Nine-time Grammy Award-winning recording artist Mary J. Blige is the star and executive producer of the upcoming Lifetime original movie, Betty & Coretta, premiering Saturday, February 2nd at 8pm ET/PT. Focusing on the extraordinary women behind the two men who would change history, Betty & Coretta tells the similar true stories of Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King and Dr. Betty Shabazz, wife of Malcolm X.
In a conference call with Celebrity Baby Scoop, Mary opens up about the “women that stand behind powerful men.” She goes on to talk about her experiences as a stepmother, balancing work and family life, and being raised by a single mother.
On being a stepmom to 3 children and how she used that experience in developing her performance as Dr. Shabazz:
MJB: “I guess I naturally used my experience for the role; I didn’t think about just using my experience as a mom. I used my mother’s experience as well as my grandmother’s experience, and sometimes, yes, I used my own experience.
I became a mother to those children in the film and thought about how pissed I would be if my child came home from college. I also thought about how pissed my mother would be if I played hooky or something like that. I definitely used my experience as a stepmother subconsciously, but it wasn’t like, okay, I am going to use this or that aspect.”
On the biggest challenge that Dr. Shabazz and Coretta Scott King faced as the wives of such iconic figures:
MJB: “In my opinion, their husbands being assassinated, period, was the biggest challenge. They were family women, and that’s all they knew. The biggest challenge was that the children didn’t have their fathers to help take care of them.”
On how she balanced filming and producing the movie with her busy family life:
MJB: “My family understands what I am and that I am a busy artist who travels a lot. My family understood that this project is something that I had to do, where I won’t be around for a long period of time. They get it. The balance is there, because everyone understands what is going on.”
On how this movie will be relevant to women today, especially single mothers:
MJB: “I think it will be very relevant nowadays, because there are so many single moms. They will understand that you don’t always need a man, like Betty said, but you need to train yourself and get education to take care of your children. You have to have the courage and nurturing spirit that Coretta has and continue to fight for your family. I think both Betty and Coretta will resonate with single mothers.”
On the research that she had to do to get into character:
MJB: “I went on YouTube and pulled up everything I could on Betty, and I also read some books. There was not a lot of visual stuff on Betty online, but I got what I could.”
On what made her decide to take on such an ambitious lead role:
MJB: “I was asked to play the role, and acting is something that I’ve always felt I am definitely into doing. Of course it was scary to play such a huge part, but playing Betty Shabazz was a huge honor. I didn’t mind working hard to play her, because she is so powerful, strong, and important. I didn’t mind at all.”
On whether there was something about Betty Shabazz that she didn’t know before, and whether she used it in her own life now:
MJB: “Betty and Coretta were trying to cope with the assassinations of their husbands, and Betty was the one keeping it light, telling the jokes, and trying to be up and happy throughout the trial. That is definitely something that I will try to take with me: to always try to be positive and happy when bad things happen in life. Betty was the one who was keeping it light.”
On whether there were any qualities in Betty that she could see in herself and relate to:
MJB: “Yes. It would definitely be Betty’s ability to be strong no matter how bad things got and no matter how hurtful life was. She just kept going and going, and striving to protect her family and make sure they were educated. I am the same way.”
On how Betty was a strong female role model for her children:
MJB: “From what I could see, Betty was the one getting the children educated and making them understand that education was the key to everything in the world. I think Malcom was big on education as well. Betty was strong, because she focused on educating her children and making sure they didn’t stop that education, and she also protected them.”
On whether there was an intimidation factor in having to act opposite of Angela Bassett:
MJB: “Of course it was intimidating; it was Angela Bassett, who I absolutely love, admire, and look up to. She is one of my favorite actresses. However, I used that intimidation to learn and grow from her. I became confident through watching her. She was helpful and helped me stay focused on delivering Betty as much as I could.”
On taking on the role of a real person for the first time:
MJB: “It was different because I had to try to make sure that I didn’t do anything that would disrespect the character. Betty lived on the Earth and is very important, and I didn’t want to mess it up. I had to make sure I respected the character so everyone else would respect the character.
When you’re playing a fictional character, you can have a little fun with it. For this role, I had to be specific and follow every single thing that this woman was. Even while I am trying to add in my own life for inspiration, I still had to nail everything that this woman was so her family would be happy, believe it, and not be upset by it.”
On whether she had a chance to meet and talk with Coretta Scott King at Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball:
MJB: “Yes, I had a chance to speak with Coretta. She said she knew who I was, and I didn’t know that she knew who I was. Maya Angelou said I had to go over and meet Coretta and other ladies there. I asked, “Do you guys know who I am?” They said, “We all know who you are.”
Coretta said she was proud of me and that was the last time I spoke to her. I didn’t take that experience with me into this role, as far as how I engaged with Angela Bassett as Coretta, but I used that experience with me in my own life. It really helped me a lot, as it helped me gain confidence.”
On what she wants people to take away from this movie:
MJB: “I want people to always be strong in light of struggle. Those women were going through some horrible trials in life, yet they were so strong. Be strong in trial, stand by your relationships with your friends and love them through, and don’t give up.”
On how significant these wives were to the civil rights movement based on what she learned:
MJB: “They were very significant; it was a huge thing that they did. Martin Luther King Jr. would still be known and significant for what he did, but would he have a holiday if Coretta didn’t move forward with it? No. Would Malcom be as well known as he is and as important if Betty didn’t constantly remind people that after he came from Mecca, he was a beautiful man who was fighting for the same things that Martin was fighting for and that he wasn’t a tyrant? No, he probably wouldn’t be heard of in a positive way. What they did was very significant and very important.”
On her role as an executive producer of the film:
MJB: “It was my first time executive producing a film and the material was important to me. I had to love the script and focus on where we would get it produced and made and be confident about it. That was my prerogative: finding the material, loving the material, and being excited about it. The rest was working in progress. It was a great experience.”
On meeting Betty Shabazz’s daughter Ilyasah at a restaurant by chance:
MJB: “I was in a restaurant for a magazine interview, and she happened to come into the restaurant out of nowhere. It was so weird. She got up from her table and came over to me and said, “You are playing my mom.” I was like, “Oh wow, you are her daughter?” She said, “Yes, I am Ilyasah.” That is how that happened.
We spoke for a very long time. She talked about her mom and said that she wished she had a chance to speak with me before the film. She had a lot of information for me and she’s been sending me pictures of her, Malcom, and Betty ever since I saw her that day. She’s really positive and beautiful, just like her mom.”
On advice that her mother gave her when she was growing up that really stuck with her:
MJB: “My mother was a single mom that always went through so much. She tried to be strong for all of us, which was enough. She had many jobs and had to go through many baby sitters, and she constantly tried to push us to go to school and do chores. That speaks for itself.”
On whether there is another woman she would like to portray in the future:
MJB: “Right now I don’t know yet. If someone as important as Betty shows up, then yes, I’ll definitely go for it.”
On why she thinks so little is known about Betty and Coretta’s relationship and how much of a role they played:
MJB: “We are learning about the relationship now because of women like me who are getting the story out. We didn’t know about the relationship before, because just like a lot of women who are involved with powerful men, they never get a chance to speak from their perspective about what their lives are like and what is going on.
More films like this one should be made about Myrlie Evers and people like that so we can understand them and be educated about them. I don’t mean that we are women and don’t get it, but because these women stand behind powerful men and don’t step out like Hilary Clinton does, they never get heard of. It is so great that Betty and Coretta stepped out and made their voices heard.”