Mary J. Blige is the heart and soul of hip-hop infused R&B. The stylish and dedicated music diva took some time to discuss her role in the new film, ROCK OF AGES, the story of small town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough “Burlesque”) and city boy Drew (Diego Boneta in his feature film debut), who meet on the Sunset Strip while pursuing their Hollywood dreams. “MJB” in the role of “Justice,” owner of a gentlemen’s club, lends a needed hand to Sherrie when her world falls apart.
Always coiffed, “MJB” with every blonde hair in place, rocked a gorgeous pair of red-framed glasses. Wearing jeans, her trademark high heels and hoop earrings, the Yonkers (NY) born, 41-year-old opened up during a conversation at the posh London Hotel off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
There she spoke candidly–
You are comfortable as a recording artist and solo soul singer. What has been your process of transitioning and preparing for the movie world?
MJB: It’s not a transition because I’m not giving up my day job which is singing but it’s an add on– it’s something that I’m attaching to my career. To answer the question, getting an acting coach and preparing for the acting part is a whole new thing. I also loved the coaching aspect of it because it’s therapeutic. As an actor, you have to find this person (your character) –who is she– and you’ve got to dig within yourself to bring her to life. As you’re looking within, you’re finding all this stuff and it needs to come out, especially if the character is depressed or doesn’t trust men…you have to find this person. That aspect was the best part for me, again, it was therapeutic.
Did “Justice” feel familiar to you?
MJB: Yes. The fact that she works in a strip club, first of all, means she has to be strong for all the other women (there) and to be a light in a dark place; to believe in herself regardless of her circumstances. Justice does not let her environment dictate who she is. She’s teaching the same thing to the women by being strong and letting them know that they are better than this; this (type of work) is just a rest stop that hopefully can help you out there in the world.
Adam Shankman of “Hairspray” fame directs “Rock of Ages” from a screenplay by Justin Theroux, Chris D’Arienzo and Allan Loeb, based on D’Arienzo’s musical of the same name. The film’s list of producers is long including Tobey Maguire with Shankman and D’Arienzo serving as executive producers.
Shankman said he thought no further than Blige as Justice. She was reciprocal of his confidence in her abilities and she in his—
MJB: It was so great working with Adam. It was pleasant because he just knows exactly what he wants and he tells you what he wants. He’s just beautiful, he’s he’s fun to be around and he makes us (the cast) feel comfortable. You know, to the point where it (the role) doesn’t intimidate you or to work next to Tom Cruise (the film’s lead as “Stacee Jaxx”) or all the other actors in the movie. He just makes you feel comfortable to do what it is that you do to deliver the character.
He said you were his first choice for this role; did you know that?
MJB: Yes, I mean, he told me at Jennifer Lopez’s housewarming party that he was going to put me in a movie. You don’t pay attention to that because in Hollywood, people just say stuff. But, six months later he showed up with the role, I didn’t even have to audition.
In addition to Blige, Hough, Boneta and Cruise, “Rock of Ages” costars include: Russell Brand (“Arthur,” “Get Him to the Greek”), Oscar® nominee Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”), Academy Award® winner Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Chicago”), Malin Akerman (“The Proposal”) and Oscar® nominee Alec Baldwin (“The Cooler,” TV’s “30 Rock”).
You’ve explained how the coaching aspect of acting has meaning for you. Exploring this character, did you decide that “Justice” had been a stripper before she owned the club and perhaps she was there was to “in a way” serve as a mother to these girls because she knew what that life was like? What back story did you give your character?
MJB: I just decided that she had been destroyed by men– completely destroyed by them and she wanted to gain her power back on some level. Something happened in her childhood with some man that snatched all of her power away and she’s been violated since then; in an environment like the gentlemen’s club, she can gain all her ground back because she’s in control of the money, she’s in control of the men, she’s in control of the girls– that’s how I saw her.
Speaking of childhood influences, what kind of music did you like to listen to early on?
MJB: I was listening to R&B; Anita Baker (recording artist) was everything to me in the 80’s. I listened to Melissa Morgan and Tina Marie…all the women that were out back then; I listened mostly to R&B.
During the years when you were working hard for your big break, what were the thrilling parts of the journey even through the struggle; what were the things that got you excited as you got another step further in the music industry?
MJB: Honestly, it was the fans and loving the music and buying tickets to come to the concerts, buying the albums. Selling some four million or five million albums or even two million or one million– it was that, that keeps you going.
With husband, Kendu Isaacs
With everything that you’ve been through professionally and personally, at what point do you really start to fall in love with yourself and just feel comfortable in your own skin?
MJB: It’s been during the trials that I’ve learned to fall in love with myself– in those hard times, in those times of recovery (drugs and alcohol), in those times where the world is against you. It is during that difficult period that you go through, not because your hair looks nice but I’m talking about going deep inside so you can walk outside with your head up. And that’s not just something from the past, that’s every day, constantly, all day.
The struggle of life in the spotlight is a balancing act that many can’t seem to handle, the good and the bad. What have been the joys of being a famous artist?
MJB: Well, you are constantly having to fight for your identity as a female artist; everyone is not happy for you and there are those who just say ‘yes’ to everything. When there are people around you that just say ‘yes,’ it can really be bad for you. No one is telling you the truth. I’ve learned to be more confident so I make better ‘people choices’ in my surroundings. If you’re not confident you are going to lean on those people that are lying to you. If you are confident, you can tell those types, ‘you’re lying, get out of here.’ I know who I am and what I want. I thank God that that part of my life is gone. I wish I had had more parental guidance back then, I wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble. I would tell any of you mothers and daughters, if she’s 19 and getting into the music business, please go with her because it’s hard out there.
Clearly, this film is a showcase of the intensity and frenzy in a rock star’s life. Along with this reflection, the look of the film is tastefully retro and the soundtrack is awesome. Rounding out the “Rock of Ages” creative team are director of photography Bojan Bazelli (“Hairspray”), production designer Jon Hutman (“It’s Complicated”), editor Emma E. Hickox (“A Walk To Remember”), Oscar®-nominated costume designer Rita Ryack (“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Hairspray”), Grammy-nominated music supervisor Matt Sullivan (“Dreamgirls,” “Nine”), and Emmy Award-winning choreographer Mia Michaels (“So You Think You Can Dance”). The original score is by executive music producer Adam Anders and Peer Astrom (TV’s “Glee”).
Are there elements of this film you kind of identify with in some ways?
Do you still party like a rock star?
MJB: Not like I used to. I’ve had my ‘party like a rock star’ years but I still have fun though.
What does that mean today?
MJB: That means my girlfriends we go to dinner, we laugh, we have drinks, we go to bed and go to work the next day. Like there’s no more hanging out until 7:00 in the morning and doing it again. The body just can’t take it.
Blige is celebrated for uplifting women through song. Asked to share lyrics of future songs that follow in that tradition, she holds such intelligence close to vest but did say, “Let me just tell you this because it’s weird that you’re asking me, the timing of your question and all. Instead of getting angry about what life is doing to you, what trial you’re in or what someone has done to hurt you, it’s when we get muscle, spiritual muscle that we get stronger. When we’re in those trials you learn to gather up enough strength to say ‘thank you,’ for everything. That’s really hard to say when people have hurt you, but when you come out, you can say, ‘thanks for that.’”
You’ve successfully maintained 20 years in music. How did you do it? What is the secret?
MJB: Well it’s called God. I’m serious. I would be dead, I would be finished if I didn’t know Him, if I didn’t pray, if I didn’t believe that there was something better than human beings in this universe, something good, that’s really it.
With “Rock of Ages” leading man, Tom Cruise
At this point in your career, what validates the work for you? Is it what critics say, the fans’ reaction, or do you just know, instinctively?
MJB: What people say doesn’t matter. If it’s something helpful, I’ll pay attention. I only pay attention to the positive things. There are so many negative things out and much of it is so horrible; if you pay attention to it, you will end up running around looking for those people (the one’s who’ve said it). Or just feeling terrible about yourself. You just can’t pay attention to the negative, you’ve got to pay attention to the fans that are out there saying, ‘we love you, keep doing what you’re doing, you saved my life… this and that.’ You just can’t listen to the negative.
What is your advice on having a successful relationship in this business?
MJB: Just be real with people. Whatever it is, you’ve got to keep some things for yourself. You have to be careful, I don’t care who it is, you’ve just got to know who you can talk to. It could be your own mom, you love her to death, but you’ve just got to know where to put people. She’s in this bracket, he’s in this bracket, can’t tell her that, can’t tell him that, ok, I can talk to her…that’s how you maintain friendships.
MARY J. BLIGE has been an empowering presence ever since her 1992 mutli-platinum debut album, What’s the 411? And, in the ensuing years, the singer/songwriter’s music has attracted an intensely loyal fan base responsible for propelling worldwide sales of more than 50 million albums.
With a track record of eight multi-platinum albums, nine Grammy Awards (plus a staggering 29 nominations), a 2012 Golden Globe Award nomination, and four American Music Awards, Blige most recently returned for her tenth studio album, the aptly titled My Life II… The Journey Continues (Act 1), a sequel to her 1994 classic, My Life. My Life II… debuted at number five on the Billboard 200, and received critical acclaim. Providing the album’s cornerstone, the song “The Living Proof” is also featured on the soundtrack from the award-winning film “The Help,” and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song – Motion Picture.
On Blige’s current up-tempo chart-climber from the album, “Mr. Wrong,” she goes toe-to-toe with Drake; My Life II… also features guest turns from such artists as Nas, Busta Rhymes and Rick Ross, and a first-time paring with Beyoncé on the diva-licious “Love a Woman.” To help map out her Life journey, Blige collaborated with such intuitive producers as Jim Jonsin, Rico Love, Jerry “Wonda” Duplessis, Danja, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Sean Garrett, Tricky Stewart and the Underdogs.
Born in the Bronx, New York, Blige began moving people with her soulful voice when, at 18, she signed with Andrew Harrell’s Uptown Records in 1989, becoming the MCA-distributed label’s youngest and first female artist. Influenced at an early age by the music of Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight, Blige brought her own gritty, urban-rooted style—fusing hip-hop, soul and honest, frank lyrics—to the forefront on her 1992 debut album,What’s the 411? The multi-platinum set, executive produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs, quickly spun off several hits, including two R&B number ones: “You Remind Me” and “Real Love.”
Earning the nickname the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Blige began forging a unique niche for herself on her more personal second album, 1994’s My Life. Co-writing a major portion of the album this time around, Blige reaped such hits and signature songs as “Be Happy” and a cover of Rose Royce’s 1976 hit “I’m Goin’ Down.” At the time, she was dealing with several serious issues in her life, including drug addiction, alcoholism and an abusive relationship.
Each subsequent album plays like a chapter from an autobiography: Share My World (1997),Mary (1999), No More Drama (2001), Love & Life (2003), the multiple Grammy-winning and hit-spewing The Breakthrough (2005), Growing Pains (2007) and Stronger with Each Tear (2009). Along the way, she’s lined up a string of hit singles, including “Not Gon’ Cry,” “Love Is All We Need,” “Seven Days,” “All That I Can Say,” “Family Affair” and “Just Fine.”
Music isn’t the only thing keeping Blige busy. Flexing her talents as an entrepreneur, Blige launched her Melody line of sunglasses in 2009. In 2010, her “My Life” perfume became the first to sell more than 60,000 bottles in one day on the Home Shopping Network. A second perfume, “My Life Blossom,” was introduced in summer 2011.
Blige co-penned “I Can See in Color” for 2009’s “Precious” soundtrack, the movie that earned as Oscar for actor/comedienne/talk show host, Mo’Nique.