In the opening of Tina and Ike Turner’s rendition of Creedance Clearwater’s “Proud Mary,” Tina gives a disclaimer to the audience: “Every now and then I think you might like to hear something from us nice and easy, but there’s just one thing, you see: we never ever do nothing nice and easy.” When Angela Bassett took on the task of portraying Turner in 1993 for “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” she took that to heart.
In the 30 days between landing the role and the first day of shooting, Bassett worked 16-hour days, exercising each morning before learning dance numbers with Turner and choreographer Michael Peters. Bassett also worked with her co-star Laurence Fishburne to act scenes depicting the violence and domestic abuse that Tina endured through her marriage. It was anything but nice and easy.
Bassett spoke with Variety for the 30th anniversary of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” to reflect on her time with the production, her collaboration with Turner herself and the film’s enduring legacy since the iconic singer’s passing.
I was listening to an interview you did right after the movie’s initial release where you talked about the time you met Tina before the screen tests. Can you talk about that moment?
Oh my gosh, I don’t even recall that. I do remember going through days and days — it felt like weeks — preparing for the screen test with a number of individuals, one being Samuel L. Jackson. I did the scene where you’re knocked over the back of the couch and my hand got fractured — a small hairline fracture.
After I got the role, I was working with Michael Peters, the choreographer, and Tina came to his home dance studio. She showed me her photo albums and old pictures of her with Ike and the Ikettes. We sat over the photo album just commiserating and listening to her memories of that time. I remember saying once, “Oh my, why did your jaw look like that?” And she said “Oh, I had a broke jaw when that happened.” But she would say it with such levity. It was so in the past, so behind her in her rearview. She didn’t say it as if there was any shame or embarrassment or regret. It wasn’t who she was at the present.
And she was fighting for me to learn the routines in flat bare feet, not in five-inch stilettos. I was like, “Thank you. Thank you so much, Tina. Because this Michael Peters is a beast.”
If it was up to him, you would have been in those stilettos?
Mhm. And I was there alone. There were no Ikettes cast at that time where you can share the fun or be exhausted and be in the fire together. So it was just me by myself for the better part of those 30 days — just Tina and I in front of the mirror learning the routines together.
You trained vigorously while preparing for this role, to the point where you once said you had to go see a chiropractor. What physical work did it take to get into the role of Tina?
You got up at five in the morning, went to the gym to workout for two and a half hours. Then you would head to Michael Peters and learn routines — which were all intense cardio — for about 10 hours. Ten hours! You had to be so focused and so determined. Pain was irrelevant. Fear was real and physical pain and torture was just going to be a part of it. Every part of your body hurt and there was no time to eat anything.
When you found time, what did you eat?
Broccoli, string beans, Yukon potatoes and bland chicken breast. That’s what my trainer suggested for me. And black coffee and water. Literally. And there was no time to sit down at a table and eat those items. You literally stood stuffing them in your face, one-by-one and then jump back on the dance floor. I was losing inches every week. I would go see Ruth Carter, our costume designer, and every week it was less and less of me — inches just melting away. It was a schedule you would never keep up again.
Did you take that kind of physical aptitude with you after the film?
No, I rebelled and overcorrected. When you’re bent so far in one direction, you just bounce right to the other side. You eat apple pie and all those things.
You said that sometimes Tina would come in and work with the makeup artists. What exactly was it that she wanted?
That was with Marietta Carter — she did my makeup for that. I remember red lips and thick brows.
And what about the costumes and working with Ruth Carter?
I love that iconic gold fringe dress that Tina wore. I was able to see it again recently. I remember the shoes and having to dance in them. That was hell! There was another dress that was sort of formfitting that Ruth made from scratch. It reminded me of something I’ve seen in old Hollywood movies. Then getting up to the regular stuff you could wear — the bell bottoms, Applejack hats, fringe vests, the mini skirts during the Phil Spector moment in time.
But it was difficult in terms of costumes. Every day I would show up on the set and the director, [Brian Gibson,] would not like the costumes. We were on location and all the costumes were in a truck. So Ruth and I got smart, because it was a hassle. We would take Polaroids of tomorrow’s look and give it to the director and he would look at them and say, “Ok, that’s good. That works.” But then we show up on set the next day, and he would not like it — again.
Then we tried to have me put on the costume for the next day before I went home in the evening, so he could actually see it in person. That worked a little better.
But it all continued to shorten my day. I would have, literally for the entire shoot, maybe eight hours off. I would leave the set and they would ask me if they could force my call to bring me in nine hours later as opposed to 12. And I would say “Yes,” because you just felt you needed every moment possible to be able to tell this woman’s story.
Did it feel like a personal responsibility or hard work — or both?
It felt like both. I remember to this day, Chi McBride said, “It’s as if we’re those cartoon characters and we’re laying across the furniture on-set and we all have those black X’s across our eyes.” And that is exactly how we feel every day. Just absolutely spent.
But it was also a huge responsibility. Telling the story of Tina and Ike, this relationship and the resiliency of this woman — the frailties, the strength and the brilliance of these two individuals who made such a profound impact during their time together and apart. I don’t think we had seen a woman like Tina on a rock and roll stage who was the age that she was and had been through what she had been through. Her story was just tearing down so many walls and breaking so many barriers. We didn’t know to what extent it would, but we knew the story of this brilliant Black woman was important to tell.
In addition to having that responsibility of telling her story, was there any part of yourself that you felt you brought to the role?
I saw that she was southern like I was. She was a southern Black girl — me from Florida, her from Nutbush — both born of a broken family with dreams to make it in the industry. And both hard workers who don’t quit, don’t give up and don’t make excuses. I resembled her enough to make it believable — just enough.
What were some of Tina’s mannerisms that you really focused on?
Definitely her ability to laugh and find joy. That was something that I recognized in her and grabbed on to — that ready, easy smile. And, of course, the way she would throw back her head and that mane of hair. But really just her laugh. A little raspy. Which became real as I sang her songs. They have a hard hitting effect on the vocal cords, so I found that I began to sound like her a little bit.
It was about committing yourself to the moment and the woman. I would look at everything. Every VHS tape, every story or video or song — any and everything that I could find about her. You would just absorb it and sleep with it. I had a CD player where I could control how much of a phrase I could listen to at a time. So I put those on even when I was off. I’d be in my bed and I would play a phrase until I got it absolutely perfect. Down to, “Is she inhaling breath before she sings that note or is she exhaling afterwards?” How long is “oh?” Where does “oh” live in my body?” Is it in my heart? Is it in my gut? I might listen to that for 45 minutes until I felt I got it absolutely right.
Oh my gosh.
Then I’d move to the, “There’s something on my mind,” and do the same. Then I would add the first to the second. And only when I felt satisfied that I had that would I move forward. It was very exacting and surgical.
What was it like working with Laurence Fishburne? How did you workshop that tumultuous on-screen relationship?
We had a relationship working together beforehand with “Boyz n the Hood,” so that undergirded our camaraderie with one another. We had also been cast in a movie before that where we were love interests called “Death Rose,” but the movie never got made. There was this history of chemistry and a respect of each other as people and as artists.
At first, he said he wasn’t interested in playing the role of Ike. Laurence was doing his thing. He was a well-respected actor in our community up to that point. Once I was cast, I was like, “You know, brother, if you don’t want to, I respect you enough. I love you.” And that’s all I said to him. And then a couple of days later, I get a call and he said, “Hey, you want to get married?” And I knew exactly what that meant.
The filmmaker was right. He was the best Ike. He was strong, he was respectful. He could bring order and he had discipline. When things got out of hand, as they did, he could bring some stoppage and clarity to the moment. We literally worked 16-hour days on the smallest of things, like cutting a ribbon. And whereas I could not, as an up-and-coming actor to this white male British director, Laurence could say, “I think we got it. We got it.” And then we could all go home and get some rest to be ready for the next day. Every day was monumental. There weren’t light days, like, “Oh, I get to stand at the edge of the cliff and look out at the ocean.” No. Every day you’re dancing “Proud Mary” or dealing with something very emotional.
There were particularly hard moments. In the rape scene, the director wanted to come inside the studio. I was wearing a miniskirt and he said, “Oh, I think you should have garters on.” Garters? Garters with a miniskirt? So I had to run to the trailer and say, “Ruth, can I have some garters? I don’t think garters look right. I don’t think they feel right.” The garters are coming up mid-thigh, the skirt is five inches above that. It doesn’t make sense. These two things do not go together. And then the director laughed and said, “That looks ridiculous.”
Like you had said from the beginning.
Yes. Now you see for yourself and let’s move on. But you felt the enormity of this rape scene. It’s not love making — it is violence and control. It’s manipulative. And as the person portraying it, even though it hasn’t happened to you, you can’t help but feel these things. They can seep into your soul. They inhabit your body, your mind, your spirit. And we were willing to give all of ourselves to the moment to get it on tape.
But we were not willing to do what history had shown us on set over the last few months, that we would do it over and over and over again for 16 hours. I wasn’t willing to do that. And I knew I couldn’t ask the director because, here I am as a new actor, but I could talk to Laurence. So Laurence asked me, “How many times you want to do this?” And I looked at him, he took my hand and I said, “Four or five.” And then he told the director, like, “Hey man, we’re just going to do this four times. So let’s make sure we get the cameras right and we’re going to keep them outside of the studio.”
It ended up being what I thought was a beautiful juxtaposition between that violent act and the tranquility of fish floating by unaware — a metaphor for something appearing like one thing on the outside, but, behind the scenes, another story being told. We got it. It was below the waist so you’re not seeing anything, but you see his movements as if he’s doing something and I could respond as if he is doing something.
There was another scene where I fell off the back of the couch and there was no stunt assistance or anything. And it was just like, I’m here on the edge of this thing and I think, “Just flip the hell over.” And I just keep going with it. I was in control. And then he was able to come behind the couch and you see punches, but you don’t see them land. That was Laurence’s brilliance. Some of the things he did, you may not see the imagery, but you will feel it, you will sense it, you will understand it. You won’t see the actual perpetration of it visually, he as a Black man and me as a Black woman on screen. But you will take away so much from it.
What was Tina’s response to the film?
Early on she did not see the film. I remember when we went to Italy, she claimed that she did not see the film. Maybe 20 years ago, we were together and she took me aside and said, “You played me so well. Thank you.” But even though she did not see the film early on, she was there every step of the way. She was there at the rehearsals. She was at Neiman’s buying me blouses for “I Might Have Been Queen.” Going into her storage and getting the red “Disco Inferno” costume and allowing me to use that in the film. And she was always calling to find out how I was doing. Always telling me that I was perfect, just perfect. And you’re just praying and working every day to serve her story.
Looking back at it over the last 30 years, what do you think the overall legacy of the film is?
Her story continues to serve others. It’s a story that is universal and watchable in today’s world. It’s a story that still has the power to move people. It’s a story that changed the lives of those who watched it. And not just women; men as well. It’s a story of a mature woman, a passionate individual who lost everything and still managed to survive — and not just survive, but thrive. She showed you that anything is possible, no matter where you are, what you look like, where you came from or what you started with.
I’m sure it was really difficult for you to hear about Tina’s death. Could you share what that was like for you?
I knew that she wasn’t doing well physically for a while. That part was just impossible to even believe because she had so much vitality for so long. I reckoned with the fact that it would happen one day, I didn’t know when it would. I tried to reckon with my heart that this is a part of life. And as gracefully as she showed us how to live, she would show us how to transition. And then she did.