TORONTO -- Never letting them see you sweat is one thing. Never letting your unprotected hands shake, while handling honeycombs throbbing with bees, is quite another, Queen Latifah learned.
"I've done a lot of things in my career, and I haven't been afraid of a whole lot, but that, I was like, 'Whew!" The day I had to shoot a lot of my bee scenes, it was cold, and bees don't really like cold weather ... so they were a little bit irritated," said "The Secret Life of Bees" star.
"I read Scientific American, and I watch Discovery channel, and I'm just fascinated by nature and animals and insects period, so that was cool. But to have to take the gloves off and work free-hand and remember my lines, it required some work," she acknowledged during the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
To prepare for the adaptation of the Sue Monk Kidd novel, Latifah and co-stars Dakota Fanning and Tristan Wilds went to "bee school."
"You don't want to smash one of them 'cause if you kill one of them, they release a scent that tells the other bees, 'Somebody killed one of us, get her!' You have to be very gentle and you have to do it quick, 'cause it's a movie," said the rapper turned actress, singer, author and label president.
Latifah plays matriarch August Boatwright, who shares a bee farm and honey business with her sisters, music teacher June (Alicia Keys) and the child-like May (Sophie Okonedo). They shelter a pair of runaways, teenage Lily (Fanning) and her caretaker, Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), in 1964 South Carolina.
The cast had been reunited at the world premiere here and later made the rounds of interviews one by one, each talking about the "homework" doled out by the director, their bond during the lightning-fast shoot and the movie's messages about sisterhood, makeshift families and empowerment.
The perpetually sunny Fanning, now a 10th-grader in Los Angeles, had a 1960s survivor at her fingertips. "My grandmother grew up during this time period in the South, so she was kind of like my research and she lives with my family," said Fanning, who looks like a 14-year-old, complete with high heels and a peace symbol necklace.
"She grew up in a really small town in the South and she was helped raised by black women, like in the movie. And her dad actually adopted an African-American boy during that time. ... So, her family was not like the people that you see portrayed in the movie," particularly because her grandmother's father was also the town sheriff.
Lily allows Fanning, who has blossomed on screen with such films as "I Am Sam," "War of the Worlds" and "Dreamer," to tap into a welter of emotions.
"This was almost like a dream come true character for me to play because she goes through every range of emotion that you can go through and it is almost fun. I hate to say fun, but it is like a fun challenge to dig deep within a character and conjure up these emotions that maybe I'll never feel in my lifetime."
Latifah, sporting a lighter, asymmetrical haircut that subtracts years from August Boatwright, loved the idea of a progressive, respected black family that operates a thriving business amid the churning racial tension.
As for advising Hudson and Keys as they cement relatively new acting careers, Latifah said, "It was more important to lead by example on this film, to be the big sister, to be the veteran, to be the matriarch, in the sense that this is really what I have to do in my role anyway. ... Dakota, she's an old soul. She's older than all of us; she's definitely been here before, and she's just fun."
"Bees" taught Gina Prince-Bythewood that procrastination can be a director's best friend.
Six or seven years ago she received a manuscript of the novel. Burned out from making back-to-back movies, including "Love & Basketball," she shoved the unread book into a closet.
"Throughout the years, my mom, friends, cousins kept telling me you got to read this book," Prince-Bythewood said. When a friend said she was auditioning for "Bees," she dug out her copy and realized she had let a golden opportunity slip away.
But two months later, Prince-Bythewood got a call saying the movie had shifted to another studio and was up for grabs. She not only directed "Bees" but wrote the screenplay.
"I think everything happens for a reason. I don't think five years ago I was ready to tell the story, but also Dakota was clearly not old enough, and I cannot see this film without Dakota. And Jennifer Hudson wasn't even on the scene, Alicia was too young, and Queen was in a different place."
Prince-Bythewood gave her lead actors a 1960s "care package," with Anne Moody's "Coming of Age in Mississippi," a photo book about 1964's Freedom Summer, Spike Lee's "4 Little Girls" and "Eyes on the Prize."
Because May spends time in the kitchen, the British-born Okonedo took cooking lessons from the Southern owners of a restaurant called Two Fat Ladies. She learned to make such specialties as smothered pork chops, sweet potato biscuits and fried chicken, and also did research about people who have lost a twin, as May has.
Keys, who squeezed in interviews before shooting the "Quantum of Solace" music video with Jack White, learned to play the cello for "Bees" and drew upon inspiration near and far.
"One of my closest friends was an inspiration for me, just because of her inner strength but also her pain, and the way that comes out in her face and the way that comes out in her speech," Keys said. Add to that "magnificent" elders like her grandmother and Maya Angelou and an indelible photo of a rally participant with her arms crossed, a gesture she copied.
To help Keys bond with Nate Parker, who plays her boyfriend, the director arranged a candlelit dinner date for them, in character, complete with 1960s music. Prince-Bythewood also hired actors to pose as store clerks to insult the unknowing Hudson.
"Her life after 'Dreamgirls' had been just limos and gowns and Oscars, and she had no way of getting in touch with what it must have been like at that time," the director said. That's why she set up the experiment to make the Oscar winner feel the sting of bigotry or to seem invisible, and it worked.
"I didn't realize how unaware I was to what happened during that time. I did 'Dreamgirls' as well, but we really didn't focus in on the civil rights era," Hudson said. She plunged into research, from the time of slavery to today, when U.S. Sen. Barack Obama asked her to sing the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention.
"At the DNC, I had to literally remove myself emotionally so that I could focus and be able to perform my song because of what I had experienced in my research for Rosaleen and for 'The Secret Life of Bees.' It wasn't that long ago and now we're actually looking at a possible African-American president," she said.
Despite the summery Southern setting, the movie was made during a freak cold snap in North Carolina. The actors had to chew ice cubes so their breath wouldn't show in the frosty air.
"It wasn't just one day. It was every day," Okonedo said. "I think it hit the 20s some days. It was freezing. It was like England."
Post-Gazette movie editor Barbara Vancheri can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1632.