Queen Latifah Interview
As a youngster coming-of-age in Irvington, New Jersey, Queen Latifah often wondered what she'd do when she grew up. Would she be a rap diva? A music industry mogul, a TV star or a movie actress?With typical gutsiness, she must have reasoned, why not do it all?Jump cut to 1996. The Queen is relaxing in a Manhattan hotel suite, sipping miso soup and pondering a kingdom that keeps expanding.In fact, she has done it all, from invading the man's world of rap with hits like "Ladies First," "Wrath of My Madness" and "U.N.I.T.Y." to managing hip-hoppers Naughty By Nature and Outkast to starring as Khadija in the Fox sitcom "Living Single" to spicing up movies like Spike Lee's Jungle Fever and My Life.Her latest challenge is Set It Off, a ensemble flick co-starring Jada Pinkett (The Nutty Professor), Vivica A. Fox (Independence Day) and newcomer Kimberly Elise. In the movie -- a revenge drama that fuses Thelma & Louise with Waiting to Exhale -- Latifah plays Cleo, a fearless lesbian who leads her buddies on a series of bank robberies.The role was a departure for the rap star, whose music has always steered cleared of violence and overt sexuality."Audiences are shocked by my character at first but then they come to like her because she's a trooper," notes Latifah, looking 25 pounds lighter thanks to a vegetarian diet. "She's dedicated to her friends. They pity her too, because she goes all out."I liked that Cleo wasn't confused about who she was. She was gay, gay, gay -- not bisexual. She's very specific about what she wants. She digs her girlfriend, and she has her homegirls. They're her best buddies. And that's her life. It's all very simple to her."Latifah, dressed for today's interview in jeans and polo shirt, not only embraced the idea of playing a gay character but she recommends it to others as well. "All this talk about whether or not Ellen Degeneres is going to come out of the closet (on TV's 'Ellen') is so silly. She shouldn't live behind other people's ideas. The world will never change like that."In Set It Off, Latifah doesn't pull any punches. Halfway through the movie, she was required to perform a steamy love scene with another woman atop a black car. It's a sequence that's created a buzz even before the movie's release. But Latifah says as soon as she accepted the role, she was determined to play her character as authentically as possible."There was some anxiety when I found out that I had to kiss a girl," says the 26-year-old rapper. "I can't lie. I'm already Queen Latifah. I'm not just some actress off the street. But after getting over that, and releasing that anxiety, I went for it."God blessed me with this role. So I talked to him about it. I said, 'I think I can really show my stuff in this movie but if you don't want me to do it, don't give it to me.' But he gave it to me. So I knew I had to do it, and I knew I had to give it 150 percent."The daughter and sister of police officers, Latifah was as concerned about the movie's trigger-happy violence as she was with her character's sexuality."I just hope that audiences don't take away from the movie that they should go out and rob a bank. It doesn't work out for (the characters) in the end. Besides, this is just a movie. What I do hope kids learn is that you have to love your friends. That's the main lesson I'd like people to take away from the film, that you have to stand by your buddies."Offscreen, Latifah has faced her share of violence. Her policeman brother died in a motorcycle accident in 1992. And in July of last year, her BMW was stolen at gunpoint in front of a Harlem Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Her friend Shawn Moon was shot in the stomach, and nearly died in her arms."I remember when Shawn got shot, he was trying so hard to stay alive," says the rapper who didn't wait for an ambulance but hailed a car to get him to the hospital more quickly. "Breathing was a big issue. I had to talk him out of giving up."On the night that Latifah filmed Set It Off's gunfire-filled finale, she was arrested for carrying a loaded pistol and for marijuana possession. (She spent several hours in jail, pleaded no contest and paid $810 in fines and $2,500 to a charity).Latifah blames her arrest on "the dark energy" she allowed to trickle into her life while making the movie."Initially, I was drawn to the fact that everything about this character was different from me," she says. "I felt I could really dig into her. But doing that required me to bring out things in myself. I was so focused. I was trying to keep it tight and realistic."Latifah, who was born Dana Owens, began her tenure in show business with an all-female band at Irvington High School. After a brief stint at Burger King, she began rapping full-time. In 1989, she released her first album, "All Hail the Queen," a recording that promoted black (and feminist) pride. Since then, she's recorded two more albums including "Black Reign" which sold 3.5 million copies and a single, "U.N.I.T.Y.," which netted her a Grammy -- the first awarded to a solo female rapper."People tell me I've accomplished so much," she says. "I have. But I'm the exception, not the rule. I could understand the desperation the women in Set If Off feel. Initially, I thought, 'Hey, we need more [motivation] to go out and rob a bank.' But then I started hanging out in the clubs, and I changed my mind."If Set It Off is any indication, Latifah has a shot at accomplishing even more in Hollywood. "I stick to my guns," she maintains. "I have respect for myself and I display that. Queen Latifah is a strong person because I'm a strong person. But if I have to play Cleo to show the critics I can act -- because Khadija is so much like me -- then that's what I'll do. If nothing else, people should respect me having the guts to give it a try."