was bringing at any given moment. Eddie is a very private person; he never even came to the set until it was time to shoot. I think he's private because he's concerned people want something from him. But I think he realized that I didn't want anything from him except the chance to share."
Though the various cast members had many different ways of working ("Jamie Foxx will tell a joke up to the minute they say the 'act' in 'action' "), Rose says that everyone got along, especially she and her fellow Dreams Beyoncé Knowles (Deena) and Jennifer Hudson (Effie). There was one person on the set with whom Rose didn't share a scene but who was still really special to her: Broadway's original Lorrell, Loretta Devine, has a well-placed cameo in the film. "I did get to talk to her in general," says Rose, "but not about the role, since it's a different piece and you want to respect that. She was so funny and so supportive, and I really liked her. One day, she said to me: 'Anika, come January, you're not going to be able to walk down the street.' "
Rose says that, during the shoot, she was aware that many of her Broadway colleagues were skeptical about the project, even though Condon won an Oscar for the screenplay of Chicago. "People were concerned that the film would be bastardized. I would tell them, 'The man knows what he's doing.' But the more clips people saw, the more their nerves got calmed. George C. Wolfe [who directed Rose in Caroline] called me right after he saw [the movie] and said 'Anika, do you feel fantastic? You should!' I was so glad he loved it!"
A lot of folks love the film and her performance so much that Rose's name is being bantered about as a possible Oscar nominee, but she's having none of it. "Of course, it's an honor to hear your name in the same sentence as Oscar. And I really hope Bill gets the recognition he deserves," she says. "But you can't get caught up in that madness or you lose sight of why you did the work, and you miss the joy that people are leaving the theater feeling good. So I'm choosing to live in the moment."
Oscar nomination or not, Rose hopes to return to Broadway soon, though she has no specific project in mind. "It has to be exciting, challenging, something that's a stretch; maybe it will be a straight play. It's time to bring something fresh and new to the stage, although I will say I have my eye on the revival of Porgy and Bess," she says. "I don't want people to be afraid to continue to tell our stories, like Caroline, or Change and Dreamgirls. I don't mean black stories; I mean the stories of Americans. After all, Dreamgirls is a huge comment on the American dream."