Interview: Director Chris Robinson & Cast of BET’s ‘New Edition Story’ Talk Becoming NE, Authenticity & All That Dancing

BET

BET

The iconic musical group that shattered records and broke down doors is finally getting a biopic that has been nearly thirty years in the making. BET‘s “The New Edition Story” follows the legendary R&B group from their 1978 humble beginnings in the Orchard Park Boston Projects through breakups, reunions and everything in between. With director Chris Robinson (ATL) and executive producer, Jesse Collins at the helm and with the rare blessing and backing of real-life New Edition members who served as consultants and co-producers on the film, “The New Edition Story” just might hit the nail right on the head. The multi-talented cast includes Bryshere Y. Gray as Michael Bivins, Elijah Kelley as Ricky Bell, singer-songwriter Luke James as Johnny Gill, Algee Smith as Ralph Tresvant, Keith Powers as Ronnie Devoe, and Woody McClain as Bobby Brown.

At a recent screening of night one of the three-night event, I got the opportunity to chat with director Chris Robinson, Jesse Collins, Elijah Kelley, Luke James, Algee Smith, Keith Powers and Woody McClain. I also spoke with Dante Hoagland who plays a young Mike Bivins and Caleb McLaughlin who plays a young Ricky Bell. From the real-life vocals to those exquisite dance moves here is everything you need to know about, “The New Edition Story” ahead of its premiere.



Aramide Tinubu: Chris, I know you’ve stated previously that your very first concert was New Edition, so what was it like sitting in the director’s chair in a film about this iconic group?

Chris Robinson: You know what, it was a lot of pressure. These gentlemen are alive and well and they are professionals who still tour and still make magic with their music. Of course, being a big fan when you do a movie that is an act of non-fiction there is a lot of responsibility to tell a great story. You also have a responsibility to tell the story in an accurate way that respects the actual people that you are portraying. Sometimes you have to have reverence for them, and sometimes you have to tell the very difficult truth, and many times people who are involved with projects like this don’t like to see themselves in a certain light. There is absolutely a process that goes along with that. So when you’re tackling a biopic, especially when the people are here and alive and have an opinion, it’s a big deal. So for me being a fan and having such great relationship with our producer and BET, I wanted to take in on, and I’m glad I did.

AT: Jesse, what made you decide to do “The New Edition Story?” How did you get Chris Robinson on board?

Jesse Collins: So this story came from working with the guys, and I just saw how the dynamics of the group are just so fascinating. It’s not anything that anyone thinks it is and they kept this story away from us for so long and now getting the opportunity for them to pull back the curtain and show us how the group works is unbelievable. I got Chris Robinson involved because I’ve worked with Chris on a lot of awards shows and, “Real Husbands of Hollywood” and I knew that he could bring a vision to this movie that it needed so, we got him to get on board.

AT: Chris, what was your vision for the miniseries going into it when it was time to bring New Edition’s story to life?

CR: Since New Edition was my first concert as a teenager, I kind of feel like I prepped for 35-years in order to make this film. It was all about being authentic. Jessie Collins has spent 10-years creating this project. He told me about it years ago, and since then, the script turned into three scripts. We just knew that we needed to make sure that all of these NE Lifers were happy. When you make a biopic, and the people are here, you have a responsibility not only to tell an amazing story but to make sure that it’s right. Listen, every video, every commercial, every movie, it feels like this is a culmination of all of those skills. We shot three feature films in thirty-seven days, which mean that everything had to be right. Every perfect little point, everything. Some soldiers fell along the way. (Laughing) But, the beautiful thing about it was that the work shows. We were dedicated to the story, we were dedicated to the group, and these guys were dedicated to the craft.

AT: Let’s talk about how you all came on to the project.

Algee Smith: It’s funny because I actually auditioned to play Mike Bivins first. Then, they had me go back and audition for Ralph, so that was a funny moment.

AT: Keith what was it like to become Ronnie Devoe?

Keith Powers: It was amazing; I think it was such a blessing. It was a great deal of responsibility. However, it was a dream come true, because we got to really play these legends.

AT: This is the second time you played a real-life character, you played Tyree, Dr. Dre’s little brother in “Straight Outta Compton,” how was this experience different?

KP: In “Straight Outta Compton,” I was introducing people to Tyree, people didn’t know who he was unless you really know Dr. Dre, so I kind of got to introduce him the way that I really wanted to. Whereas with this project, people know Ronnie, so I have to really show them Ronnie on the screen. I couldn’t just do what I wanted and call it Ronnie because people can go online and pull up pictures of him and all of that, so it was really just introducing the character versus taking somebody that everyone is familiar with and putting him on the screen.

AT: What was your experience like becoming Bobby Brown, Woody?

Woody McClain: I can’t even explain it, but I loved it, I loved this whole process. I loved this cast; we became like a real family. We still talk to each other.

AT: What was your favorite part about making this film?

KP: It just felt amazing being a part of an iconic story. These guys are still alive and being able to tell their story when they aren’t dead; we’re telling our history.

AT: Was it nerve-racking getting the dance moves down?

AS: [Laughing] Of Course! They’ve been doing this for thirty years, and I’ve had to come in and do it in a month and to be as smooth as Ralph. So, it was nerve- racking but it was kind of like a cheat sheet because we had them there.

AT: Did you work with your younger counterparts at all?

AS: I did. All the younger kids are just such a light. They bring so much joy; they drove us to work so much harder; they carry the whole first night.

AT: Dante, what was your process like working with Bryshere [Y. Grey] and with Mike Bivins? Did all three of you work together?

Dante Hoagland: Working together was great. Me and Yazz were really cool. Just knowing he’s from “Empire,” it was amazing. Then Michael, we just kind of had this connection. Everybody has this connection; it was like family.

AT: Caleb, first of all, congratulations on “Stranger Things!”

Caleb McLaughlin: Thank you!

AT: Let’s talk about how you became Ricky Bell.

CM: To prepare for the role, I watched Ricky’s dance moves and interviews on YouTube. He also talked to me about stuff, like how is nickname was “Slick” because he got all the girls.

AT:[Laughing)

CM: Yes, so just watching his mannerisms on YouTube.

AT: What was your favorite part about the film?

CM: I actually haven’t seen it yet! So this is my first time, so I have no idea. But, my favorite part when we were filming was the dancing scenes. It was really cool because I love dancing.

Luke James: JG! When Johnny Gill becomes JG, the swag went to one trillion. Earlier he was cool, but he wasn’t there yet.

AT: I heard that Brook Payne, New Edition’s original choreographer taught you all the iconic moves for the film.

CM: Yes, Brooke Payne! Shout out to Mr. Brooke he’s awesome.

AT: Was there anything that was left out of the film that you wish would have made it in?

LJ: There is so much to everyone’s story, and there is only so much we can tell. This is already a six-hour-long movie broken down into three parts, and it could have been way longer. But, we put so much into this film that you’re going to get enough and want a little more.

AT: Let’s talk about the most difficult aspects of shooting the film.

DH: The choreography.

WM: The dance stuff, we had to really be a group. It wasn’t about one person, so that was the hardest part. You had six guys who had never worked together before, and we made it happened.

KP: The dancing. I’m not a dancer. I’ve never done choreography, so that was my first time.

LJ: The hardest part was dancing. Luckily, Johnny has two left feet, and I’ve got two left feet, so it worked out.

AT: So you didn’t get yelled at by Brooke Payne?

LJ: Oh did I?! What you’ll see in the first night is exactly what we went through to become New Edition. They didn’t hold back on the kids or on us because we only had three weeks to become New Edition, so it was very important to understand what these guys went through and you see that on camera. It’s real, it’s honest, and we love each other. We are brothers.

AT: Can you all talk a bit more about the brotherhood and going through Chris and Jesse’s boot camp in preparation for the film?

LJ: It was definitely boot camp. There was no air conditioning. We did the early hours, eight hours a day, so it was intense. They even went to the extreme of not really giving us the contract. They made us feel like they were still looking for another Johnny, still looking for another Bobby, so we couldn’t go in there with the mindset of, “We got it, we’re the actors, we’re going to go in there Hollywood and sit in our chairs and take a break.” The first day I was raising my hand, and Brooke is talking to us, he ignores me, and he turns on the music. We started dancing, and the first routine was 11-minutes long, and I have two left feet. It was too much. He stopped the music and was like, “If you’re asking a question that means you ain’t listening. You guys have three weeks to become New Edition; this is about legacy, you guys have to become these guys.” That just made it so real for us and then, the kids would come, and they would come in with all of that energy. All we would hear was, “The kids are killing it. What are ya’ll going to do?”

JC: We would have the kids first at the top of the day, so the older guys would have to come in and see the kids. Chris is really into the Jedi-mind stuff. We had a wall where every time we would consider casting someone; their picture would go up. So we had like three Bobbys on the wall while Woody was in boot camp and we never took those pictures down.

AT: Caleb and Dante, how difficult was it for you guys to train, especially since you guys are so young?

CM: It was pretty hard to learn the dance steps because New Edition was so smooth with it came to their moves. They were always able to keep it together, (laughing), but it was just great.

DH: It was hard just learning the dance moves. At the end of the day, I was just tired. I would go back to the hotel, and I would have to soak in bath water because I would just be in so much pain.

AT: What type of training did you have regarding singing and dancing before signing on the “The New Edition Story?”

CM: I was in “The Lion King” on Broadway. I was the longest running Simba on Broadway. I always loved to dance and sing so when this came up, I was like, “Yes!

DH: I was focused on acting, I was in a performing arts school when I was younger, so I used to dance, but I was really just focused on acting.

AT: Let’s talk about the authenticity of the miniseries because from what I’ve seen so far, it’s astounding.

CR: Everyone was just so talented. The littles for example actually sang their parts. Those vocals that you heard, those aren’t New Edition records; those are the actors’ vocals producer by throwback producers like Babyface and Bryan Carrigan. All of these guys are so talented, they really sang, and that’s why you guys feel the authenticity.

AT: Jesse as a producer, what was your vision coming into this series? Was it the same as Chris’ vision?

JC: We just wanted to make a film that when Black Twitter came, they were happy. (Laughing) If we could just survive that, we knew we would be OK. We really wanted to make a movie that first and foremost, the six members would be happy with. We are portraying people that are alive, and their families are here, and these guys have to walk around after this comes out answering questions for the rest of their lives like, “Did you really do that?” “ Did you really sing ‘Reasons’?” “Did you really try to steal Ralph’s girl?” This is what these guys are going to have to go through, and we really wanted this to be something that they could be proud of along with the NE Lifers, the Candy Girls, the historians and anyone who has been down with New Edition from the beginning. We wanted everyone to be happy.

AT: Were members of New Edition on set during filming?

JC: Every day.

Elijah Kelley: All of the guys were there if not all of them at least one of them came by every day. There was one classic moment that I think is now on BET.com. At one point the littles, us, and the original New Edition members were all doing the choreography together. The most amazing thing about that is NE are all double and triple the littles’ age, but they were doing the choreography nine, ten and eleven times over. They were looking back at us like where are ya’ll young Negros at? (Laughing) Even though we were winded we could just look to them for the professionalism and how they stay in tune with the craft and their work ethic; they never took a second off, and you can see that.

AT: For Luke, Elijah, and Algee, how does it feel to take on the legacy of this incredible group?

LJ: This is important. I guess I can say I grew up on New Edition; my older brothers put me on to this. But, New Edition is so important to the culture and music in general. The things that they did breaking away and being successful, they are a true super group. This is a great lesson for me to be able to talk to these guys and really look at their work ethic and to hear their stories and the things that they’ve done. Being a musician myself, nothing has changed in the industry. There is always someone trying to get over on you. It’s a good lesson, and I’ve learned a lot. I’m making changes in my own life because of it. I also gained some brothers. I gained some people I would have never truly gotten to know. We talk every day, and I hope it stays that way because that’s what we need now more than ever, to stay on each other to be excellent.

WM: (Laughing) Yeah, cuz Luke is already acting brand new.

AS: Can we just celebrate the fact that these guys are still alive to see their own story? It’s just a super full circle moment. This is just amazing, I get to play Ralph Tresvant, and these guys have been touring the world since they were like twelve or thirteen years old. Like Elijah said, we had that moment when all three generations were together. I was just like Ralph, just teach me the slide. That’s all I want to know. It was just dope. I’ve become a better singer, I’ve become a better actor with Chris and Jesse pushing me so much; it’s just been an amazing experience for me.

EK: I can honestly say, coming into this we have so many expectations of biopics, especially since it’s on television. There was a lot of pressure, but all of that pressure was eradicated when we came together. It was no egos; it was just learning the choreography. We saw every day how legendary they were. We just started talking like, “We aren’t they in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?” “Why don’t they have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?” By the end of the movie, all of that stuff came to fruition. It wasn’t even a thought before we started filming so this movie played a part in manifesting what was to come for them. New Edition gets their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on January 23rd.

AT: How did you know that this cast was the cast? What was that pivotal moment for you guys?

CR: Interestingly enough, it happened just like how the real group came together. Ronnie came into the group last, and Keith[Powers] was cast last. Every single guy who came through from New York to Atlanta, to DC, all of the kids and the adults we just put them through it. It’s funny how it all worked out because at first, I was questioning everything. I wanted Keith to play Ralph, and I was like “Algee, I don’t know.” Jesse was like “No, I’m telling you this will work.” Now there is no question, Algee is the best Ralph, there is no question that he should have been Ralph. In his performance he embodied him. Looking for Bobby Brown was another thing. Imagine trying to find Bobby Brown! We searched all over the country, and we got Woody as a recommendation from Fatima Robinson who is a choreographer. Woody has danced all over the world with everyone from Chris Brown to Fatima, and then, when he came in to audition, he just killed it. In his audition, he came and stood on the table in front of all of these BET executives. It wasn’t that we knew anything it just happened.

JC: Chris just also really prepared everybody. He prepared them for Brooke because Brooke required mental toughness. Chris would have two people auditioning for the younger version of Ralph, and he would have them flip the scene. He would say, “Ok, now you’re not Ralph, you’re opposite Ralph.” He would have them competing against one another in the same scene in a little room. We had kids crying and upset moms (Laughing).

AT: Obviously, the miniseries touches on some tough moments in the lives of the members. As a fan, how was it getting into those moments, what was that creative process like?

CR: It was real, and I think Jesse was a stickler to the point where he would say things like “No, Ralph’s mother had a 1978 Buick, and she still owed money on it, and it was brown.” (Laughing) He was so focused on the authenticity. So was Stephen Hill, BET’s President of Programming who is a New Edition historian. So that also equated to the things that would happen. The divorces, the fights, Jesse always make sure that we told the story for real, whether it was hurtful or not.

JC: There is a scene in night three that really drove it home for Chris and me. Ricky Bell at one point loses his house, he loses everything, and he’s telling his wife that it’s over and they’re going to be in the street. Ricky and his wife were there while we were filming, so they watched the whole scene, and Amy was like well, “At least it was all worth it. Now somebody will learn from what we dealt with.” So, that made us feel like we were on the right track.

AT: If there is one major experience from the entire process that will stay with you forever what is it?

KP: If I could take one thing away from this whole experience it would simply be to stay professional. New Edition was an amazing example of remaining professional which I feel is a lost art in this generation. For them to be arguing five minutes before performing on the Soul Train Awards and still being able to give their audience the best performance because they cared about their fans so much. It shows that we all need to respect our crafts and take our crafts seriously. You could lose it any day and they could have lost everything just due to simple arguments but they stuck with it. It’s also about our culture and knowing your history because New Edition opened the door not only for African Americans, but for boy bands in general.

AS: I would say listening to each other and communication. I think the thing that happened, and I guess the thing the guys understand now thirty-three years later and what they’re teaching us is to stay open and to really try to understand each other and understand why Bobby needs to be upfront and why Bobby needs to have the things he needs to have. Why everyone needs to have what they need to have. It’s about really having open communication rather than trying to keep a person in the box. It’s about allowing people to breathe instead of tearing each other up.

WM: Mine is going to have to be prayer. My faith wasn’t as strong coming into this project. But me sitting and talking to Bobby changed that. Bobby lost his wife, Bobby got into drugs, Bobby lost his daughter and he’s still here going strong. I asked him, “How are you doing it?” He said, “Prayer.”

EK: Mine isn’t as heavy as everybody else’s, but it’s humbling. One particular day we were doing the choreography for “If It Isn’t Love,” and I thought I had my stuff together. But Ricky comes in, and he’s like, “Like that, but just not so corny.” I was like, “Damn this whole time I thought I was cool.” But being able to have that dialogue was a blessing. It made everybody rise to a level of excellence that we tried to portray. What I saw in everybody was no longer just a portrayal when it happened. We achieved excellence.

AS: One thing that I think is really important that this movie shows is making sure that your business is right. New Edition had their moms there and all of that, but there was no one else there who really knew what was happening. Just like what Keith was saying, that’s a part of professionalism to know that you have your business in order. Money, taxes, especially for our culture, that’s one of the biggest things to take away, before you try to make all of this money, just try to have business in order.

KP: And when you do have your team in order just remember that hard work is undefeated. Just stay working hard. Be good at your craft, work and put in the hours. On Instagram, all you see is the good, but you never see the “Nos.”

LJ: Have no fear, fear is not real and there are people who will project their own fears on to you and say, “You can’t do that.” There will be someone there who will also say, “Don’t listen to them.“

EK: Never shy away from your own individuality. We’re at a place where it’s like carbon copies of each other. There is nobody on this earth that can be you. There is something about you that is going to elevate you and catapult you to your dreams.

AT: What are you most excited about with regards to this miniseries?

WM: Just to see everybody’s stories. I feel like everybody who didn’t get the shine individually will finally get it. Everybody is always like, “Bobby, Bobby Bobby.” But everybody went through the same exact stuff, so I’m excited that the world will see it all.

The six-hour, three-night miniseries “The New Edition Story” premieres Tuesday, January 24th at 9 PM ET.

BET has released a new trailer which is embedded below:



Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami

2 Comments

  1. Director if you are looking for someone to play Sammy Davis jr. You had it right in front of your face Elijah James the one that plays Ricky Bell perfect that’s my opinion

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