​Queen Latifah on playing "Bessie"

In a new HBO movie the hip hop artist and actress recreates the life of the "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith.

CBS News

In her latest role, Queen Latifah adopts the persona of a 20th century legend. Our Mark Strassmann met up with her for some Questions-and-Answers:

At 45, Queen Latifah is playing a part she was first offered when she was 22.

When she first got the script, she told Strassmann, "I didn't know who Bessie Smith was. I had to go do some homework. And I did. When I listened to her music, I was initially intimidated."

But Latifah has evolved as a performer over two decades, from hip hop artist and producer, to movie star in films like "Jungle Fever" and "The Secret Life of Bees."

She also lived a lot along the way -- enough to understand, now, who Bessie Smith really was.

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Queen Latifah with correspondent Mark Strassmann, during production of the new film about blues singer Bessie Smith.
CBS News

"She had so much power," she said. "Power in her fist. Power in her heart. Power in her body, her soul."

"I do admire her. I mean, I relate to her in a lot of ways. I've lived her life in a lot of ways."

PLAYLIST: Hear selected tracks performed by legendary blues vocalist Bessie Smith by clicking on the player below. "Bessie" debuts on HBO May 16th.

Bessie Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and '30s. She starred in vaudeville, then signed with Columbia Records in 1923. She was highest-paid black performer of her day.

But her marriage was stormy. She battled the bottle. She had affairs with both men and women.

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Queen Latifah in "Bessie."
HBO

In 1937, Smith died after a car accident. She was 43. But you hear her lasting influence in performers like Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin.

"I wish I was there to just see one of her shows, to be way in the back and just have a little ticket into that audience and just watch her just blow this place out," said Latifah.

"What emotions do you hear in Bessie Smith's voice?" asked Strassmann.

"I hear pain," she said. "I hear love. I hear sadness. I hear, f*** it, irreverence. Excuse my language! But that's really what I hear, is really devil-may-care. I hear a rough day. I hear a good day, you know. I can hear when she probably had a good night the night before."

"If there's a fine line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, you hear 'em both?"

"Most of the time, yeah, I hear all those things!" Latifah laughed.

Shakim Compere has been Latifah's business partner from Day One. They met during high school in Irvington, New Jersey. Compere says, like Bessie, Latifah has always been tough.


"She was a guy's girl, right?" said Compere. "She was the girl that demanded respect from the men -- and men liked that. She didn't let you get away with anything. I mean, she was one woman hanging out with, like, ten guys."

And nobody messed with her.

As performers, both Latifah and Bessie had to stand their ground.

"You know, I hit racist stuff," said Latifah. "It was almost ridiculous. I felt like I had to be a spokesperson for black people. We had a show, and we stayed at this hotel. And, you know, we went to swim in the hotel. And my DJ got in the pool. And this woman got out the pool. It just wasn't happening, you know? She wasn't getting in the pool with a black man."