*questions are from various members of the press, including People Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Out, The Hallmark Channel, The Boston Herald, NYCMovieGuru.com, Creme-Magazine.com and The Daily Challenge.
On Monday, October 25, the Tyler Perry and the cast of his new movie For Colored Girls gathered at the London Hotel in New York to answer questions from the press. As the film version of Ntozake Shange‘s 1975 original book For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf hits theaters on November 5, a new generation of fans will be exposed to the poetry and intense emotion of the Tony Award-winning play.
In this open conversation, Perry offers behind-the-scenes insight and character/performance discussion alongside Janet Jackson (Jo), Phylicia Rashad (Gilda), Kerry Washington (Kelly), Anika Noni Rose (Yasmine), Kimberly Elise (Crystal), Loretta Devine (Juanita), Thandie Newton (Tangie), Tessa Thompson (Nyla) and Macy Gray (Rose).
Unfortunately Whoopi Goldberg and the male actors – Omari Hardwick, Hill Harper, Khalil Kane, Michael Ealy – could not be at this conference, however UrbLife.com does have an exclusive interview with Omari Hardwick coming to you tomorrow! Stay tuned!!
You have this amazing cast and performances. How do you balance how much we’re going to see of [each person]and where Tyler Perry’s voice ends and Ntozake Shange’s voice begins?
Tyler Perry: As far as the characters and balancing them, I wasn’t thinking who would play what role, and I just wrote the story of eight women who didn’t know each other whose lives are crossing… It wasn’t about how much time I was giving each character, as much as it was about how much of that story was being told at that moment.
I went back to Ntozake’s work, and I was struck by it because it’s so beautiful and the melody of it is so great, it’s almost like music. What I had to do was try and mimic it as much as I could in my dialogue so that when these women went into one of her poems, it didn’t seem like it was a door slamming. I don’t know if I’m explaining the way I feel about it in my mind, but what’s great about it is these women are so amazing at it, that it all flows together. They were really fantastic.
Janet, who did you look to to get in character? What inspired you for this role?
Janet Jackson: Actually, there were old films that I watched. One of them was Adam’s Rib with Katharine Hepburn. It was all done off of what Tyler had written so I tried to get into the character as much as I could and feel who she was and what she was going through.
Anika, I loved the performance in the hospital scene where you had that snotty-nosed cry. How did you work that out, what was your inspiration and process behind that? And Tyler, how did you get that out of her?
Anika Noni Rose: My inspiration was the words. This woman went through something unthinkable, and I thought about what was what Ntozake put down on paper about the way we trust people with ourselves, our spirits, our bodies and our lives was so clear to me, that I tried to allow it to live as clearly as I could.
It was important to me not to put a whole lot on it, I didn’t want to boo-hoo through the whole scene – if tears happen that’s great, but that wasn’t my plan. My plan was to live these words and allow them to be clear. So many people don’t get to say that, so many people go through these things and never get to say, “Somebody hurt me and I didn’t deserve it.” Either they’re afraid to or told not to, because they’ve been scared into silence. It’s important for those words to be heard, and to be heard truthfully.
Tyler Perry: I just asked everybody to bring their truth to it. What you see on the screen is them coming from such a truthful place, that’s why it resonates and that’s why it works so well.
When is the first time any of you interacted with the story [in the book]before you came to the movie?
Tessa Thompson: I read the play as a little girl. There was a copy of it, I came across it and was really taken back by the cover. I’d continue to have experiences where I would read it throughout my life, and was really taken back and I would continue to have experiences where I would read it.
Phylicia Rashad: I saw the original Broadway production.[long silence][laughter]
Kerry Washington: Next question![laughter]
Loretta Devine: I auditioned for one production, I was cast but I was in graduate school and they wouldn’t let me out. So I had to make a choice and I finished grad school, and everything has come full circle, I’m glad I did.
Kimberly, how did you guys detox? Tyler, the play was written the year I was born, and it’s given a voice to a lot of women of color but today it resonates with any woman who feels abused and misused. Were there any hurdles you had to overcome in doing it?
Tyler Perry: The thing about it is, an agent at William Morris brought it to me years ago and I didn’t want to do it. Whoopi brought it to me and said I should do a revival on Broadway and I said no. I talked to Ntozake at the time and I wasn’t really interested. After the fifth time it was brought to me, I realized something was there. It was intimidating because it means so much to so many people, especially women.
I think the most important part is the final words that were said: “I found God in myself and I loved her fiercely” – and I think it’s about taking that journey and finding God for yourself, inside yourself and loving yourself.
Kimberly Elise: For me to get into this character, I live a very peaceful and relaxed and joyous life, and practice meditation regularly – I do yoga and eat healthy. Part of the thing I did for this was let all of that go, because I knew that would take me off balance and Crystal had to be off balance. To deny myself those things was a lot, and it left me vulnerable and exposed in a place that would allow her to inhabit my body and speak her voice.
I went there to make this movie with about five grey hairs, I came home and found fifty and I’m not kidding. Any actor will tell you your body doesn’t know it’s pretend. It shows up and manifests itself, so when I came home, there Crystal – still there. I thought it would go away, and they didn’t. A couple of weeks ago I surrendered to the dye job and had to get the Crystal covered. I came back to my yoga and meditation, and did a 21-day detox with water and pure foods, and just cleansed. I had to push her out and let Kim come back.
This [story]is seen as a rite of passage for women of color, did it seem that way to you?
Phylicia Rashad: Early on in the process of filming, we would sit in the makeup trailer and we would all talk about this piece and anything related to it. It came to us all one day in an instant that all women in the world are colored girls because the ‘color’ being referred to has not to do with the color of one’s skin, it has to do with mood, heart, spirit, experience, emotion, expression, understanding and the lack of it thereof.
So that being said, and understanding who the poet, playwright, dancer and scholar Ntozake Shange is, we understand this piece as an outgrowth of her studies as a professor of literature, her development as a dancer, her expression as a poet and a playwright. That’s a lot. I think it’s a rite of passage for all people. That’s what I think. When we understand women correctly, society changes. When women understand ourselves correctly, we change society.
Loretta Devine: And to that, I would like to say ‘ditto’. [laughter]
Kerry Washington: Can you imagine how profound it was for us to go to work everyday with these women and share that in the makeup chair, in the van on the way to work. To be able to have these connections and conversations. It’s part of why the experience was so special for each of us.
These roles seemed to be such monumental tasks to portray. Was there a point where you asked yourself, “How am I going to do that?” and did you get over that point?
Janet Jackson: Acting has always been a challenge for me, and that’s why I love it so much. This is a character I’ve never played. She’s bold and she has a lot of vision to her – being so shrewd, so bold. She’s got a lot of bitch in her, she’s very strong. For Tyler to have that faith in me was really exciting, so I was ready to step forward and take that challenge.
Kimberly Elise: There was some trepidation. Like I said, I knew I’d have to take myself off center – I’d have to disconnect with the spirit that I live with every day, because Crystal wasn’t connected and when she says, “I found God in myself”. It’s because she walks through the film disconnected, and that’s why she has all of this pain and the things in her life. I knew it would be scary for me to go into that place and I had to really build myself up for it daily. At the end of every day Tyler would say, “Come on back up, Kim” and it really was like being under water.
Macy Gray: I start off doing basic things like watching TV – things I think she would watch, and it’s a gradual build up. It takes me a while [to develop into the character]and hopefully I eventually get to the person I’m trying to be.
Anika Noni Rose: It was a very tactile set. There were times when Tyler would just stop and hug you…
Loretta Devine: [looking around]He did? He didn’t hug me…[laughter]
Anika Noni Rose: There were times where I felt like air was a luxury, to get another breath was a luxury in one of the scenes that I did. Tyler came up to me, put his arms around me and held me for a little while. And we did it again, and again and again… To have that support of the mind, spirit and body there’s something to be said for that.
Kerry Washington: We had the benefit of having an actor as our director, so he’s walked where we walked and he cared for us. He trusted us because he knows , he’s been there as an actor, so that was a great lesson for all of us.
Tyler Perry: I know how traumatic it can be to go that deep inside of yourself to get that range of emotion, to get that kind of performance. As we’ve seen in the past there are people who have gone to these deep places and have not been able to come out. There are actos who have left the set and OD’d, the history books are full of it. So it was very important to me that they knew they were safe, after it was done I’d do what I could to pull them out of it. Except Loretta. [laughter]
Tyler , how did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience, provoking them emotionally and intellectually?
Tyler Perry: This was the most intimidating work I’ve ever taken on. I walked away from it many times by saying no then when I said yes, I quit four times. I was wondering, “Can I do this?” – then I surrendered to it. I said to myself that it was very special to a lot of people and that I had to do my very best with it. When I watched the film, I said to myself that I did the best film I could do at this time in my life and I was happy with it.
I wrote it from a place where I felt it would work, I listened to Ntozake’s voice, I spoke to her many times trying to make sure I was on the same page, that I was vibing, that I was beginning to pick up some of where she was. As a man it’s difficult to say a lot of this, but hearing these women say it really changed it all for me. I can take some credit for that, but a lot of it has to do with me talking to her, and these women sitting next to me all helped me get to that place.
Macy, we talked last night to Ntozake Shange and she was blown away by your performance, how does that make you feel? Janet, we’re getting a lot of Oscar buzz for your role. How does that feel? Anika, how did you feel to go from a princess to this role?
Anika Noni Rose: I’m always a princess! [laughs]I’m an actor and I always try to do something different from the last thing I did, otherwise you just get the same shades of me, and that’s boring. I don’t want to see me all the time, and I don’t know why someone else would want to. I just try to shake it up, and do something challenging and different, that will allow me to turn myself inside out.
Janet Jackson: I can’t focus on that, it’ll drive me crazy if I do. I think it’s wonderful and very exciting, but I don’t focus on it at all.
Macy Gray: That’s the best compliment, to have the writer impressed with the performances really means something. She created characters that were so difficult and complex, away from what people usually do. Preparing for it was far away from what I normally do… she’s an alcoholic, which I’ve been some nights. [laughter]She’s an agoraphobiac… I would watch shows I thought she’d like, creepy stuff, reality stuff, porn… [laughter]What else would she watch? She’d watch porn right? [laughter]Tessa also watched porn. [laughter]. It was a huge challenge… it was definitely a big deal for me and I’m glad [Ntozake] liked it.
Tessa, can you clarify how you actually did prepare?
Tessa Thompson: I mean, does one really need an excuse to watch porn? [laughter]No, let me clarify... The scene Macy and I shot was about an experience that is extremely frightening, so in that particular instance, the day-of I watched some porn to get prepared for it. I don’t actually watch porn, and I hadn’t, but that day I watched a scene that was frightening – just to understand what it would be like to be in an experience that has to do with your body. And also to understand what it was to be in a position that’s painful to correct a situation that’s pleasurable, and what this means to a young woman, and the dichotomy of that.
Tyler Perry: I need to say this – Tyler Perry Studios, Lions Gate or 34th Street did not supply any porn… [laughter]
Tyler, I know women have always played a huge role in your work. What did you learn from working with this cast? And to the whole cast, what was it like leaving every part of the women’s difficult condition in the hands of a male?
Tyler Perry: As far as what they taught me, I’ve always known about the women’s bond, just looking at my mother, my aunt and my sisters, but I’ve never been around this many women that bonded this kind of way, and I felt I was in a web that they weaved around me and they lifted me up. They were pushing me to make sure I did a good job as well, and they taught me a great deal.
There were a lot of things I missed, but the way Phylicia said this specific word one day and the way she said it, it really woke me up to what was happening. More than anything, they taught me this bond that women have is unbreakable, it’s a sisterhood that men don’t get to see.
Thandie Newton: I think very often men and women are spoken about in opposition, as this movie seems to be provoking. I think the film’s strength is testament ton the extraordinary collaboration of when a man and a woman can come together, that was Tyler with all of us. To experience the strength that a man can provide that a woman can’t, and the security, also for a man to be open and desiring of lessons. I always felt that Tyler wanted us to teach him something about this experience that he wasn’t going to be able to access on his own. I think the movie is a testament to this incredible union between man and woman, which we mustn’t forget or lose sight of.
Tyler Perry: That didn’t come from the intimidation of me saying “This is mine” – that came through the surrender of me asking “What can you teach me?” As they taught, I learned and it was just fantastic to see.
Kerry Washington: In the beginning and end, I felt very grateful to and for Tyler, because who else could have done it? The amount of creative capital he’s built in this industry has allowed him to be the person that could make this happen. And thank God that he has the emotional intelligence to do it right and be a collaborator, I never thought, “Oh gosh, he’s a man and he won’t get it” but who else would come to this story telling it this way unless they were committed? From beginning to end I felt grateful that we live in a time where we could do this production with this man.
When we go work in our studios in L.A., you shoot in the Greta Garbo theater and the Charlie Chaplin stage, and you’re very grateful to be a part of that show biz legacy, but for this movie we went to his studio in Atlanta to shoot at [Tyler’s] studio, and you’re working on the Sidney Poitier stage in the Ruby Dee & Ossie Davis stage, and you realize the immense power that’s been cultivated by him. What he’s created was so beautiful in that we can actually own our stories and present them to the world in a place that comes from us. It’s such an honor.
How difficult was it to get all of these women together to do this? You’re all quite busy.
Tyler Perry: Yeah, that’s why all of them aren’t here now. It was a nightmare for producers trying to juggle schedules and times of people in scenes with each other. It was one big jigsaw puzzle we had to put together and I’m glad we were able to work it out. Whoopi had The View, Janet had some things going in Europe.
Janet Jackson: I think Kerry’s [schedule]was the biggest challenge…
Kerry Washington: I felt really lucky. There were two weeks of exteriors shot in New York and those happened to be my exact last two weeks on the play I was doing. So I was shooting the movie in the day and doing the play at night, and then we all went to Atlanta.
Kimberly Elise: The stars are going to align to make it all just right, with just the right actresses coming together, the right scheduling falling into place as it was meant to be.
Tyler, how difficult or easy was it to assemble such an amazing cast?
Tyler Perry: The great thing that I’m most proud of is being able to bring this many women of color to a film and I celebrate it. If nothing else happens, I will be able to celebrate that all of these Black women were in one film. I smile about that every day.
How difficult was it to incorporate the poetry, while staying in character emotionally?
Tyler Perry: They didn’t make it poems… it was just an extension of the dialogue, they went into what the characters would say.
Thandie Newton: Also, when emotion took over for words and normal dialogue, it was like a speech bubble for that character and it elevated out of normal language to a place we had never seen before. It worked so perfectly to express the unexpressable.
Anika and Kimberly, prior to the film had you met any women who went through what your characters went through on film, and were any of the cast spurned into activism around women’s issues after the move?
Anika Noni Rose: I didn’t seek out women to talk to, but when I was young I met a woman in Africa who went through what I went through in the movie five times, and looking at her and the joy she was bringing to what we were working on at that time, I didn’t even know how to respond to that. My mouth was open, I wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” but I felt that was wrong, because she was living in such light and she was clearly so strong and still stepping forward. I’ll never forget that, because that’s not a story you lightly take with you. I had that, oddly, in my back pocket.
I thank her, because that was a gift she gave in sharing that with me, I don’t know why it was shared. It’s not like we were turning into deep, dark things and it moved into that. We were chatting and she said, “This is a piece of my life” and I feel like I was blessed with that as something I could use to honor her, and all women who have dealt with this particular thing. So the research was light.
Kimberly Elise: I fortunately have never met any woman who has experienced what my character has, I wish to God no one would have to. I had to find something else that would resonate for me and for viewers that they would connect to, because what happens to her is so extreme. I asked why it happens, and it comes back to so many women not loving ourselves first.
Crystal’s greatest strength was that she loved so hugely, and her greatest fault was that she loved so hugely. We do that so naturally as women, and we suffer because of that, and it’s a lesson in putting your own oxygen mask on first and loving yourself. Had Crystal done that, the end would have been different for her.
It always goes back to the words in the poem “I found God in myself” – when you find God in yourself, you love yourself so deeply, you definitely breathe for you first. And that’s what Crystal had to learn, so many women, myself included – I’m a mother and it’s hard some days to put myself first. I have to remind myself [of things like]if I don’t take a nap I can’t make a proper dinner. Something that small can make such a huge difference in our loved one’s life, and that can be the most loving thing we can do is love ourselves first.
Thandie, how did you prepare for your role and the relationship you were in on screen?
Thandie Newton: I love thinking about the people you meet at the beginning of the movie with Gilda and Tangie and the opposition, and then an hour and a half later these two women are going to love each other and feel loved by each other. It’s like, how is that possible? But this story earns that change, that journey.
We journey so far that it takes Tangie to a place where she can accept love from another human being. That’s her issue, that she she was unable to feel love and give love, like an extreme version of what Kimberly was just talking about. It excites me so much when I think about the journey of Gilda and Tangie’s characters, and how the movie actually manages to create that truth, it’s wonderful.
Phylicia Rashad: It was very interesting to see how sometimes the things we express dislike for, we dislike these things for different reasons. Sometimes the reason is because we see ourselves in it and don’t like what we see, or we see our former self in it and want to be far away from it. There’s something very beautiful about being able to break through that, to reach out to that other human being who doesn’t represent the very best of ourselves, to extend the very best of ourselves to that person.
Tyler, I know the basis of the movie was for women but there were some really great performances by the men. Talk about that.
Tyler Perry: They were just as committed, looking at Omari Hardwick, Michael Ealy, Khalil Kain and Hill Harper – I think they were just as committed to it. They wanted to make sure they were supporting and holding these women up as well. I was very proud of them. The biggest add on for me was Hill Harper’s character, because I thought it was very important to show a different side if what a Black man is. I didn’t just want these images of Black men without showing there are Black men that love their wives, that take care of them and are faithful and are good people. So his character was very important to me, but they all held it together.
Some of you have spoken the words of Tennessee Williams, August Wilson and other male writers. What was it like for you to speak the words of a woman writer?
Tessa Thompson: Incredible! I think if you’re an actor like Phylicia, Anika, like Kerry, you come from the theater and like using the language, it’s a treat to have really beautiful language to use, to express. For me it was a play that I loved so long and had a connection to.
Phylicia Rashad: It was beautiful, it was powerful, the manner in which Ntozake has written this piece, it flows like the movement of thought, it’s as if you’re in the middle of one thought and your mind, the way the mind does, shifts to something else related, underneath, behind, around and down the block. It was amazing, and to be able to find the rhythm in those poems – because they’re all different – was artistically gratifying.
Kimberly Elise: What these women go through is so deep and complex, there isn’t ordinary language that could express it – it needed to be these words. There’s a musicality and a complexity, and something that regular English doesn’t express. When you got to say the poems it was like, “This is what my character is feeling, these words here” and that was the brilliance of it, and that was the gift. It really tells you what we were going through with our characters.
Tyler, how would you say men can relate to this film or get some inspiration and understanding from it? Also, having started in theater, why did you choose to do film rather than theater for this particular production?
Tyler Perry: If you want to understand the journey of women, what a lot of women are going through and what they’ve been though, I think this film gives great insight to women we love, care for and care about. Those of us who have daughters and mothers, it just speaks to what a lot of women carry. For me, it made me much more appreciative of their journey and struggle and made me more sympathetic. Not empathetic but sympathetic towards them and it made me have more understanding.
As far as theater goes, I speak from a different place – there are two very different sides to theater. There’s Broadway and then there’s what I do. What I love about what I do is it took everything – Madea, House Of Payne and all of that for me to be able to do For Colored Girls. Had none of that happened I wouldn’t have been able to say, “Listen, this is what I want to do next,” so I’m very proud of it all. As far as theater goes, it’s just not necessarily an interest of mine.
It’s been done on Broadway, and what I wanted to do was take this work that’s 35, almost 40-years-old, and introduce it to a new generation. I was on stage and I asked people how many people had heard of For Colored Girls, and most of the people 30 and 40 raised their hands, but there was a whole generation of people that hadn’t heard of it. So I wanted to introduce them to a film version because a lot of us see film and don’t go to the theater. But at the same time, I didn’t want to take so much away from it that it lost the magic of what it was.
Anika Noni Rose: Can I piggy back off that? I also think there’s room for men to learn about themselves in this film, and we don’t recognize who we are until we see that person and there’s a lot to see in these men. There are a lot of good things to see and there are a lot of things where men can understand that that may not be the way and maybe say, “Hm, let me talk to my son so that he knows the path to step into.”
There’s a lot to be taken from this movie, and I don’t think it’s something to be frightened of, because the world ‘girls’ is in the title. We’re not that proprietary of it that it, doesn’t include you in such a way that you can’t walk out and take something positive with you.
Tyler Perry: Yeah, just add that to what I said… [laughter]