TV One’s 'Love Under New Management' Premieres Tonight. We Spoke to Star Teyonah Parris & Director Christine Swanson
Photo Credit: S & A
Television

TV One’s 'Love Under New Management' Premieres Tonight. We Spoke to Star Teyonah Parris & Director Christine Swanson

TVONE MIKI HOWARD KEY ART FOR5 (1)

There are some songs that when played, take us back to a specific time or place.  Miki Howard’s “Come Share My Love” reminds me of my childhood; riding in the car with my mother while Miki’s stunning voice smoothly glided out of the radio. For years, I never knew much about the songstress herself. However, when TV One’s “Unsung“ episode surrounding Miki Howard aired in 2010, I along with the rest of the world, was enraptured not just by her stunning music and success, but also by her turbulent personal life.




As a result of the overwhelmingly positive reception surrounding Ms. Howard’s story, and in celebration of Black Music Month, TV One is debuting their first ever Unsung-inspired biopic, “Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story”. Directed by Christine Swanson, and with Teyonah Parris starring as Miki Howard, the film is set to premiere on TV One, Sunday, June 12 at 7pm ET.

Along with Parris, the star-studded cast includes, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Gary Dourdan, LisaRaye McCoy and Darius McCrary as the late Gerald Levert.  Leading up to the film’s premiere, I got the opportunity to chat first with director, Christine Swanson and then with Teyonah Parris and Ms. Miki Howard about the film, creating a special bond, surviving and the music that runs throughout the story.

Aramide Tinubu: Ms. Swanson, I’ve admired you since your feature film debut, “All About You”. You’ve done amazing projects in the past with TV One, but “Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story” is different because it is biographical. What was that experience like for you, and how did you come aboard the film as director?

Christine Swanson: I was hired by the network to direct the movie. This kind of biopic based on someone’s life who is living is obviously a little intimidating. Then when I actually met Miki Howard, that was a little intimidating.  She’s just this music icon in my opinion, because when I was growing up, Miki Howard was the soundtrack to my youth.  Just interfacing with that pivotal person from your youth, added to the fact that I had to tell her story, was kind of nerve wrecking on a number of different levels.  Mostly, I just wanted to honor her legacy properly in a way that was pleasing to her.

AT: Oh certainly.

CS: Then of course, when you’re doing a movie for a network you have to please the network. However, you also have to have a specific directorial vision. Just balancing all of that was a very fun challenge. It was difficult, but it was really a delight for me, because I’m a director and I love story telling. To tell Miki’s story the way we did… the movie doesn’t do justice to her life. We come close to showing what a breath of fresh air she is. However, there was a lot more of her story that I wish I could have told, like in a miniseries or something.  But, I think we packed a whole lot in a short amount of time.

AT: Oh yes, you really did. You got those thirty years that were essential to understanding Miki personally, while getting a grasp on the trajectory of her career. You just discussed navigating your way through your particular vision, what TV One wanted and what Miki wanted. How did you decide what parts of Miki’s life were most important to show and which parts to leave out?

CS: Let’s just say that the story wrote itself in terms of everything that’s in there. It’s all from Miki Howard. Her initial story was based on a self-published unreleased autobiography. It was used as source material for the script. When I received the script, I was kind of perplexed about how to approach it, but I knew that I had to talk to Miki. So initially when I met Miki Howard right out of the bat, we spent over fifty-hours just talking on the telephone.  In talking with her, it was as if someone stuck a syringe needle in my vain. It was as if someone had shocked me with a potent dose of Miki Howard. That became the inspiration that I used to infuse her story. I just felt like I was a conduit for her story. I balanced all of it by knowing that I wanted to hear Miki’s voice. I was always like “Who are you? Tell me about yourself. You did this, what did you think about this? How did that turn out? How did you get here?” Just getting all of that from Miki was really the main motivation and the main driving force behind the story. It’s all Miki. If you talk to Miki she would say that she loves this movie because every bit of it comes from her.

AT: That’s wonderful, it’s such a privilege, to be able to tell your own story.

CS: I know, and that was my only goal. I was like if Miki ain’t happy then I failed. And you know, the network was very supportive in telling a really good biopic because this is their first, and they wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be their last. They said to me, “Whatever you need, just make a good movie.” Because of that, they gave me they best actress on the planet right now.

AT: Yes, Teyonah is amazing!

SAVANNAH, GA - DECEMBER 18, 2015: Cast and crew film The Miki Howard Story, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015 in Savannah, Ga. (TVOne Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
“The Miki Howard Story” (TVOne Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

CS: So when you have somebody like that, it’s like, “Let’s go”. So that was fun.

AT: Speaking of Teyonah, how did she come on to the project? Can you talk about working with her and watching her become Miki Howard? What was that experience like?

CS: Initially, I wanted someone who could sing. But that’s really hard to get a singer who can act.

AT: Oh yes, especially getting someone who could actually sound like Miki.

CS: Exactly. We found that it’s hard to sound like Miki so why not let Miki sound like Miki and focus on the acting, which is what we ended up doing. So, we had a lovely casting director by the name of Kim Coleman, who from the start said, “I have somebody!” And it ended up being Teyonah. She sent Teyonah the script, and Teyonah was like “Oh my god, I have to play this role.” There are just so many highs and lows that this person goes through in the story, that for an actress of Teyonah’s caliber, it was like a no-brainer, she had to do the movie.  Once she came on board we talked at nauseam about the script and what have you, but I told her, “Teyonah, you’ve got to get in touch with Miki, you have to call Miki.” She did the same thing I did. I knew I had to call Miki, but I kind of sat on it for a minute. I was like, “What do I say to Miki Howard?” And that’s what Teyonah did. I just said, “You’ve got to call her and meet her, and talk with her.” So she finally did, and Miki just took Teyonah under her wing and they hung out, and Teyonah spent a ton of time with her family.  She did the observational work that she needed to do. And I kid you not, even Miki Howard says, if she were to look herself up, she’d see Teyonah in her head.

AT: Oh wow. That’s an incredible compliment.

CS: Yes, I think so. But, Teyonah did her thing, and this is what makes her so extraordinary. Teyonah is nothing like that in real life. She really did some work and transformed into somebody else. I mean its like she might as well have been Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot”. Not to be overly complimentary, but the girl is a beast. She’s a joy.

AT: She is. She’s amazing. I’ve spoken to her previously, and I’ve seen most of her other work, she‘s so lovely and incredible to watch. For me personally, I found Miki’s story so intriguing because she was a huge firecracker despite the tumultuous times in her life. It was so interesting because I felt she always pushed and shined through despite everything. What struck you the most about Miki’s story?

CS: Well, we show her in so many different colors, and I know she comes off as a firecracker and there is that very explosive side to her. However, I think Miki deep down inside, and a lot of times on the outside is really just this warm person who has nothing but love for people. However, if you F with her… watch out. (Laughing)

AT: (Laughing) Exactly.

CS: That’s the first thing that struck me about her. You know, “Come Share My Love”, that’s really her. She’s led so many lives for her young age. But she has so much to share, and she is both willing and gracious to do so. She has touched a lot of people, and I would say over the course of this film even myself. She’s been in the entertainment industry her whole life practically, and she has a lot of knowledge and wisdom it terms of how to navigate in the industry from a perspective that only she can give. That’s invaluable when you hear it and you need it. She’s just been through it all, she’s been at the highest point and she’s hit rock bottom. You want to say, “Oh, Whatever”, but she’s happiest as can be living a very fulfilling life.

AT: I know that Miki has done so many amazing things and overcome so much even from her youth, but why was it important not only for people who grew up with her music, but for the next generation and so forth to know Miki’s story?

CS: I think it’s important to know that your circumstances don’t define who you are. If that is the only lesson that comes out of her story and her life, then it was well worth her having lived her life to tell this story. People need to know that no matter how bad the situation is or no matter how great the situation is, it doesn’t define you.

AT: Thanks so much Ms. Swanson, it was wonderful to speak with you.

CS:  Thank you!

Note: Christine Swanson was location scouting for new project, so after we spoke, I was able to chat with Teyonah Parris and Miki Howard who joined our conversation below.

Teyonah Parris and director Christine Swanson - "The Miki Howard Story"
Teyonah Parris and director Christine Swanson – “The Miki Howard Story”

AT: Hi Teyonah, thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me again. I don’t know if you remember, we spoke late last year when you were doing “Chi-Raq”.  Congratulations on your powerful work in this film. It was such an incredible experience to witness you become Miki Howard.

TP: Oh, you saw it already?!

AT: Yes, I did, I was able to see an early copy. So, how did you come onto “The Miki Howard Story?” I spoke a bit earlier with Christine Swanson, and she said that she was just really excited to have you on board. I know that you acted as producer as well on this project.

TP: I have a very amazing relationship with Kim Coleman who is our casting director. She sent the script to me and I read it over, and this was coming right off of “Chi-Raq”. I read it over, and I just remember thinking, “What? They’re doing this for television?” It read to me like it was a feature film that could be in any theater around the world. So, it was really exciting, and Miki’s story is so dynamic. It’s not short of dramatic elements. There’s mental abuse, physical abuse, drug abuse, marriage, love, divorce, all sorts of interesting elements. So, to have all of that packed into one script, and to know that it was someone’s real life was amazing. I had no clue that Miki had gone through this, and that this was her story. But that was what was so fun about it. This is TV One’s first biopic based off of their “Unsung” series. You watch those episodes, and you get to know about the artists and what their struggles and their triumphs were. That show is a hit for a reason. It’s fun and it’s interesting. To be a part of their first film based off of that hit show was exciting for me. Then, coming on as a producer, I’m really grateful to TV One for allowing me to step into that role. It was more of a creative producer in that we had discussions from the very beginning about the script, and how we wanted to structure and create the film.  Of course, that was with Christine Swanson our director at the helm. However, they really allowed me to have a voice in that process, and that has been a tremendous growing moment for me both artistically and personally. Usually my job is done once I leave the set. I’ve never been with a film behind the scenes during the post process, so it’s really exciting for me.

AT: Fantastic! Let’s talk about your bond with Ms. Howard. Can you tell me a bit more about how you both connected? What was your process like when it came to really embodying Miki Howard? I have to imagine that it would be a life changing experience for you as an actress.

TP: It was and it has been. Just knowing Miki and getting to spend time with her even after we wrapped filming has been so wonderful. She’s so full of love, and she’s such a firecracker and so smart and vivacious. I tell Miki all the time; I’m tired after hanging with her. She has you laughing forever, or she has you running around or she’s just filing me with so much wisdom and information and tips that I’m like, “Whew, I’m exhausted and we didn’t even do anything. “ But, I love her. She’s just so full of love and you just love being around her.




AT: What was your process like for embodying her? Especially since some aspects of her story are so painful.

TP: So, I did not want tot talk to her at first. I was so nervous.  But Christine our director just kept saying, “It’s OK, just call her.” But I resisted at first. I was like, oh I have to do some research before I start talking to her. I wanted to create an opinion about her from what I saw, and what I knew and what the public opinion was. I knew that would help inform part of the performance. I knew that often people think something is xyz, however, truly you can be going through something very different. I was so blessed to be able to get that information from Miki because she is still alive. A lot of times once we celebrate these artist and people who have really made a huge impact in our lives at certain points in our lives, they are gone. We don’t get a chance tot celebrate with them. So, having Miki play a huge part in this process and telling her own story, that is a luxury that everyone doesn’t get. However, once I finally talked to Miki, she was so welcoming and so loving. She really gave me the permission to get dirty and to be messy and to tell this story as I imagined it, just influenced by what her recounting of each situation was.

AT: That sounds amazing.

TP: However, even though she gave me that permission, when you’re having to explore what it is to be on certain drugs, and that person who actually experienced it is there, a part of me felt that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to take her back there. I didn’t want her to have to relieve that. Do you know what I mean?

AT: Oh yes, for sure.

Teyonah Parris, Miki Howard
Teyonah Parris, Miki Howard

TP: For me it was like, you overcame this, I don’t want to remind you what this pain was, but Miki was always like, “Go ahead you got it!”[Laughing]

AT: That’s so amazing, she was such a champion for you then.

TP: Yes, she was always an encouragement. She always said, “Don’t hold back! Do it.” So, she really gave me that freedom to play and explore, so I’m so grateful to her for sharing her journey in that way with me.

Miki Howard: Oh you’re so sweet!

AT: (Laughing) Hi Ms. Howard how were you?!

MH: Oh, I’m wonderful I’m so excited!

AT: Well seeing your journey on film was wonderful. I was telling Teyonah earlier that I got the chance to watch the film last night, and it was just so moving and engaging.

MH: Oh thank you!

AT: Ms. Howard when your “Unsung” episode premiered back in 2010, it became one of the most highly rated episodes of the series. Did that success inspire you to press forward with a feature length film about your life and career?

MH: Well, even back then, prior to “Unsung” my book was written. It was just a lot. I just wasn’t able to edit the book the way that I wanted to, so I didn’t put it out. When TV One did the “Unsung” I thought, “That’s good enough, that’s great.” I thought that was so cool because it’s wonderful to be a part of history. I don’t know what it means to everybody else but to me, I came up in the Black Power era, just generations away from slaves. So, it just means a lot to be documented, to say that I was here and I had a part in something amazing, which is the music industry and inspiring other people. So, that by itself was enough for me. But then, I got another call from TV One and they said, “We want to do a biopic.” At this time, there had been so many done, from Whitney Houston’s story and so on, so I thought this could be really cool. I’ve always thought that my life should be a movie even when it was happening. I would say, “This is a movie.” {Laughing]. So I thought this is so cool and so great. It is difficult because we have lost so many of our wonderful talents, and the thing about it is, this is not an easy thing to survive. [The entertainment industry] isn’t for the faint of heart. The things that have happened to me, at least one of them happened to everybody that you see and hear around. Music and art are born from so many different things, but a lot of times it’s from pain and having relationships that are not ordinary. You know? There are extraordinary relationships on the good side and the bad side. So I was happy to do the film. It’s an interesting story, and the fact that I did survive to this point… (Laughing) Girl, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but I’m here.

AT: Well it’s such a blessing and such a wonderful thing that you are able to tell your own story.

MH: It’s just great. I just hope that it helps and encourages people.

TP: Oh, it definitely will.

AT: Yes, definitely! I was speaking with Teyonah about her journey into embodying you, and she was saying that she didn’t want to have you relive all of the hard parts of your life. However, you were such a wonderful presence in coaching and pushing her to dive into the pain and process. But, was it at all painful to revisit the more difficult parts of your life?

MH: Oh no darling, absolutely not.

AT: Really?

MH: I mean, certain things make me want to cry, but I don’t see me. I see another person, a younger person, a person who didn’t have the wisdom, who didn’t have the support, and who wanted certain things. I have since achieved my goals. I feel great. I am deeply loved and honored by my children, and I have come to understand some of the things that I was going through and I am grateful that I went through them and I’m over it. I’m happy.

AT: That’s such a wonderful way to look at life. For me artistically, the film seemed to be structured in terms of the various relationships that you had in your life, with your mother, your long term relationship with Augie Johnson and with Mr.[Gerald] Levert. Do you view your life in those particular segments? Is that how you look back? Or do you view it differently?

MH: You know what, because so many people have passed away, that makes you compartmentalize it because there will be no other segments with them. They are gone. But in other ways, the thread of music is there all of the time, and it’s always growing and that’s not compartmentalized. Those songs that I sang all of my life are still with me. “Come Share My Love”, “Baby Be Mine”, “Love Under New Management”, that hasn’t gone anywhere. It can’t be compartmentalized, you understand? It’s just a thread. The music is the thread of gold, and it never changes. But the people, coming and going it’s just like, ”My God”. That is devastating! And we’re not even talking about everybody that we lost.

AT: I can only imagine. While watching the film, and Ms. Howard you spoke about this briefly, I was really struck by the glamour of it all. What are those pressures like for a Black woman in such a shining light? Teyonah I’m sure you can speak to that as well.

MH: I’ll say from my perspective and being around it all my life, what I learned is that you must separate your work from your life. When you close your door, that’s your life, that’s your world, and that’s what matters. When you’re outside in the world, when you’re giving product, and you’re giving love or whatever it is, that’s one thing, However, you have to have a separation. This CANNOT be your life. It cannot matter to you, if you have a hit record or a hit movie. Of course it matters to your finances, and you want to do your best work all of the time. But, what matters to you is what is inside that home, that heart, and the people that you love. Those are the important things in life, and certainly God. Once you get all of that, the rest doesn’t matter. You’re going to do well in everything you do.

TP: I say all the time, that my work doesn’t determine my worth. Whether I have a job today or a job tomorrow, or I have eighty jobs. What Miki just said I totally agree with. Who I am as a person in this huge industry, sometimes you can forget. It’s in those moments when I rely on the people in my circle of family and friends who know me, and knew me before anybody in the public eye even cared about anything I did. They remind me of who I am at my core, and who I am at the heart and also for me just spending time with God.  That really centers me and reminds me who I am as a person. When you don’t have that foundation and support on hand, that helps to remind you.

"The Miki Howard Story" – Teyonah Parris
“The Miki Howard Story” – Teyonah Parris

MH: It’s so easy when people are blowing smoke up your butt, and even for me now it’s so weird when people say things about me. But, I know who I am and no amount of accolade is going to take me away from being Justice’s grandmother. Or, going to my granddaughter’s graduation and those are things that really matter. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

AT: What struck me so much in the film was your doctor diagnosing you with low self-esteem in the rehabilitation facility. I was almost taken aback because for me, you were so strong despite everything happening around you. Did you ever think that you were searching for love or that you even had low self-esteem?

MH: Oh absolutely! Yes! I wanted to be loved because I knew what it was to be loved. I didn’t realize how far away I had strayed from my own moral values, and my own self worth by getting involved in the drug lane. But you know you lose all of your self-worth. Self-medicating is a whole other realm of just not existing to yourself anymore. And I think I felt that way because it just came down to the fact that nobody loved me, just my regular person. And do you know why? It’s because I never presented that person to anyone. I always presented “Miki Howard”. I always had to be able to make you some money, or it was about you being with me. Without that, I had no self-worth.

AT: That’s so amazing to be able to turn back and see yourself that way. I think it’s incredible to see how far you’ve come. I can’t even imagine having the strength to do that. However, I do want to ask, Ms. Howard, do you have any regrets? Whether it’s something that happened in your career or personal life?

MH: I wish I would have never gotten married. Oh God! (Laughing) I wouldn’t say that it was a regret, but I don’t even know how I got there! I didn’t even want to get married.



AT: I think sometimes marriage is something we think we’re supposed to do.

MH: That’s it! I thought I was supposed to do it.

TP: I thought it was interesting, and this was recently after we’d finished filming and everything, Miki said to me “Even now, I don’t think I regret anything that I did. It wasn’t dumb, it was desperate and you do a lot of things outside of your character when you are desperate.” In her case, we were talking about love, being that desperate for love and to be loved. So I just thought that was an interesting caveat she left me with.

MH: Yes, and it’s very true.

AT: Thank you so much ladies for taking the time to speak with me “Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story” and about your experiences working together. It was a wonderful thing to see and experience. I know everyone else is so eager to see the film as well.

MH: Thank you so much!

TP: Thank you! That’s so sweet. That means a lot to both of us.

“Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story” will premiere Sunday, June 12 at 7pm ET on TV One.


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

 

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