Be prepared to get out your handkerchiefs, copious boxes of tissues, or maybe even a roll of paper towels on Sunday, October 7, when Lifetime Television unveils its all new version of Robert Harling’s dramedy Steel Magnolias.
The telefilm, which has been transplanted to the present-day South, features an A-list African American cast, headed by Queen Latifah (who also served as executive producer), Phylicia Rashad, Alfre Woodard, Condola Rashad, and Jill Scott, under the direction of Broadway veteran Kenny Leon.
The project was the brainchild of award-winning producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron — whose credits include Smash and the upcoming Academy Awards — who had previously worked with Latifah on the film versions of the Broadway musicals Chicago and Hairspray. “Those were the two greatest experiences of our life,” says Zadan. “And since two was not enough, we knew we needed a third. Then, once we got Queen Latifah on board, every actress we asked wanted to be on this project as well.”
For Latifah, the chance to play the pivotal role of M’Lynn – a strong-willed Southern wife and mother – fit snugly into the actress’ career game plan. “It’s always my goal to deliver something entertaining — that makes you laugh or cry,” she says. “And while I want to serve the African American audience, I try to pick things that appeal to diverse cultures, because that’s what I am used to having grown up in New Jersey.”
Being around this group of women was a particular pleasure for Latifah. “It was almost like a whirlpool of talent on the set, challenging each other,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of downtime – we shot the film in 18 days – but we had a lot of great moments in the makeup trailer. Alfre would tell us about her kids. I’d be playing house music. A couple of days into shooting, Jill had her birthday and we brought a cake onto the set. Sometimes, we just all looked at each other and realized what an amazing experience this was.”
The actress found it particularly special to work with Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad, who plays M’Lynn’s close friend Clairee, and Condola Rashad – Phylicia’s real-life daughter – who plays M’Lynn’s severely diabetic daughter, Shelby.
“Phylicia reminds me of my mom; she talks to you in this calming, soothing voice, but she also lets you know when you messed up. So I felt like I had my mom on the set,” Latifah says. “It was also really nice to be able to talk to someone who has run the same gauntlet you’re currently running and can give you words of wisdom. I know a lot of people think she’s Clair Huxtable (her character on The Cosby Show), but Phylicia is way cooler.”
The same goes for her daughter, says Latifah. “I hadn’t met Condola before, but we just kicked it immediately. We share a great bond of both loving music; she’s an amazing singer. We also talked about our visions for the character and for life. She’s this extremely well-versed young woman, but she also has this adventurous spirit, like me. I automatically felt nurturing toward her and that she could be my daughter and I could be her mom. I think we now have this bond that will withstand the test of time.”
Condola, who received a Tony Award nomination last year for Stick Fly and a Theatre World Award for Ruined, returns the compliment. “Queen Latifah is awesome. She was the kind of actor I love, who is totally there to work with you on scenes, but also a lot of fun to be around.”
Given the demands of her role, Condola felt the need for a little levity. “It was a little scary for me to do such an emotional role,” she says. “But I really liked the idea of Shelby, this woman whose spirit is stronger than her body and who will do whatever she wants to do — even though having a baby put her at great risk. I felt like I needed to bring a level of compassion and tenderness to her, so she would not seem like this reckless person. She saw bringing a child into the world as a greater purpose in life. I think she was selfless in that way, even if she was selfish in that she knew people would miss her if she died.”
Did she find it scarier playing Shelby, or acting opposite her real-life mom? “The thing that made me the most nervous is I could not say any swear words on the set. That was tricky for me,” she says with a laugh. “I think I can count one hand the amount of times I’ve heard her curse in real life. But at the end of the day we are both professionals. And since we were all staying in the same place, we had a lot of bonding time off the set, and that was really great.”
In the end, Latifah stresses that this version of Steel Magnolias is its own animal – and should not be compared to the play or previous film. “I didn’t do this wondering if I did as good a job as someone else who has played the part, and I don’t think anyone who looks at this movie will feel that way,” says Latifah.
“I do think the audience is going to lose their minds over this film. Whether they’re diehard Lifetime viewers or not, they will all find something they can emotionally connect to. It’s just great television.”