It takes special feet to fill the pumps left vacant when Effie, played by Jennifer Hudson, leaves the group in “Dreamgirls.” And newcomer Sharon Leal was up for the task, holding it down among Black Hollywood’s elite in the film. Before her big-screen break, Leal had banked small screen time on the “Guiding Light,” “Boston Public” and “LAX,” and secured the lead in Broadway’s hit “Miss Saigon.”
The California lovely continues to dazzle Tinseltown with her latest role in “Soul Men” alongside Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson, a nice follow up to her work with ensemble casts in “Why Did I Get Married?” and “This Christmas.” Leal shares with ESSENCE.com what it was like to work with comedic genius Mac and soul legend Isaac Hayes, how playing Tyler Perry’s onscreen wife prepared her for her own divorce, and what Barack Obama’s win means for her and so many.
ESSENCE.COM: Your “Soul Men” costars Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac are a singing duo who reunite for a tour and you’re invited along for the ride. What was some of your best memories of Bernie Mac?
SHARON LEAL: Between takes Bernie would just make these faces-he’s just a hysterical guy. My character had to keep a straight face and it was challenging not to crack up. From the first time I met Bernie, he embraced me. He had this presence that was so captivating, and if he was looking at you, you just felt like the most important person in the world. Bernie would do this great impression of Sam Jackson and he had him down. Bernie was good at keeping things rolling along with the long hours on set; he kept us entertained. We’ve lost a phenomenal guy and to watch his farewell performance is amazing.
ESSENCE.COM: Yes, we lost two phenomenal talents, including Isaac Hayes, who costars as himself in the film. Did he give Samuel and Bernie any pointers on music?
LEAL: We were lucky to have Mr. Isaac Hayes for a couple days on set, and being the professionals that they were, Sam and Bernie convinced themselves that they were in fact a couple of music guys with years of experience in a group called “The Real Deal.” Having Isaac Hayes in the film was the perfect legitimization this film needed to create a landscape of music history and authenticity. To stand on set and see such a legend made our jobs that much easier.
ESSENCE.COM: And you’ve worked with great Black ensemble casts before on “Dreamgirls,” “This Christmas” and “Why Did I Get Married?” How was it filming “Why Did I Get Married?” [HYPERLINK WHY DID I GET MARRIED TO GALLERY FROM FILM], and were you able to gain any insights for your own life by playing Tyler Perry’s wife?
LEAL: There’s nothing like working with an all-Black cast. When we were up in Vancouver, we were out of our element and in the snow and right away we all just bonded. I’m going through a divorce right now and during shooting Jill Scott was going through a divorce, as was Tasha [Smith], and Malik [Yoba]. I was still in my marriage and hopeful, but of course knowing how difficult it is and how hard you have to work to make [marriage] work. I knew that marriage was tough and I appreciated Tyler’s perspective that wasn’t about saying this is the surefire way to stay in your marriage, but simply sharing the struggle of how complicated things can get.
ESSENCE.COM: So many people can relate to that. They could also relate to your character in “Dreamgirls” who willingly replaces Effie (Jennifer Hudson) to actualize her dreams. What was the chemistry like among everyone?
LEAL: I wasn’t expecting my first film to be among such heavy hitters, so I was beyond. I really felt like I won the lottery. I was obviously intimidated. When Eddie Murphy walks in, try and play it off like it isn’t a big deal (laughs). When you are working with people that wonderful, you hope it rubs off. When Jamie Foxx’s character says come on in and he just needed a receptionist, I tapped into booking that gig and it was an easy emotion I know to just want to get in the door. I was obsessed with that show as a kid, so this really was a dream come true.
ESSENCE.com: Speaking of Broadway, you were in “Miss Saigon,” playing an Asian woman. Do you feel your multicultural background benefitted or hindered your career, and do you feel a special connection with President-elect Barack Obama, who’s also biracial?
LEAL: I started off with my first Broadway show, “Miss Saigon,” and it doesn’t get any more Asian than that. I won the Asian Excellence Award and I know people were like, “Huh?” People don’t know my mother is from the Phillippines. Hopefully, there will be some kind of project where I can tap into that side [again]. Obviously the dominating race is Black and that is what you can see and feel when you look at me. For a lot of people with multicultural backgrounds and African-Americans, you always feel like we are the underdogs. When you take something as huge as our president and it is someone who looks like you, it gives you a lot of hope for things you want to do for yourself and your children. It’s really inspiring to witness Barack Obama’s rise. I am so excited.