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Family comes first for Oscar winner Mo’Nique, back on screen in HBO’s ‘Bessie’ biopic

By Sandy Cohen



LOS ANGELES _ “Don’t call it a comeback.”

Mo’Nique laughs as she quotes LL Cool J. Though it seems she’s back in the spotlight for the first time since her performance in “Precious” swept the 2010 awards season, the Oscar winner says she never stopped working. She just does it at a pace that allows for some balance.

“You know what I’m working on? The biggest project of my life,” the 47-year-entertainer said during a recent telephone interview. “Being the best mommy and the best wife I can possibly be. Because if I get concerned with what’s next in reference to this business, I’ll miss out on the joy that’s in front of me right now.”

That hasn’t stopped her from performing standup across the country, hosting her talk show on BET, independently producing films with her business-partner husband, and co-starring in HBO’s Bessie Smith biopic, “Bessie,” premiering Saturday.

It was “Bessie” star and executive producer Queen Latifah who thought of Mo’Nique for the role as Smith’s mentor, Ma Rainey.

“Everybody was like, ‘Yes!’ Because she has strength and vulnerability,” said fellow executive producer Shelby Stone. “The moment it was said, it was perfect. She was perfect. She has all those kinds of qualities of this strong, interesting, complicated woman who was Ma Rainey.”

Though Mo’Nique hadn’t heard of Rainey before reading the “Bessie” script, the role reflects the kinds of characters and stories she’s drawn to these days: real, multidimensional people.

Mo’Nique recently starred in and executive produced two films that fit that bill, “Blackbird” and “About.”

No release date has been set for “About,” which tells the stories of seven strangers whose lives intertwine as they’re faced with such life challenges as homelessness, heartbreak and addiction.

“Blackbird,” which opened last month, follows a church-choir singer who struggles with his sexuality and sense of self while growing up in a small Southern Baptist town. Mo’Nique plays the young man’s mother. Isaiah Washington plays his father.

She was drawn to the story by its young writer-director Patrik-Ian Polk.

“I never thought I would have another opportunity to work with a director who was so fearless and so unwilling to waver with what he wanted to see on that screen,” she said. “I never thought I would have that opportunity again after working with Lee Daniels on ‘Precious.”’

Speaking of Daniels, Mo’Nique said she has “no issue” with the director, who made waves earlier this year when he said the actress “soured her relationship with the Hollywood community” by not participating more actively in the “Precious” awards campaign.

Daniels took issue with Mo’Nique’s decision to spend more time with her family rather than promote “Precious” overseas.

“I think that anytime you take a stand and you say, ‘Well, guys, I can’t allow that to happen.’ Or, ‘That’s not fair.’ Or, ‘That’s an injustice.’ That’s when people say, ‘Oh, you’re going to say it out loud?”’ Mo’Nique said. “Well, then that makes you difficult.”

Daniels did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

Married for the third time and with three young sons, Mo’Nique treasures what she calls “a second chance at motherhood.” Her twins David and Jonathan are 9 and Michael is 11. Mo’Nique’s eldest son, Shalon, from a previous marriage, is 25.

He worked as a writer on the talk show she hosted on BET after winning her Oscar, but it was shelved after two seasons.

“You know how on some shows they go upstairs and never come back down? Maybe that’s what happened to ‘The Mo’Nique Show!”’ she quipped, adding that the network didn’t give a reason why the program was put on “indefinite hiatus.”

Still, she hopes to resurrect the show some day, holding onto her original Hollywood dream.

“I came to Hollywood to be a talk-show host,” Mo’Nique said. “I am a talk-show host in the very being of who I am.”

But until the time is right for a new version of “The Mo’Nique Show,” she’ll continue to focus on her family and her health _ she recently lost 100 pounds _ and sometimes on Hollywood.

“I love the entertainment business, but I absolutely adore my family,” she said. “So when I get to the end of my journey, I’m grateful for everything I’ve ever done in the entertainment business, but those aren’t the memories I’ll take with me. The memories I’ll take with me are of my babies.”


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