The Dreamgirls promotional team, consisting of Danny Glover [Marty], Jennifer Hudson [Effie], Anika Noni Rose [Lorrell] and director Bill Condon, don’t exactly skip into the room. There’s no singing, there’s no dancing, hell, there’s not even much gesticulating. Instead, there’s calm, measured discussion of the film that looks set to make all of their names (well, except Danny Glover - he's already a god in our eyes...).
Bill, as a musical fan, did you approach this one with any trepidation?
Bill: I was nervous. As opposed to Chicago, where all the numbers take place on the stage, the most famous numbers in this musical are book numbers, they arise out of the drama, and that’s a convention which a couple of generations have grown up without, so the big challenge for me was, how do you get Jennifer singing ‘And I’m Telling You,’ how do you get Lorell and Lorrell loves Jimmy – those things where you break reality and break out into song.
Anika, you’ve had a long stage career – how did you find the move into movies? Did your approach to preparing for the role change?
Anika: I actually didn’t approach it any differently than I approach the stage. I think that as an actor you find your way to your character and you create that character from the inside out, and the script was written so well and Bill made it such a comfortable environment, so the oddest thing for me was dealing with the fact that things aren’t happening chronologically in film; so you get there at 5 o’clock in the morning at 17 years old, you have lunch at 25, you have a snack at 19. So I made sure that on my script above each scene I wrote the year and the age that I was so that I wasn’t a schizo, basically.
Danny, you’re one of the only people who don’t sing in the film. Would you have liked to?
Danny: I’ve always been a closest introvert – and so, there’s a bit of me that resides there, there’s a part of me that still thinks he’s Smokey Robinson, and that he still has the moves of The Temptations, but it’s all right.
Eddie Murphy’s performance is impressive. Did he have everyone laughing onset, or did he stay serious?
Anika: One thing about Eddie is that he really is a beautiful person with a wonderful spirit and I think that what people don’t know is that he is very still and very subdued and shy. So working with him, you’re not working with someone who’s constantly on, you’re working with someone who, when they say ‘action’ is giving you the most amazing performance ever and so totally open to whatever it is you’re giving him, that you have an amazing give-and-take and a wonderful electricity working between you and that has really been phenomenal and constant with him. He is not the type of person where you’re like, ‘please shut up, please don’t make me laugh again’, he is just not that.
What he has done in this film is open up a brand new avenue of performance for himself. I don’t think that people were really prepared to see him. His singing and dancing are great, but those still moments, those quiet moments, are absolutely breathtaking and beautiful and he’s amazing. He’s amazing.
Bill: Right from the beginning he’d seen Dreamgirls four times, so this was something that he was interested in and I think he felt it was something that he wanted to live up to. The first people he was interested in as musicians were James Brown and Otis Redding, so he felt this was his music too, so I think he was very excited to do this movie.
Jennifer, you credit your grandmother as inspiration for your four octaves?
Jennifer: She’s my biggest musical influence. She chose not to go professional as a singer; she says she just wants to sing in church for the Lord, and they say I have her voice, so I attribute all of this to her and to her memory, so I hope she’s proud.
Did another member of your family have a hand in your career – getting you a job at a fast-food restaurant?
Jennifer: Yes, it was my sister, she was the super-employee at Burger King and then there was me. I couldn’t get nothing right at all and I was about 16, 17-years-old, and like I said I couldn’t get anything right, so I ended up quitting and that was when I promised myself that I would use my gifts to make my living, and ever since I’ve been singing and now acting.
Did you look at real-life singers to research the part? Effie’s story bears a striking resemblance to Florence Ballard of The Supremes…
Jennifer: Yes, and Florence was definitely one of the people I looked at and probably the most closely too. But I feel like Effie’s story, and I guess The Dream’s story in itself, is a bit of everybody’s story in the industry. And as far as the music, I looked at Aretha, I looked at Whitney and Jennifer Holiday, and I try to tribute all the great female vocalists in almost every song that I do.
Bill, how does Diana Ross feel about the film?
Bill: I worked with Rob Marshall on Chicago and last year, right before we started shooting, I went to the premiere of Memoirs Of A Geisha and Diana Ross sits in front of me and I watched the entire movie through her hair, and you know I was so tempted to reach forward and I thought, you know, it’s not right.
The fact is, it’s not her story. I think she went on Letterman the other night, and said that she hadn’t seen the movie yet, but she’s going with her lawyers, but it was a laugh-line. I think she understands that Dreamgirls was always a highly fictionalised version of real events; it isn’t her life – it’s her own right to tell that story. But, my God, I love her so much; Beyoncé loves her so much and we both took stuff out of the closet - old albums, old pictures and things like that. It’s a tribute to her as an icon and frankly, as a pioneer – she changed the world, so I hope she does take it in that spirit when she finally does see it or watches it again.
Danny, you must be proud of the film?
Danny: One of the reasons we’re here in part is that they say black films don’t sell, that black film don’t sell in Europe, that black films don’t sell in Asia, that black films don’t do this in South Asia, and we want to use this platform to prove that wrong. We’re going to use this extraordinary film with this extraordinary talent that you’re going to see years and years from now to prove that they do sell – that what’s important is that when you have a story, a story that touches people’s hearts, a story that moves people, a story that finds a level of universality, people are going to come and see that, and maybe we can change things, and really tell the truth about what we need to see, and what we should see.
Anika: I absolutely am so very proud and honoured to be a part of this project, to be a part of something so positive and honest. It’s true, it’s honest, there’s ugliness in it, but it’s not taking you to that stereotypical place that says all we can do is shoot each other and shoot up drugs and do stuff like that. It’s the other story; it’s showing us in glamour mode, because we do that too.
It’s a really, really wonderful feeling to have young people come up to me and be excited about this and send me messages on myspace telling me ‘my god, I want to do what you do, you’ve thrilled me so much, you’ve touched me, this movie that you did has made such a difference in my life.’ That’s not really why you doing it when you doing it but when that type of thing comes to you and you realise that you’ve touched someone in that way and you’ve made a difference and allowed them to see something else of themselves, that is the most fulfilling and amazing feeling ever.
Bill, did Beyoncé approach you, or was it the other way around?
Bill: The cast is truly a dream cast. I do feel like all these people were born to play these parts and I feel very lucky that we got everybody together. Beyoncé did come after us, it wasn’t the other way around. We met, I loved her, but I still had this question – two things, one of them was that it was a level of acting that she had never attempted before, but more than that, someone who’s got such a well developed stage persona, could she adapt to something that was so really different? You just take the way she is sexually on the stage, she’s so powerful and so contemporary and this was about something very different. It was about withholding and it was about a certain kind of ’60s sexuality. So, she volunteered to audition, and we worked together on the hardest scene in the movie...
Bill: She auditioned. She did a screen test. I didn’t even have to put it together, I called up David Geffen on the way back to the airport and said she’s it; it was very clear. And we didn’t see anybody else, but she really wanted the part.
The night before the audition she found this incredible form-fitting Marilyn Monroe dress, and that was the thing that was clever. She did the title number with piano, and you’d think she’d do Diana Ross, but she had a lot of Marilyn – she understood that Deena at that point was going to try and imitate the white sex goddess of the period. It was really inventive, her audition.
Dreamgirls is released in cinemas nationwide on 2 February 2007.