Diaz helps deliver ‘Annie’ to new generation

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First Posted: 12/15/2014

In her 20-year career, Cameron Diaz has met her share of crazy challenges.

She held her own opposite Jim Carrey in “The Mask,” got the guy instead of Julia Roberts in “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” added a dash of sweetness to the raunchfest that was “There’s Something About Mary,” voiced an ogre princess in “Shrek,” helped re-invent “Charlie’s Angels” for a new generation, and made the title scoundrel in “Bad Teacher” kinda-sorta lovable.

So, when the actress was asked to make her singing and dancing debut in “Annie,” she was game to give it a go.

In the movie, a modern-day revamping of the 1977 Broadway musical that first reached the screen in 1982, Diaz plays Miss Hannigan, the boozy foster mother who wastes no opportunity to make life a living hell for her crew of moppets, including the ever-lovable title character (Quvenzhane Wallis).

Co-starring in the film are Jamie Foxx as a New York mayoral candidate who adopts Annie as a ploy to boost his popularity at the polls, Bobby Cannavale as his scheming campaign advisor, and Rose Byrne as his vice-president.

Being a musical comedy newbie didn’t stop Diaz from having a blast on the set of “Annie.” “We had so much fun,” she reports.

Even though the actress’s big song and dance number with Cannavale took three months’ worth of weekends to perfect, the actress insists it was worth the effort.

“I was doing ‘Sex Tape’ in Boston, and coming down to New York, or Bobby was coming up to Boston, and we did that every weekend,” she reports. “About a month in, we kind of went, “Oh, and we have to sing, too.”

“ We were, like, `We have to sing to each other!’ So then we started adding that [element] once we got the footwork down.”

Singing and dancing might be fresh experiences for Diaz but “Annie” did allow the actress to revisit some of her “Bad Teacher” villainy.

“Anytime you give me permission to yell at children, I will take it,” she says with a laugh.

“It’s fun yelling at kids! In between, I always made sure they were warm, and they were looked after. I was humane to them in real life. It’s just in the movies, if you give me permission, I’ll take it. They say, “Action!”, and I’m right there with it. It’s fun!”

Wallis, for one, didn’t buy Diaz’ Queen of Mean act.

“She just laughed at me,” recalls Diaz, 42. “Literally, just laughed at me. I would go from, “Honey, you should wrap up and stay warm. Here, take my warm coat, sit in the car for a little bit.” And then they’re like, “Action!” and I’m like, “You little rascal!”

“She would just go, “Ha, ha, ha.’ I would say, “I’m supposed to be mean! I’m supposed to be scary to you!” But she didn’t buy it. I would ask, “Can you just act like you’re scared of me, for once. I need some help here.”

The original big-screen “Annie” retained the Depression-era setting of the musical and comic strip which inspired it. In the remake, the action is set in present-day Manhattan. And there’s another change: the score includes a mix of new songs as well as the musical’s tried-and-true show-stoppers like “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard-Knock Life.”

“Yes, it’s ‘Annie’ but it’s a completely different movie,” says the actress. “I think we’re giving performances for the generation that’s going to see it for the first time. This is going to be the only ‘Annie’ they’re going to know.

“Thirty years from now, they might remake it [again] and those kids might go, “How come Annie is Chinese? She’s supposed to be black.”

Diaz resisted the temptation to revisit the original “Annie,” which co-starred Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan.

“I feel like it’s a different character for this generation,” says the actress. “I feel like, also, Hannigan’s issues are different. Carol Burnett’s issue was that she didn’t get a man. She was drinking because she didn’t get married, and didn’t have a man.

“And [in our movie], Miss Hannigan is drinking because she doesn’t have fame. [The need for fame] is like an epidemic in our society. We have to look at how many likes we have [on Facebook], and how many people follow us [on Twitter], to validate whether or not we are seen, or whether or not we are worthy of love.

“Hannigan is a representation of that. And not until she learns that she’s worthy of love, and that the way she is treating these kids is the same way she’s treating herself…can she become who she truly is.”

With the exception of her big dance number with Cannavale, most of Diaz’ scenes are with the kids. Since youngsters are limited by law to how many hours a day they can work, director Will Gluck (“Easy A”) kept the cameras rolling for as long as he could, in hopes of capturing some off-the-cuff adorableness.

“We only had a certain amount of time, so Will would utilize that time by never cutting, because if he cut, the kids would all go this way and that,” says Diaz. “They’d be running around so the way he kept it going was by saying, `We’re still rolling!’

“[If he hadn’t done that,] this [movie] would’ve taken two years [to finish], literally. But he… kept the momentum going, “Okay try this. Okay try that. Go here, go there.’ So he kind of threw things at us, and we had to…run with it, because we were still rolling.”

As with the original “Annie,” the remake is a New York movie to its core. Diaz says she can’t imagine the movie being set anywhere else.

“We had to create a space for everybody to do their job safely on the set, and also keep the city running, and not get into too many people’s ways,” says the actress.

“We only used parts of the street, like up in Harlem, for instance… But I just think New York is another character in the movie; everything from the beginning, with the jackhammers to the sounds of the helicopters, it’s the music of New York…I really think the movie shows New York in all its glory.”

“Annie” is Diaz’ third film of the year following the hit “The Other Woman” and the miss “Sex Tape.” With the exception of writing a new lifestyle book, she plans on making 2015 a quiet one.

“I’m taking a nap! Seriously. I’m writing a second book, a follow-up to ‘The Body Book.’ That’s what I’m going to be doing all next year. I just want to concentrate on that.

“Last year, I shot three films and [wrote] a book, and this year I promoted three films.

“I’m ready to just go into the writing stage. I plan on sitting a lot in front of my computer, and shuffling to the kitchen. I’ll cook something, and then shuffle back, and then be, `I’m hungry again!’ “