ATLANTA -- This might look like a typical baby shower - women sitting
around a table piled high with gifts for a newborn oohing, aahing and
laughing riotously - but the guests aren't just any women. They are some
of the most admired actresses of our time.Seated around the table, part
of a film set for a remake of the iconic Steel Magnolias, are Queen
Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Adepero Oduye.
Oduye, in her role as the pregnant Annelle, wonders about the anonymous
gift of risqué lingerie she has just unwrapped, Ouiser Boudreaux
(Woodard) chimes in: "I thought Sammy wouldn't mind you reading the
Bible in bed if you was wearing something inspirational." The women
burst into laughter again.
And the hoots and giggles, which truly seem to come from the heart, take place between takes as well as during them.
are having a lot of fun, and the characters in this movie do have a lot
of fun too," says Latifah who, after a full day of shooting in a
stuffy, dilapidated warehouse in south Atlanta, heads outdoors for a
breath of fresh air and sunlight. "These women go way back. They don't
just experience life's downs, they also experiences life's ups and
everything in between."
This new made-for-TV production, which
will premiere on Lifetime on Sunday (9 ET/PT), is the brainchild of
Oscar-winning producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago). They're no strangers to remakes, having collaborated on the 2008 TV movie A Raisin in the Sun, Meredith Wilson's The Music Man (2003) and Annie (1999). And, to Meron, remaking Steel Magnolias is another perfect fit for the duo.
"Craig and I are always looking for inspiration," he says during an interview on set last spring. Steel Magnolias,
he says, is "like a cornucopia of great roles for women, and if you
want to make a remake then you have to justify why you want to do it."
Meron is referring to remaking Magnolias
with an African-American cast but, he says, it's the cast members and
the story, not the color of the actors, that will make this production
compelling. "Steel Magnolias is so much a story about a
community of women that if it were multicultural, if it was all Latina,
if it was all Asian, it would still be Steel Magnolias. It would just be as original as the group of women you put in it."
that group of women has at its center Academy Award nominee Latifah,
who plays M'Lynn Eatenton, the role Sally Field played in the 1989
movie. Meron calls Latifah, who is also an executive producer, "a
powerful presence" on set.
"We felt so strongly about Queen
Latifah," Meron says. "She brings to the table a lot of producing
experience, and she's also a great talent magnet, and she is a great
Latifah, who worked with Zadan and Meron on Chicago and Hairspray, says she "definitely loved the original," and agrees Magnolias is a timeless story. "You could make it again 20 years from now and it would still ring true."
takes place in fictional Chinquapin Parish in Louisiana. The 1989 film
was based on a 1987 play of the same name by Robert Harling, written as a
tribute to his late sister, who suffered with diabetes.
story centers around six close friends who meet regularly at Truvy's
Beauty Spot, where they laugh, cry, share secrets and offer each other
support. It's the story of Shelby Eatenton Latcherie, M'Lynn's diabetic
daughter, and her decision to have a baby even though doctors warned
her a pregnancy would threaten her life.
(Victoria L. White, an
executive producer of the 1989 film, filed suit Monday against Lifetime
and studio Sony Pictures, claiming that her agreement entitled her to a
producer credit and compensation for any TV project based on the
movie. She asked for an injunction against the broadcast; Lifetime
and Sony said they would not comment.)
In the original movie,
Shelby was played by Julia Roberts. In this version Shelby is portrayed
by Condola Rashad (Phylicia's daughter), who received a Tony nomination
for her performance in the Broadway family drama Stick Fly, produced by Alicia Keys and directed by Kenny Leon (who also directs Magnolias).
says she brought more than acting chops to her role as Shelby's mom.
Her fondness for Condola, and her own mother's recent health issues,
made the role feel all too real.
Latifah says filming Shelby's
death scene, which takes place in the hospital, "was really tough. I
developed such an affinity for Condola. It didn't take us long to find
things in common and really bond. So to play those scenes, of course I
played them as an actor, but at some point it was really like, 'I love
this kid,' and the idea of this breaks my heart.
"When I first
started this project, my mom had been in the hospital," Latifah says,
adding she has since recovered. "I literally came in here looking like
I'd been in a hospital for two weeks and knowing that experience. It was
like already being there."
As for tackling a role beloved by millions of Magnolias
fans, Condola Rashad says, "You just have to do it. You kind of just
have to jump on board and trust that you have something that's going to
add to this role. I know a lot of people have seen it and I can't change
that. All I can do is the best I can do, which I hope is good."
Meron says he and Zadan always try to shake things up in casting, starting with Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Brandy Norwood. "People said, 'You're going to do an African-American Cinderella? Rodgers and Hammerstein?' But we believed in it."
"When we did Annie,"
Meron says, "we did multicultural orphans, and Miss Grace was African
American (Audra McDonald) and Daddy Warbucks was white. We always
believed in trying to bring something new to the party that lets the
work live again."
Timeless, but updated
of Annelle's baby shower in Truvy's beauty salon was shot on a warm and
humid April Saturday, although in the story line it's Halloween, and
the salon is decorated with pumpkins and cobwebs.
clientele is reflected in the surroundings. African-American hair care
products are on display, including straighteners and curling creams.
Magazine photos of black models cover the walls, with paintings of
black women gardening, crocheting and preparing for a wedding. Hair
accessories and jewelry are for sale; there are snacks and a coffee pot.
an environment, says Grammy winner Jill Scott, who plays Truvy, that
appeals to women across ethnic and generational divides. "The laughter,
the silliness, the heartaches, triumphs and confusion - and that walking
out feeling good about yourself, that's always magic."
The cast that was being assembled drew her to this remake. "Steel Magnolias
was one of my favorite plays as well as one of my favorite movies," she
says. "When I heard who was in it, it was, 'OK, that is something I
want to do and be part of.'"
And the part she always imagined
herself playing? "Truvy. It was always Truvy." She's "very sassy,"
Scott says. "She's a little bit convoluted. That's what I'm reading into
the script - and I won't say positive, maybe a little more realistic.
In the end you like this woman, and you like the women who are around
Oduye, with a startlingly real-looking baby bump under the
maternity top she wears in the shower scene, says she came to her role
as Annelle, a hairdresser at Truvy's getting over a broken marriage,
with no recall of the older Magnolias. "I'm actually glad I
don't remember the original. I don't have any preconceived notions that
can affect my view of the character."
She sees Annelle, in the
beginning, as "just trying to figure things out. She's had something
bad, something tragic, that's happened to her, and she's gone out on her
own. She's trying to figure out who she is."
25-year-old story did require some updating, especially to reflect
medical advances that made it safer for diabetic women to have healthy
pregnancies. The main thing, says Meron, was that when it was originally
written (and in the original movie), when a woman with diabetes was
pregnant, it was life-threatening.
"There's no real danger for a
diabetic woman to be pregnant these days unless there are complications,
(so) we had to make sure we were being medically responsible," Meron
explains. "Also, we live in an age of Facebook and cellphones, and so
you just make references to them. Other than that, everything rings
true. The core of the piece is the same."
Community of women
the early evening, Woodard and Phylicia Rashad relax with Oduye in
folding chairs just outside the building in which they've spent a
grueling 10 hours shooting, and chat about their characters.
I think she's kind of a cool lady," says Tony Award winner Rashad.
"She's the former first lady of the town, so she's well known and well
liked. She's very good friends with Ouiser. We've known each other
since we were little." She looks at Woodard, and they burst out
"Ouiser is honest," Woodard, an Emmy and Golden Globe
winner, says of the tendency of her character, a cranky widow, to
express all her thoughts out loud. "Oiuser is crazy," says Rashad, and
they laugh again.
Woodard starts talking about the power of
female relationships, in particular those cultivated in beauty salons
like Truvy's. "We all love looking good, but we're at Truvy's for a
reason. Truvy could have a yoga studio, and we all could be doing yoga.
It's our neighborhood, our home."
Adds Rashad, "There's
something very beautiful and very powerful about women coming together
in friendship. It can be riotous as all get out, or it can be very calm
and very soothing. But it's always magical."