Interview – Chatting w/ The Cast Of ‘Black Nativity’ On Adapting Langston Hughes’ Celebrated Play

Interview - Chatting w/ The Cast Of 'Black Nativity' On Adapting Langston Hughes' Celebrated Play

The beautiful thing about art is that it can be
reworked. In some cases it can even be recreated to serve another purpose for
another artist.

In 1961 the late celebrated writer Langston Hughes created
his version of the original Nativity story with an all black cast. Fast forward
five decades later, and the play is a common holiday staple for many university
groups, communities, and churches.  

In Kasi Lemmon’s modern adaptation of Black Nativity; two veteran
actors (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett), are grouped with a troupe of
others to give us their version of the story.

A few weeks ago, a press junket for the film was held in Los Angeles which I attended. Done in conference fashion, there were no individual one-on-one’s with the talent, as they were typically paired up with multiple members of the press at one time, all throwing questions at them. 

Therefore this is more of a summary of the junket roundtable conferences with the cast, than your typical person-to-person interview.

First, here are Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker:

How
they felt about singing in a film?

ANGELA BASSETT: I grew up singing on the church
choir, and on the gospel choir in college. But, I never had any solo’s
(Laughter).

FOREST WHITAKER: We were lucky. Kasi set it up so we
had great singing rehearsals. I sung all of my parts. There were a few songs
that were not in the final cut that I sung too.

Highlights of working on this film?

FOREST WHITAKER: Working with her (looks at Angela).

ANGELA BASSETT: Working with him (looks at Forest).

FOREST WHITAKER: It was a great challenge too; it’s
a musical.

On Forest
Whitaker’s first role where he is
singing and a pastor. 

ANGELA BASSETT: Every day, and every moment he’s
always trying to dig deeper. He wanted to discover more. How to build bridges
between characters; He’s always questioning.

FOREST WHITAKER: I studied the scripture as well as
this play to prepare for this role. I was fortunate that I was able to rehearse
well with the choir as well.

How Angela got into character for the role of first lady?

ANGELA BASSETT: I took a lot from the first lady at
my church is very poised and precious. But she is so warm and supportive. She
always tries to build up everyone. She’s always so proud of everyone.

On Black
Nativity being a film about forgiveness.

ANGELA BASSETT::Well I’ve had to deal with it personally
with my family. It’s like you think if I don’t say anything that it will all
just work its self on out. Or it will go away. But it doesn’t. The film was
able to open up those issues.

Forest
Whitaker directed Angela Bassett, the late Whitney Houston, Lela Rochon,
Loretta Devine and others in Waiting Exhale. Forest briefly discussed a possible
remake.

FOREST WHITAKER: It’s difficult to try to see what
we will do next with the passing of Whitney. We may find a solution to make it
work. I needed to step away from that project to reassess it.

How
the two co-stars created chemistry in the really intense scenes.

ANGELA BASSETT: We did spend time together with the
singers and dancers (other actors); they were so special and warm. It began to
feel like a family; as a church should be. And that what comes across on the
screen.

Black
Nativity will be seen by many audiences as a faith-based film. Forest shared why he believes those kinds of films are becoming more popular?

FOREST WHITAKER: There is an audience that follows
the films. They want an outlet to express their spirituality.

On the next page is a summary of the roundtable with Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore.

Grammy and Academy award winner Jennifer Hudson, and
newcomer actor/singer Jacob Latimore made an amazing mother and son team in
Kasi Lemmon’s Black Nativity.

The respect that they have for each other is evident
on screen and in person.

Was
Jacob familiar with the play before starring in this production?

JACOB LATIMORE: I wasn’t. I had to do my homework
after I got the role.

Jacob shares how he was cast.

JACOB LATIMORE: One of the producers on Vanishing on
7th Street recommended my name. And then I just went into the
audition and nailed it.

It was a really warm welcome on set. Angela is
great. Everyone in the film actually reminds me of someone in my family.
Jennifer reminds me of my mother; strong minded.

Jennifer
on how she related to her character.

JENNIFER HUDSON: As a parent; many will be able to relate
to my character. We all want to provide for our children.

Also, my baby makes his debut in the film. It’s in
the bus scene. We are sitting in the train station. He’s sitting on someone’s
lap. He’s only four so it’s a bit of a process whenever were on set.

Jennifer
on her character transitions between projects.

JENNIFER HUDSON: When I did Winnie; I was in South Africa
for four months. And then I came home and did a Weight Watchers commercial and
they were like you are using an South African accent. With Mister and Pete I
had all these tattoos and my son was like why do you look like that Mommie? So
it takes a while to come from that. But out of those three roles; this
character is closest to my real personality.

The
co-stars on how important music is to their lives.

JACOB LATIMORE: I’ve always been in music. I started
out in music and I will continue to do music. My father and my brothers are in
a gospel groups called the Latimore brothers. My cousin is Kenny Latimore. I
grew up around music. I am signed with RCA now. 
Acting is something I started doing 3 years ago.

JENNIFER HUDSON: You know what? I’m going to say it
like this. Someone once told me that singing is your gift and your acting is a
reward from God for using your gift.  I
love it and I hope that I never have to choose. I say if God places me
somewhere I have no choice but to be prepared.

Jacob
on how he relates to Langston, the character he plays in the film.

JACOB LATIMORE: I couldn’t relate to not having a
father or living with a single mom. So I could really only imagine.

Jennifer on writing her own music.

JENNIFER HUDSON: I wrote a song on my next album
called Moan, and it came from my mother. She said if something hurts you; you
should moan and it makes it you feel better.

On this next album, I’m working with Timbaland,
Pharrell, Jerry Wonder, Diane Warren and more.

Following on the next page, is a summary of Mary J. Blige’s roundtable chat.

Grammy Award winning singer and actress Mary J.
Blige
stars in Black Nativity as Platinum fro.

The character is an angel that connects
the estranged Cobbs family (played by Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer
Hudson, and Jacob Latimore).

Why
she decided to take on this role.

MARY J. BLIGE: I wanted people to see me a little
lighter. 

Her Platinum fro (laughter) and the fact that she brought the family together. 

On wanting to be in the film because of its Christian overtones.

MARY J. BLIGE: 
Christmas has always been about the birth of Christ. Walking like him.
It actually made me want to be in the movie.

Is
it hard in Hollywood for her to openly talk about religion?

MARY J. BLIGE: It’s a struggle; but you have to know
what Christ has done for you. You can’t judge anybody on how they live because
that’s how Christ lived. He loved even the people that killed him.

On working with Angela and Forest.

MARY J. BLIGE: It was a treat to work with Angela
again after working with her on Coretta and Betty. I know Forest and his wife
personally. Forest and Angela sang all of their parts. I was not there when
they did their part. Forest sounded really good. Angela did too.

Any
roles that she would want to play in the future?

MARY J. BLIGE: I wouldn’t know until it comes and then
I’m like wow; that’s it. With Betty and Coretta, I was about to back out
because the role of a woman that really needed to be represented. But it was a fear
I had to face and give this woman everything I had. I want to do more serious
stuff.  I want to do things that mean
things to people. I really want to study for it. I liked playing the role of
Betty. No horror movies. Roles that help people.

Her favorite Christmas story?

MARY J. BLIGE: A Christmas story. It’s just funny.
It’s hilarious.

And finally, on the last page, a summary of Tyrese’s roundtable.

In this adaptation, singer and actor Tyrese Gibson plays
the absentee father of Langston (played by Jacob Latimore). The role may sound
stereotypical or commonplace; but the reason for his character’s absence is
interesting.

Tyrese admits to
stepping his game up because of the quality of actors that paved the way for
his generation of actors. His love and respect for Denzel Washington is unreal.
His admiration for Forest Whitaker is amazing.

In many ways his admiration reminds me that
Hollywood is a community; and although rarely talked about; it’s a community of
artists that are simply expressing, or creating something higher than themselves.

In this film, you play an absentee father; one that was actually forced
to leave his son and his mother. How did you prepare for the role?

TYRESE GIBSON: I focused on the circumstances that
forced him to leave. I had a lot of people uncomfortable on the set, because I
was not my normal self. I’m not a method actor; I’m not even trained. I just
jump into the scenes. I was so dark the entire movie. I just took it very
seriously. I was like Forest Whitaker is going to see this scene. 

On actually being a part of the film, with such a strong veteran starring cast in Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett especially?

TYRESE GIBSON: I’m humbled; even being here today.
It’s a very emotional day for me because I’m walking inside of answered
prayers.  The reason I started acting was
because of Denzel. I was not interested in acting before I saw the Hurricane. I
hope that he reads this. I don’t feel that I have made it as an actor until I
have worked with Denzel. 

The folks that I worked with in the past, are not who
they are today. Mark Wahlberg was not the Mark Wahlberg of today. Sofia Vergara
was not who she is today. Taraji Henson; no one ever heard of her before Baby
Boy. So working with Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, and Angela Bassett, who
are current; well respected actors it’s the greatest stage that I have ever
been on. To co-exist with powerful and intense actors in this space; is what I
have prayed for.

On how he originated the role, and having to sing in it.

TYRESE GIBSON: Kasi called me while I was doing Fast
6; she told me that she wrote this role just for me. And when I got the script
my characters name was actually Tyrese. 
I was like Kasi, I love you to death; but Tyrese isn’t playing Tyrese.

TYRESE GIBSON: No. That was the most challenging
part about this film. I’ve purposely stayed away from singing in films.

Below is a behind-the-scenes featurette for Fox Searchlight’s Black Nativity, which is set for a November 27, 2013 release.

The story centers on a young black teen from Baltimore, who is sent to Harlem by his mother to spend the Christmas holiday with his estranged grandparents. The boy then learns the real meaning of faith and family when his grandfather delivers a Christmas Eve sermon. The film includes a stylized, dream-sequence retelling of the classic Nativity story.

The film stars Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and Jennifer Hudson, in a work that’s based on Langston Hughes’ Broadway gospel musical.

Mary J. Blige, Tyrese Gibson, Luke James, and Nas round out the cast. 

Raphael Saadiq wrote music for it.

It opens tomorrow, just in time for Thanksgiving.

Go behind the scenes with the film’s key cast and crew in the video below, and watch the trailer after it:

Here’s the film’s latest trailer:

This Article is related to: Interviews


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