Bed, B’day & Beyonce:
Miss Knowles Tells Us How It Feels
by Tony Phillips
“I went to private school,” Beyonce corrects, “Deena’s the one who grew up in the projects.” It’s a mistake many people make when talking about her latest role, that of Detroit striver Deena Jones, the girl who makes her way to the top any which way she can in this season’s hot new movie musical Dreamgirls. And though there are similarities between her and her character, Beyonce would rather point out the differences.
First of all, Deena is no Beyonce and Beyonce understood that long before she was cast. “I knew that she was not the underdog,” she says of her character, “I knew that she didn't sing ‘And I Am Telling You’ and I knew Deena wasn't the lead. It's not about her life, but I didn't care about that because I don't have to prove that I can sing. I have nine Grammys. And I don't have to prove that I'm a star because I already am.” Got that? Good, because her latest solo release B’day just netted her another five whacks with the Grammy stick.
So what does Beyonce have left to prove at this point? “I wanted to prove that I can act,” she admits. And after exploring gold members and pink panthers she’s finally back in black with 60’s girl group The Dreams. “This part was incredible because it has the biggest range,” she continues, “and it's the least like me. I'm way more powerful than this character and way stronger and in control, so it was a challenge for me and exciting to show myself in a different light.”
In fact, if there’s a character in this piece that she does relate to, it’s the evil music industry honcho Curtis, who essentially engineers the group and then sits back as they bring about his demise. Some say Motown head Berry Gordy, others say generic music industry creep. Beyonce admits, “I am my own Curtis.” But Curtis is the bad guy! “He’s in control of everything,” she corrects, “and so am I.”
She takes a moment to see if this comparison is too odious, but then nods, forging ahead. “I write my own songs,” she says, “the whole nine. I’m the lead singer because of my talent. And now all the top artists are trying to be like the R&B artists. Now, the more soulful you are the better as opposed to the more controlled you are. It's a different time.”
”I started out in a group and I became a solo artist,” Beyonce continues, but then she allows one parallel between herself and Deena, “my drive and Deena's are very similar, but it really stops there.” She plucks out an appearance on television’s Star Search when she was nine-years-old to illustrate the difference. “When I lost on Star Search,” she remembers, “I went back to my house with my family. When Deena lost, Deena went back to the projects. So her desire and passion for success was different.”
Just how different? “I didn't play this part like it was me,” she insists, “I'm nowhere on that screen, which is why I wanted to lose 20 pounds. I wanted to lose every trace of what I'm known for, and it’s why I worked so hard with an acting coach. When I did the songs, I didn't treat them like performances. The singing was a piece of cake. Learning the choreography, piece of cake. The hard thing was, because I didn't have my voice to depend on, I had to do something else. I had to go through and make sure Deena had pain behind her eyes and even though she had the lashes and the glamour, there was something deeper there.”
Still, during her first couple minutes of screen time, you might not even recognize her. Certainly those caterpillar eyebrows and backwards wig are a million miles away from B’day’s blonde, bronzed and boobed covershot. “I went and found the ugliest wig and ugliest dress I could find,” she laughs, “that was really fun.”
And if all you Beyonce fans are freaking right about now, settle down. She does get the opportunity to raise the rafters with her 11 o’clock number “Listen” and it’s a show-stopper right up there with Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You” moment. But unlike that song, “Listen” was written expressly for the film, which means if anyone is going to be performing on Oscar night, it will be Miss Knowles.
“But I also filled up my mind with all of these painful things to keep her interesting,” Beyonce continues, undeterred by the Oscar talk, “I didn't have a lot lines, and that's fine, but I had to say a lot without saying anything. And that was really hard. For instance, when Jennifer Hudson finds out she's not going to be the lead singer, I say maybe four words.”
Beyonce then continues about that integral scene preceding Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You” rant, “I have to show without saying anything that I'm completely sad for my friend who I love, a little bit happy and excited because I want to be a star and confused and angry because I didn’t know. I had to do all of these things all in an expression. Because everything I did was very small, it was a lot of work.”
But if Beyonce Knowles is an object lesson in anything, it’s that the old axiom hard work pays off rings true. And though she’s careful to point out the differences between herself and her character, the one thing they have in common lies in that musical answer Deena posits to the question tell us, Miss Jones, how does it feel? And for that question, just like in the musical, Beyonce can’t help but breaking out into song. “Won-der-ful,” she sings, “what can I say but wonderful?”