'Queens' hopes to earn the TV respect meant for royalty
NEW YORK -- When Naturi Naughton read the script for ABC's new music-inspired drama "Queens," a feeling of déjà vu rushed through her.
"It's definitely a little eerie to me. When I read the script, I was like, 'Oh, this is what I lived though. I actually experienced some of the drama and breakups and makeups of being in a girl group," said Naughton, a former member of the 2000s R&B group 3LW. "That sense of identity is one thing that I connect to with my character, Jill. I always felt like I didn't have enough time to learn who I really was."
"Queens," which airs Tuesday nights in prime time and also streams on Hulu, is the brainchild of executive producer Zahir McGee. The drama follows a fictional popular '90s female rap crew starring Naughton, Eve, Brandy and Nadine Velazquez. The fictional group broke up at the height of their fame but two decades later -- now with members in their 40s -- they attempt to reunite after one of their biggest hits is sampled by a new artist.
A hit-making star of the 2000s and the only professional rapper in the cast, Eve was the first actor McGee had in mind when creating the show. Her character, Brianna (stage name "Professor Sex"), is a mom of five who's struggling to find her identity outside of her family while also working through her husband's affair.
Eve, who starred in her own sitcom of the same name from 2003-2006, said she had no interest in doing a show where recorded music was the focus, but was pulled into "Queens" because of the character depth.
"I don't want to just do a show that's like, 'We're just cranking out songs.' I want to make sure if I'm going to take this on, I want to be a full, well-rounded character. Once I read her and read the script, I was like, 'This is perfect,'" said the 43-year-old "Let Me Blow Your Mind" emcee who recently announced she was pregnant with her first child. "It's hip-hop from a female's point of view. And I feel a lot of like a lot of times when we've seen hip-hop, it's from a male point of view."
Brandy, the R&B icon whose songs and music videos remained in heavy rotation throughout the '90s and 2000s, said her character, Naomi (stage name "Xplicit Lyrics"), is a "dream role." She plays a singer-songwriter who has struggled with musical relevancy since the breakup, while also hoping to mend a strained relationship with her teenage daughter.
Brandy also pointed out that Naughton plays a pastor's wife who no longer wants to hide her identity after falling in love with a woman.
"It's so what TV needs. And I just love that we get a chance to contribute to diversity of television," said Brandy, the 42-year-old who starred in the popular 90s sitcom "Moesha."
Dramas starring four female leads of color on any major U.S. broadcast network is rare -- especially one where three of the four stars are at past their 40s. But the cast is embracing the unique opportunity.
"It's empowering to show that women of any age, even of a mature age, can still be sexy, can still be beautiful, can still make a comeback in their careers," said the 37-year-old Naughton, most recognized for her starring role on Starz's former flagship show "Power." "One of the things that I enjoyed about the show is that it gives you confidence that you can do anything at any age. It's never too late."
Velazquez, who left acting after not feeling fulfilled, said "Queens" made returning to the industry an easy decision.
"What attracted me ultimately to this project was the fact that it was diverse, the fact that the character was a woman and was going through similar experiences that I have already lived through," said the 43-year-old "Major Crimes" and "Six" actor. "I just thought it was just a way that the universe was showing me another sign that I was on the right path."
Velazquez's character, Valeria (stage name "Butter Pecan") is the only group member who maintained some semblance of fame by transitioning to a morning show host until her desire to maintain the spotlight gets the best of her. Velazquez, who's currently developing a project called "La'Tina" with Will Smith, is also the only lead who has not been a professional recording artist.
"I learned in-between takes. I was watching J-Lo videos. I was looking at TLC ... anything I could watch about the '90s," she said. "Then, whatever the girls were telling me, were helping me with. Eve was very helpful in my rapping ... she was like, 'OK, dirty this up, dirty this word up. You're enunciating a little too clearly.'"
Music executive Swizz Beatz, a close friend of Eve and her former Ruff Ryders labelmate and producer, heads up the music for the show. After talking with McGee and writers about each episode, his team creates raps that follow each character's storyline.
Although cast members don't pen their own lyrics, would Eve -- who mentioned that Swizz has left her beats to "sit with" in case she feels the urge to re-create some of her old magic -- speak up if the rhymes were corny?
"One hundred million percent," she said with a laugh. "That was one of the things I said to (McGee). I was like, 'Bruh, look: you know people will drag us if this music is not on point.' Thank God he's a hip-hop head as well."
Brandy, who released her "B7" album last year to critical acclaim, says the series currently has her too busy to work on new music, but she won't take another eight-year gap between albums like she did with "Two Eleven" in 2012. She wants to continue to grow in acting, and wouldn't mind taking on more film roles.
"That's a dream. I never really took my acting as serious as I'm taking it now," said the "Borderline" songstress who starred as Disney's first Black princess in "Cinderella" alongside the legendary Whitney Houston. "With this show, I'm just really inspired to keep pushing in the acting because there's so much that I could do."
Although the series has not yet been renewed, the cast remains hopeful. Eve, who recently went on maternity leave to prepare for a February birth after wrapping her scenes, has had her storyline line left open-ended in preparation for a second season.
"Queens" offers a unique perspective on the struggles and success women rappers face behind the mics, and the cast hopes its audience will continue to buy in.
"We're not trying to be younger. We're not trying to be anything other than what we are and who we are," said Velazquez. "I think that's what people are really seeing, is the chemistry and the authenticity that we're bringing to it."