Jill Scott talks about building up for The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and how a beloved book authentically came to life.
Many know R&B singer-songwriter Jill Scott for her powerful, soulful crooning and poetic voice, but SheKnows was anxious to get the scoop on her newest gig – lead actress in HBO’s new 13-part series, The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, premiering March 29.
“Acting and music live differently in me, but I’ve been acting for 15 years,” Jill Scott tells SheKnows. “I’ve done a lot of theater. I was in Rent. I’ve done Shakespeare. I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve been waiting for something to come along that really challenged me.”
After starring in the Tyler Perry flick Why did I get Married?, Scott stumbled onto The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, based on the Alexander McCall Smith novels of the same name. Like the best selling books, the show follows the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, a woman who opens Africa’s first female-owned detective agency, but Scott admits she was initially attracted by the award winning screenwriter/director/producer spearheading the project, not her character.
Anthony Minghella’s last work
“I hadn’t read the books,” Scott shares. “I didn’t know anything about them, but I knew about Anthony Minghella and when my agent called and said he was looking for an actress, I jumped at the bit to audition. It was definitely a highlight in my life, to meet this wonderful man who had done so many incredible movies (including Cold Mountain and The English Patient).”
Minghella passed away after directing Scott in the pilot, as did producer Sydney Pollack, making the meeting even more important to Scott.
“If someone as kind, gentle and genius as Anthony Minghella has faith in you, you can’t help but have faith in yourself,” she says. “He was such a sweet, funny, silly guy.”
Scott jumps in
After several rounds of auditions with Minghella, Scott landed the role and turned her attention to learning about the character she’d signed on to play.
“Reading the books helped me a lot, but I didn’t completely get it until I got to Botswana and looked around and saw people that looked like me, my cousins, my girlfriends,” Scott recalls. “There was such a gentle nature to the people that I understood why Mma Ramotswe was so kind, gentle and loving and why she wants the best for her country.”
Those not familiar with the books should note that The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is not about the war, violence and tension often associate with the continent of Africa. “Botswana was never tainted or touched by apartheid,” Scott explains. “So that makes the country and the people very strong and very warm towards each other. They just don’t have ugliness.”
What they do have is accents, which was a top order of business, not to mention an ongoing effort. “I didn’t have an accent at all, so I watched Sarafina! and auditioned with that accent: It didn’t go over well!” Scott reveals and laughs. “We had dialect coaching every single day.”
A snippet of her accent sounded pretty good to SheKnows and it’s clear from talking to Scott that she’s fallen in love with Africa and its people, but she was also quite taken with the other locals.
“There are so many things I love about Africa, but my favorite is that you go to the mall and there are baboons on top of the mall, or you’re driving and you have to stop because there are zebras or ostriches crossing,” Scott raves. “The baboons are little devil and they’re strong and fast! They steal your lunch and throw things at you and think it’s funny. You can tell they’re getting a kick out it, because they’ll call others to watch them.”
Building traditional build
Most actresses land a role and hit the treadmill, but a slimmed down Scott had to go the other way to play the full-figured Precious Ramotswe.
“Wearing the (fat) suit was hard in the heat, but that’s par for the course and I’m the luckiest actress in the world: I’ve been required to gain weight for two roles, back to back,” she marvels. “For Why did I get Married?, I walked into the audition and Tyler (Perry) says, ‘What happened?’ I’d lost weight and I was happy with it. But they wanted me to gain weight: ’15? 20? Maybe could you do 30?’ I started eating and just stopped riding my bike, chilled out and became a couch potato.”
This time, she put on the pounds in a whole new way. “I discovered I was pregnant the day before I left for Africa,” she explains. “It was a shock – a wonderful shock, but a shock nonetheless. I was supposed to leave on Friday at 12. I found out at 10 that I was pregnant! So I had to push everything back. I’m a first-time mother and I was concerned, but the day after, my doctors gave me a clean bill of health and said. ‘You can do this.’ So I went and did this.”
Eventually, the fat suit wasn’t necessary, but that doesn’t meant shooting in Africa got any easier. “I spent my first trimester in Botswana and it was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life, because of the morning sickness, the exhaustion, the heat, the 14 hour days and just being away,” she remembers. “Also, Mma Ramotswe lost a child, so as an actor — I had to continuously relive it. That was difficult for me, to lose a child ten or twelve times a day as a pregnant woman, but when you have an opportunity to play a character who is so big, warm and open, the challenges melt away and you just want to do good work, period.”
With baby due April 25, the expectant mom is thrilled to be back stateside and plans to stick to light duty for awhile.
“I’m 36 and this is my first, so this is big for me,” she confides. “I’m excited. This is a great time in my life. And now, I can actually sit at home and watch the show. I’m going to take some time off. I don’t now how long. We’ll see how this goes. I pray for a healthy baby, so I guess everything is dependent on that.”
Speaking of which, rumors abound that Scott announced she and fiance Lil’ Jon Roberts were expecting a boy, but when SheKnows asked if Scott knew the sex of what she was carrying, she only teases, “I know what’s in here: a beautiful baby!”
We may have to wait a month for a straight story on that one. In the meantime, you can catch the premiere of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, March 29 on HBO at 10 p.m.
The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency repeats throughout the week. Check out our review of the first three episodes March 31, only on SheKnows.