Deep down in the southeastern corner of Botswana sits the sweltering African metropolis of Gaborone. For Grammy-winning singer–songwriter–actress Jill Scott, it’s about as far as you can get from the pampered world of an R&B superstar, yet it was here that she spent the last two summers shooting the new HBO series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” (premieres March 29). “I have seen velvet spiders, white flies and a butterfly about the size of my arm,” says Scott. “It’s awesome, but it kind of freaks you out at the same time.”
Witnessing the wonders of nature isn’t the only revelation for the soulstress, who’s expecting her first child with fiancé John Roberts this spring. “Being pregnant while working 14 hours a day threw me for the first couple of days, but I adapted,” she says. “I’m very proud of the work I did, and it makes me feel wonderful that my child’s mother is not a quitter.” Perhaps equally astounding is the way Scott is spreading her acting wings. The series is based on the novels of the same name by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. His crime dramas follow the escapades of Botswana’s intrepid detective Precious Ramotswe, played by Scott. “She doesn’t hold her tongue, and she believes in justice wholeheartedly,” says the similarly sassy Philadelphia native. “Right is right. Wrong is wrong. And life is somewhere in the middle.”
To prepare for the role of a Botswanan woman, Scott worked with a dialect coach for three months and did a lot of local research. “I didn’t really know who Precious was until I was able to see how the women greet each other, the way they walk, and hear their laughter,” says Scott, who relishes working with the show’s diverse cast, including Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) and Lucian Msamati (BBC’s MI-5).
Yet there’s a sad postscript to this story: In March 2008, director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) died of a brain hemorrhage shortly after production wrapped on the show’s pilot. “I’m sad that I don’t get to share the rest of my life with him,” Scott laments. Still she cherishes her experience in Africa. “This is life-altering,” she says. “I’ve seen sunsets that’d make an ax murderer cry. My dream of coming to the continent has been fulfilled. This will always be dear to my heart.”