Don’t even think about pulling a fast one on June Boatwright because she’s too smart for that. Songbird Alicia Keys plays the ornery music teacher and middle sister of August (Queen Latifah) and May (Sophie Okonedo) in “The Secret Life of Bees,” almost too well. With a snare, glaring eyes and folded arms, Keys convincingly pulls off the role of the tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside vixen. ESSENCE.com caught up with Keys on her European tour to talk about her big-screen alter ego, why she never sacrifices, and overcoming depression.
ESSENCE.COM: As June Boatwright, you’re the sister who gives tough love. Who was your inspiration for the character?
ALICIA KEYS: June was a little bit of a mixture of me. I always find some kind of uncanny connection, and the characters I play tend to come at a point in my life when I need a certain something. In this case, June’s tough because she’s hiding all this vulnerability. My personal experiences have given me that understanding of hiding behind an exterior because the interior is so delicate. Also, one of my closest friends was an inspiration as well when I was looking for June’s body language. My friend is amazing, but you don’t want to step to her because she has these piercing eyes, but she’s amazing and giving. I wanted to give June that same closed-off energy.
ESSENCE.COM: In the film, Jennifer Hudson’s character bears the ugly scar of racism—literally—and figuratively. I understand while you were filming Barack Obama was campaigning in that state. How did the juxtaposition of the past and historic campaign affect the filming of the movie?
KEYS: This campaign has affected me much like it has the rest of the country. For me, it’s renewed my hope for the possibility of something inspiring, positive and genuine. As I watch this election unfold, a lot of the great leaders of the past come to mind when I listen to him speak. This election has given me a renewed passion and determination. I hope Barack is the outcome.
ESSENCE.COM: May Boatwright (Okonedo) makes the ultimate sacrifice for her sister. As an actress and artist, what has been your biggest sacrifice?
KEYS: I try to stay away from that thought process because the word “sacrifice” is often used in a negative way. I prefer to look at sacrifice as an opportunity and a learning process. Up until today, I know that I’ve learned a lot about myself by observing and saying, ‘Well, maybe in the future I might do it differently.’ Sometimes I definitely feel I grew up too fast in just having to be a strong-willed and motivated individual from growing up in New York with my mother.
ESSENCE.COM: Was there any scene that was difficult for you to film but ended up being therapeutic in some way?
KEYS: So many things that June did was healing for me, but I would have to say that one of the most therapeutic was when she and August (Latifah) were comforting one another after suffering a loss. This was something personal I’d dealt with when I was shooting the film and the ability to totally let go and lose it. It was fulfilling to experience that release of emotion, because so often in our own lives we don’t know how to allow ourselves that emotional freedom.
ESSENCE.COM: Letting it all hang out sometimes is the best therapy. You once admitted that you suffered with depression, which can not only slow you down mentally and physically, but make you lose your confidence. What has been the biggest leap of faith you’ve taken in your life and career?
KEYS: That’s definitely a major thing; you start to question your every move and that itself is its own hell. We are in a mentally stimulated world, and to have that power affected can be detrimental to your well-being. I have learned to give myself a chance to feel down and not try to fix or mask it. Society often teaches us to do that or to even use drugs to deal with depression, but we should all learn to go through whatever emotions we’re having; don’t try to bury it, and have the faith that it will soon be over. I would love to be an inspiration for those with hopes, dreams, and who want ultimate happiness. That’s what I am working toward and the legacy I hope I’m living.
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