Only Tyler Perry could get Kimberly Elise, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad and Macy Gray in one room for a press conference. As much as these women were eager to appear on the behalf of their beloved writer-director, they were also there to promote the words Ntozake Shange who wrote the play upon which their film is based, For Colored Girls Who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
In their version, titled For Color Girls, each actress assumes the role of a woman struggling with a particular issue ranging from simple relationship troubles to more severe problems. Elise plays Crystal, a woman trying to manage her husband’s violent rage. Thompson is Nyla, a young girl thrilled to lose her virginity, but devastated with the consequences. Jackson is Jo, a magazine editor who’s so wrapped up in her work, she fails to notice when the people around her need help. Devine is Juanita who is frustrated with the fact that she never knows if the man she loves will still be there when she gets home from work. Newton plays Tangie, who has a habit of bringing a new man back to her apartment every night. This behavior doesn’t go over well with her watchful neighbor, Rashad’s character, Gilda, who only wants to help. Rose plays Yasmine, a dance instructor just looking for Mr. Right while Washington plays Kelly, a social worker pained by her inability to make a difference. Lastly, Gray appears as an abortionist who doesn’t exactly have the tools to perform a proper operation.
It may seem like a lot to keep track on in words, but on the screen each lady is given the opportunity to bring her character and Shange’s words to life. Thanks to the gravity of the material, this was no easy task, but with Perry’s assistance, each and every one of them were able to overcome their anxiety and do this iconic piece of literature justice. Check out all of the details for yourself below.
Tyler, how do you balance your words with Ntozake Shange’s words and how much screen time each actress gets?
Tyler Perry: I just wrote the story. I wasn’t thinking about characters or who would play what. I just wrote a story about eight women who don’t know each other, whose lives are crossing. I went back to Ntozake’s work and I was struck by a lot of it because it’s so beautiful and the melody is so great; it’s almost like music.
Anika, what’s your process for preparing for such an emotional moment like the scene in the hospital? And Tyler, what did you have to do to help get her there?
Anika Noni Rose: My inspiration was the words. This woman had gone through something that is unthinkable and I thought that what Ntozake put down on paper, about the way we trust people with ourselves, with our spirits, with our bodies and with our lives was so clear to me that I just tried to allow it to live, as truthfully and as clearly as I could. It was important to me not to put a whole lot on it. I didn’t want to be boo-hooing through the whole scene. If tears happen, that’s great, but that wasn’t my plan. My plan was to live these words and allow them to be clear. So many people don’t get to say that out loud. So many people go through these things and they never get the chance to say, “Somebody hurt me and I didn’t deserve it,” or they’re afraid to or they’re told not to; they’ve been scared into silence. It’s important for those words to be heard and to be heard truthfully.
When was the first time any of you interacted with the story before you came to the movie?
Tessa Thompson: I read the play as a little girl. There was a copy of it and I came across it. I was really taken back by the cover. I read it and continued to have experiences where I would read it throughout my life since I first found it, so I’ve had a long time to become familiar with the material.
Loretta Divine: I auditioned for one production of it and I was cast. I was in graduate school and they wouldn’t let me out, so I had to make a choice whether I was going to do the play. I finished grad school up and now everything’s come full circle and I’m glad it did.
Tyler, the book was responsible for giving a voice to women of color, so were there any specific hurdles you had to overcome in making this film in a climate where we don’t necessarily need her words anymore?
Perry: Somebody had brought it to me years ago. An agent at William Morris, said, “Do you want to do this?” I said, “No.” Then Whoopi brought it to me. She wanted to do a revival on Broadway. I said, “No.” I talked to Ntozake and at the time I wasn’t really interested. I’ve been hearing the title and then somebody else brought it to me and said, “You should really think about doing this.” So after the fifth time, I was like, “Okay guys, something’s here.” It was intimidating work because it means so much to so many people, especially women, not only women of color. I think that the most important part of the entire work is the final words that are said, “I found God in myself and I loved Her fiercely.” I think it’s all about all of these women who, no matter who you are, what race you are, taking their journey, walking through your life and finding God for yourself, inside yourself and loving yourself.
How did you all detox after the film?
Kimberly Elise: I live a very peaceful, relaxed, joyous life and practice meditation regularly, yoga, hike and eat very healthy and part of the things I did for this was let all of that go because I knew that would take me off balance and Crystal had to be off-balance. So to deny myself those things was a lot and it left me vulnerable and exposed and in a place that would allow her to inhabit my body and speak her voice. I went to make this movie with about five grey hairs. I came home and found about 50 and I’m not kidding. Your body doesn’t know it’s pretend. It shows up and manifests itself, so when I came home, there was Crystal still there. I thought it would go away and I thought, “Oh, they’ll grow back because I’m not doing Crystal anymore,” and they didn’t. A couple weeks ago, I surrendered to the dye job for the first time and had to get the Crystal covered. I came back to my yoga and meditation and literally did do a 21-day detox with water and pure foods, yoga, everything and just cleansed. I had to push her out and let Kim come back.
Phylicia and Loretta, many look at this piece as a rite of passage for women of color. Does it seem that way to you?
Phylicia Rashad: Early on in the process of filming, we would sit in the makeup trailer and we would talk about this piece. We would talk about just anything related to it. It came to us all in one, collectively, in an instant that all women in the world are colored girls because the color that Ntozake Shange is referring to has not to do with the color of one’s skin; it has to do with mood, heart, spirit, experience, emotion, expression, understanding or lack of it thereof and understanding who the poet, playwright, star, dancer Ntozake Shange is. We understand this piece is an outgrowth of her studies in literature, in women studies, her experience as a professor of literature, her development as a dancer, her expression as a poet and a playwright. That’s a lot. I think it’s a rite of passage for all people. When we understand women correctly, society changes. When women understand ourselves correctly, we change society.
Divine: And to that, I would like to say, “Ditto!” [Laughs]
Was there anything about your parts that made you question if you’d be able to pull them off and how’d you get over those hurdles?
Janet Jackson: Acting has always been a challenge for me and that’s one of the reasons why I love it so much. This is a character that I’ve never played ever before, being so shrewd and so bold. She’s got a lot of bitch inside of her. She’s very strong and I was up for the challenge and for Tyler to have that faith in me was very exciting, so I was ready to step forward and take that challenge.
Elise: There was some trepidation. Like I said, I knew that I was going to have to take myself off-center, disconnect with this spirit that I live with every day because Crystal wasn’t connected. Crystal walks though the film disconnected and that’s why she has all this pain and things in her life and I knew that that would be scary for me to go into that place and I had to really build myself up for it daily to go down, down in there and, at the end of every day, Tyler would say, “Come back up, Kim. Come on back up,” and it really was like being under water and he would be my light, “Come on back up.”
Rose: It was a very tactile set. It seems so weird because it was happen rarely, but there were times when Tyler would just stop and hug you.
Divine: He did? He didn’t do that with me. [Laughs]
Kerry Washington: We had the benefit of having an actor as our director, so he’s walked where we’ve walked and he cared for us, protected us. He trusted us because he knows, he’s been there as an actor and that was a great lesson for all of us.
Perry: I know how traumatic it can be to go that deep inside of yourself to get that range of emotion, to get that kind of performance. There have been people who have gone to these deep places in film and have not been able to come out. There have been actors who had not been able to come out who left the set and went home, not that any of these ladies would do this, but have left the set and whatever was going on with them, OD’d. The history books are full of them, so it was very important to me that they all knew they were safe and after it was done I’d do what I can to pull them back up out of it – except Loretta. [Laughs]
Macy, Ntozake recently said she really liked your performance. How does that make you feel?
Macy Gray: That’s the best compliment because the writer’s the one that sees everything and it’s their vision and their story. All the characters are really complex, just so far away from what most people do, definitely myself. [My character’s] an alcoholic, which I’ve been some nights. [Laughs] She’s a bit of an agoraphobic. She’s always in her little spot and I go out a lot so preparing for it was really a step away from what I do in a day. I watched different TV shows I thought she would watch like creepy stuff, reality stuff, porn. [Audience Laughter] What else would she watch? She’d watch porn, right? [Laughs] Tessa also watched porn.
Tessa, would you like to clarify how you did prepare?
Thompson: I mean, does one really need an excuse to watch porn? [Laughs] No, let me clarify. The scene that Macy and I shot was about an experience that is extremely frightening, so in that particular instance I did, the day-of, I watched some porn because actually I don’t watch porn, and I hadn’t and I watched some porn that was frightening just to understand what it would be like to be in an experience that has to do with your body and also to understand what it would be like to be in an experience that’s painful, but has to do with correcting an event that was pleasurable and what that means to a young woman, the dichotomy of that.
Perry: I need to say this: Tyler Perry Studios, Lionsgate or 34th Street Films did not supply the porn. [Laughs]
Was it difficult to work out a schedule with such a big and busy cast?
Perry: Yeah, that’s why all of them aren’t here now. It was a nightmare for the producers trying to juggle schedules and times. It was one big jigsaw puzzle we had to put together and I’m glad we were able to work it out. Whoopi had The View, and Janet had some things going in Europe.
Jackson: I think Kerry was the biggest challenge.
Washington: I felt really lucky. When you talk about God bringing the project back, I got really lucky. There were two weeks of exteriors shot in New York and those happened to be my exact last two weeks on [Race], so I was shooting the movie in the daytime and doing the play at night, and then we all went to Atlanta.
Elise: It’s a divine project. [Laughs] The stars are going to align to make it all just right, with just the right actresses to come together and just the right scheduling to fall into place because it’s as it was meant to be.
Tyler, how was it assembling such an amazing cast?
Perry: The great thing that I’m most proud of with this film is being able to bring this many women of color to a film. It’s the first time this has been done in history, so I’m really really proud of that and I celebrate it. If nothing else happens, it’s a fact that that will be part of my history. All of these black women were in one film. I smile about that every day.
Anika and Kimberly, while preparing, did you meet any women who went through what you went through on film?
Rose: I did not seek out people to meet and talk to. I actually looked up a place where I could do that, but then my schedule got crazy and wasn’t able to, but upon reading it the first time, I met a woman when I was working in Africa. There was a woman I met who went through what I went through in this movie five times, five separate occasions, and looking at this woman and the joy she was bringing to what we were working on at that time, I didn’t even know how to respond to that. My mouth was open. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry,” and I think I did say, “I’m sorry,” but I felt like that was wrong because she was living in such light and she was clearly so strong and still stepping forward. And I will never forget that because that’s not a story you lightly take with you.
Elise: I, fortunately, have never met any woman who has experienced what my character experienced. I wish to God no one will ever have to. So, I had to find something else that would resonate for me and for viewers that they could connect to because it so extreme what happens to her. I asked why this happened and it goes back to what so many of us women do [which] is not love ourselves first. The heart of Crystal is that her greatest strength was that she loved so hugely and her biggest fault was that she loved so hugely. And we do that just naturally as women and so often we suffer because of that and it’s a lesson and a testament, an extreme lesson, in putting your own oxygen mask on first. You can love yourself so much more by doing that, by loving yourself first. Had Crystal done that, the end would have been different for her. I’m a mother and it’s hard some days to put myself first. I have to remind myself if I don’t take this nap, I can’t make a proper dinner, I microwave something and I don’t want to do that. It could be that small and make such a huge difference in our loved one’s life and that could be the most loving thing that we can do is love ourselves first.
Thandie and Phylicia, can you talk about developing the relationship between your characters and how you prepared for your roles?
Thandie Newton: I love thinking about the people that you meet at the beginning of the movie with Gilda and Tangie and the opposition and then an hour and a half later these two women are going to love each other and feel loved by each other. We journey so far that Tangie’s actually able to accept love from another human being. Tangie’s biggest issue is that she’s unable to feel love and, as a result, give love, like the extreme version of what Kimberly was just talking about. And it just excites me so much when I think about the journey between Gilda and Tangie’s characters and how the movie actually manages to create that truth. It’s wonderful.
Rashad: It was very interesting to see how sometimes the things we express dislike for, we dislike these things for different reasons. Sometimes the reason is because we see yourself in it and don’t like what we see, or we see our former self in it and want to be far away from it. There’s something very beautiful about being able to break through that, to reach out to that other human being who doesn’t represent the very best of ourselves, to extend the very best of ourselves to that person.
Tyler, can you talk a little about the men in your film?
Perry: As far as the men go, I think they were just as committed. Looking at Omari Hardwick, Michael Ealy, Khalil Kain and Hill Harper, I think they were just as committed to it. They wanted to make sure that they were supporting these women and holding them up as well. I was very, very proud of them. The biggest add-on for me was Hill Harper’s character because I thought it was very important to show a different side of what a black man is. I just didn’t want there to be these images of who we are as black men without showing that there are black men that love their wives, that take care of them and are faithful and are good people, so his character was very important to me, but they all held it together.
Tyler, can you talk about your experience as a male and address the belief that this a film for women only. Also, having started in theater, why’d you choose to do this production on film rather than on the stage?
Perry: As far as the first part goes, as a man, I think if you want to understand the journey of a woman, if you want to understand what a lot of women are going through and what they’ve been through, I think this film gives great insight to the women that we love, to the women that we care for, the women that we care about, to those of us who are fathers that have daughters, even our mothers. It just speaks to what a lot of women carry and for me it made me much more appreciative of their journey and their struggle and it made me more sympathetic, not empathetic, but sympathetic toward it and made me have a little bit more understanding.
As far as the theater goes, I speak from a different place. There are two very different sides to theater. There’s Broadway and then there’s what I do. Madea, House Of Payne, Meet the Browns, everything, it took all of that for me to able to do For Colored Girls. So, had none of those things happened, I wouldn’t have had the axe to throw to say, “Listen, this is what I want to do next,” so I’m very proud of the work. As far as going to theater though, it’s just not necessarily an interest of mine. It’s been done on Broadway, but what I wanted to do was take this work that’s 35, almost 40-years-old and introduce it to a new generation.
By Perri Nemiroff