Pending birth keeps Jill Scott away from series premiere

HBO hosted an invitation-only premiere Tuesday night at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater for its newest series, “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,” but while British author Alexander McCall Smith was expected to be there, the Philly girl at the show’s heart wasn’t able to make it.

That’s because Jill Scott, who stars as Mma Precious Ramotswe, beloved heroine of a series of detective novels set in Botswana – where the series’ two-hour pilot and its first season were filmed – has entered the no-fly zone.

With her first child due April 25, the 36-year-old singer/actress, who recently relocated to southern California, is staying put for now.

And by staying put we’re talking soaking up the sun, gazing at the pool and admiring the oranges and lemons growing in a neighbor’s yard.

“I still have a home in Philadelphia. I’ll never pull my roots out of Philadelphia, but right now, I moved here because I wanted to feel the sun on my belly, I wanted to breastfeed in my back yard,” Scott said last week in a phone interview.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire life,” she said. “I’m looking at my belly and I can’t see my feet … and all I can do is laugh. Really.”

As for wedding plans, she and fiance Lil’ John Roberts have “thought about it a lot,” she said.

“That’s about it,” she added, laughing. “I was in Africa for the first five months of my pregnancy, so as far as I’m concerned, I just got home.”

Africa, too, was something Scott had been waiting for much of her life.

“For many years, I wanted to go,” but her plans would always fall through, she said.

“I knew when I did go, I didn’t want to go as a tourist,” she said, crediting producer/director Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”), who died a year ago this month after directing the movie that became the show’s pilot – and which will be seen Sunday on HBO – with giving her “a gift that has changed my views” on many things.

Richard Curtis (“Love Actually”), who co-wrote the movie’s script with Minghella, told reporters in January that the director had been “in utter despair about finding anyone to (play) Mma Ramotswe. He’d looked in three continents. He couldn’t find anyone.”

When Scott came along, “he said it was the happiest day of his life. He could not believe his luck and her magnificence in the role,” Curtis said.

Scott, who hadn’t yet read Smith’s books but said she’d jumped at the chance to work with the Oscar-winning director, recalls Minghella putting her through her paces.

“He flew from London to Philadelphia for the day because he had seen my tapes,” she said, and the audition lasted about five hours.

“Any time he liked something, he would ask me to do it with a cold, or do it as if I had one arm, or do it with a limp, you know, just brighter, lighter,” she said. “He was very specific about what he wanted.”

As a director, “he was very particular … As a person, he was a gem. Just sweet and funny and generous.”

After getting to know him, Scott said, she decided Minghella was “one of the top three people” she’d met in her life.

As for Botswana, she found that Smith, who lives in Scotland but was born in what’s now Zimbabwe and used to work in Botswana, hadn’t oversold it in his books, which hold up the country as an example for the rest of the continent.

“The people are exceptionally warm, really smart, laid-back, easygoing,” she said. “They appreciate a good conversation (and are) very knowledgeable about so many things.”

“Kind was a huge element to the Botswanan people,” said Scott, who said she learned “a little” Tswana (Setswana), the national language.

“I know how to be respectful,” she said, noting that in Botswana, “even children” are accorded the honorifics Mma and Rra. “Because everybody is worthy of respect.”

Though Smith’s books make frequent references to Botswana’s poisonous snakes – there’s a scene in one episode where Scott’s character must contend with a particularly deadly one that finds its way into her van’s engine – the actress said she never encountered any.

What she remembers instead are the baboons, which could even be found hanging out at the local mall.

“They start running, and you can’t imagine that anything on two legs could be that fast. Though I guess it’s not just two legs,” she said.

Some 8,000 air miles and an entire culture separate Mma Ramotswe’s Gaborone neighborhood from 23rd and Lehigh in North Philadelphia, where Scott grew up.

But she sees plenty in her background that prepared her to play the serene but ambitious detective of “traditional build” who relies on her knowledge of people to solve cases the police often can’t.

“Communal justice – it’s how I grew up. Everybody looked out for everybody’s children,” she said.

“There’s not a lot of violence in Botswana because there’s no need for it,” she said. “Not that North Philly used to be peaceful, but it was different” then, “and there was this justice thing that went on with us, too. You didn’t necessarily have to call the police” when you had a problem with someone.

“You could talk to their mother,” she said.

“Someone stole your porch furniture,” and you’d find out from someone in the neighborhood who did it, and maybe go talk to the perpetrator’s mother, who’d be expected to either get it returned or somehow reimburse you, Scott said.

And though up until now she’s been better known for her music, it was Philadelphia’s theater scene that helped develop Scott as an actress.

“I did an apprenticeship at the Arden, a fellowship at Walnut Street Theatre,” and worked similar jobs at the Lantern Theater Company and North Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre, she said.

“I just wanted to learn to do all the things that I like to do. Because honestly, my concern was that I didn’t want to work a 9-to-5 (job). And acting made me happy and singing made me happy and writing made me happy . . . They work you like a dog, but you get free acting classes,” she said.

“All of that helped me get out of my mother’s basement,” she added.

Growing up in Philly, Scott said, was a blessing, “and here it is blessing me again.”

Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.