Found on BlackVoices.com on 25 March 2009
Jill Scott talks about the new series, getting the role and … learning Southern African languages!
Who knew that when she won appraised for her performance in Tyler Perry’s ‘Why Did I Get Married?’ that she would follow that up by working with an Oscar winning director? On Sunday, March 29, Jill Scott will be playing the role of Precious Ramotswe in ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,’ when the series premieres on HBO. The pilot episode was directed by the late Anthony Minghella (‘The English Patient’). Based on a series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, Scott plays a Botswanan woman who starts up the country’s first female-owned detective agency. Within the series, she is paired with a cast of talented actors, including Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose, Idris Elba, Colin Salmon, David Oyelowo, and Lucien Msamati. Taking the role was not as easy it seems. On route to Africa to shoot the series, the Grammy award singer learned she was pregnant. This came as a shock to her considering she had been told previously by her doctors that bearing children wasn’t in the cards. With her first child, with partner and drummer Lil’ John Roberts , due next month and with a blazing singing and film career, life is full of roses for the Philadelphia native.
In speaking with Black Voices, Ms. Scott talks about getting the role, working with the director Anthony Minghella, who died before the film had its BBC premiere last year, and working with Tyler Perry on the sequel to ‘Why Did I Get Married?’
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
How did the project come about for you?
Jill Scott: Well, I had heard through the grapevine. My agent called me and told me that Anthony Minghella was auditioning for a role; and I am a huge, huge fan of his work. I had seen ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and thought that was amazing. The acting was fantastic and I knew the director had to be the bomb based on what he pulled out of those actors. I was told about the audition and I went and auditioned once by video. I went back to audition in New York by video. Then I got a call a couple of days later saying that Anthony Minghella flying in from London to Philadelphia to meet me, which was a huge deal. He came and we auditioned for about five hours. Every time I saw him after that, I think I auditioned two more times and it was five hours each time. He had been looking for his Precious Ramotswe for two years at this time.
Did you do anything special to help nail the part?
Jill Scott: No. I wish I could have thought of something to do, but I just did whatever he had asked me to do; like play the character with a cold or play the character with one leg. I’m a director’s actor in my opinion and when a director does their part, it thrills me to have that kind of guidance. I love it.
On your way to Botswana you get the news of your pregnancy. How did that work out?
Jill Scott: Well, it stopped things for a moment absolutely. I was told I was pregnant on Friday, and I was supposed to be leaving that day at noon. I found out at 10 a.m. It sort of throws you for a huge loop, especially since I was told could never be pregnant. This was a shock; a complete and utter shock to me. I just had to hold things for a day. I called my doctors and of course, I called my family to let everyone know and to find out if it was okay to travel for that long distance during my first trimester of pregnancy. I wanted to know that I was all right because I hadn’t had any shots. What were the possibilities? I wanted to know them all. Once I got the go-ahead from my doctors, I left the following day.
How was filming in Botswana?
Jill Scott: It was a challenge this time. The first time we shot there was in the summer of 2007. Our summer is their winter. When we got off the plane, we were surprised to find out how cold it was. You needed hats, scarves, gloves and all of that. It was cold. Nobody told me that Africa could be cold. I had no clue. This time around we went in our fall which is their summer and it was the exact opposite. It was 110, 112, 115 degrees for no reason; just because it’s Wednesday or Thursday. That was a challenge. Being pregnant and the heat were very difficult for me; but I had great doctors around me. The crew really paid attention. They didn’t seem to mind it so much. There was a deadline and I’m the lead. As far as I know, I’m the first African American woman to be the lead of an HBO series, so there was a lot of pressure to get the job done, even between morning sickness.
Had you read the books after you did the pilot episode?
Jill Scott: No, I read the books before I left for Botswana. Once I went out for the role, by the third audition is when I had all the books. I was busy touring and I had finished shooting ‘Why Did I Get Married?’ I didn’t know anything about the books. They just sent me the sides and told me to focus on them. I found out it was a series of books and decided to be fully aware of what’s going on here. Once I read the books, I thought this character is so sweet and so powerful and so endearing, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Did you get a chance to talk with the author Alexander McCall Smith about the character he created?
Jill Scott: Quite frankly, he stayed out of the way. Being a writer myself, something you have that urge to direct, but he had full faith in Anthony and in the production itself. When he met me, I remember him saying, ‘Oh my God, Precious, it’s really you. You’re exactly what I thought you would be.’ That was a wonderful feeling. It also made Anthony very happy as well.
Is there anything that you and Precious have in common?
Jill Scott: She’s more like my mother. Growing up in Philadelphia, my mother is very active in the community. If there was any kind of drama or trouble, my mother was in the thick of it, trying to make sure everybody was okay. If there was someone who was ill, my mother would try to take care of them. In the community, if someone was hungry, she would feed them. She’s very much like my mom.
Was it a challenge learning the South African language?
Jill Scott: Absolutely. People talk about speaking Japanese and how tough it is to learn and it’s also difficult to sing in that language, but Botswana is really hard. It’s not spelled the way that it sounds. Just to learn the alphabet is a challenge. The language is very difficult and it’s very precise. In English or Spanish, if you pronounce a word incorrectly, you can get away with it, but in Botswana, there is no leeway. You have to get it right.
How was working with Anika Noni Rose?
Jill Scott: That was cool. She really embodied that character. When we got there, Anika and myself, and Lucien (Msamati), who Mr. JLB Matekoni, proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, we all had these ideas of what our characters were supposed to be like. Anthony (Minghella) completely flipped the script on us. I think it was because once we got to Botswana, you really get an opportunity to see the people and feel the energy and to get to know the country. Before that, we did everything by phone. We had studied with dialect coaches an hour a day for two months by phone. You don’t hear it all the time and so that changes things. You don’t see the clothing and how people behave until you get there. Once there, we had to revamp our characters and the dialect as well. We learned the wrong dialect. They were teaching us a Zimbabwe accent.
Since you’re the only who has a scene with all the men so far in the pilot and in the series, how was working with Idris (Elba), Colin (Salmon) and David Oyelowo and the rest of the guys?
Jill Scott: Fantastic. I enjoyed working with Idris so much on many levels. This is a person who is music lover and we got along in that aspect. He’s just a cool cat to be around. He likes to work fast and I’m not mad at that. That was cool. Colin is a great guy. Fantastic actor. He plays his part well. Overall, I enjoyed working with everyone, honestly. Lucien (Msamati) is a dear sweet man. He’s a wonderful Shakespearian actor and very popular in theater in London. That made me feel good working with him. There’s so much more to come. Patterson plays a terrible man in the series. He’s my arch nemesis. The casting was really well done. Also, working with John Kani was amazing. Sitting down with him and talking with him is an eye opener.
What did you learn from Anthony (Minghella) as a director?
Jill Scott: A lot. I’m glad I started with Tyler Perry. I’m glad I started with Anthony doing a bigger film. What I got from Tyler is a work ethic. What I got from Anthony is sort of a spirit ethic. When you come on the set, you acknowledge everyone. Not that I wouldn’t, but to see this Oscar award winning director and he is so respected and so nice. He’s immensely kind to others, it just lets you know for certain, that you can kind and that you don’t have to be rough around the edges and that you don’t have to yell and bark and all that other stuff. I have seen this behavior with directors in theater and in television as well. Being around him, I loved that he came prepared everyday. He knew exactly what he wanted to get from us. He made no bones about what he wanted to see and he didn’t leave until he got what he wanted. At that point, all I wanted to do, as an actress, is give him what he wanted, immediately. He would later say to me, ‘You are a proper actress.’ That’s one of the best compliments I received as an actress.
Tyler recently said that he’s looking to do a follow-up to ‘Why Did I Get Married?’ and if so, would you come back and where do you see your character in the sequel?
Jill Scott: I would love to come to the role. I’m eight months pregnant right now so I would love for my character to either be pregnant or want to have a child. There are a lot of difficulties with people trying to conceive. I would like to see that topic addressed. I would love for my character to have baggage from her last marriage; even though she has a good man. I have this philosophy that if you have had someone bad in your life, the hardest thing in life is to be with a good one. Those topics would be interesting to me.
Do you have a name picked out for your baby?
Jill Scott: I do, but I’m going to wait til I see his face.
So on Sunday March 29, why should anyone watch ‘The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?’
Jill Scott: Because I’m in it. It’s a sweet film and it would nice to watch something with your children and your grandma. We don’t have television like that anymore. Everything is either really sexual or really violent; and the language is vulgar on some cable channels. It leaves very little for a family to watch together. There is also a stereotype of what Africa is and how African people and I think the series will broaden their horizons and minds about this fantastic continent and one particular country. This will blow the minds of those who think of Africa from the poverty they see on TV and the dialect they hear. It’s so far from the truth, it’s not even funny. Not funny at all.
Update: Found on Tampabay.com on 28 March 2009
‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ author Alexander McCall Smith says HBO series captures magic of Botswana
By Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor
In Print: Sunday, March 29, 2009
Author Alexander McCall Smith praised Scott’s success in picking up the African language of Setswana.
“Most authors seem to moan about their books being made into films, but I’ve been very lucky,” says Alexander McCall Smith.
Legions of fans will get to make their own judgment when The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the series based on McCall Smith’s internationally popular series of books about Botswanan sleuth Precious Ramotswe, premieres tonight on HBO.
“They’ve done a gorgeous job,” McCall Smith says. “They were very respectful of the ethos of the books. And with Botswana itself, they’ve done a lovely job. They’ve done us proud.”
The series’ two-hour first episode is the first feature-length film made entirely in Botswana, a place dear to McCall Smith, 60. His family is Scottish, but he was born in what is now Zimbabwe, the nation just to the north of Botswana in southern Africa. He has spent much time in Botswana over the years (he helped establish its first law school in the 1980s), and the No. 1 Ladies’ books have made the country and its people familiar and endearing to countless readers who otherwise might know nothing about them.
Fans know that one of the great charms of the books is their voice. “In Botswana they speak English very well,” McCall Smith says. “It’s common for them to switch between English and Setswana (the native language), and I’ve tried in the books to capture the cadences of African English. It’s very correct. There’s a slight air of formality, compared to how English is spoken in other countries, that I think is very attractive.”
McCall Smith says the series captures that well. He is particularly impressed with the performances of Jill Scott as Mma Ramotswe and Anika Noni Rose as her somewhat peculiar secretary, Mma Makutsi.
(That “Mma”? It’s a Setswana honorific for women, the equivalent of “Madam,” pronounced “mah,” with a slight hesitation on the “m.” Men are addressed as “Rra,” pronounced “rar.”)
Scott, a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, and Rose, who won a best featured actress Tony for Caroline, or Change, are African-American, and neither had been to Africa before.
“They did actually very well with the body language and with the accent. It’s very difficult to do credibly.” McCall Smith says Scott even impressed his Botswanan friends in a few scenes in which she speaks Setswana. “The dialect coach told me she has a very, very good ear, which you would expect from a musician.”
Playing Mma Ramotswe is a demanding task. Not only is she a smart, strong, independent, big-hearted woman, she has devoted fans all over the world — the books have sold 15 million copies in English and been translated into dozens of other languages. “I’ve just been to Australia” on book tour, McCall Smith says, “and the books have a big following in India. I’ve just spent a week at the big book fair there.”
Although they are mysteries, the novels don’t dwell on violence, instead focusing on human foibles and flaws that Mma Ramotswe sets straight with gentle wisdom and wry humor. Even their titles are charming, such as Morality for Beautiful Girls, Blue Shoes and Happiness and, coming in April, the 10th in the series: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built (that last phrase being Mma Ramotswe’s dignified way of describing her frame).
For many Americans, the only common images of sub-Saharan Africa are those in the news: war, disaster, famine and strife. The Botswana in McCall Smith’s books, and in the series, is warmly beautiful and boasts a rich traditional culture. “It’s not something I had set out to do, to write a contrary vision of Africa,” he says. “But in retrospect, yes, it’s what I’m in effect doing.”
Media coverage of problems there is necessary, he says, but can produce a one-sided picture. “Just like everyplace else, there are many people leading very good lives and doing a very good job of it. I think the film captures that generosity of spirit and dignity.”
He says he loves to hear from fans who have been inspired by his books to travel to Botswana and come back as fond of the place and people as he is. Tourism is vitally important to Botswana with the collapse of the diamond market, a major industry there. “They are suffering greatly, so when I hear from people who visit, it just makes me feel warm inside.”
The No.1 Ladies’ books are hardly McCall Smith’s only project. Asked how many books he has written, he says, “I think it’s about 60. I haven’t counted recently. I know that sounds like an affectation, but it’s true.”
He has indeed written more than 60, including three other fiction series in addition to No. 1 Ladies’, a shelf’s worth of children’s books and a dozen legal texts. McCall Smith retired as emeritus professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has worked with many organizations as an expert on bioethics and medical law.
He and his wife have two daughters and live in Edinburgh in the same neighborhood as another bestselling mystery author, Ian Rankin, and Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling.
McCall Smith writes several books a year, and last year wrote an online serialized novel, Corduroy Mansions, published on the London Daily Telegraph‘s Web site five days a week, a chapter a day — with instant feedback from readers.
“It was great fun,” he says. “It meant I could respond to readers’ suggestions, and I did. They had lots of suggestions about characters they wanted to see more of and so forth. Quite interesting. I’ll probably be doing another.”
When he’s not writing, McCall Smith and his wife are enthusiastic participants in something called the Really Terrible Orchestra, which they founded about 10 years ago. “It’s for people who really can’t play an instrument at all well.” The orchestra has about 55 members, and there are three offshoots in U.S. cities.
“We have a concert in New York, at Town Hall no less, coming up April 1,” he says. “We make the most dreadful sound, but people love it.
“I’ll be playing the euphonium. Very badly.”
Once he has wrapped up touring for the HBO series, he’ll take a few days off and then hit the road for Tea Time for the Traditionally Built. Its title refers to one of Mma Ramotswe’s favorite rituals, her endless cups of redbush tea.
When McCall Smith began writing the books, bush tea was little known outside of Africa. Now you can buy redbush tea, also called rooibos, at many U.S. grocery stores. Is it the power of Precious?
“Bush tea was very much a minority taste,” McCall Smith says. “But Mma Ramotswe has succeeded in persuading people to drink it.”
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.