Men of steel
Producers Neil Meron & Craig Zadan remake 'Steel Magnolias'
by Gregg Shapiro
What comes to mind when you hear the phrase, "Drink your juice, Shelby?" Sally Field fussing over Julia Roberts as M'Lynn and Shelby, respectively, in the 1989 Southern comedic tearjerker Steel Magnolias? The new remake, airing on Oct. 7 on Lifetime, unobtrusively updates the story and features a stellar cast of African-American actresses assuming the leads. This version of Steel Magnolias is as much about sisterhood as it is about sistahood. Queen Latifah, who has developed into a natural actress, gives the performance of her career. 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. I spoke with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, gay executive producers of Steel Magnolias and recently named as recipients of the Visionary Award from the Outfest Legacy Project, about the remake.
Gregg Shapiro: How did the idea of remaking Steel Magnolias with an African-American cast come about?
Neil Meron: A while back, 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. That, to us, justified why we should proceed with the project. So it comes out of our love for great actors and for pieces that showcase these great actors.
Craig Zadan: We know Robert Harling, who wrote the original play and the original screenplay for the first movie. Robert said it was always his fantasy to have Steel Magnolias done again, with an all-black cast, set at a black town in the South.
So there were no concerns about remaking such an iconic movie?
NM: You only remake a movie if you have something new to say, if you can broaden the universality of it. We felt that by hiring the actors that we did, we had something new to say and we enhanced what was already a great piece.
CZ: Robert Harling, who created it, did not say to us, "Oh, please don't do it." He was more than encouraging and excited, thrilled to see an all-black version, and really wanted us to do it. 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.
NM: It seemed like a perfect match. A lot of the success due to projects is how well you cast them. She had the strength and dignity and acting chops to really anchor this new production of Steel Magnolias . So you start with Queen Latifah, and build everything around her.
CZ: We had the most magnificent experience working with her on Chicago and Hairspray . So when this came around, it seemed like a natural to involve her. We think that she's a wonderful actress, and we've seen her give wonderful performances in the past, but I think nothing that she's done can prepare the audience for the depth of the acting performances she gives in Steel Magnolias.
You also worked with Phylicia Rashad, who plays Clairee in Steel Magnolias, on A Raisin in the Sun. Can you say something about working with the same performers on more than one project, as you did with Brandy on Cinderella and Double Platinum?
NM: Brandy also did Drop Dead Diva for us. 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.
CZ: We do it a lot. We did three movies with Judy Davis: Serving in Silence, followed by Judy Garland, followed by The Reagans. And Victor Garber.
NM: It's ridiculous how many times we've worked with him.
CZ: He's been in more of our movies than just about anyone.
NM: We've produced several T.V. movies with Barbra Streisand. We've worked together with Whoopi Goldberg on numerous occasions.
Steel Magnolias also stars two younger actresses, Adepero Oduye and Condola Rashad, Phylicia's daughter. What are the rewards and challenges of casting young talent?
NM: 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 we wanted to play Shelby. 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. She auditioned, and her audition was so spectacular that we knew she needed to be in the movie.
Prior to big-screen successes such as Chicago and Hairspray, most of your production work was related to TV projects. Would it be fair to say that you have a preference for TV?
CZ: We don't have a preference for anything. We made it our goal to work in the theater, because we work on Broadway, and to work in TV-movies, mini-series, series and features. We wanted to be in every single medium, and we are able to go from one to the other. That allows you to flex different muscles. There is no similarity between making a feature film and a TV series. There is no similarity. There is no similarity between producing a Broadway show and producing a TV-movie or mini-series. They're all such radically different skills as a producer, so we love the idea of being able to go from one to another and never get bored, tired, or cynical, never feel like we've done that a million times. It keeps us fresh, curious and interested.
A number of your projects, including Serving in Silence, What Makes a Family, Wedding Wars, It's All Relative, and most recently Smash, have dealt with gay subject matter or prominently featured gay characters. How important is that to you as gay men?
NM: 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 kind of imperative.
CZ: 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. But 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. While they're being entertained, they're also learning so much that they're not even aware of.
Wedding Wars is a good example, because we were the first people ever to make a movie about gay marriage. We decided to do it as a romantic comedy. Any audience watching it would have a wonderful time seeing that movie without even realizing that we're trying to get a point across about gay marriage. By the end of the movie you can't help but feel like, "Wow, what's the big deal, why don't they allow gay people to get married?"
What is next for both of you, Neil and Craig?
CZ: The 2013 Academy Awards.
NM: And season two of Smash. And I'm doing a mini-series for the History channel as well. It is a new take on Bonnie and Clyde.