Mary J. Blige acts out for Rock of Ages role

R & B icon was worried about working with Hollywood stars in film adaptation.

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      LOS ANGELES—When director Adam Shankman started casting the musical Rock of Ages, he knew two things: he wanted Tom Cruise to play the film’s aging rock star and he needed a great voice for the role of Justice, the owner of a strip club on Sunset Boulevard. “Mary J. Blige was my first call,” Shankman says in a Los Angeles interview room.

      The problem was that Cruise had never taken on a singing role in a movie musical, and although Blige had appeared in the Tyler Perry film I Can Do Bad All By Myself, she would need to take acting lessons to keep up with costars like Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, and Paul Giamatti. Cruise took singing lessons, and Blige went to work with an acting coach. She says she felt that because Shankman had so much faith in her, she should do whatever it took to make the role work for the film.

      “I met Adam about a year and a half ago at a housewarming party for Jennifer Lopez. We were all just hanging out and having a good time, and he kept saying he was going to put me in a movie. People say things when you meet them at parties, but they don’t deliver. But six months later, he showed up with a script with the role of Justice, and I went to work and got an acting coach and worked hard because he believed in me. He felt I could do this.”

      The movie, which opens on Friday (June 15), is based on the Broadway play of the same name and is set in the 1980s at a Sunset Boulevard club. The soundtrack is lifted from that decade, with a mix of heavy metal and soft rock. Blige walked onto a set that was filled with veteran actors and says that she discovered Zeta-Jones was as nervous about singing with Blige as she was about acting with Zeta-Jones.

      “I had to pinch myself. I love Catherine Zeta-Jones, and I had the chance to meet her, and when I met her I found out she was a fan of mine, I was nervous to meet her, and she was nervous to meet me! So it was all good.”

      Blige’s music career began 20 years ago, but according to Wikipedia, she had already sold 50 million albums and 15 million singles by last year. Although she is best known for R & B, she says she was inspired by the music that fills the movie’s soundtrack.

      “It was fun for me, because when we were growing up in the ’80s, MTV was the only music station and that is how I got exposed to Journey and Pat Benatar and Guns N’ Roses,” Blige recalls. “My father was a musician, and he had Eagles albums and Grateful Dead and things like that, so I was exposed to both hard and soft rock. We only had mainstream radio stations that played soft rock, so I have been exposed to that since I was five years old. But it was fun to sing the Pat Benatar songs in the film because when we were kids, my sisters and I would sing ‘Love Is a Battlefield’ at the top of our lungs. That was the chick anthem.”

      So have things changed in the music business since the decade that inspired her?

      Blige says originality has been a victim. “I think the freedom to express yourself and be the artist that you want to be is gone because there is so much manufacturing of the same things. People say, ‘You have to do this because it worked for her.’ What about the stuff that works for you?

      “In the ’80s, everyone did what they wanted to do, and that is why there was so much good music and different hair and different outfits.”

      Watch the trailer for Rock of Ages.