Latifah on Playing Bessie Smith: 'She Began to Just Live in Me' #TCA15

Pasadena, Calif. — In HBO’s Bessie, Queen Latifah doesn’t just play Bessie Smith. She is Bessie Smith.

“She began to just live in me,” said Latifah of the role on Thursday at the TCA Winter Press Tour, adding that she prayed Smith’s spirit would guide her. 

Dick and Lili Zanuck first brought the project to Latifah 22 years ago. 

“Being one of the first major producers in Hollywood to recognize me as a young actress, and say, ‘hey, there’s something about that kid we need to connect her to this.’ That was a great honor to me,” said Latifah.

Latifah said the long road to see Bessie come to the screen allowed her to gain more life experience.

“When this project first came my way,” she said, “I don’t think I had the right journey that went along with what Bessie had gone through to really play this role.”

Smith, who rose to fame as a blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s, had a tumultuous life and sang of the issues facing black women during the time period.

“As I listen to other blues artists, I’m still enamored of Bessie,” she added. “And I have such a great amount of respect for what she was able to accomplish.”

Other highlights from the panel included:

—Latifah commented on playing musical roles: “I love doing Chicago, I love doing Hairspray and I love doing Bessie. They require so much of you. You have to give so much of yourself to play one of these kinds of roles. And they’re juicy. These are the kinds of roles I like to sink my teeth into.”

—Writer/director Dee Rees used visuals to help tell the story. In particular, the costumes and color choices for Smith’s wardrobe helped portray the changes the singer was going through. Latifah commented on Rees’ vision: “Dee had a clear idea of how she wanted to see Bessie grow through the years, which gave me a lot of clarity, because I had to live in Bessie’s clothes and in her hair and in her shoes.”

—Geography play an important role in Bessie, said Rees, as Smith was born in the South and then moved to Philadelphia. “I was using geography to kind of show this kind of change of perspective. This change of class. And so Bessie never lost her Southern roots. She was always of the people.”  

—In the movie, Smith is seen in relationships with both men and women. Rees addressed the importance of showing Smith’s sexuality, saying “Through her personal relationships are really kind of where we learn what her fears are, what her wants are, what her needs are.”

—Don’t expect to hear just Smith’s hits in the movie. Rees said she wanted to use the songs that revealed who Smith was, including the songs that Smith wrote.