For her feature-film debut in Coach Carter (opening Friday), R&B idol Ashanti got to work with both Samuel L. Jackson and Finding Forrester star Rob Brown. But her preferred leading man is the one she shares the screen with in her next movie, The Muppets' Wizard of Oz. "I'd have to say that Pepe the Shrimp is my favorite costar," the 24-year-old fledgling actress laughs. "He had a wonderful personality."
In case you're confused, no, Pepe is definitely not playing Ashanti's love interest in the made-for-TV movie, which is set to air in May on ABC. Instead, the hyperactive shellfish plays Toto to his leading lady's Dorothy. Naturally, he's not the only familiar Muppet face who turns up in Oz. Gonzo appears as the Tin Man (or the Tin Thing, as he's called in the film), Fozzie is the Cowardly Lion and everyone's favorite green thespian, Kermit, takes on the role of the Scarecrow.
As for Miss Piggy, she steals the show (naturally) in a quartet of roles as the Wicked Witches of the East and West and the Good Witches of the North and South.
According to Ashanti, the film's story line more or less follows the 1939 classic, albeit with a few noticeable differences. "Dorothy wants to get out of Kansas to become a singer," she explains. "The Muppets have this contest kind of like American Idol and she gets the chance to go sing for them, but the bus leaves her behind." After that, Dorothy is magically transported to the Land of Oz where she follows the Yellow Brick Road to the Wizard, who she hopes will make her a star.
Along the way she encounters a few surprise guest stars, including Queen Latifah, David Alan Grier, Kelly Osbourne and, most intriguingly, Quentin Tarantino.
As a longtime Muppet fan, Ashanti says working with the Jim Henson Company was a dream come true. "Growing up, my favorite show was Fraggle Rock. I used to cry when the show ended. So it was a wonderful feeling to be up there with the Henson guys, because some of them that do the characters for the Muppets also performed the characters for Fraggle Rock. The puppets all had their own personalities and facial expressions. After a while, you forgot you were talking to someone's hand!"