Alicia Keys: She's Smokin'!
With her armload of Grammy Awards, near-constant referencing from American Idol contestants and even a name-check in Bob Dylans latest single Thunder on the Mountain, Alicia Keys has seemed damn near ubiquitous in recent years despite the fact that she hasnt released an album of new material since 2003. Shes about to get even more in-your-face, with her debut film role as an ass-kicking assassin hunting Jeremy Piven in Smokin Aces and a role in the forthcoming The Nanny Diaries, an adaptation of the best-selling novel. Keys was certainly smokin in her own right as she sat down for a recent press conference in Los Angeles.
This was a surprising role for you. Was it easy for you to see yourself as a pistol packin mama?
The minute I read the script, I knew that it was so out of my element, so out of my normal character, so out of what people probably expected of me, I knew it was the right thing for me to do. I wanted to totally break away from anyones expectations. I wanted to do something totally unexpected and dive into myself in a way that Ive never, ever done before. To be surrounded by such incredible actors was truly inspiring. The entire cast and Joe Carnahan were so motivating, I think Im totally spoiled, and anything I do after this probably will not compare.
Does that giving up of your comfort zone come easily to you?
Well, I dont think anything thats worth it comes easy, exactly, but to work for that was completely worth it. With everything that I do, I want to give up that comfort zone. I dont want to stay in the same place, where I know myself. I want to get out of that area and challenge myself, and I think my best work comes from that.
What kind of relationship did you and Taraji Henson have? Did she give you any kind of guidance since this was your first acting experience?
Taraji and I hit it off immediately. Shes a wonderful lady and an incredible actress, and Joe actually brought us together very early in the process, long before we filmed our first scene. We went to the movies together, and she fell asleep! So we definitely hung out, because we wanted the relationship to be authentic, and it was. I did learn a lot from watching her and listening to her, and we developed our characters back stories together where we came from, where we were going, why we were doing this together. So she definitely was a great inspiration.
Can you talk about developing that back story a little, and about the relationship between the two women?
I think my character, Georgia, and Taraji are very close and have obviously been through a lot of very heavy situations together. In our back story, we definitely knew each other for years. Id been uprooted from where I originally grew up and came to live near her, so she kinda showed me a lot. Her character was like the older sister I never had, showing me the ropes and that kinda thing. I think as friends, Georgia was probably aware that their were feelings on her side towards me that were a little out of place, but she didnt pay it any attention because they were busy doing other things and she didnt want to make a big deal about it. As you see in the movie, its becoming a little more uncomfortable as Tarajis character is a little more crass about it, and Im starting to wonder whats really going on. There was a whole scene taken out in which I confront her about it.
I remember to talking to Halle Berry about her role in Monsters Ball, which was so different from who she was as a person, and she talked about how hard she to fight for the role because the producers couldnt see her as anything other than Halle Berry. You mentioned how different this character was for you, so did you have to fight for it or was it given to you?
I have to say that it was mutual between myself and Joe. From the beginning, he had a very clear vision that he wanted to use fresh people, and thats one thing he spoke to me about a lot. He came to see my show in Anaheim and he came backstage and asked if Id read the script yet. I hadnt, and he said, This is not a punk youre gonna be playing. This is not just some pretty love story. Just that alone made me very intrigued because, as anyone on this planet knows, if someone tells you about something you shouldnt do or wouldnt normally do, you want to do it.
How do you feel about the heavy use of the n-word in the film, with it being such a hot-button issue right now?
I made a conscious decision not to use it. I substituted more fun words like motherfucker or shithead.
Is success everything you thought it would be? Were you prepared for it?
I define success as a personal happiness. I feel that I am happiest when Im able to express myself and do things that are my choice, whatever that means. Its especially rewarding for me when other people enjoy it as much as I do. I call that success.
Who was it that nurtured you as a child to really believe in yourself?
As a young kid I had two wonderful women in my life that helped to raise me. One is my mother, who was a single mom and a very strong woman who showed me everything about being a woman. The second one was my grandmother, who was very intelligent, very compassionate and very giving woman. I would say the two of them were two of my greatest inspirations.
Was there any particular advice they gave you along the way?
Get em, girl! (Laughs)
This Bob Dylan album is doing great. How did you first hear about him mentioning you in his song?
Its pretty amazing! I could not believe it. The first person who told me was John Mayer. He said, Youre never gonna believe this: I just heard that Dylan has your name in his song! I totally never expected it, obviously, but it was a huge honor and I couldnt wait to hear it. Hes such a lyrical genius, such a storyteller, with so much history, and as a writer myself I admire him greatly.
There were two singers nominated for Golden Globes this year, Beyonc and Jennifer Hudson. What are your thoughts on that, and do you aspire to that sort of achievement in your own acting career?
I think its wonderful. Theyre two very talented young women, and I think Dreamgirls is gonna be incredible. I cant wait to see it myself. Its very exciting, because I think many of the great artists have been triple threats and were able to do it all. I think going back in that direction now, to be able to encompass so many styles and do it with so much class, is just fantastic.
Youve known Beyonc for a long time, right? Did you ever dream of being on these awards shows?
We did meet each other when we were both on Columbia Records. Theyd do these retreats and show all the different artists that were coming out, so we got a chance to hang out then. We didnt meet young enough to do the hairbrush in the mirror thing together, but I do think we both feel the same way about being able to express ourselves.
Youre a triple threat now, too. Youve got this production deal with Disney, youre in The Nanny Diaries, youre singing... How would you like to be thought of in the future, as a singer who acts or an actor who sings?
As an artist.
There was another film I heard you were doing that was a little closer to who you are as a person. What happened with that project?
That film is gonna be produced by Halle Berry and its about a woman named Phillipa Schuyler, who was an incredible bi-racial classical pianist in the 1940s and 1950s. Obviously the challenges at that time for a woman of mixed race to even be able to play classical piano were more than I could ever imagine. Thats what intrigued me about that role, because its going to be a historical period piece, and her story is very deep and moving. The relationship between her and her mother gets very strained, and she decides to move to Europe and pose as a Spanish woman in order to be able to play and live a more normal life. Its very interesting the places we feel we need to go in order to do what we love, and where that leads us, and thats what the story was about. I knew that would never be my first film, because I got involved with that movie so early in the process. But something like that is definitely in my future.
Whats it called, and when will it be released?
As of right now its called Compositions in Black and White, based on the book of her life. Right now were still in the first or second draft of the script, so itll be at least a year.