Diddy, Sanaa Lathan, Phylicia Rashad, and the other stars talk about filming their Broadway revival for TV
For those with Oscar-speech fatigue, you can catch some stellar performances in, yes, a TV movie on ABC tonight. It’s called A Raisin in the Sun (read the EW review). Maybe you’ve heard of it — the 1959 Lorraine Hansberry play about African-American upward mobility that was remade as a Sidney Poitier film a year later and again revived on Broadway in 2004. Reprising their stage roles for the adaptation are Sean Combs, Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, and Sanaa Lathan. They play the Youngers, a family trying to find their American dream while living on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s. When Lena (Rashad) finally gets the $10,000 life insurance check she’s been waiting for, they have to work out how it gets spent. Walter Lee Jr. (Combs) has his heart set on starting a business, his wife Ruth (McDonald) simply wants a bigger home that doesn’t creak and has a bathroom of its own, and his sister Beneatha (Lathan) wants to finish up college so she can become a doctor. Rounding out the troupe is John Stamos, who plays Mr. Linder, the neighborhood association rep who hasn’t, let’s just say, seen the light.
Last month, EW.com was on hand for Raisin‘s premiere at Sundance (it’s the first-ever TV pic to play at the festival), and spoke with the cast and director Kenny Leon about the significance of the film in 2008.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So Raisin has been around in different incarnations since 1959. What motivated you to be a part of it?
AUDRA McDONALD: It took some motivation. We sort of felt the same way, I think. Why do it? We were approached [for the play] and were like, ”Huh.” I didn’t know how we would do it differently, or what new life we would breathe into it.
SANAA LATHAN: I got a little angry because I was like, ”Why are they doing this again on Broadway? We have so many more stories to tell.” And then I read it, and was like, ”This is amazing. This is a classic.” It transcends time; it speaks to all races, genders.
What were your apprehensions aside from that?
McDONALD: I had apprehensions about Sean. I met with Sean after a show I was doing, and he just got rid of his entire posse and his entourage. We just sat in a hotel room and read through the scenes.
LATHAN: Was it just you and him?
McDONALD: Just the two of us. It was a chance to feel each other out and be like, ”Can I work with you? Do we have personalities that will click?”
Having seen Sean as this hip-hop guy…
McDONALD: Yeah, who he was. So that convinced me, and also to be humble enough to do that on his part.
Sean, Kenny: why did you want to do Raisin now — again?
SEAN COMBS: Why not?
Audra and Sanaa said they had apprehensions about it.
COMBS: What? They had apprehensions?
Yes, they were partly concerned about doing a story that had been told before.
KENNY LEON: I got to talk with them. Apprehensions.
COMBS: They started that yesterday. That was their new talking. That was something they felt was colorful for their interviews. [Laughs]
LEON: Raisin is still a story that really needs to be told in terms of the love, dreams, and hope in it. But more than that: When we first hooked up in 2004, I found that Sean and I had something in common. My father was not present, his father was killed when he was young, both of us were raised by our grandmothers. We also had a commitment to bring young people to see the story [on a] Broadway stage. So when the idea for the film came up, we wanted to continue to tell our story.
NEXT PAGE: The cast on Raisin‘s relevance today
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Phylicia, I know you’ve worked with Kenny for quite a number of years. What inspired you to take on the film too? And John, how did you come on board?
PHYLICIA RASHAD: What’s important is it’s an American classic. The playwright was 27 when she wrote it, [which] is amazing. I think it’s a work that merits attention. It’s good to bring the finest to our people. And when I say our people, I mean everybody in America.
JOHN STAMOS: I’ve always been a big fan of this piece. I know our generation has probably not seen the  movie [starring Sidney Poitier]. I thought if I could help bring some younger people to watch this very important piece, I want to be a part of it.
How did you feel about playing the guy nobody really likes?
RASHAD: He’s so good as that guy. [Laughs]
STAMOS: It was difficult. I think it was good that I hadn’t spent time with the [rest of the cast] because I really did come in as an outsider. I kind of got right into these scenes. I had to look these people in the face and tell them they couldn’t live in the neighborhood they got their dream house in. It was one of the harder roles that I’ve taken on because there’s a very fine line in playing this guy. He is narrow-minded. He probably wasn’t racist, and doesn’t believe that he is. He thinks it really is better for them to be with their own people. I think he was taught that way.
RASHAD: If [he] is not a full human being then the story loses its full impact. You’re not looking at a caricature, you’re looking at a person who believes what he’s saying.
The ”American dream” is a very intangible concept when you really think about what it means. How do you think that idea has changed since 1959?
RASHAD: It’s a human story, and we’re still human beings. There are still families that struggle for one reason or another with financial issues, with health issues. There are families every day that sustain the loss of a mother or a father and have to keep going. There are families all over this country that experience generational divide, and how do you hold your family together.
COMBS: To be honest, it is more accessible — the dream is. There have been people that have proven that we can do it, and that’s one of the best ways to inspire people: whether it’s Oprah or Spike Lee or Quincy Jones or Michael Jackson or LeBron James or Muhammad Ali. But…you still have so many millions of people that feel like the dream is so far from their grasp because of the economic conditions that they live in, or how they’re brought up.
LEON: Last week I was working in New Orleans…and what [Hurricane] Katrina exposed was that America still has a long way to go. It’s better, but we still don’t have full access. Even now, with [Combs’] character, he’s a black man who’s struggling to accomplish his dream while his sister is the one who’s an academic.
That’s very much a topic of discussion today. Could you talk about that, about African-American men your age working against the odds?
COMBS: I think what you see is such a large percentage of African-American men don’t get to go to college. So they try to figure out alternatives to become somebody. A lot of people try to make the dream be about money, or… it’s not even that, they just want to be somebody. They want to be respected and considered. And the problem of more African-American men being in jail than being in college is a huge problem. To be born into it. They make sure that you hear those facts. I remember growing up as a kid knowing what my life expectancy was based on where I was…
On the socio-economic ladder?
COMBS: Yeah, being brought up in Harlem. Those things are very, very discouraging. That reality of college is not really a reality to them.
There are challenges in Hollywood too. In terms of roles for African-American women, is the lack of them something that frustrates you?
McDONALD: Hell yes! [Laughs] Sorry, let me try again. I’m not bitter.
What do you think of Tyler Perry and the empire he’s making?
LATHAN: I’m doing his next movie.
So you obviously like working with him?
LATHAN: I don’t know if I like working with him yet. [Laughs] No. It is very unequal and the [number] of roles for people of color is uneven, for black women. It’s so blatantly not representative of the world we live in. At the same time, one percent of people who call themselves actors work. And we’ve been working, so we’re grateful and we’re so blessed, and we’re conscious of this every day.
McDONALD: There’s still a long way to go. My sister is a writer, and some of the stories she’s come home and told me. They’ve said to her in pitching [ideas], ”Well yes, that’s great, but it won’t work.” Why? ”Well, because the main character is black. If you could maybe make them…” And you go, In 2008, she’s being told this. That’s just sort of unbelievable.
NEXT PAGE: The difficulty of going from stage to the small screen
Within the story of Raisin, there’s a tug of war between many things: assimilation and embracing your cultural roots, and whether to embrace religion, all of which Sanaa’s character Beneatha struggles with.
LATHAN: Beneatha was ahead of her time. It was before the whole civil rights movement, before the black-is-beautiful movement. I think it was necessary to find that strength in who we were as a people at that time. I think now there is so much strength in that. Black culture in America… I feel like we do feel like we’re beautiful, you know. Celebrating our individuality.
Having spent so much time together working on Broadway and then the film, you all seem to be sort of a family. Did you have any sort of rituals?
COMBS: Every day [Kenny] had his yo-yo on the set and his hat. And I would do my push-ups on the side. Not to get buff but just to have that anxiety and that shortness of breath.
LATHAN: We’d do shots before the scenes, tequila shots. No, kidding.
McDONALD: [Laughs] No, one of the rituals — do you remember this? — was between shows every Wednesday and Saturday we would get sushi. Sean and I had our rituals before each night: 11 kisses on the cheek. He would do 10 and then one for good luck.
LATHAN: Awww, that’s so sweet.
COMBS: I don’t know where it came from. [Laughs] It was just something that I had started, in the play, when I would get in the bed before the curtain would come up.
LATHAN: He would get on the intercom [and pump everyone up]. He’s a great mascot…a great leader.
McDONALD: Motivational and very charismatic.
Were there any surprises filming it compared with performing on stage?
McDONALD: How hard it was. [On stage], you do it and then it’s all done. I’m not living in one scene for 16 hours. And with the film, to shoot it from all of the angles…and then be told like a week later we didn’t get all the shots we wanted. [But] you have to in order to get it right. And it’s just hard to keep it up — to keep that tension, that emotion up, and to be able to cry every single time on cue — and then well, the sound man didn’t get it, we were out of focus, someone sneezed, someone’s phone went off, you know. And so by the end, you’re just drained.
Sean, where do you hope this role is going to take you? Do you have some ideas about where you’d like things to lead?
COMBS: Yeah, I have dreams and aspirations as an actor. From Made to Monster’s Ball to Broadway to Raisin in the Sun, I’m taking it step by step. Hopefully every time I’m up on the screen or on the stage, I’ll get better as an actor. But I’m very, very proud of where I’m at and where I’ve come from, and I’m clear that, like any actor, I have a long way to go.
I’m also working on another piece for EW about Audra. What is she like?
STAMOS: I was at a dinner with her in L.A. [and] there were a lot of big names at the table. Steven Spielberg walks in and comes to the table and just beelines to her. I think he saw her in Ragtime or something and was just ”blah, blah, blah, ba, ba, ba, ba… You guys are fine, but ba, ba, ba.” He just, pfffft, zeroed right into her. She’s a force of nature.
LEON: Audra’s just fierce, from the first time I saw her in Carousel. Like Sean [has] said, she’s one of the most talented, diverse actresses in the country. And she can cry on a dime. When we’re shooting, Phylicia would say, “I’m not Audra McDonald. We’re gonna shoot this one time.” [Laughs]
RASHAD: She’s pure magic. And she’s disciplined. It doesn’t come from out of nowhere. This woman has gone through intense training to develop herself as an artist. She walks around like none of that ever happened.
STAMOS: Yeah, humble. Humble. Until she gets on stage, then it’s like, ”Ha, ha — whoa.”
RASHAD: It’s like, ”We don’t know where she came from, but thank you, Lord.”