As entertainment royalty, she’s Queen Latifah. Yet to family and friends in Essex County, she’ll always be Dana Owens, the down-home East Orange girl with big dreams and even bigger talent. Latifah greets 2012 with her 31st film, Joyful Noise, a hand-clapping, foot-stomping inspirational musical about a church choir from hard-pressed Pacashau, Georgia, on its quest to win the National Joyful Noise Competition. Friction between the characters played by Latifah and co-star Dolly Parton erupts into a classic comedic catfight. During an interview at Manhattan’s Regency Hotel, the 5-foot, 10-inch Latifah was fashionably dressed in a simple black shirt and black slacks. Her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she absentmindedly fingered a pair of gold hoop earrings as she chatted, liberally punctuating the conversation with laughter.
How closely does Joyful Noise resonate with you?
I grew up going to church. The music always connected with me more than the preacher did. Sometimes, the preachers were very theatrical. Being the little actress-to-be, I was more intent on watching how he’d dip on a particular note. I was seeing and visualizing the moves, before the words started to get into me.
Growing up my aunt was a choir director and my mother [Rita Owens] still directs the choir in her little church [near Wayne]. This film was important to me, because it felt like I was representing so many members of my family. It was a story I hadn’t seen told in this way before. I wanted to be part of making this happen. That’s why I agreed to be the executive producer.
My mother has always been my greatest inspiration and one of my biggest thrills was sharing the NJPAC stage with her and the Jubilation Choir a little over a year ago.
Your new movie also reflects today’s economic climate. What helps you get through life’s ups and downs?
We definitely have to lean more on God and praise him. Whenever you think you’re in tough circumstances, there’s always someone in a worse position. I just saw about 100 kids with cancer two days ago in the hospital. Who am I to complain? Here’s these kids fighting to survive alongside their families and they are doing it. It just made me so humble that I could bring a smile to any one of them.
Are you happy to see the renewed popularity of musicals?
The return of the musical and dancing has really helped everything in general. You have Glee, So You Think You Can Dance and American Idol. All these different things are bringing all the elements—acting, singing, dancing—together again and making them all easy to sprout a career. People get to show all their gifts, not just singing. The whole performance element is what connects to me.
You’ve written several inspirational books. Your affection for the Garden State seems to saturate every page.
It’s true. Growing up in New Jersey prepares you for whatever you might encounter outside in the world. We’re not afraid to go places and try things.
Any plans to record a new album?
It’s a definite possibility. Music is what I do for fun. I never get tired of it. When doing something like making movies, I’ll take a break and go write some music. It’s very much like therapy, even if I just jot down a title and work on it when I get a chance. I have a studio in my Colts Neck home, so that makes it even more convenient.
What’s coming up in the future?
I’ve been working on a Bessie Smith project that we have over at HBO that looks like it may happen…. In February, I’m introducing a new line to my HNS collection and I’ll continue as spokeswoman for CoverGirl Cosmetics.
Is there anything left that you haven’t done?
I want to get my airplane pilot’s license. The big problem is getting the time to take lessons. Also within the next 10 years, I’d love to have a couple of children under my belt—God willing.Click here to leave a comment