Queen Latifah is back, infusing Ellie the woolly mammoth with warmth, humor and wisdom in the third and most entertaining Ice Age film so far: Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs and this time the animated movie comes to life in 3-D. All the familiar characters are back: Manny, Ellie, Sid, Diego, Crash and Eddie, as they find themselves embarking on a dangerous adventure in a mysterious and unfamiliar world inhabited by dinosaurs. Ellie and Manny are starting a new family as the enthralling story unfolds.
Queen Latifah is the voice of Ellie, who is pregnant and already has a lot on her mind. But together with Manny and the rest of her unusual family, she finds herself on a risky journey from sub zero temperatures to the sizzling tropical heat of the dinosaur world.
By Elaine Lipworth
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It’s the second time Queen Latifah has played Ellie, the delightful woolly mammoth who is now married to Ray Romano’s Manny, and in this engaging film, the third in the Ice Age series, we find her pregnant. She and her husband Manny are thrilled to be starting a new family. Manny is full of trepidation, while sensible Ellie is taking everything in her stride – at least until trouble begins – trouble which threatens the little close-knit herd and their entire world.
Queen Latifah is an accomplished and immensely popular musician, television and film actress. She is also an author and entrepreneur. Her first film was Jungle Fever. Her many hit movies include Set It Off, The Bone Collector, Bringing Down The House (she was executive producer of that film) Mad Money, Beauty Shop (which she produced), The Last Holiday, Hairspay, The Secret Life Of Bees, Stranger Than Fiction and of course, Ice Age: The Meltdown.
She became the first hip-hop artist to be crowned with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was nominated for an Oscar for her memorable role as Mama Morton in Chicago. In 2007, Queen Latifah released her album Trav’lin Light that led to a Grammy nomination. With her partner, Queen Latifah owns a production company, Flavor Unit Entertainment. She has also written a book on self-esteem, Ladies First: Revelations Of A Strong Woman.
The following interview with the formidably talented entertainer took place in Los Angeles.
What happens to Ellie in this film?
This time Ellie is pregnant which is fun and exciting, and I think it is kind of cool. The characters are entering a new world and there are so many crazy things going on. At the same time, Manny is like an obsessive father to be; he is nervous and crazy. But Ellie seems to be handling everything pretty well. She is as calm as she can be. Of course she is a bit anxious, but she is a strong mammoth.
Do you have a specific technique for bringing Ellie to life?
We humanize the characters and that’s what you have to do to connect with the audience so I just try to be myself and apply myself to the character. Ellie is a sweet, warm, genuine, fun-loving mammoth so those are the aspects and characteristics I bring to her. I’d like to think there is some of me in her.
How true to life is this character do you think?
I think she is pretty realistic. It’s kind of funny because everyone becomes more protective of her, and Manny wants everything to be perfect for the baby. She has been carrying this baby for over a year. That’s quite a while and I think she is more grounded than Manny and just trying to be as calm as possible, doing her best not to make everyone else nervous around her, but of course there is so much going on with all of their unexpected adventures and it is a bit of a challenge.
What is it about this third ICE AGE film that makes it really interesting?
One of the cool things is that in this film we are in a whole new world. There are dinosaurs, which is strange for this group; it’s a warm world, very different from their cold world. There is a new character named Buck, (Simon Pegg) a wild and crazy weasel who helps them navigate their way through the unknown. Of course there are her two ‘brothers,’ the possums, Crash and Eddie, who are still going nuts and being funny and causing trouble. But overall this new world is exciting and strange and they have to figure out how to make their way without getting eaten by a dinosaur.
What specifically sets the ICE AGE films apart?
I really think they are true to life as far as families are concerned. Here is a group of people who wind up becoming a family, yet they are not the typical family with a mom, a dad and two kids. They are one hundred percent a family but they are connected in many different ways, even with different species for that matter, so I think they do reflect real families, moms who have remarried, families with step kids, all different types of families who are not what we think of as normal. That is what makes the films appeal to so many people. Also, I think the animation on the ICE AGE movies is incredible. The color and style is remarkable and they put so much detail into every single frame. Even the hair is realistic and moves like natural hair on an animal; it has body and catches the breeze. Imagine, there is one guy in the animation studio and his job is to make sure the hair looks natural. He works on nothing else for months and months and months. That’s the kind of detail that sets this film apart from other animated movies. It is so cool. The animation is top notch. And this film is 3-D which is fantastic.
They have become hugely popular haven’t they? Does that surprise you?
Yes they have. My nephews literally call me Aunt Ellie. They watched the last movie so many times and they love the characters so much. It doesn’t surprise me because the films are well-written, the stories are good and there is such a good voice cast. Ray Romano’s voice is so great and recognizable; you definitely recognize John Leguizamo; he is just perfect for Sid, and my favorite character in the whole movie is Scrat. He actually has a love interest in this film. You know, when you are feeling lazy or you want to know what determination is all about, all you have to do is look at Scrat. That guy does not give up on trying to get that acorn.
And this time there is a dilemma isn’t there? The girl or the acorn?
You know, doesn’t it always come down to the girl or the acorn? (laughs).
The films are watchable for any age group aren’t they?
They are, I am a big kid so I love watching animated movies and when you watch a lot you can tell the ones that are done really well.
People who work with you comment on how supportive and friendly and compassionate you are – that you have a maternal quality a bit like Ellie. Is it easy for you to relate to your character?
I can totally relate to Ellie. I started my career when I was seventeen. I opened up a management company with my partner when I was nineteen; I spent a lot of time on the road. Sometimes people get sick and you have to take care of them. Their girlfriends aren’t around, their moms aren’t around and you kind of become a surrogate mom. My Mom is like the mom of our whole camp and she is very nurturing, very loving and very compassionate. I drew upon my experiences with my own mom to portray both my character in THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and to portray Ellie in the ICE AGE movies. I injected the very person my mom is into those characters.
It sounds like she has been a massive inspiration to you…
Definitely. She is the biggest inspiration in my life because not only did my mom raise me but she also taught at the high school I attended. She was also like a surrogate Mom, the one everyone went to when they had problems; she was very much there for everyone. She was so nurturing and understanding. If girls had pressures or worries about sex with boys, they would come to my mom. If they were going through an abusive situation at home, they would come and talk to my mom. If they were concerned about pressure they faced to try drugs or drop out of school, they would come to my mom. She was the one person everyone trusted; she was also pretty cool and hip. She knew the hip-hop records; she was the one who knew the good DJs and hired them for the school parties, and she actually introduced me to the guy who became my first producer and the guy who is now my manager. We all met in high school because of my mother. So on top of being a mom and a great person, she was a cool chick.
She must be so proud of you now. Is she?
She is and she really understands me. She’s the one person I can call when everything is going crazy; she will just calm me down. If I become a mom and could be half the mom that she has been, then I’m going to be a great mother.
You record these voices in isolation. When you see the end results, the great chemistry between you and Ray Romano (Manny and Ellie), does it surprise you, how the relationship gels so well on screen?
It is amazing how it all comes together because going through the process can be very lonely and difficult. It’s not very easy to do these films; it’s really really hard work, harder than a live action film where you have the whole cast around you to bounce off of, and you have energy to build on. So it is great to see the final film put together.
Can you elaborate on those challenges involved in making an animated film?
For these films you have to rely on the director and other people in the room who are commenting on the voice. You even have to exercise sometimes because often all you do is pant or scream and you have to do that repeatedly and it can be tiring. I have heard stories about actors who have literally passed out (laughs) during one of these scenes. Often you are pretending that you are running and sometimes people make themselves hyperventilate; it is hilarious. But Carlos helps a lot with everything. He is a fantastic director; he has three little girls himself and is very connected to the characters. He is also pretty good reading the scenes and he gives really good direction.
Carlos has a great enthusiasm for his job and films doesn’t he? He seems so passionate about what he does.
He really is and he is Brazilian as well. This is a Brazilian guy, married with kids. They are very family oriented. At the same time he is a lot of fun and he injects that sense of fun into the characters and into the film.
Is it fun for you and exciting making a film like this?
It’s definitely hard work but as it moves along it becomes more fun because you see it come to life. It is fun when you start to see the visuals, at least for me, because I am a very visual person. I enjoy seeing the scenes go from the rudimentary pencil type cartoons and watching how the film develops with color and movement and animation, and I like getting to watch the scenes and hearing the sound effects and the way they bring these creatures to life. It is amazing. As you start to see all that, it gets more and more exciting. It is a very long process though.
What are your criteria for talking roles at this point in your career?
I always choose a project I can relate to. It has to be a story that really interests me. It could be something I am producing with our company and that is always enjoyable because you can make sure that it is good from A to Z. If it is a studio film, then the cast and director are important but first of all the script has to be good and if it’s not as good as it could be, I have to know that it will get better and that I can give my input. I like to mix up my film projects. I like to do a big comedy and then something more serious that challenges me in a different way. I like to do films that can be geared toward an African American audience too because I want to make sure we are represented and that A List actors are in films being delivered to that audience. And I like to do films that are not so serious. Right after I was nominated for an Oscar, the next film I did was SCARY MOVIE 2. When you are nominated for awards and win prestigious honors, sometimes people can take themselves a little too seriously. Harvey Weinstein came up to me at The Golden Globes and said ‘I’d love you to do SCARY MOVIE 2’ and I said, ‘Let me think about it but you are definitely going to have to pay me well for that one (laughs).’ He said ‘no problem’. Then I talked to the kids of a couple of my friends and I said, ‘Do you think I should do this?’ and they said ‘Yeah’. So for me it is also about kids. They should have the best choice of actors in their movies too, so I like to mix it up and keep it interesting.
What is coming up for you next?
The greatest thing for me is my next album called ‘Persona’, (which comes out at the same time as ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS). It is a mixture of dance, hip-hop and reggae. It is sexy and fun and a really cool album and I am excited about it.
You are so inspiring. Do you see yourself as a role model? Is that a responsibility?
I think the most important thing for me in terms of personal responsibility is to be true to myself and continue to do that at all times. God has blessed me to be in this position and has guided me all along the way. And any time I have done something that wasn’t something I cared about or loved, anytime I found that I had not been true to myself, things have never worked out: the project has always failed, so I have really learned to be true to my heart and my spirit and my personality. I also have to be true to my body, my size; I have to be proud of who I am because there are a lot of people who are looking at me and they do not see a woman who is a size two but a woman who still has confidence. I will tell you a little story that meant a lot to me. I was in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. I was at the airport and the limo driver told me about his 12 year-old daughter who wanted to be a singer and had a beautiful voice but her class mates were teasing her about her body because she wasn’t skinny and they were telling her she was never going to make it. They said ‘you are too fat to be a singer’. And she saw me perform on TV and I inspired her to sing again. She saw me and my appearance and my success and the great job I did. This was a 12 year-old kid whose dream had been halted by negative comments but she saw me out there in my full body, delivering a knockout performance and it made her believe that she could become successful too. And that is something her father couldn’t give to her and her classmates didn’t give to her. I gave it to her and that really meant something to me. I have heard a lot of those kinds of stories and they inspire me to keep going and keep being myself.
How optimistic are you that Hollywood and the world are changing for the better just now?
I absolutely think things have changed and that they are continuing to change. This President, Barack Obama, is a very solid guy who understands a lot of different people and he is all about change and hope. He has a huge job on his hands and he is doing really really well so far. I am optimistic and very excited to have Obama as our President in America; I think America is in a much better position around the world than we used to be. I travel a lot and I have been outside the United States when people in other countries hated America and our last President. I would still fight for our country whether Bush was President or Obama, but it does make a difference to have a President who cares about the rest of the world. He has great standing around the globe. And even though we are going through tough times, here is a President who says, ‘Look, it is going to be tough but we can make it through this’ and we need that kind of consistent hope.