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African-American version of ‘Steel Magnolias’ to air on Lifetime

“Steel Magnolias” was originally a play that chronicled the friendship of six Louisiana women who congregate at Truvy’s Beauty Shop to ponder the mysteries of life and death, husbands and children, hair and nails. The 1989 film version, which starred Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine and Daryl Hannah, has become something of a gay camp classic for its catty dialogue interspersed within a tear-jerking plot.

On Oct. 7, Lifetime television airs an updated version of the material, with an African-American cast assuming the iconic roles. I spoke with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, the gay executive producers of the remake. The two were recently named as recipients of the Visionary Award from the Outfest Legacy Project.

Gregg Shapiro: How did the idea of remaking “Steel Magnolias” with an African-American cast come about?

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.

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 in a black town in the South.

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. I think that a lot of the success (of) 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.

CZ: 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, 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.”

In addition to Queen Latifah, you also worked with Phylicia Rashad, who plays Clairee in “Steel Magnolias” on “A Raisin in the Sun.”

NM: 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.

Aside from the familiar faces, “Steel Magnolias” also stars two younger actresses, Adepero Oduye and Condola Rashad, Phylicia’s daughter.

NM: 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.” She’s the only person that we wanted to play Shelby. Adepero, we knew about from “Pariah,” of course. Her audition was so spectacular and special that we knew she needed to be in the movie. … 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.

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. Do you have a preference for TV?

CZ: I think that we don’t have a preference for anything. 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. It allows you to flex different muscles. 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.

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. How important is that to you as gay men?

CZ: 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. “Wedding Wars” is a good example, because we were the first people ever to make a movie about gay marriage. 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.”

What is next for both of you?

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.

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