TV's New Mystery Woman
The acclaimed soul singer and star of HBO’s new series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, talks about her new album of lullabies, how Botswana made her better American, and having her face on a postage stamp.
Jill Scott is one of those women whose voices put you at ease from the first word—her smooth, honeyed tone has been cultivated from years as a poet and soul singer, and now laps at one’s eardrums like a soft wave. The Philadelphia-born singer first appeared on the charts in 2000 with her debut, Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vo1. 1 (her single, “A Long Walk” earned a Grammy nod), and along with the band The Roots (now Jimmy Fallon’s backing band), she helped define the genre of “neo-soul” in the early 2000s.
“They drink bush tea, and do all the things that my character does. She's a phenomenon in Africa. They actually made a stamp out of my face in Botswana!”
Now, the 36-year-old Scott is eight months' pregnant with her first child and about to embark on a new career path—television star. Though she didn’t have much acting experience, Scott was chosen for the role of intuitive Botswana detective Precious Ramotswe out of hundreds for HBO’s new series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (based on the best-selling book series by Alexander McCall Smith). Scott spoke to The Daily Beast about filming in Africa, having her face on Botswana postage, and recording a new album of lullabies.
How did you get involved in the Detective Agency project?
I auditioned like every other actress in America, London, and Africa. They auditioned this character for about two years. When they told me that Anthony Minghella was coming to Philadelphia from London to meet me, it blew my mind.
How was filming in Botswana?
I had never been to Africa before, so I really didn't know what to expect. I had seen all the videos. I had been reading National Geographic ever since I was a kid, but I didn't know what to expect. I was glad that I was told to wipe away any images that I had had.
There is red dirt there, but there will be people driving around in Mercedes. There are all kinds of businesses, doctors, lawyers, judges. Sometimes there is a hut next door to a big house. It wasn't as black and white as people make it seem. It was not simply a few things. Meaning, simply poverty, or simply disease, or wars. This is a country that has never been touched by apartheid. They don't have any history of segregation or racism that way. This a country that has its own diamonds and can take care of itself. Primarily, they're pretty wealthy. Their money, the pula, is worth more than the money of South Africa. They have a lot of pride and take education very seriously.
The movie shows that a woman in Africa has trouble being taken seriously, but also has instincts that no one else has.
It sends a strong message that a woman can do anything she wants to do. Even in a country like Botswana there are female judges, doctors, lawyers, scientists. Women are really doing it worldwide. There is still the mentality in some places that some jobs are just not meant for women, and being a detective is one of those jobs. But I think she is a revolutionary. She is really brave. She put everything she had into making it work. And into dreaming this big dream. I love that about her.
Did you identify with Precious?
I think my mother has more in common with Precious than I do. My mom is a community servant. She takes care of our elderly in the neighborhood, if someone has toenail they can't clip, she'll do that for them. If somebody's hungry she feeds them, if somebody needs clothes she finds them.
Precious works to make sure her community is a good one. And she goes outside the ways of the law. Justice is a moral thing for her. She feels she has a bigger understanding of what is right and wrong than what the books and laws say. She has such a love and appreciation for her country.
Do you have the same feelings about America?
I'm growing into it. Because our country has finally opened its mouth and said we need change. I think a lot of people had given up, sadly. It's hard when you work over 40 hours a week and you don't have health care, you can't afford it. It's challenging, it hurts, when your kid doesn't have a library in their school. How do you have faith in a country that doesn't take care of its people properly? So, being in Botswana and every day playing a woman that loves her country so much made me look at the way I deal with mine. It's so much more than paying taxes and voting every four years. I've learned that if you do a little, something in your community, eventually you make a better country, not only a better community.
Precious relies on a different skill set than the average person—intuition and gut sense.
Right. Who does that anymore? I know from being in the Kalahari Desert there is no quiet like being in that place. There is no hum of electricity, cars driving by, it's pure silence, which is almost frightening.
In other news, your old backing band, the Roots, is now the house band on Jimmy Fallon. Have you thought about performing?
Yeah! I'm really happy for the Roots, they've been on the road for so long. I would love to go on, but now I got a baby boy and I can barely breathe. I have a little boy who sits right under my lungs.
But you’re planning to get back into music?
Yes, I am working on an album called Ballads and Lullabies for babies. I’ll record it when I can breathe again.
Do you sing to your belly?
Yeah. It’s good, because being pregnant moves your organs out of the way and you lose lung capacity. It's so cool how all this stuff changes your body--it's divine!
Back to the show—two of the producers, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, passed away last year. Was that hard for you?
I didn't get a chance to meet Syd. The only reason I say that name so casually is that is what Anthony called him, and he talked about him all the time. He talked about him as a friend. Anthony was incredible to work with. We sang songs, and would stop in the middle, to do a do-wop funk just to lighten the energy. He was a beautiful human being.
How did you manage to get the Botswana accent down?
We rehearsed once a day for two months, but they were teaching me the wrong dialect. When we got there, we had to unlearn what we had learned, and fast. I was adamant about it, because I'm an American girl from North Philadelphia, and here I am in Botswana representing this character who is beloved so I want to do her justice, you know?
The character of Precious is well-known there?
Oh, yes! People come from around the world, particularly from London, Australia to do the Detective Agency tour. They drink bush tea, and do all the things that she does. She's a phenomenon there. They actually made a stamp out of my face in Botswana!
It is. I'm 36 years old and from Philly and I have a stamp. I mailed everybody a letter, a postcard, anything. I was, like, "Hi, notice anything about the stamp!?" And it worked, the mail came. It wasn't like a joke.
Why do you think it's a good time for the series to air now?
I think it's a perfect time. Because the morale has been so low for so long. I think that she will give us an opportunity to see what we can all do. Also, this woman who is traditionally built—she’s not your average American model. She's not perfect in any way shape or form. She wears the same thing every day, like a cartoon. She has her own level of beauty and that's not her focal point, that's not what is important to her. But she has this belief in her country, in justice and she'll do whatever she can do to make sure it goes well for her country. We need to be continuously inspired at this point.
Would you say you're in a good place right now? You seem really happy.
Absolutely. I was lying on my sofa and I was thinking, in this last year, I've experienced extreme joy and extreme sadness and its been wonderful and it's been wonderful. I know so much more than I did before about myself. I can't get over it actually. And here comes somebody that I get to raise and enjoy and teach. I get the pleasure of seeing everything new again. The sky is new, the clouds, the park, dogs are new. And my baby will be new. I am thrilled.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.