Tika Sumpter on Playing Bessie Smith’s Lover in HBO Film: “People Are More Than Who They Sleep With”

Queen Latifah and Tika Sumpter in 'Bessie.' (HBO)

This Saturday, HBO will be airing the bio pic, Bessie,” which stars Queen Latifah (aka Dana Owens) as the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. The film, directed by Dee Rees (“Pariah), not only focuses on Bessie’s rise to prominence in the jazz and blues world but also her bisexuality and many romances with both men and women.

One of her longer lasting relationships was with Lucille, a woman who stood by her side over many years and, in the film, is played by actress Tika Sumpter, who is currently also seen on the popular OWN primetime drama, “The Haves and the Have Nots.”

How was it for the actress to step from the crazy world that Tyler Perry has created in the OWN drama to the more grounded world of “Bessie?” And, of course, besides talking the sexuality portrayed in the film, we also talked about how Candace, her “HATHN” character, connects with gay character Jeffrey (played by Gavin Houston) on the series.

You’ve been playing Candace on “The Haves and the Have Nots” and now Lucille in “Bessie” so I’m curious how has it been as an actor to jump into this role that’s more grounded in reality.

Tika Sumpter: That’s a great way of putting it. I was super-excited to work with Dana and play a character grounded in reality. Sometimes there’s not a lot of dialogue for the character, which I kind of love because there’s so much you can do. I feel like without saying a lot you have to kind of express yourself. So for me in ‘The Haves and Have Nots,’ Candace is always going at the mouth and not always grounded in reality. Like somebody would have punched her by now.

For me, Lucille is like the ride-or-die chick who is there for you even when she shouldn't be. I love that she has so many colors without saying a lot. I think that's life a lot of the times. You choose certain circumstances and you're not always able to get your way. You're figuring it out so I feel like there's so many variations with Lucille. I feel like she's so grounded in reality and she's trying to work with what she has in the situation. I love working with HBO and I loved working on this project. It was definitely a nice gear change for me to play her.

How would you describe the relationship between Lucille and Bessie? I definitely feel like there's love there but there's some freedom to their relationship because Bessie is taking other lovers over the years.

TS: I think they’re best friends. She’s that person who listens. She’s not going to tell her what to do, where to be. She’s there for her. She has no other intentions besides wanting to grow as a family but she’s not trying to be a star. She’s not in it for the money. She’s there because she really loves Bessie. I just think she’s a best friend who literally is there for all the right reasons but just at the wrong time.

I really liked how the movie didn't get lost in the whole sexuality of it all. Like it's a part of the world but it doesn't become the main story or drive the plot really. What do you think of that?

TS: People are more than who they sleep with. There’s more to life than just who you’re with. I know in the industry it probably doesn’t seem that way with all the magazines about who’s sleeping with who and who’s doing what. It’s like we’re made up of so much more and Bessie Smith had a lot to give.

She was a writer, she produced, she was a business woman [and] she had a family and whether it was the normal kind of family or not, it was her family. You know, she had a one-woman show going on, a production that she ran. I love that it doesn't get caught up in is she this? Is she that? You can't put her life in a box. I think that's people in general. You cannot put them in a box. I think that's people in general. You can't put people in a box.

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How much did you actually know about Lucille? Was there a lot of research out there on her or did you kind of go by what was in the script?

TS: Well, unfortunately there isn’t a lot of story about her. You read about the stories of Bessie messing around but there are voice recordings of Bessie’s niece, not by blood…Jack Gee’s niece [and she] traveled with Bessie a lot. There are these amazing tapes of her talking about her being on the road with Bessie. She was there for everything. The parties, everything, everything….when she had to run away from Jack when Jack hit her. She talks about these two women that Bessie were definitely in love with. She tells these stories about one woman basically tried to commit suicide because Bessie was basically tossing her to the side because she was scared to kiss Bessie in public. So this girl was devastated. Then she tried to basically commit suicide but they caught her in time and from then on she was like ‘I will kiss you in public.’ She was in love with Bessie. So I got little things from that conversation and just trying to make up the world of just reading about Bessie Smith. She was passionate so I’m sure she was around other passionate women and fell in love like anybody else.

Let me ask you a 'Have and the Have Nots' question. Nothing made me happier than the finale where Candace is sitting with Jeffrey and Landen. I'm like that's right, Candace should be hanging out with her gays. That's how it should be.

TS: [laughs] Candace loves the boys. She loves them.

I love that from the start you never would have thought that Candace and Jeffrey would become such good friends but they really are friends and have a nice bond. What do you make of that?

TS: They do. I think they have a lot in common. In the beginning you probably wouldn’t have thought that but what I love is Candace calls it as she sees it but I think what they have in common is they both have two really insane relationships with their mom. For whatever reason the backstory is they have a really crazy relationship.

I think because of that Candace is just a protector at heart for people she really loves and I just think she sees a lot of herself in him. Like doubting herself or not being who you are and not being able to be who you really are in life and having to hide and having the shame. I think there are things that happened in Candace's life where she was ashamed and she couldn't be herself and people did step on her. So, I think she sees a lot of herself in [Jeffrey] and she wants to protect him. She wants to give him some of her guts even if he's not embracing it. She does accept him. She loves him.

As an actor, how was it for you to work on this show? I notice the scenes are really long! Much longer than your typical series.

TS: The crazy thing is…have you watched ‘A Streetcar Named Desire?’

Yes.

TS: It has all these long shots. When you’re walking in the door of the front house the camera follows all the way up to the bedroom and they have a whole conversation. If you look at those old Marlon Brando type movies you’re just like this scene is long. It’s really long. It’s just the way Tyler Perry liked to shoot his stuff and it’s different because you do go back. I just shot whether it was ‘Ride Along’ or ‘Bessie,’ the scenes are shorter. I don’t know if it’s the attention span of people and the editing has changed, the style or what but it’s a throwback.

Gavin Houston and Sumpter in a scene from 'The Haves and the Have Nots.' (OWN)

Are you back to work on the new season of the show or do you got a little downtime right now?

TS: I am. I’m back to work. Actually, I really can’t wait for people to see the next half [of the season]. We just shot 23 more episodes so I’m really stoked for people to see all the backstory of a lot of stuff going on and there’s a lot of new characters coming onboard. I’m excited.

Do you personally want Candace to have a happy ending? Do you think she deserves that or do you think she's always going to have drama swirling around her?

TS: I would love for her to live a peaceful life but I think she attracts drama because you attract what you have never dealt with. Sometimes when you don’t deal with certain issues in your life you’re going to keep attracting it until you learn the lesson. I feel like she has a lot of lessons to learn so I think the drama’s going to continue to swirl around her.

"Bessie" airs Saturday at 8pm on HBO. "The Haves and the Have Nots" will return later this year with new episodes on OWN.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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