Last week, “The Equalizer” star and executive producer Queen Latifah announced that the hit CBS series had been picked up for a third and fourth season.
The show, in which Latifah plays vigilante Robyn McCall, is currently the network’s No. 2 primetime series, behind only stalwart show “NCIS,” so the multi-season commitment is logical. But success is never a given, at least not in Latifah’s eyes, who told Variety she’s “never satisfied” with the status quo.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have a film career where we were always coming up with new things. We’re always trying to push the envelope and be more creative, so I bring that mentality to television,” she explained. “How can we push it even further? How can we make it even more beautiful or more interesting?”
Honored as one of Variety’s Power of Women cover stars, Latifah hopped on the phone for an interview just days after wrapping filming on “The Equalizer,” but as an executive producer of the show under her Flavor Unit Entertainment banner, her work wasn’t done when the cameras stopped rolling. She was thinking ahead to next season before the pickup was officially announced on May 5.
“[We’re] digesting what worked and what didn’t work, and stepping our game up, leveling up for next year, because we’ve got some serious fans who love the show,” she said. “We want to make sure that we keep them and build on that audience.”
Her top priority is satisfying one of the show’s most avid viewers, her grandmother, NaNa: “I’m still at work making sure she will be right in front of that television watching every Sunday.”
Another “Equalizer” superfan is her “Joyful Noise” co-star Dolly Parton. “Dolly literally wrote me a letter like, ‘You are a badass on that show!’” Latifah shared. “I may have to call and ask if she wants to be on.”
In a February episode, Season 2 already featured a cameo from Latifah’s friend and “Set It Off” and “Girls Trip” co-star Jada Pinkett Smith, who pitched the star on her role as Jessie Cook, a master thief from Robyn’s past. So, who else is Latifah considering for the show’s third season?
“We’re thinking about a lot of different people for Season 3. But we can’t tell you, because then everybody else is gonna go grab them up,” she teased.
Part of Latifah’s competitive drive comes from understanding the limitations of network television, and the type of content the show can air for the masses. “We have to compete with a lot of different sources. We can’t do many of the things that other shows can do, so we have to really maintain a high level of quality,” she explained. “I think we’ve managed to do it, but we can always get better.”
The Season 2 finale airs on May 15 as McCall continues to navigate the blurring lines between her family life and her vigilante work as she reels from the death of her CIA mentor (who was played by Chris Noth) at the hands of her criminal nemesis Mason Quinn and struggles with guilt over her daughter Delilah (Laya DeLeon Hayes) and Aunt Vi (Lorraine Toussaint) having to keep her secrets. The emotional turmoil continues to ratchet up as the season speeds toward its end when her ex-husband and Delilah’s father (Stephen Bishop) begins to question the nature of her work and their daughter’s safety in her care.
Read on as Latifah discusses the real-world impact of the show, some of her favorite episodes and what the recently dated “Equalizer 3,” starring Denzel Washington, could mean by way of a future crossover.
Now that you have two seasons under your belt, what is the lesson that you’re taking into Season 3?
Telling these stories is very, very important because we’re representing people who really need to see some justice met. They need to see their stories told and to see the good guys win, and, in this case, the good gal. And there’s not a lot of shows on TV that are doing that. That does happen in real life, believe it or not, but we don’t often get to see it, so here’s an opportunity to show it on a regular basis, and some of the difficulties that it requires in order to make things right. Unfortunately, some things are never made right, but we try.
But the collaboration is important. It’s important for us to collaborate as producers, writers, showrunners — every part of our crew and our cast has something to offer and to treat each other with respect is important. On our own set, we try to make our world a better place, which is what we’re also trying to do for our audience, and try to come up with creative ways to entertain the audience.
This show doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter — racism, sexual harassment and police use of excessive force — and is more about life in general, than featuring a bad guy of the week. What is something audiences have attached themselves to that surprised you?
Well, they love the relationship between Dante [Tory Kittles] and myself, of course. They really get a little heated about that. It’s just hilarious.
One of the strongest shows I think we have had was what we call “The Karen Show,” [the fifth episode of the show’s second season, titled “Followers”] when Aunt Vi was assaulted by a white woman in a store and the white police officers who arrived on scene — because [the woman] decided to call the police — believed the white woman initially. But because Delilah filmed it, she was able to show what really happened. So many people connected to that.
We spent a lot of time talking with the writers about what that experience is like, and why [the white woman] should stand there and call the police, and why [Aunt Vi] is within her right to press charges. We don’t have to walk away from that. And we got such a huge reaction to that, because it covered multiple generations, it was layered and nuanced, and it continued through the show.
Obviously, Robyn McCall could handle this in two seconds — and she was mad and ready to — but this was something where McCall had to be a niece and not the Equalizer. She was angry because her aunt’s feelings were hurt, and her daughter was exposed to this, but she had to be a niece and a mom, not a lethal person who could handle these people with no problem. That what was more important. To see the pain play through the eyes of the brilliant acting of Lorraine Toussaint, that was what touched people. They connected to that; they felt that pain. They understood where she was coming from. They knew the layers of it. And if they hadn’t before they were able to still connect through that emotion.
Denzel Washington teased recently that he was getting ready to do “The Equalizer 3” movie. What are the chances of you popping up in the movie or him popping up on the show? Or do you save that for the series finale?
That’s up to D. It’s really between him and Antoine [Fuqua, who’s directed the film series]. Obviously, I love him to pieces. I have the greatest amount of respect for him. What he’s done with the films has been incredible, and I’d be more than happy to connect with him on any level. It’s just kind of like that with us.
So, who knows what’s gonna happen? Who knows what could happen, but, I’m looking forward to whatever he’s gonna do, because I know when he gets in the zone, it gets in the zone. I’m gonna keep doing TVs Robyn McCall and let him keep rocking the movie version of McCall; I know we’ll both continue to deliver.
Next year will mark 30 years since “Living Single” premiered — the show debuted on Aug. 22, 1993. When you look back on the legacy of this groundbreaking series you brought to the culture and the way that TV has changed, as well as how you’ve grown as a producer since then, what stands out to you?
Oh boy, how good we had it. It was a great schedule, you make good money. There’s laughter. You’re working with people that you care about, that you’re having fun with. And you’re delivering a show that people are connecting to and that hasn’t been seen before.
“Living Single” spoke to our generation. It showed the hustle that we had, the desire to achieve and entrepreneurship. It showed hip-hop being validated, not as this passing fad, but an actual culture that involved many facets — not just the music, the graffiti, the breakdancing or the DJ-ing, but the fashion and the writing of magazines, films, and clubs and so many things that could be created. There was so much money that was being generated based off this thing called hip-hop.
Here you have these four young people from New York, who are of the hip-hop generation, who are graduates of college, or handymen or lawyers or, in Khadijah’s case, an entrepreneur. You saw the struggles of what it is to run a business; the challenges and the excitement of what it is to be a young lawyer and being hungry. And dating — trying to have a love life and work at the same time and hustle. And laughter — the sisterhood, the brotherhood, the family of it all, and how you could laugh through the rough times. Our parents were on that show. The 90s were a great time to do a show like that. We were very fortunate to come of age at that time.
I’ve got to give Will [Smith] a shout out. It was because of Will that that we did “Living Single.” As rappers, I toured with Will, and when Will got [“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”], we were like, “Oh, if Will could do a show, we could do a show.” So that was where it all began, with us starting to beat the pavement to try to create a sitcom.
Then we saw that Kim Coles, who we were big fan of from “In Living Color” was in a holding deal, and we decided did to link with her. Then Yvette Lee [Bowser], who was one of the young showrunners at the time doing her thing, we linked with her and we kind of created this idea. She literally rode around in the car with me for two weeks, just listening to me talk and my cadence, hearing me and my friends have conversations. We had Flavor Unit Management at the time — a management company in our early 20s — so we were doing those very things that we were putting on television.
But I’ve met so many people through the years who were inspired to go into business, to go to college, to try unorthodox things because of that show. To wear their hair naturally. To just be their natural selves. They saw themselves in four different women and who look four different ways, and two other guys who look two different ways. Coming off the success of “Martin,” then we have “Living Single” which becomes the No. 1 show among Black and Latino households.
We’re seeing it have a resurgence on cable and streaming too.
It’s for a whole new audience. I know people who watch reruns every day. Kids who knew nothing about it, got a whole education on it. We were able to kind of educate them on what they think they know, here’s where it came from.
I learned a lot about acting by being around greats like Erika Alexander, Kim Fields and Chip Fields, who taught me a lot. I hadn’t gone to drama school or acting school, so I learned on the job and from them and Ellen Gittelsohn, our director [who first directed Latifah in her 1991 TV debut on “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” before coming over to “Living Single”]. Even my acting coach [Richard Lyons] is still with me; we’ve been together since “Living Single,” he coached me for my audition for “Set It Off” and we haven’t looked back. I just think that there was so many relatable topics on it, and it was just a really well-written and funny show.
“The Equalizer” airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS and is available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+. The series is produced by Universal Television, a division of Universal Studio Group. This interview has been edited and condensed.
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