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Queen Latifah never does the expected. So when asked about the challenges of playing an HIV-positive wife and mother, as she does in HBO's Life Support, her answer was, indeed, surprising.
''The only challenge was trying to stay in character when you've got people driving past you on the street going, 'Queen!' 'Do it, Latifah!' 'That's Latifah!''' she says of the on-location shoot in Brooklyn last year for HBO's Life Support (March 10, 8 p.m. Eastern time, with an HBO On Demand preview available through March 8).
''Most people try to be respectful, but they're excited to see you, and they're hitting you with the name of some record that you did, so that was the greatest challenge,'' she says. ''Playing this character wasn't.''
To play Ana, a peer counselor at an AIDS facility in Brooklyn whose past drug addiction has put a strain on her family relationships, Latifah (nee Dana Owens) channeled the muse of the New York streets where the New Jersey girl hung out as a teenager.
''I grew up around these women and around these streets, so it was probably one of the more relatable backdrops that I've been able to sort of step into,'' says Latifah, fabulously coifed in long blond and auburn curls and a form-fitting black dress for a late-afternoon press conference here.
''I really felt like I really could relate to the characters, to the situations, a family disrupted by drug addiction. I could relate to that just in my own family,'' she continues. ''So I could relate to Ana's sense of wanting to get out there and see what life had to offer, although we took dramatically different turns. And redemption as well--having the second chance of really trying to repair those relationships after you feel like, OK, I messed up, but I'm back on track and I really want to get things back to where they were.''
Such streetwise sensitivity was exactly what director Nelson George wanted.
''One of the nicest things about working on the movie was watching through the monitor--her face--there's so much going on in it and so much thought,'' says George, who cowrote the film with the writing team Jim McKay and Hannah Weyer, basing the story on that of his HIV-positive sister.
''A good actor thinks, They're not acting, they're thinking, and she thinks all the time. She was definitely one of the few people I thought had that combination of charisma and realness to pull it off. I just knew this was a part that the sister could rock!''
Until now, Latifah has gone mostly the laugh route, with a string of comedies (Bringing Down the House, Taxi, Barbershop 2: Backin Business, and Last Holiday), but it was time to shed a tear or two.
''I've always enjoyed dramatic roles,'' says Latifah, who turns 37 in March. ''I mean, that's what actually made me really want to get into acting, was me playing this role in high school in Godspell. That director is one of the best directors that I've ever worked with to this day, and I can't even remember his name.''
''But that show--carrying the body of Jesus down the center aisle of the auditorium, crying, and singing this song--it just always let me know that I kind of enjoyed that. But I just had a big sense of humor, so playing the comedies is all fun.''
The good times will roll later this year when the Academy Award nominee will be seen starring as Motormouth Maybelle in New Line's cinematic rendering of Hairspray.
''That was a blast,'' she says. ''I mean just getting to do a musical again, a really big fun musical, and [producers] Neil Meron, Craig Zadan, and [director] Adam Shankman promising me--because there was no script initially when I agreed to do the movie--that they would really, really do a great job with it and that I would have a really important part in the movie and I would get to wear a blond wig.''
Underneath it all--her career, not the hair--is her music, and she's now in the studio recording a new album.
The multitalented Latifah (who shares executive producer credits with several others on Life Support, including Jamie Foxx) is set to executive-produce Wifey, a hip-hop drama for BET and VH1, and she is in talks to star opposite Katie Holmes in the indie heist film Mad Money.
''I never want to put myself in a box--I like to be challenged in different ways,'' she says. ''I've got a short attention span, so if I can't do different things, then I get bored after a while.'' (Janice Roshalle Littlejohn, AP)