Mary J. Blige has been an empowering presence ever since her 1992 multi-platinum debut album, “What’s the 411?” In the ensuing years, the singer/songwriter’s music has attracted an intensely loyal fan base responsible for propelling worldwide sales of more than 50 million albums. In Adam Shankman’s new musical, “Rock of Ages,” the Grammy award-winning Blige plays Justice, owner of the Venus Gentlemen’s Club, who makes her living off life on the Sunset Strip. When Shankman began assembling the remarkable cast for “Rock of Ages,” Blige was at the top of his list.
At the press day for “Rock of Ages,” MoviesOnline sat down at a roundtable interview with Blige to talk about her role in the feature film adaptation of the smash hit Broadway musical. Blige, who earned the nickname the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, told us how she first heard about the part, how she prepared for the role, what the directing process was like, and her plans to ramp up her acting career which she describes as an add on to her highly successful singing career. She also discussed the era of 80s music, how it influenced her in the 90s, and what have been the pitfalls and joys of being a famous artist.
Q: What has been your process of getting into movies?
MJB: Getting an acting coach and preparing for the acting part of the whole thing.
Q: Do you see it as a transition or something in addition?
MJB: It’s not a transition because I’m not giving up my day job which is singing. It’s an add-on. It’s something that I’m attaching to my career.
Q: How did it feel to sing Journey?
MJB: It felt really good.
Q: Were there parallels you could draw between yourself and Justice?
MJB: Yes. The fact that she’s always this person. She works in a strip club, first of all, so she has to be strong for all the other women, and be a light in a dark place, and believe in herself regardless of her circumstances and never let her environment dictate who she is, and she’s teaching the same thing to the women by being strong and letting them know that they’re better than this and this is just a rest stop and hopefully this can help you out there.
Q: It’s interesting how they adapted Anyway You Want It to that context. What did the song mean to you?
MJB: As Mary, it just meant 80s, rock ‘n’ roll in the 80s and MTV and seeing the video on the video station. But, as Justice, it meant exactly what the gentlemen’s club offered any way you want it. That’s what you’re paying for.
Q: Can you talk about your experience working with Adam Shankman? What was it like?
MJB: It was pleasant because Adam just knows exactly what he wants and he tells you what he wants and he’s a beautiful person and he’s fun. He’s fun to be around and he makes us all feel comfortable to the point where it doesn’t intimidate you to work next to Tom Cruise or all the other actors and actresses in the movie. He just makes you feel comfortable to do what it is that you do to deliver the character.
Q: Did you know when he cast you that you were his first choice?
MJB: Yes. He told me at Jennifer Lopez’s housewarming party that he was going to put me in a movie. You don’t pay attention to that because people in Hollywood just say stuff. But, six months later, he showed up with the role and I didn’t have to even audition.
Q: We’ve just lost several icons from the 80s including Donna Summer and Robin Gibb. Can you talk about that era of music and if it influenced or inspired what you started to do in the 90s at the turn of the decade?
MJB: Well Donna Summer will forever be around in our hearts because she was Donna Summer. I can’t even say that any other way. You forgot to mention Whitney (Houston). She was a huge influence to what we do, to what I do.
Q: What kind of music did you like to listen to back then?
MJB: I was listening to R&B. Anita Baker was everything to me. That was her time in the 80s and I was listening to a lot of Melissa Morgan. I was an R&B person and Teena Marie and just all the women that were out back then. It was mostly R&B that I was listening to.
Q: What did you find surprisingly exciting when you started acting, like oh I really like this part of it? And then, what was harder than you thought it was going to be?
MJB: The coaching part I love because it’s therapeutic, because you have to find this person. Who is she? And you’ve got to dig into yourself to bring her to life. As you’re digging in yourself, you’re finding all this stuff in there that needs to come out, especially if your character’s depressed or doesn’t trust men. You have to find this person. That was the only thing that was challenging. That was the best part for me. That I found therapeutic for me.
Q: What’s it like waiting around on a movie set and being in your trailer passing time?
MJB: The waiting around wasn’t a surprise to me because we do that with videos. We wait. It’s a lot more time, six or seven hours with movies. It’s maybe an hour or two hours with videos.
Q: What was your own experience in terms of being introduced to fame? What have been the pitfalls and joys of being a famous artist?
MJB: You are constantly having to fight for your identity as a female artist and everyone’s not happy for you and everyone just says ‘yes’ to everything. When you have people that just say yes, it can really be bad for you because no one’s telling you the truth. What I learned to do is to be more confident so I make better people choices in my surroundings. If you’re not confident, you’re going to lean on those people that are lying to you. But if you’re confident, you’re like “You’re lying. Get out of here. I know what it is, who I am, what I want.” Thank God that part of my life is gone. I wish I’d had parental guidance. Then, I wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble. I would tell anyone, if your daughter’s 19 and she’s getting into the music business, please go with her because it’s hard out there.
Q: Were there elements of this film that you could identify with in some ways?
Q: Do you still party like a rock star?
MJB: Not like I used to. I had my party-like-a-rock-star years, but I still have fun though.
Q: What’s that mean now?
MJB: That means my girlfriends, we go to dinner, we laugh, we have drinks. We go to bed and go to work the next day. There’s no more hanging out until 7 o’clock in the morning and doing it again. The body just can’t take it.
Q: I like your new party. I like that.
MJB: Good. Yeah, that’s better. It feels better.
Q: Is there a dream role that you’d love to play?
MJB: A dream role?
Q: You’ll hear a lot of times people will say I would love to play this woman or this man in a movie and bring it to a new audience or a new generation. Is there a story you’d love to tell? Would you do Whitney?
MJB: I’m not going to say yes and I’m not going to say no. I don’t know. Would I do Whitney? I don’t know.
Q: What back story did you create for your character? Did you decide that she had been a stripper before?
MJB: I decided that she had just been destroyed by men, completely destroyed by them, and she wanted to gain her power back on some ground. Something happened in her childhood with some man that snatched all of her power away and she’s been getting violated since then. And so, in an environment like that, she can gain all her ground back because she’s in control of the money, she’s in control of the men, and she’s in control of the girls. That’s how I saw her.
Q: In the years when you were working toward your big break, what were the thrilling parts of that even though you were struggling? What were the things that got you excited as you got another step further into the music industry?
MJB: The fans and them loving the music and them buying tickets to come to the concerts and buying the albums and selling four million albums or five million albums, or even two million or one million albums. It was that that keeps you going.
Q: With everything that you’ve been through personally and professionally, at what point did you start to fall in love with yourself and feel comfortable in your own skin?
MJB: It’s been in the trials that I’ve learned to fall in love with myself – in those hard times, in those times of recovery, in those times where the world is against you that you really go like this, for real, not because your hair looks nice. I’m talking about deep inside so you can walk outside with your head up. That’s not just something from the past. That’s every day constantly, all day.
Q: Your songs have empowered women on many different levels. Are you working on any lyrics right now that you feel are empowering at this stage of the game?
MJB: Am I working on it? 100 percent.
Q: Tell me what some of those lyrics are?
MJB: Well, if I tell you what the lyrics are…I did the scratch vocal on the song…This is weird that you’re asking me this because this song is really powerful. Let me just tell you what…I’m not going to tell you the lyrics of the song. Instead of getting angry about what life is doing to you and what trial you’re in or what someone has done to hurt you, it’s when we get spiritual muscle and we get stronger when we’re in those trials. You learn. You gather up enough strength to say thank you for everything, and that’s really hard to say when people have hurt you, but when you come out, you can say thanks for that.
Q: What about staying alive in this business? People come up and make it huge with a hit record and then it’s drugs and rehab and they’re a mess and they never come back. You’ve managed 20 years now, how do you do that? What is the secret?
MJB: Well, it’s called God. I’m serious. I would be dead. I would be finished if I didn’t know him, if I didn’t pray, if I didn’t believe that there was something better than human beings in this universe, something good. That’s really it.
Q: You’re getting ready to do a clothing line. How hands-on are you going to be? Why did you decide to do that at this time?
MJB: It’s something I’m thinking about. I don’t want to say ‘I’m getting ready to do it.’ I’m not getting ready to do it. I want to do it. I want to start with shoes and I want to start with boots. My fans love me for my boots and shoes and stuff like that, my accessories and my glasses.
Q: You’re starting from the ground up?
MJB: Yes. It’s an idea right now. It’s not even nothing.
Q: How was your experience with “The Help,” from creating the song all the way through the awards circuit?
MJB: It was pleasant. I had a good time doing it. It was a lot of work. The song people loved. The disappointment at the end was sad. It was sad, but it wasn’t like “Oh man! I deserved that.” It was like “Okay. That’s what you felt about everything.” Those are the things you get.
Q: Is there an album in the works? Is there some touring coming up?
MJB: Touring is coming up. We’re on rehearsal for tour right now. We’re re-striping the album already with this new thing that we just talked about and that’s that.
Q: Are you going to shoot a video for the song?
MJB: Yes, of course.
Q: Julianne Hough mentioned you really reached out to her. Can you talk about that bond that you guys formed?
MJB: She was very supportive on the movie set. It’s rare for me to find people like that or to end up around people like that. That’s why I was saying being on the movie set was beautiful because everybody really had a lot of love and support sincerely, because I don’t really care about all of that Hollywood fluffy fluff and whatever. This girl was so down to earth and so wise to be so young and so old. She was mothering me and she helped me when I was nervous with my acting skills. She loosely and calmly said “It’s alright. That was great what you did.” If it wasn’t right, she’d say “Don’t worry about it. It will come. I’ve got you.” She just made me feel good. She was the only thing in our close working environment that made me feel real good. I love her and we created a bond and a friendship after that where it’s like okay, now I got to protect you. That’s rare. You don’t find people like that.
Q: At this point in your career, what validates the work for you? Is it what the critics say or is it the fans’ reaction, or do you just know instinctively that you hit it and that whatever people say doesn’t matter?
MJB: What people say doesn’t matter. If it’s something helpful, I’ll pay attention. “Okay, that’s helpful. That’s positive.” I only pay attention to the positive things. The negative things, there’s so much of it and it’s so horrible that if you pay attention to it, you will end up running around looking for those people. You know what I’m saying? Or just feeling terrible about yourself. I just can’t pay attention to the negative. You’ve got to pay attention to the fans that are out there saying “We love you. Keep doing what you’re doing. You saved my life.” This, that, that, that…so the negative you can’t.
Q: Do you have any advice on how to make a relationship work in this business since it’s so hard?
MJB: Just be real with people, whatever it is. You’ve got to keep some things for yourself. We have to be careful. I don’t care who it is, you just have to know who you can talk to. It can be your Mom. You love her to death, but you just got to know where to put people. She’s in this bracket. He’s in that. You can’t tell her that. You can’t tell him that. Okay, I can talk to her. That’s how you maintain friendships.
Q: Is it hard as a successful woman in show business, especially when you’ve got a public profile, to find a relationship with somebody who can accept you? You’re heavy with Tamar (Braxton), aren’t you?
MJB: Yeah, and Tamar is a sweetheart. Whether people want to believe it or not, she’s a good girl. I know she’s Tamar, but she’s so much fun and she’s got a good heart. I look past what people say. If you sit down and you get to know a person, forget what the tabloids are saying. You’ll be shocked and surprised. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, like wow, who knew? It’s people.
Q: Are you going to be on Lil’ Kim’s show?
MJB: You know I’m going to be on Kim’s show. (laughs)
“Rock of Ages” opens in theaters on June 15th.