Anika Noni Rose made history by becoming the first African-American Disney princess, Tiana, in “The Princess and the Frog.” Now, she takes a look back at a real-life moment in American history and helps to celebrate the 50th anniversary of events in the Civil Rights movement with her starring role as Wilona Watson in the Hallmark Channel’s “The Watsons Go to Birmingham.”
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Adapted from Paul Curtis’ eponymous book, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” is the story of an all-American family who take a road trip from their home in Flint, MI, to visit grandma (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) in Birminghanm, AL, in 1963, where they become involved in some very unexpected and near-tragic events that help them grow stronger as a family.
xfinityTV spoke to Rose about the importance of revisiting the Civil Rights era with the movie, her awareness of the time period, the advice she feels helped her achieve success, and why it was important to have an African-American Disney princess.
You’re too young to remember this time period, but did your parents tell you any stories about the marches?
Oh absolutely, absolutely. My mother marched in Tallahassee, FL, and I was very aware of that as a kid. Plus it was: Make sure the eye’s on the prize every February [which is Black History Month]. You’d also get that aspect, which was so much more visceral, because it was videotaped. So, I was very aware. I wasn’t aware in a frightening way. I was just aware in the ‘This is a part of our history as Americans’ [way]. This is part of America’s growing pains.
Why do you think “The Watsons” is an important movie? Why is it important to retell this story?
I think it’s important to remember our history and, when I say our history, I mean Americans as a whole. I think it’s very easy to gloss over things and feel like, ‘Oh, we’re in such a better place now.’ We are in a better place now, but I think that if you always gloss over things, you forget. I think it’s a very dangerous thing to forget because then it allows us the space to repeat.
I think, more importantly, this story shows a family that loves each other. I think that in this moment, where so many other crazy things are happening in our world, it is so important to focus on love and family, whether that family be your family by blood or DNA, or the family that has chosen you, or you have chosen, or you have made. It is something that I think that we could all use a little time focusing on.
Watch the Trailer for “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” Below:
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Speaking of glossing over, your character seemed afraid to let her children participate in the Equal Rights Movement, but yet she took them to Birmingham to experience the prejudice in the South. She didn’t take them for that reason, but by virtue of taking them, that happened. How do you explain that contradiction?
Well, that’s where my character’s mother lived, and I needed to have my children see their grandmother, and I needed to have my children know what was happening in the world so that they could know what other people were going through, so that they could be appreciative of their own lives, and so that they aren’t clueless. But that doesn’t take away the fear of sending your child out into a world that is not necessarily welcoming.
What do you hope people take away from “The Watsons?”
I hope that they take away the necessity to love each other, to support each other, and, I think, that the central core of the movie is the deep, deep, abiding love that this mother has for her children. She loves them so much and she sees a need that they have to know what’s happening in the world and to know their extended family — their grandmother — and what those people are going through. She loves them enough to take them somewhere, where it is not safe or easy, so that they will not miss the core of strength that they need to step forward in the world. That’s a very deep and frightening type of love. More people need to love that blindly, not even blindly, but that strongly.
What and who inspired you to become an actress and why?
I don’t know why. (Laughing) I really don’t know, and, if I had had good sense, I probably would have chosen something else. I did a musical my freshman year in high school, and the only reason I did it was because my mother had the soundtrack at home, and I was like, ‘Oh, I know that music.’
You’re a kid, I was 13, so I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to try out,’ not thinking about whether or not I was good, or was going to be great at it, or that this was going to be a life choice. What I found out on stage was that I had never felt anything like that before and that was it for me. That was when I knew this is what I wanted to do. At the time, I really wanted to be a recording artist as well, and that has not changed, but that’s also when the acting bug really bit.
Who gave you important advice as a young person that’s helped shaped who you are and what you’re doing, either personal or professional?
I’d have to say my grandmother. My family was always supportive of whatever it was that I wanted to do so I feel very lucky in that. My grandmother said to me clearly, “Anika, whatever you want to do remember: ‘If it’s to be, it’s up to me,’ meaning nobody can stop you from doing what you want to do when you put your mind to it and you put your heart into it. I believe that.
What are your inspirations these days and why? What makes you want to get up in the morning?
Right now, I’m doing a job that I really love.
What are you working on?
I’m working on “A Day Late and a Dollar Short,” based on the Terry McMillan novel. We’re filming in Toronto and having a ball. Sometimes it’s something as simple as last night I was reveling in the moon. It made me so happy. Of course, there are days where it’s not fun and not good and that’s just life in general, but I have some nephews who give me quite a bit of joy. I have good friends. I love to eat and enjoy good food. Day by day, that’s a different answer.
Is there an important lesson you learned from some of the previous projects you’ve done?
I think the most important thing in my business is to be professional. Do your job, be professional. It’s not a popularity contest when you’re at work. Coming to work, being pleasant, and doing what it is that you’re supposed to do, which, ultimately, at the end of the day is not much when you think about it. There’s no need to have tantrums.
Just no need for any of that because, generally, if you conduct yourself the way that you need to conduct yourself, you find that things will fall into place. There are rare occasions where people are not on their game and it affects you, but ultimately at the end of the day, the way you conduct yourself is the barometer by which you will be treated.
I think that’s true for any job that you have. I don’t think it’s just about acting.
What advice would you give others wanting to follow in your footsteps?
I would tell them to stay in school. I would tell them to read as much as possible, so that the places where you can’t journey physically are familiar, and train themselves. For some people that means going to a conservatory. For some people that means doing theater in their area as much as possible. It means doing film when they can, and keeping themselves open and aware. But I always say to train yourself as much as possible so you’re not jumping into something without a core, a base from which to step.
Also, I think it’s really important to have people around you who you love and trust, who don’t care whether you’re visibly successful or not, that you can call up and say, ‘Oh, my God. I feel awful, or let’s go walk on the beach.’ We lost a young man [Lee Thompson Young], who was on “Rizzoli & Isles,” and he was 29 and committed suicide. Why didn’t he feel like he had someone that he could call to say, ‘I can’t take it today?’
That breaks my heart. This business that I’m in is not a coddling and kind business. It looks like it when you’re looking at celebrities with five of their favorite color M&Ms in their dressing rooms, but the fact that they feel a need to call for that is a cover for some other issue. It’s not a kind business; it’s not a soft business. It’s really important to know people outside of the business that you can spend a normal day with, and to have friends within the business that can understand when you say, ‘My heart is broken.’
In addition to starring in “The Watsons Go to Birmingham,” which is about a historical event, you, yourself, have made history. You were the first Disney African-American princess, in addition to which, you became a Disney Legend. Can you talk about the impact that has had on your life? Is it something that you’re really proud of?
Yes. (Laughing) I’m really proud of it, but more importantly, it just gives me such joy to see all the children that it effects. The little people who walk up to me wide-eyed and amazed and excited, or to determine that it’s not me because they’re three and I don’t look like a cartoon. (Laughing) Both of those things give me great joy, but I know that that will be there forever.
Although, it was always a dream of mine to be a Disney voice, the bigger picture is the amount of children, who feel like they are princesses and their friends are princesses because of Tiana. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Which actually takes us back to a scene in the movie, where the church lady comes by and gives your daughter the Caucasian angel doll. When she says, “It reminded me of you,” your daughter answers, “It doesn’t look like me.” Now there’s a Disney princess doll that looks like these girls.
Yes. Yes. It doesn’t seem like a big deal unless you haven’t had that and, even some people who didn’t know that they were missing that were so moved to see their children have that. It’s important for children to see their faces reflected in the world regardless of what they look like, whether they’re redheads, Asians, brown, black, or beige. There needs to be a reflection for them so that they don’t feel solitary.
“The Watsons Go to Birmingham” premieres on Sept. 20 at 8/7c on the Hallmark Channel.