From the time she released her acclaimed debut album, All Hail the Queen, in 1989, Queen Latifah has been a trailblazer.
The singer turned actress made history as the first rapper to perform at the Super Bowl in 1998 and the first to land an Academy Award nomination for her scene-stealing turn in 2002's Chicago. Now, she's breaking ground as the first female lead in the latest reboot of the '80s TV cult hit The Equalizer, starring as justice crusader Robyn McCall.
"I love action," she says. "And believe me, you're going to see plenty of it."
Here, Latifah, 51, dishes on why the timing is right for the hero to be a Black single mom — and the thrill of fighting the good fight.
Your character is a former CIA agent. Can you give us more of her backstory?
She's done working for the people who make the big decisions, done with the greed, done with the uber-powerful. Robyn is a leader, she's very skillful and she's taking what she has learned through the years and using it for the other 99 percent. That's who she wants to fight and equalize for.
Was Denzel Washington, who starred in the 2014 film reboot, a big influence?
I love that Denzel made the show relevant again. He set the bar in a way but also gave us a lot of room to go in a completely different direction. The earlier characters were much more stoic, but Robyn doesn't have that luxury. She has a teenage daughter, and she's got to figure out how to turn off the soldier in her and turn on the mom, as well as the woman who needs love and affection and maybe a drink at the end of the day.
Shooting the fight scenes, which are pretty intense, must be tough.
I'm learning a lot about how to do them efficiently and preserve my body. I want to make sure I don't pretend to be 22 years old because I've got to do these scenes for the whole season. But I want to see Robyn fight not just with her hands but with her brains. That's something we haven't seen enough of on television, particularly from Black women. But we've been equalizing for centuries, from [female pharaoh] Hatshepsut to Kamala Harris.
Does it help that you were a basketball player in high school?
I was a power forward, and the coach put me in the game when he needed some real defense because I was thick and strong. What sports taught me is that you don't win by yourself. You have to work with people. And here we are now on a show where we all have a role to play and there's a great dynamic and real diversity in the room.
How was shooting during a pandemic?
Our crew worked really hard, shooting outside in the snow and rain to keep everybody safe. It's interesting, when everyone's behind masks, our hearts connected more. It's very important that we take care of each other's emotional and mental conditioning because we're doing an action show.
As Robyn, you run the gamut from toughness to vulnerability. Were you nervous about taking on the character?
I'm getting more comfortable every day, and I feel really good about the show. I think people are going to be highly entertained. They're going to ask questions and maybe have conversations because of some of the subjects we're tackling, which are ripped right from the headlines. And, hopefully, they'll start to say, "Damn, Latifah was bad*ss."