When Bessie premieres on HBO this Saturday night, viewers will see a bisexual protagonist with a girlfriend, a husband and a boyfriend at its center. Queen Latifah stars as the queer blues singer, and Tika Sumpter (The Haves and the Have Nots) plays Lucille, Bessie’s long-time girlfriend.
photos by Frank Masi/HBO
In the film written and directed by out filmmaker Dee Rees (Pariah), Bessie and Lucille are just as romantic and sexual with one another as Bessie is with her male companions, although it’s made clear that to have ultimate power and success, Bessie feels like she needs to commit to a family with a man at the center and not to another woman.
Tika Sumpter plays Lucille as a quiet temptress who wants nothing more than to please her lover, and shares her without jealousy or rage. Although things don’t work out for the two of them to be together forever, Lucille’s appreciation for Bessie the person and not Bessie the star makes her the most honest and loving person in Bessie’s life.
We spoke with Tika about her role in the film and why she was dying to be a part of it after reading the script.
AfterEllen.com: So you got the chance to see Bessie at the premiere this week, right?
Tika Sumpter: Yes, I did. I loved it. There’s so much depth in every character. It was funny, it was heartfelt, dealt with issues—I loved it.
AE: Can you tell me what the audition process was like?
TS: I read the script and everything in the script was amazing. I felt like I have to be a part of this. I really wanted to work with Dee Rees. She directed Pariah, which is critically acclaimed. I thought she was amazing. And then Queen was a part of it and I was like oh my god. [Lucille] had such heart and she says a lot through her eyes. The love she had for Bessie was kind of amazing so I went in full-throttle, just went in and tried to kill the audition and I guess Dee loved it and we went from there.
AE: Lucille really says so much with her facial expressions. How difficult was that for you?
TS: [laughs] Sometimes it can be difficult but I think that’s what acting is. It’s being in the moment, you know what I mean? I think everybody has loved somebody and they didn’t love them back—not love them back but give them their full attention. I think everybody has felt those kinds of feelings so I was just being in the moment, basically.
AE: Is Lucille based on a real woman? What kind of background did Dee give you on playing her?
TS: Actually I read a book about Bessie and there’s this little part about a woman who traveled with her which was her niece—not through blood but through Jack G, her husband. Somebody recorded her talking about the experiences she had with Bessie, so actually Queen Latifah put me onto that and oh my god, it’s crazy. It’s on iTunes if you ever get the chance. But then also this book is where I learned about this dancer named Lilliana, and they basically had a relationship and they were definitely involved, but she was afraid of Jack G because she knew how violent he could be. She knew this is something that Bessie wasn’t supposed to really be doing but Bessie was who she was and did she wanted to do, and Jack G did what he wanted to do. Her niece that she was in love with two girls her entire life and Lilianna was one of them. There wasn’t a lot of information about her, but I took it from there and just read about Bessie to prepare as well.
AE: How do you play a character who knows that her relationship with Bessie is not going to end with them staying together?
TS: I always think there’s a chance. I don’t play it like I know the end result—I play it like there’s always hope that she sees enough in me to stay; that she sees enough in us, whether it’s the tenderness or the support or the care that my character displayed for her, you always just hope, in every relationship. You hope that person loves you enough, as much as you love them. So it was never like “OK this is going to be over.” It was sad because she’s sitting there watching this husband come in the picture when she’d been there from the beginning and so it’s really sad but I think, ultimately, people have to live their lives and I think my character realized that [Bessie’s] not going to change and she has to be happy, and she wants the things that Bessie has, which is a family. You have to be realistic with yourself at some point.
AE: What was it like to work with Dee?
TS: Oh she’s super involved, she’s amazing. She’s an actor’s director—she gets it. She would have us having conversations in character before cameras were even rolling so by that time, you’re already there. She took care of all of us. She was a fearless leader and we were confident in her because she’s confident in her abilities and knows that she’s talented, so she’s so easy to be around and easy to talk to and collaborate with. Definitely an actor’s director!
AE: The first scene we meet your character in is a pretty intimate one. Is that the first scene you shot?
TS: No, that wasn’t the first one we shot, which gave us time to get to know each other so by the time we shot that, Queen and I were so cool. It was like “Alright!” We were laughing on set and some of the stuff didn’t make it in there but it was cool—it was like a friend. There was no weird energy. We’re both professionals. We literally are friends now and so that’s what it was when we did that scene.
AE: There are still actors who don’t want to take roles based on their including homosexuality. Was that ever a concern for you?
TS: No, it wasn’t a concern for me. It was actually kind of intriguing. You don’t want to see me play the same role over and over again. What I love about the character, usually I play women who are fierce and very very strong and I felt like there was a quiet strength to her. A vulnerability and tenderness and she happened to like another woman; be in love with another woman. I thought that was intriguing and something I’ve never done before and, as an actress, that’s what you want to do. You want to stretch yourself and move forward and be other people. You don’t want to play the same role.
AE: You are perfect as Lucille but if you had to choose another role to play in Bessie, who would it be?
TS: Ooh, that’s a good one. Everybody was so perfect in the role they were cast in. But I really enjoyed Mo’Nique, man. She killed it. I’m like, you can’t deny talent. When I was watching her on screen, she was it, you know? And amazing. And I just love how up front she was. [Ma Rainey] is just dope as a character—I love her. Everybody was cast so perfectly, I wouldn’t change my Lucille for anybody else.
AE: I thought Mo’Nique killed it, too. What was it like to be on a set with so many talented women?
TS: It was great. There was a camaraderie—I feel like if women were in powerful positions in the world, I really believe that if we were presidents, I feel like the world would be much smoother, because that was one of the smoothest sets I’ve ever been on. Everybody was peaceful and fun and everybody had a really good time. We were each inspiring each other and lifting each other up. I don’t know, it was really kumbayah. Really it was a real cool set and HBO is such a class act that they made it easy to.
AE: What do you hope people get out of Bessie? Is there one thing you want people to take away from it?
TS: I think there are so many messages but the one I got is be who you are and the world will catch up. They’ll catch up; they’ll get it. I feel like if you’re your genuine self, people get that and people can relate to you because they’re like, “She’s just being her!” And people want to be themselves and gravitate toward that energy. I just feel like, do you.
Bessie premieres on HBO on Saturday, May 16 at 8pm