NEW YORK - It's roughly noon on a brisk spring day, in a construction-laden part of upper Manhattan, and Queen Latifah is feeling a bit cutthroat.
"I'm definitely competitive on this," she announces, standing in front of a Skee-Ball machine. "Let's drop some singles and play. I ain't playing this by myself. That's just silly. Who's playing with me?"
Two of her friends join in, neatly beating Latifah - real name, Dana Owens, 43 - at the game after five rounds. She's good-natured about it, but her patience with what has been an already packed day of interviews, shoots and fittings is wearing thin. "We gotta move," she states. "This is all taking too long. I'd be beating your (butts) right now if I was your boss."
Actually, she is. On Monday, Latifah's new syndicated talk show premieres (check local listings for times). It's the reason for her whirlwind media tour, which includes appearances on David Letterman and morning shows. She retains an upbeat demeanor about it all, but you sense a bit of prevailing frustration. She's ready to wrap up talking, and get to, well, talking. Her first guest on Monday is John Travolta, followed by Will Smith, Sharon Stone, Jamie Foxx and Jake Gyllenhaal. She'd love to have the president on, as well as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Coldplay and Kings of Leon.
Her pre-show ritual is simple: hair, makeup, producer briefings and a little stress release. "I bang on my drums. I have a drum set in my dressing room. I play drums to relax and have some fun. I say a prayer, meet the guests and go rock the show. It's still a new thing for me," she says.
But at least her collaborators are not. Smith is a longtime buddy, and his company is producing her show. "I was on vacation in London having a Guinness about two years ago. I get a call from my business partner and he was letting me that Overbrook and Sony had a real proposal to do a talk show with me. Will and Jada are friends of ours for many years," says Latifah. "This to me was the first actually interesting offer of doing a talk show. It was a partnership and not just about money. We worked everything out. We got the best people we could and built a great set. I've been getting more proficient at being an interviewer."
Daytime watchers will recall that the Oscar-nominated actress had her own talk show, The Queen Latifah Show, from 1999 to 2001. What has she learned from that experience?
"That was a long time ago, over 10 years ago. I've changed tremendously. I enjoyed the first show, but there was a lot I wanted to do in terms of acting and producing. I've been able to satisfy that itch. Now I can make a show that's much more what I want it to be," she says. "The first show - the idea of it was what I wanted but what it became wasn't quite what I wanted it to be. It got a little too heavy, a little too serious. It started to feel like it wasn't as me as it should be."
This time, the only topic that's absolutely off-limits to her is that staple of tawdry confessionals: the paternity DNA test reveal. "If that's where you're going, you might as well save me some time, and you some time. But other than that, I'm not really shying away from anything. It's my show. There's nothing really new here to me," she says. "If there's something that comes up that I don't want to talk about, I don't talk about it. It's that simple. No one is forcing me to talk about anything I don't want to talk about. It's about having fun with humor and heart. It's not about Dana's private life. It's not Queen Latifah's private life. It's Dana's private life. That's now what the show is about."
Which means that she won't get a colonoscopy on air, or gush about her personal relationships - something Latifah has always been mum about in interviews.
"I know what I'm comfortable with and what I'm not. It's what I feel is private to me and my family and my friends. It's what I share with the public. That's been something I decided a long time ago. It's not a new thing," she says. "Nobody is asking me. Only the media is asking that question. What makes sense for me to share makes sense. What I think is my private business will stay private."