Men of “Steel”: an interview with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan
by Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.
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, 2012 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.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) How did the idea of remaking "Steel Magnolias" with an African-American cast come about
N&C: (Neil Meron) A while back, maybe two years or so, 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. We felt that to do something new to it would be to bring together this remarkable group of actors. That, to us, justified why we should proceed with the project. So, it's relatively new and it comes out of our love for great actors and for pieces that showcase these great actors and will hopefully we'll touch a lot of people.
(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 and set it at a black town in the South.
GS: So would you say there were no concerns about remaking such an iconic movie?
N&C: (Neil) You only remake a movie if you have something new to say, if you can maybe 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.
(Craig) It's very important to us that Robert Harling, who created it, did not say to us "oh, please don't do it." He was more than encouraging and excited and thrilled to see an all black version of it and thought it was a great idea and really wanted us to do it. Once you have the endorsement of the person who created the play and the original movie and those characters and that story, based on his own life, I think that's more endorsement than you get most of the time. We felt very comfortable going ahead and doing a new version of this and we're not competing with the original version, there's nothing wrong with them living and coexisting in the same universe. It's the same with Broadway theatre. There are things called revivals. Just because "Gypsy" was done with Ethel Merman originally, look how many "Gypsy"s have been done on Broadway with so many brilliant stars and look how it's gotten acclaim and raves for each production for different reasons. There are certain times when you have a classic that there's no reason not to try it a different way.
GS: 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. What influence did having worked with her in the past have on you when casting "Steel Magnolias"?
N&C: (Neil) It seemed like a perfect match. I think that a lot of the success due to projects is how well you cast them. It seemed that she had the strength and dignity and acting chops to really anchor this new production of "Steel Magnolias" and redefine it. So you start with Queen Latifah and build everything around her.
(Craig) We also had the most magnificent experience working with her on "Chicago" and "Hairspray." We felt they were two of the best films she's ever done and that we've ever done and we thought we'd love to have the experience a third time together as a team. So, when this came around, it seemed like a natural to involve her. She said yes immediately because she understood how passionate we were about doing the piece and about her being in it. By the way, what you said earlier, we think that she's a wonderful actress and we've seen her give wonderful performances in the past, but I think that nothing that she's done can prepare the audience for the depth of the acting performances that she gives in "Steel Magnolias."
GS: In addition to Queen Latifah, you also worked with Phylicia Rashad, who plays Clairee in "Steel Magnolias" on "A Raisin in the Sun." Can you please say something about working with the same performers on more than one project, as you also did with Brandy on "Cinderella" and "Double Platinum"?
N&C: (Neil) 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. If you look at a lot of our work, we've been fortunate to have a lot of repeat visitors. One of the great joys is being able to have friends who are incredibly talented that enjoy working with one another and it's a wonderful environment to be in and it just spreads throughout the whole production.
(Craig) 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…
(Neil) It's ridiculous how many times we've worked with him.
(Craig) He's been in more of our movies than just about anyone.
(Neil) We've produced several T.V. movies with Barbra Streisand. We've worked together with Whoopi Goldberg on numerous occasions.
GS: That speaks very highly of you guys that people do keep coming back, that's great.
N&C: (Neil) Yeah, they come back. We're very lucky because they're incredibly talented.
GS: Aside from the familiar faces, "Steel Magnolias" also stars two younger actresses, Adepero Oduye and Condola Rashad, Phylicia's daughter. Can you say something about the rewards and challenges of casting young talent?
N&C: (Neil) I think 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 that we wanted to play Shelby. Our passion bled through to everybody. 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. But she auditioned and her audition was so spectacular and special that we knew she needed to be in the movie. So again, it's satisfying to have our starry, incredibly gifted, talented people who can deliver and redefine them as actors, but at the same time it's incredibly satisfying to have the ability to put new people into the mix and introduce them and have them become part of the extended family.
GS: Prior to big screen successes such as "Chicago" and "Hairspray," the majority of your production work, in addition to "Steel Magnolias," was related to TV projects. Would it be fair to say that you have a preference for TV and if so why?
N&C: (Craig) I think that we don't have a preference for anything. I think we made it our goal to work in the theater, because we work on Broadway, and to work on television in T.V. movies, mini-series, series and features. We wanted to be in every single medium, we didn't want to be excluded from any and we are able to go from one to the other. We might produce a feature film then go right to a television show. Then from television we might go into producing a Broadway show – just keep going from medium to medium. The reason for that is that it allows you to flex different muscles. There is no such thing as similarity between making a feature film and a T.V. series. There is no similarity. There is no similarity between producing a Broadway show and producing a T.V. 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, never get tired, never get cynical, never feel like we've done that a million times. It keeps us fresh and it keeps us curious and it keeps us interested.
GS: A number of your projects, including "Serving in Silence," "What Makes a Family," "Wedding Wars," "It's All Relative," and most recently "Smash," to name a few, have dealt with gay subject matter or prominently featured gay characters. How important is that to you as gay men?
N&C: (Neil) 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 necessary and kind of imperative.
(Craig) I think, 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. However, when you do a piece such as "Serving in Silence" or "Wedding Wars" or "What Makes a Family" or "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 and experiencing so much that they're not even aware of that's subconscious. So a lot of it is using the medium of entertainment to make certain points. "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. We decided that would be the best way to approach it because it was so fun and so entertaining and so charming. 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 about why they don't allow gay people to get married."
GS: What is next for both of you, Neil and Craig?
N&C: (Craig) [The 2013] Academy Awards.
(Neil) 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.