Cher found an unlikely co-star in a four-ton Asian elephant named Kaavan.
Just in time for Earth Day, the pop icon's new documentary, "Cher & the Loneliest Elephant," premieres Thursday on streaming service Paramount+. The film follows Cher's journey from Los Angeles to Pakistan last fall to rescue Kaavan, a 36-year-old elephant who was held in captivity at the Islamabad Zoo in deplorable conditions.
The singer first learned of the animal's plight on social media four years ago. Working with international animal welfare organization Four Paws and co-founding her own charity, Free the Wild, she helped campaign for Kaavan's release to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia.
Cher, 74, caught up with USA TODAY last week – a day after receiving her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – to talk about new music, her 1987 classic "Moonstruck," and the possibility of "Mamma Mia 3." And check back later this week for more of our interview about "Cher & The Loneliest Elephant."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: You've advocated for wildlife and the environment throughout your career, as well as veterans, children and the LGBTQ community. Where does your passion for philanthropy come from?
Cher: My mom. We were poor most of the time growing up but my mom said something to me once. I was complaining because I went through my shoes so quickly and I said, "Mom, I need a new pair of shoes," and she said, "We can't afford them." I said, "But I need them. " And she said, "I was upset because I had no shoes until I saw the man who had no feet." That was my mom's philosophy: No matter what we were doing, no matter how we were going, there were people who (had) much less.
And then my friend Mitch Snyder. He was an advocate for the homeless in an unbelievable way. I don't like people having no rights. This sounds self-serving, but I was on my way to (shoot a) video – totally dressed and totally Cher – and there was a man on the sidewalk with his head down. I said, "Let's stop the car."
I sat down on the ground with him and we started to talk. We were talking and talking, and he said, "How's Sonny?" And I said, "Oh, he died." And he said, "I'm sorry to hear that." We talked some more and I said, "I have to go to work but it was really nice meeting you." I don't always do this, but we got him clothes and a hotel room for the night. He wanted a hamburger and we got him a satchel to keep his stuff in.
I felt that was the right thing to do. I mean, it was kind of a stupid thing to do: to get out of the car with no mask and COVID and sit on the ground with a person you don't know. But I've done this a million times and usually my experiences are so great.
Cher: I really didn't because all the kids on my (Twitter) already know it. But it's exciting. I had so much fun making that film because we really were the family we were portraying. We fell into that pattern. When we were in the house, Feodor (Chaliapin Jr.) would be looking at his script, I would be talking to Louis (Guss), and then Norman (Jewison) would say, "OK, let's shut up for the scene." And we would kind of go from one place of talking to each other and being friends to the reason we were there. I think it translated. But MGM didn't want to put it out. They didn't like it.
Q: Why's that?
Cher: Because it had no audience. They tried it in those test (screenings) that they have and it didn't give a test that they liked. So they just put it on the shelf and then when their Christmas movie fell out, it was the only movie they had.
Q: Do you have a favorite line from the film?
Cher: Well, I think "Snap out of it" is pretty good. The thing that really made it better was (slapping Nicolas Cage) twice. Norman came up to me and said, "I'm not telling Nicky, but do it twice." So I think that's what really made it.
Q: Did you actually slap him?
Cher: Oh, yeah. (But) he was fine.
Q: "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" (Cher's first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 as a solo artist) turns 50 this year. What does that song mean to you now?
Cher: It was a hit and I was happy people liked it, but it just wasn't one of my favorites.
Q: Any particular reason why?
Cher: No, because I don't know how many songs I've recorded. Some of my favorites weren't even hits. Like "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" (from "Burlesque"), that's one of my favorite all-time songs. And "Song for the Lonely." But neither one of them were hits. I love the "Mamma Mia!" album (of ABBA covers, 2018's "Dancing Queen"). I'm very proud of my singing. I wasn't a very good singer back in the day.
Q: Of course you were. Why do you say that?
Cher: I had just been making films and hadn't been singing at all, so I had to go to a singing teacher to get my voice back in shape. But my teacher, Adrienne Angel, she changed everything. I'm such a better singer now than I was when I was young. If you listen to the songs now and the songs then, you'll see a huge quality difference. I know people love those songs but I'm happy that I'm singing better.
Q: You told Christiane Amanpour last year that your voice is in better shape than ever.
Cher: My doctor always wants to show me my vocal cords because he goes, "See these girls? You have 26-year-old vocal cords." So I'm praying that I'm going to be like Tony Bennett.
Q: You also said your next album could be your last. Is that true?
Cher: I always say really stupid things. I'm continuously saying things that put me into a box when someone goes, "You said that, what'd you mean by it?" I don't know, it sounded right. I'm 75 years old, it's not like I've got a huge career in front of me. I'm going to have to rest on my laurels.
Q: Is the new album finished?
Cher: No, I'm still working on it. It's weird. I've never heard an album like this before and it's a very hit-and-miss thing because all of the songs I want to sing don't necessarily fit my voice. So I have to do like three or four songs to find one that's the right one.
Cher: Judy would be interested in me doing "Mamma Mia 3!" And Amanda (Seyfried). But I said, "You guys, how are we (going to)? We've used all the great songs. What is it we're going to do?" The only thing I could think of was to have Meryl come back and sing some of her great songs as a ghost. That's what I thought for the movie idea but I don't know. I think I was a good grandmother and people seem to like it.
Q: Have you talked to Meryl about a potential third movie?
Cher: No! This is Judy's dream child.
Q: Got it, so no discussions.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cher on new music, 'Mamma Mia' rumors: 'No' discussions of third movie