In 1997, an all-star cast united to share the story of a dysfunctional but lovable Chicago family. Narrated by Brandon Hammond, Soul Food followed a Black family struggling to stay together through their ups and downs, especially after the death of their matriarch, Mother Joe, played by Irma P. Hall. ESSENCE.com caught up with two of the film’s heroines — the love struck hairdresser Bird, played by Nia Long and the always lively Maxine, played by Vivica A. Fox. The actresses gabbed about their memories, hardest scenes to shoot and never-before-told secrets about making the film.
ESSENCE.com: Nia, what was it like to work with Vivica A. Fox and Vanessa L. Williams so closely?
NIA LONG: I love Vivica. She was like a sister and she will forever be my soul food sister. She is an amazing actress. When I see her, I don’t care if three years go by it’s like no time has passed. I remember being in awe of Vanessa L. Williams when she came to the set the first day. I just thought to myself this is an iconic woman who has really stood the test of time and has created a space for herself. I have so much respect for her. She’s another big sister, she’s my other soul food sister.
ESSENCE.com: Vivica, those scenes with you and Vanessa L. Williams were very intense at times.
VIVICA A. FOX: I think both of us are pretty sassy and headstrong women. Both to basically be in battle for who is going to take mama’s place and thinking she was the too-good sister. You know that exists in every family — that good family competition. You’re the educated one and I might have had kids too young, don’t be thinking you’re better than me. I’ve seen that. I basically pretended to be my older sister Shuggie, who is the glue that keeps my family together. So you know I kind of took a lot of her spirit and added it to my character. So I had a great time working with Vanessa. There was no tension. We just brought it.
ESSENCE.com: Nia, do you still keep in touch with Mekhi Phifer?
LONG: I saw Mekhi the other day. I was at the movies at The Grove. I saw Mekhi with his family. We laugh every time we see each other because we had that one scene in the bathroom. We can’t help but giggle when we see each other like, “Wow, we were so young!”
ESSENCE.com: Nia, what was it like filming that steamy sex scene?
LONG: Filming that scene was awkward as awkward can be — having sex on the bathroom sink. It was awkward but it was fun. The greatest thing about being an artist and being an actor is you can make any moment real by committing to it. And when you commit to what you have to do the scene more naturally comes out of it. You hope to have a great scene. That’s when you know you’re working with professional people because you may have committed to something that may have been written awkwardly. Love scenes are always awkward no matter how you look at them. When you respect the person and trust the person you’re working with they usually turn out pretty good.
ESSENCE.com: What’s one thing fans may be surprised to know about the movie?
LONG: Probably every scene around the dinner table took hours and hours because you have to cover every actor. You could eat [the food] if you want. But after sitting there for three hours, you’re kind of full just by looking at it. It was good, I’ll tell you that. They had a special caterer come in and prepare all the soul food so it was authentic. One thing that would probably surprise people, because my character Bird couldn’t cook, is that I actually can cook. I can throw down on a soul food dinner when necessary.
FOX: The one scene when me and Brandon Hammond were walking — everyone loves that scene when I said, “I carried you for 9 months, 23 days, 4 hours and 19 minutes” — that scene was the coldest day in Chicago ever. I think it was six degrees with the wind. They would yell cut and we would literally run to the van and drink hot chocolate and warm up and do another take.
ESSENCE.com: Where do you think Bird and Lem would be today?
LONG: I don’t know. I think they may still be together. I think she’s got her salon. Maybe he’s got a good decent job and they’ve probably got some kids by now. Life is probably good. That’s my wish for them. I know that those characters are in our community. There are many Birds and Lems out there. My wish is for the family to always stay together.
ESSENCE.com: Vivica, where would Maxine and Kenny be today?
FOX: Maxine would still be nosey. Probably trying to tell her son how to run his house, trying to make sure [he has] children and that he marries the right kind of wife. She would probably be the sassy auntie Maxine — all up in everybody’s business. Probably getting on people’s nerves, but making them laugh. She would be making sure people get together for dinner.
ESSENCE.com: Nia, Bird is a hairdresser in the film. Do you know how to do hair?
LONG: I do know how to do hair! My grandmother was one of the first Black women to own a beauty salon in Brooklyn. She won Ms. Clairol and has all sorts of accolades. Hair is something that’s a big part of my life. Sometimes when I can’t get someone here to do it, I do it myself. I often play beauty shop here with my girlfriends in the kitchen. We will bust out a press and curl every now and then!
ESSENCE.com: What did you learn from this experience that you brought to your own family?
LONG: If I could have family dinner every night that would be amazing. Life moves quickly. You have to carve out those moments together and talk about what’s happening, who’s doing what and who needs what – those are sort of the core values of my own family. I think it resonates more with me. At the end of the day, I think the overall message to all families is that taking time out for your family is probably the most important thing.
FOX: Gosh, to make sure that we always get together for Thanksgiving. Me and my family, it is our tradition every Thanksgiving that no matter where everyone is that we all come to my mother’s house, my brother’s house or my sister’s house and have that soul food Thanksgiving dinner to embrace one another. Just give thanks that we are all still alive another year.