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Queen Latifah Only Cares About What’s Next: ‘The Equalizer’ Season 3, Two Netflix Films and Empowering Women

Photographs by Jill Greenberg

Queen Latifah has thrived in the entertainment business — from music to movies and television into the beauty industry and beyond — for more than 30 years. But the Grammy and Emmy winner and Oscar nominee doesn’t take time to reflect on her successes.

“I’m always looking forward to the next thing,” Latifah says. “I don’t really rest on my laurels. I rarely stop to say, ‘Oh, damn, you did this; you were the first to get that.’ I only realize that when people introduce me for something. And I’m like, ‘Gosh, how long is this intro?’”

On this afternoon, though, it’s not about accolades; instead, she’s driving around town running errands. She’s just wrapped Season 2 of “The Equalizer,” the CBS reboot in which she stars as vigilante Robyn McCall. But as an executive producer on the series (under her Flavor Unit Entertainment banner), she has plenty of work to do before setting off on her annual vacation to an undisclosed beach. The entertainer has been known to take a month off in the summer to recharge and live some of that life a superstar salary can pay for, but her busy schedule doesn’t often afford.

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Jill Greenberg for Variety

“You have to keep your eye on the prize, but I do definitely try to take that month off, and more if I can have it,” Latifah explains. “I have to fight for it, because everyone wants me to work and they’re always trying to book things. I’m very fortunate to be in that position, but, at the same time, I know that it will take a toll on me.”

The to-do list is almost as overwhelming as those “20-minute introductions” that often prelude her public appearances.

The night before this interview, she was up late streamlining her studio, paring down the equipment so it can travel with her. Making music or listening to it is her favorite way to unwind. “I can work 14 hours in a day, and I can go in the studio afterwards, and that will be my peace,” she says. “I have to just make it so that I can do the things that bring me peace while I’m doing all this work.”

In the studio, Latifah likes to experiment with different styles of music, voices and characters. Some songs are about love; others about the state of the world.

“I am such an interesting brain,” she laughs, describing her songwriting process. “I’m more of a ‘persona.’ You see Queen Latifah the way you see Queen Latifah, but in my mind, I can be anybody I want to be.” Asked to define her current persona: “Winning!“ she exclaims.

“I must say I’m just very, very blessed,” she continues, pausing to take stock of all that’s come and is to come. “I’m in a blessed place. Family’s okay. I’m okay. Work is going fine. I don’t have anything to complain about.”

Thus, Latifah has learned to be truly deliberate about what she says “Yes” to. “There’s always something cooking, but I’m still really working on my ‘No’s,’” she notes, with a knowing laugh. Even this Variety interview required careful consideration, but she ultimately embraced the attention because it aligns with one of her most important values: celebrating women.

“This is important. We’re not often celebrated and affirmed in the way we should be,” she explains. “We need to not only be affirmed, but to support one another, and to show that we support one another.”

Empowering others — especially women — has been a hallmark of Latifah’s career since she burst onto the scene in the late 1980s with her debut album, “All Hail the Queen.” Revered as the first lady of hip-hop, she quickly established herself as a lasting force and the coming year is highlighted by a few hallmark moments.

Latifah’s hit TV series “Living Single” will celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2023. Latifah played urban-lifestyle magazine entrepreneur Khadijah James for five seasons, in a storyline that mirrored her and business partner Shakim Compere launching Flavor Unit in their mid-20s. The show has found a new audience via cable and streaming – further solidifying its legacy as one of the most influential shows of the 90s.

“’Living Single’ spoke to our generation. It showed the hustle that we had, the desire to achieve, and entrepreneurship,” she says. “It showed hip-hop being validated, as not this passing fad, but an actual culture that involve many facets.”

Likewise, this December marks 20 years since her Oscar-nominated performance as Mama Morton in “Chicago.” As she sat in the Dolby Theatre as a supporting actress nominee, she cemented her movie-star status, thanks to opening the No. 1 movie in the country that weekend with “Bringing Down the House.”

“What was exciting was the power that comes from being nominated for an Oscar,” Latifah says. “The power wasn’t to become an actor to go do more movies. It was to produce movies. It was now to be able to control movies. So that’s why you saw ‘Just Wright,’ ‘Beauty Shop’ and all the movies that we were able to do.”

Now, Latifah’s focused on a potential third season of “The Equalizer.” “[We’re] digesting what worked and what didn’t work, because we’ve got some serious fans who love the show,” she says. “We want to make sure that we keep them and build on that audience.”

Her top priority is satisfying one of the show’s most avid viewers, her grandmother, NaNa: “I’m still at work making sure she will be right in front of that television watching every Sunday.”

Another “Equalizer” super fan is her “Joyful Noise” co-star Dolly Parton. “Dolly literally wrote me a letter like, ‘You are a badass on that show!’” Latifah says. “I may have to call and ask if she wants to be on.”

Latifah continues to make an impact with “The Equalizer,” which doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, such as racism, sexual harassment and police use of excessive force.

“We’re representing people who really need to see some justice met,” she says. “They need to see their stories told, and they need to see the good guys win — and in this case, the good gal.”

Following “The Equalizer,” Latifah has two movies launching on Netflix — “Hustle” with Adam Sandler and her first thriller, “End of the Road.” Latifah says that signing onto “Hustle,” which follows a basketball scout (Sandler) who takes a chance on a streetball player, was a “no-brainer” — and not just because she’s had a crush on her leading man forever. (“Come on, who doesn’t?” she asks.) Latifah and Sandler have known each other for years, and when she filmed her eponymous talk show from 2013-2015, his Happy Madison production company also made its home on the Sony lot, where Sandler and Latifah’s longtime business partner Shakim Compere would play basketball together.

“He is the nicest person in the world. He’s such a sweetheart,” she says of Sandler. “His family’s cool. He rolls with his crew, which I love, which is like me. You roll with the same people, and you’re able to do really cool stuff over and over again with your friends.”

In “End of the Road,” she plays Brenda, a woman who has lost her husband and her job and decides to start over in her hometown of Houston. But as she sets off with her two children and her brother (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), the family road trip that goes horrifically awry. Also in the works is the animated movie “The 13 1/2 lives of Captain Bluebear,” which is based on a children’s book that Latifah brought to the streamer. She partnered with Lisa Henson of the Henson Company for the project, which will be directed by David P. Smith (“Trolls 2: World Tour”).

As much as Latifah has enjoyed diversifying her filmography into new genres, she’d also be open to revisit her rom-com career. There’ve long been discussions about making a sequel to 2010’s “Just Wright” with Common, though the two multi-hyphenates will “probably be 80 when we make the movie again” thanks to their busy schedules.

“I love doing rom-coms; They’re fun and sweet and I’ve enjoyed them,” she says, adding that “’Last Holiday’ is one of my favorite movies out of all the movies I’ve made for many reasons. It reminded me to just live life to the fullest.”

The one movie that’s yet to be made, though, is the Dana Owens story, and Latifah has some interest in crafting that personal project sometime soon.

“I actually have some things I’m cooking up,” she says slyly. “But when you get back to that introduction again, that 20-minute introduction of Queen Latifah, I’ve got to break some of that up [into different projects]. There’s so many stories to tell.”

Behind the scenes, Latifah is leading the fourth installment of her Queen Collective filmmaking program with P&G and Tribeca Studios; and plans to narrate the Audible series “Unity in the Community” as part of Flavor Unit’s deal with the company, which is also based in her hometown of Newark, N.J., where she broke ground on a multimillion-dollar housing development project last week.

She’s also been supporting the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a tuition-free, open-enrollment, public charter high school in Northwest Detroit. Of her desire to give back to the community, Latifah says, “I’m just very inspired by people, by kids and their innocence and their eyes on the world, that they can conquer and they can do anything.”

Styling:  Jason Rembert; Makeup: Sam Fine/Basic White Shirt LTD; Hair: Iasia Merriweather; Manicure: Eri Ishizu/Opus Beauty
@erierinanailz; Dark Blue Dress (Cover): Dress: Christian Siriano; Earrings: Chopard; Hat image: Suit: Dior; Hat: Sergio Hudson; Jewelry; Helen Yarmak