Robert Harling’s original play is treated with respect in Sally Robinson’s screenplay and doesn’t shy away from the gay content, including Clairee’s story about her gay nephew, “accent lighting” and gay men’s names.
Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, gay executive producers of “Steel Magnolias,” chatted about their idea for the remake, the stellar cast, and producing gay-themed shows.
How did the idea of remaking Steel Magnolias with an African-American cast come about?
Meron: A while back, maybe two years or so, Craig and I were talking about things that we wanted to do. Where are the great roles for women? Our conversation naturally went to “Steel Magnolias.” I thought the only way that we could really tackle “Steel Magnolias,” which was so brilliantly done originally, was if we were able to bring something new to it.
So would you say there were no concerns about remaking such an iconic movie?
Zadan: It’s very important to us that Robert Harling, who created it, did not say to us, “oh, please don’t do it.” He was more than encouraging and excited and thrilled to see an all black version of it..
Once you have the endorsement of the person who created the play and the original movie and those characters and that story, based on his own life, I think that’s more endorsement than you get most of the time.
Queen Latifah, who plays M’Lynn (the role originated on screen by Sally Field), gives an amazing performance, the kind that has Emmy and Golden Globe written all over it. What influence did having worked with her in the past have on you when casting “Steel Magnolias”?
Meron: It seemed like a perfect match. I think that a lot of the success due to projects is how well you cast them. It seemed that she had the strength and dignity and acting chops to really anchor this new production of “Steel Magnolias” and redefine it. So you start with Queen Latifah and build everything around her.
Zadan: We also had the most magnificent experience working with her on “Chicago” and “Hairspray.” We felt they were two of the best films she’s ever done and that we’ve ever done and we thought we’d love to have the experience a third time together as a team.
In addition to Queen Latifah, you also worked with Phylicia Rashad, who plays Clairee in “Steel Magnolias,” on “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Meron: We love to work with the same actors over and over again because you have a shorthand, you know they can deliver, it’s more like a family. If you look at a lot of our work, we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of repeat visitors.
Aside from the familiar faces, “Steel Magnolias” also stars two younger actresses, Adepero Oduye and Condola Rashad, Phylicia’s daughter. Can you say something about the rewards and challenges of casting young talent?
Meron: I think part of the satisfaction of being a producer is being able to introduce new talent. Craig and I spotted Condola in a Broadway show, “Stick Fly,” that Kenny Leon directed.
She’s the only person that we wanted to play Shelby. Our passion bled through to everybody. She didn’t audition, she was just cast on our passing for her and we’ve been proven correct.
Adepero, we knew about from “Pariah,” of course. But she auditioned and her audition was so spectacular and special that we knew she needed to be in the movie.
A number of your projects, including “Serving in Silence,” “What Makes a Family,” “Wedding Wars,” “It’s All Relative,” and most recently “Smash,” to name a few, have dealt with gay subject matter or prominently featured gay characters. How important is that to you as gay men?
Meron: Oh, it’s incredibly important because you like to have your work reflect parts of who you are. So in terms of that being representative of who we are as gay men, I think it’s incredibly important and necessary and kind of imperative.
Zadan: I think, also, what we’ve learned is the power of entertainment. You can stand on a soap box and give speeches all you want. A lot of people find speechifying is a turn off and they push away – they don’t absorb what you have to say.
However, when you do pieces such as “Serving in Silence,” “Wedding Wars,” “What Makes a Family,” “Smash” or “Drop Dead Diva” – when you do those pieces and entertain the audience, you go into their living rooms and you’re welcomed in by entertaining them.
Top photo: Queen Latifah and (left to right) Adepero Oduye, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott, Alfre Woodard and Condola Rashad star in Lifetime’s ‘Steel Magnolias.’ (Publicity photo)