Red-hot mama 

Queen Latifah goes Broadway in Chicago

Former rap singer-turned-character actress Queen Latifah gets to strut all her stuff in the new movie version of the brassy Broadway musical Chicago. As Mama Morton, the matron of a jazz-age women's prison populated by the murderous, fame-seeking likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger, the 32-year-old Latifah makes the most of the rare opportunity to combine her talents for singing and acting -- getting to wear some "knockout sexy" costumes in the process, to boot.

Creative Loafing: Are you a fan of musicals in general, or of Chicago in particular?

Queen Latifah: I wasn't super-familiar with Chicago, but I went and saw it. And I was definitely a fan of musicals when I was growing up, because they always took me to another place. I never understood why they stopped making them, but I'm glad they seem to be coming back. Hollywood is a lot like the music business, I guess, where everybody sits around waiting for one person to go out and do it before anybody else will take the chance. It's no secret that Moulin Rouge opened the door for this movie to be made. They'd been trying to make Chicago for years. It's sort of like, "If you build it, they will come." Moulin Rouge was weird and funky, and not only did it do well with the critics, it also made money. If Chicago turns out to be a hit, and if that means this musical or that musical gets to be made, then what's not to like about that? We've seen the action movies and the horror movies. Let's throw in some musicals. What the hell?

The role of Mama Morton is traditionally played by a middle-aged white woman as an homage to ('20s vaudeville star) Sophie Tucker. It's almost as if you got to rebuild the character from scratch.

That's what was so great about it. Even if I could have played her like Sophie Tucker, I wouldn't have wanted to draw from Sophie Tucker, or from any of the other actresses who've played Mama Morton. I wanted to stay away from studying other people's style or approach, so I could make my own mark with it.

How much of Queen Latifah is there in Mama Morton?

A lot. She's confident, you know? She loves her body and doesn't mind letting it all hang out, and she isn't shy about anything. I'm not the greedy opportunist she is, but I admit I kind of like running things and calling my own shots.

Did you feel at any advantage over some of your co-stars in the film, who don't have the extensive musical background you do?

Maybe a little, but I didn't have the extensive acting background some of them did, either. The music was definitely the easiest part of this for me. It was fun and it was something I really didn't have to worry about. I was in my element and I knew I could sing the shit out of the music. Acting the part, that was a different matter.

What are some of the differences between performing this Broadway style of music and doing your own songs?

I've always liked showtunes. The melodies are cool and the lyrics are clever. If anything, it's easier than the music I usually do. A lot of times, we tend to complicate songs these days, by making them stick to a beat so much that it's like, "Where's the freedom in this? Where's the fun?"

And yet you still make a point of maintaining your music career, even though the acting has really taken off.

Definitely. I have a new album coming out in April called First Love, because music was, and always will be, my first love. It's a plethora of different flavors -- soul, reggae, rap.

Talk a little about the decision to form your own movie production company.

It's like a natural progression. I think it's important because there are a lot of stories that aren't being told. I'm all about creating my own destiny. It's not like there are a million movies just waiting for me. Sometimes, you have to make things happen for yourself, and I'm more than willing to do that. Not all urban stories have to be that drug-related, shoot-'em-up, thug shit. There are plenty of black professionals out there who get up and go to work every day. It's all about coming from different places and bringing different elements, but still telling stories that are relate-able. My last movie (the romantic ensemble comedy Brown Sugar) proved there was an audience for movies that weren't just about the rough side of urban life.

bert.osborne@creativeloafing.com

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