Queen Latifah is using everything in her arsenal to bring the titular Robyn McCall to life on CBS’ The Equalizer (Sundays, 8/7c).
The former rapper and singer relies on her musicality when it comes to fight sequences, and her sense of justice as someone who was bullied as a kid growing up in Newark, New Jersey. But when it comes to being the first Black woman to take the lead in the franchise’s history, on either the big or small screen, Latifah (née Dana Owens) is tapping into her genetic memory.
“Black women have been equalizing for years and years,” says Latifah, who stars as a former operative who leaves the CIA behind to help everyday people in need, while also raising a teenage daughter. “From Hatshepsut to Stacey Abrams to Kamala Harris, to my mother and my grandmother, seeing a Black woman equalize is not a new thing to me. Seeing it on network TV once every week? That may be a little newer. We don’t see that quite as frequently, and I think we need to see more of it, if anything.”
To her point, Latifah is one of only several Black women to lead a one-hour drama on network television, joining a list that includes Teresa Graves (Get Christie Love), Kerry Washington (Scandal), Viola Davis (How To Get Away with Murder), Kylie Bunbury (Pitch) and Simone Missick (All Rise).
“We’ve been doing what we have to do. And we’ve been carrying a lot of things on our back,” says Latifah, who is also an EP on The Equalizer. “Unfortunately, sometimes, we’re not lifted up in the way we should be when it comes to how much we actually carry and how much grit we have. And how much determination we have, and how powerful we are and how magical we are, you know? These things come naturally, and it’s time for the world to just see it on a normal basis and in a very natural way.”
“Tell it through the lens of a Black woman,” she adds. “Tell it through me.”
Debra Martin Chase, who exec-produces The Equalizer alongside Latifah and Castle creators Terri Edda Miller and Andrew W. Marlowe, says Latifah was born to play Robyn McCall. Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim created the original 1985 series (also for CBS), with a gray-haired white man named Robert McCall (the late Edward Woodward) doing the equalizing. Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington picked up the role in two movie versions beginning in 2014. But despite all of this, Chase and Latifah saw an opportunity to tell the story anew.
“Honestly, from the very beginning, it just made sense. I’ve known Queen Latifah for a long time,” Chase tells TVLine. (The two previously worked together on the 2010 rom-com Just Wright.) “When Dana said yes, it clicked. She’s so grounded, and about fairness and justice. She is a badass, and she’s super-smart and also warm, compassionate and sensitive. She’s all the things that Robyn McCall is. She’s the real deal. She’s putting her body and soul into this.”
“Dana’s doing a lot of her own stunts, and she’s training for that,” Chase shares. “And it’s tough because she’s basically in every scene right now. We developed this character for Queen Latifah, and we spent a lot of time talking about what this show should be and who this character was going to be, so Robyn McCall is, in many ways, Queen Latifah with her own special sauce. That’s why it just fits her so well.”
There are marked differences between character and portrayer, of course, aside from the CIA background. Robyn McCall is a divorcee who lives with her Aunt Vi (Lorraine Toussaint) and her 15-year-old daughter Delilah (Laya DeLeon Hayes). She has a former handler, William Bishop (Chris Noth), who checks up on her, and two sidekicks (Liza Lapira’s Mel and Adam Goldberg’s Harry) who have her back.
Latifah says she’s especially proud of the addition of Toussaint and Hayes.
“We see three generations of Black women, not just one,” she says. “The world needs to see what life is like for us. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and everybody will enjoy the ride.”
It’s a ride that includes having water dumped on her head while being waterboarded in one episode, and having rain frizz out her curls in another. Although Woodward, who wore a hairpiece, never had to worry about such things, Latifah is a Black woman.
In Episode 2, “we were out shooting on the Jersey City Promenade,” Chase relates, “and she meets Chris Noth’s character with a red umbrella, and it had been raining all day. And it was still raining while we were out there, and it was Queen Latifah’s last shot of the evening, and finally she goes, ‘Screw it. I’m just going with the hair. I’m just letting it go.’ She was in the rain, and it was at the end of the night, and that’s where we are in 2021. Sometimes, as Black women, we have to just let the hair do what it does and let it go.”
Besides, being an equalizer requires a lot of physical work. One minute, Robyn is beating up baddies with a clipboard, and in another, she’s dashing off to see her daughter sing in a youth choir. The latter is a nod to what Robert McCall did in the pilot, except his son Scott (a young, Karate Kid-era William Zabka) played the violin.
“I love all of the action sequences when I get to really kick some butt,” Latifah says. “It’s a lot of work, so I have a great amount of respect for stunt people and what they have to do to accomplish making people like me look really good. Obviously, I can’t do all of the stunts, but I’m able to do the intimate, close-contact fighting and things like that.”
“But I’m not getting crashed on a table,” she makes clear. “And I ride motorcycles, but there are certain things I’m not doing on bikes at this point. In my 20s, maybe, but not now! But I can take guns and disarm people in various ways and handle them deftly. That’s the most important thing, making sure everything looks sharp and crisp.”
Latifah, who won a Grammy at 24, also fights to a beat only she can hear.
“There’s a dance to it. It’s choreography,” she says. “Everything is by beat. Being a rapper/singer/artist has helped me throughout my career in terms of rhythm. With Living Single, everything is timing because it was a sitcom. That helped me then, and that rhythm is helping me now, with the fight choreography. It becomes a song in my mind, where I gotta whoop you by the time that hook comes. I need to have this fight over by the time this chorus is over in my brain.”