In the HBO original movie, Life Support, Queen Latifah plays Ana Wallace, a woman who has been living with HIV for years. She contracted the disease from her husband, an intravenous drug user. The film focuses on living with the disease and Latifah is adamant that everyone gets tested for the virus. She says the more people who know they are infected, the better it will be to put an end to the spread of the virus. If you don't know you have it, you are more likely to pass it on to others.
At a recent press conference, Queen Latifah discussed the film and the virus. Latifah's character is loosely based on a real life woman, Andrea Williams. Latifah feels strongly about this film and the message it imparts.
How much time did you spend talking to Ms. Williams, and observing these groups and generally immersing yourself in this for the role?
Queen Latifah: To be honest with you, from the moment I read the script to the moment we started shooting was about a month. This thing turned around more quickly than anything I've ever done probably. But I grew up in this. I grew up in this area. I group up I think experiencing some of the same things that Andrea experienced growing up in some of the same places. So I think the character was never really far from me, and that's part of what attracted me to the role. We did talk a lot. We had to have some real conversations. To this day I enjoy talking to her because, as you can see, she's not a beat-around-the-bush kind of person. We have frank, real blunt four-letter-word conversations about all kinds of things, just human experiences and how one winds up in certain situations and how you can be just a curious person about life and experimenting with different things and how life can take you down different paths, and you always have a choice, but this is where life may have taken her. And I needed to share her experience, but also the character's not exactly who she is. It's loosely based on her life, but I had room to sort of make it my own. So I didn't have to make it a perfect mimic of her life.
In the film the husband was an IV drug user, which is risky behavior.
Queen Latifah: I think regardless of that, it speaks to the risky behavior that [we] natural human beings with emotions and feelings can perpetrate. You do silly things for love sometimes and not-so-smart things for love. While we keep putting a face on HIV and AIDS, I think what we forget is that are human beings, just people with emotions and feelings, women who want to be loved, men who want to be loved, who want to feel something, [and] kids who are developing into adults who don't necessarily know how to handle their feelings as adults but are being put in situations where they're being asked to have sex or not to have sex and then to have responsible sex when they don't even know what responsible sex is because they're not even mature enough to really be in this sexual situation.
And it's not just black kids. It's all kids. Maybe some are educated a little more than others and maybe some protect themselves a little better, but to me what drew me also to this film was not just about the HIV/AIDS aspects of it, but the relationship aspects of it. We're talking about people, human beings. We're talking about people that have their feelings hurt. People trying to learn how to forgive, people who can't let go of that pain and refuse to forgive, and at what time will you forgive and when do you let someone off the hook? Do people deserve second chances? There are so many different things that weave themselves through this film that I don't want us to just get caught up in HIV/AIDS.
The reason a disease like that can spread like it has is because you get caught up looking at my face and I get caught up looking at yours, that you get caught up looking at a gay man who had it and saying "I'm not gay so I'm not going to get it."
That was the problem right off the bat with AIDS. We looked at it as a gay man's disease, and we let everybody else catch it because we told them it was just you because we were prejudiced as a country against gay people, and we are to this day. So because of that, now everybody is susceptible to it. It's just the same way you put drugs in a black community. You can't put drugs in one community. Drugs feel too good. So whoever gets a hold of it is going to do it. Now everyone's community is affected by it.
When we understand that we are a human race, what affects you affects me, what affects her affects you and so on and so on, then we'll look at this thing for what it really is. It's a disease that's out to kill all of us. It's out to live in all of our bodies, and we're out to keep it out. It's that simple with HIV and AIDS at the end of the day. What will make it continue is our prejudices, our ideas about it, and the fact that we don't look at ourselves as one giant community and protect each other's children and protect each other's wives, and deal with our issues. People are not faithful all the time. Unfortunately that's the case. You want to put your daughter's life in the hands of every man in the United States? Yet you want to get so picky and say, "Not my daughter. He's not good enough for my daughter." Why is he not good enough for your daughter? Because you know he'll sex your daughter out and move on to the next. Well, you know what? So does the guy who looks like he won't do it. And that's the problem. He's the guy who is the nice guy. He said all the right things. Guess what? He infected your daughter with AIDS. That's how real it is.
So we don't want to sugarcoat this whole thing and make it seem like it's all sweet. It is what it is. What's behind it is what can be sweet. The fact that you have a person who loves someone [and] who trusted the wrong person and now has to survive that. Where do we take it from here? How did we deal with it? We still have information that can save other lives. How do we deal with that? How do we attack it in a way where people can really digest it for what it is? Get into the high schools with it. When did we say this thing doesn't apply to Christians by the way? If you're Christian, you won't catch this because we're only going to fund faith-based initiatives by the way? If you preach abstinence, you can have our money [from] the United States of America, but if you don't, sorry. We can't help you out. So now her organization, which is on the streets of Brooklyn every day, testing people, giving out condoms to people, people who might not ordinarily buy them, testing people who would not necessarily take a test, coming into the community and stopping someone else from getting this disease ...
Have you thought of running for office?
Queen Latifah: I cannot run for office because I did inhale. (Laughter.) [It's] a little too late for me.
How difficult was this role for you, and why was it important to you to be an executive producer on this film?
Queen Latifah: It was a very important role, and for the reasons I just talked about. I lost relatives to AIDS. A couple of my closest cousins, favorite cousins. I lost friends to AIDS, high school friends who never even made it to their 21st birthdays in the '80s. When it's that close to you, you can't -- you know, you can't really deny it and you can't run from it. You have to become a forum. When I was in high school, it was like you can't drink. You can't touch. Stay away from it. Stay away from it. You could catch it. They terrified us with it. It was like "The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming." The damn Russians ain't never come. You know what I mean?
We made peace before the damn Russians could even get here. They scared us so much about it, but when you have someone in your family who you love and care about who is laying in a bed, sick, and who is about to make their two sons have no mom -- whose two sons will have no mother because she's going to die soon -- you don't look at it like "That is why I can't touch you." It's like, "Damn. Are you okay? Come here." You know?
You need to inform yourself. So we had to inform ourselves about what it is about and realize that half of the things that were being talked about out there weren't even true. It obviously wasn't a gay man's disease because here is my heterosexual male cousin with a transfusion that's killing him, and here is my intravenous drug-using female cousin who is about to die. So it struck my family personally. So did drug use. Okay. [It's] rampant in all of our communities. ... I have so many friends, particularly female friends, whose self-esteem is so low based upon on bad relationships in their own home who are out there making bad decisions in their personal lives. That's why confidence has always been something that I pushed, that I try my best to support, because I felt like half the decisions we make are because of our self-esteem level. And it being so low that we put ourselves in situations that we just make really poor decisions. You know, for a guy to say, "Hey. I don't want to wear this condom. It don't feel the same," now the ball is in your court. Now the confident woman will say, "Either you wear it or you're not getting [any]." But the not-so-confident woman will break and say, "All right" and reluctantly allow you to take it off.
Now, it's these simple kinds of decisions that, to me, are based on how people feel inside. A lot of that is based on how you grow up, what you're taught. Are you loved? Are you cared for? That's all like relationship stuff. That's all the things that her character's, my character's family was dealing with. You know? You got an angry daughter. Why is she so damn angry? Well, she missed a lot of years with her mother who could have very well smoothed out those edges and made her a stronger, more loving woman on the inside, but she's too busy fighting battles that she shouldn't have had to fight.
I was drawn to this movie for all these reasons. I saw so many people, that I knew that I still know to this day, and so I feel like it's a really important film. At the end of the day, I wanted to be a part of it, not just as an actor, but as an executive producer to help make sure that the whole story was told in the right way to support Nelson [George, director and co-writer] and the other producers in the telling of the story to make sure he had the tools he needed to tell it in the right way and that the picture that I had in my mind could be infused into his vision. The people's faces I see in Brooklyn and the things I went through growing up, I could pop some of that stuff in here and there and sort of drop a little bug in his ear here and there -- I definitely [didn't] want to direct the movie. He did a fine job of doing that. But there are certain little things you see sometimes and you say, "What about this?" "What about that?" And then it's his job to either take it and use it or not. But I felt like I could be supportive in both roles, as an actor as well as a producer.
Testing for the virus is a high priority for you and the message in the film?
Queen Latifah: That's good. I mean, I think anything that can disarm the whole thing, that can diffuse the fear that goes with a test, I mean, when I got my first test, it took two weeks to get the answers.
We don't need to get into all this. I'm just saying the point is that now it doesn't take that long.
Everyone should be tested?
Queen Latifah: Unless you're abstinent. In that case you're good to go.
Life Support premieres March 10 on HBO.