Stage to Screen
A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of a Chicago family living in a one-room apartment in the '50s. When the head of the family leaves them a $10,000 life insurance check, everyone has their own ideas about how to spend the money. In the end, what they decide changes them all forever.
Music mogul Sean Combs stars as Walter Lee Younger, a chauffeur who longs to own his own business and prove his manhood.
Phylicia Rashad—who became the first African-American actress to win a Best Actress Tony Award for the stage version—plays Walter Lee's mother, Lena, a woman desperate to retire from her job as a domestic.
Rounding out the cast are Tony winner Audra McDonald, Tony nominee Sanaa Lathan and ER's John Stamos.
In order to land the part, Sean says he had to go through an audition process. "The first time I met [director Kenny Leon], he was, like, 'You were born to play this role.'"
Although Sean's success has earned him a privileged lifestyle, he says there was a time in his life when he struggled like his character in the film. "It wasn't too long ago. I grew up in Harlem, New York. My father was killed when I was 3 years old," he says.
Because his mother couldn't always afford to buy him basic items like shoes, Sean says he took odd jobs to help support his family. "Your stomach still remembers how it feels to be hungry," he says. "I dreamed to be something. I wanted to be able to take care of my mother and take care of my family."
The role of Walter Lee was originated by Oscar® winner Sidney Poitier in 1959, so Sean knew he had big shoes to fill. "When I received the role I said, 'Hold on, let me get permission,'" he says. So, Sean picked up the phone and tracked Sidney down. "He was, like, 'Oh, come on. This is what you're supposed to do—expose it to a whole new generation,'" Sean says. "And that's my hope, to expose this to a whole new generation."
Sean says he wants families to watch the film not only for its beautiful entertainment, but also to learn an important life lesson. "The message in the story is that money is a part of life, but life is about the love of your family," he says. "That's a message that's very important."
In the beginning, Phylicia says she didn't even want to be involved. "When this play was first produced on Broadway in 1959, because of what was happening in the world and in the country, it got kind of labeled as a civil rights play," she says. "The characters, as much as people loved them and identified with them, in subsequent productions seemed more like [stereo]types."
Finally, Phylicia's friend and director Kenny Leon convinced her to accept. "I said, 'Kenny, why do you want me to play that role?'" she says. "He goes, 'Because, Rashad, I think you're going to do something.'"
When Phylicia read the script, she says she knew it was for her. "This whole story is this woman's commitment to life—to the continuation of life through her children and through her grandson," she says.
Phylicia says in creating her character she gave great consideration to what being born at the turn of the century would have meant to a woman like Lena. "I understood her history as a human being," she says. "She was a woman who could reach back and touch slavery through grandparents or old people in her community that she knew as a child."
"If there was ever an actress who should have gotten an Emmy for her work, [it was Phylicia]. Nobody tied everything together like Phylicia Rashad. [She] was the anchor," Bill says.
Bill says one of the reasons Phylicia got the part was because she knew how to cut a look to the children like no other. "Only mothers know that look."
Phylicia says the truth is, Bill was the one responsible for her signature glance. While filming the Cosby pilot, Phylicia says Bill could tell right away that she had done a lot of theater work. "He said, 'Because you always come in on cue.' He said, 'I want you to try something different. I want you to take the time to look at me and trust that your audience is with you,'" she says. "That's the greatest acting lesson I ever received from anyone."