LOS ANGELES -- The onscreen love between Queen Latifah, Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott and Phylicia Rashad in the updated version of "Steel Magnolias" is real.
The actresses, who take on the roles originated by Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton and Olympia Dukakis in the 1989 film, bonded in real life just like their characters do in Truvy’s salon.
"It’s been a love fest," said Scott, who plays Truvy, adding that she would have taken any role to be a part of the star-studded, small-screen retelling of Robert Harling’s stage play and original film, set to premiere Sunday on Lifetime.
The new "Steel Magnolias," produced by Academy Awards producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, maintains the flavor of Harling’s story, only this time with an all-black cast.
Zadan said he learned over a lunch discussion with Harling about the story that his "dream would be to do it again but do it with an African-American cast," the producer recalled. "It could be like a completely new film that you’ve never seen before. We thought, wow, that’s a great idea, so we called our friends and made the movie."
(Latifah, also an executive producer of "Steel Magnolias," previously worked with Zadan and Meron on "Chicago" and "Hairspray.")
Harling’s words are essentially unchanged in the updated version, producers said, save for references to Facebook and Michelle Obama and some medical details that reflect advances in science.
"That’s why we think the material is classic material," Meron said, "because it can live no matter where you put it."
Sisterhood among women
As in the original film, the story is set in the south and opens as M’Lynn (Latifah) and her husband are preparing for daughter Shelby’s wedding. The communal center in their town is Truvy’s hair salon, where M’Lynn and her friends, Ouiser (Woodard) and Clairee (Rashad), gather to catch up on their beauty regimens -- and gossip.
"We connected immediately, so we didn’t really have to fake being girls in the beauty shop," Latifah said. "We just bonded right away."
It’s that sisterhood among women -- and the enduring safety of the salon space -- that makes "Steel Magnolias" such a timeless story. Women have long turned to one another in times of joy and sorrow, said Woodard, and the salon is practically sacred ground.
"We are communal beings at the core," she said. "As we’ve moved away from an agrarian culture to a metropolitan one, the only place you gather for community in that way is either at church or at a spot like a hair salon or barber shop. But at the church, you can’t get real because you’re trying to get right. You can actually be more of your loving self in the salon. You actually get more healing in the salon than in the church."
Just the beginning
The connection the women share in Truvy’s salon is what drew Latifah to the project.
"I just love seeing that sisterhood, that bond between women in this film," she said. "It’s something that doesn’t really have to change from the play to the original movie to this movie. That’s an important thing for all women: for us to rally around each other in tough times, in good times."
And this may be just the beginning for this incarnation of "Steel Magnolias." Meron said the team would hit Broadway "in a heartbeat" if given the chance.
"We’d be the luckiest people in the world," he said.
The story could also find life as a TV series.
"It seems like a natural thing," Meron said. "It’s something that obviously could be in the air. Š "