This year's keynote speakers find their voices in playing wildly untraditional women.On the surface, John Travolta and Queen Latifah don't have a lot in common. One broke into the business as the first lady of hip-hop, the other as the disco king. They hail from different generations, races and genders. But in Adam Shankman's joyous screen adaptation of "Hairspray" the musical, which was in turn based on John Waters' eponymous 1988 film, Travolta and Latifah -- who are the keynote speakers at this year's Women in Entertainment breakfast -- both get a chance to let their inner big, beautiful women shine.
Both were risky parts for the actors: Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, a blonde, brazen Civil Rights activist delivering tongue-tangling dialogue, and Travolta as Edna Turnblad, a gentle, big-bosomed mother singing and dancing with feminine flair. "Characters like these represent real women," Latifah says. "I think even Edna being a man dressed as a woman represents a real part of the population. Is it progress? You can call it that, because these women are real."
While Latifah was able to transform herself into the outspoken Motormouth Maybelle with the help of flowing garments, oversized '60s jewelry and teased-out blonde wigs, Travolta underwent four hours of prosthetics and makeup a day to tap into the character of Edna, mother of the film's twinkle-toed protagonist, Tracy. He was initially reticent to play a woman, because he didn't want the character to be reduced to a drag joke. But through detailed discussions with the designers, he was able to create a shapely, pleasant and completely womanly Edna.
"The equipment was light enough that I could override it," Travolta says. "I decided that perhaps I could create a magic by allowing Edna to be light on her feet, even though she was heavy. And even the scene with Queen Latifah ('Big, Blonde and Beautiful') where we're just moving side to side, it's got an elegance and gracefulness to it."
Latifah created an atmosphere of trust on the set that allowed her and Travolta to break new territory in presenting audiences with these two wildly untraditional female role models. "Queen Latifah is so comfortable with who she is and what her humanities are, and she can bring that to the table effortlessly," says Travolta. "I mean, wherever you want to go, she is comfortable going there with you. And she's got this abundance of organic talent that is undeniable, and she can change the space of a whole room by her presence."
On the set, Travolta commanded a presence as well, although it certainly wasn't a masculine one. "Working with John Travolta was such a fantastic experience," Latifah says. "He was so absorbed in his role; I literally would forget it was John. I started to believe he was Edna. I treated him with the same respect I'd treat one of my aunts or older women in my life -- opening doors for him, making sure he was comfortable. And that's the mark of a great actor: when people close to him are convinced he is someone else."
Living his days as a woman in Hollywood during the production of New Line's "Hairspray" proved a new and eye-opening experience for Travolta -- one that gave him insight into the mysterious force of female sexuality. "I underestimated the power of even being a facade of a woman," he says. "I mean, there I am with these large breasts and this waist and this big ass, and men are forgetting it's me. They're just responding to this illusion of womanliness. Mostly men were really attracted to her, and you could feel it. A little more manners were thrown at you, a little more regard."
Latifah, of course, has spent her entire life as a woman breaking down barriers and forging new territory. "We still have a long way to go in film, politics, the workplace," she says. "We have a long way to go everywhere, but we'll get there."