“The New Edition Story” is a three-part miniseries event that follows the iconic group from their humble beginnings as kids in Boston to global megastardom.
Bryshere Y. Gray (“Empire”), Elijah Kelley (The Butler, “The Wiz Live!”), Grammy® nominated singer/songwriter Luke James, Keith Powers (“Straight Outta Compton”), Algee Smith (“Let It Shine”) and Woody McClain (“Autographs”) are among the cast that will bring the iconic music group’s legend to life.
EUR/Electronic Urban Report caught up with the cast, and executive producer Jesse Collins (“Real Husbands of Hollywood”), during the Television Critics Association Winter Press tour, where they told us that having the biopic air on BET is “good for our culture.”
Luke James stars as Johnny Gill, Woody McClain stars as Bobby Brown, Elijah Kelley stars as Ricky Bell, Bryshere Y. Gray stars as Michael Bivins, and Algee Smith stars as Ralph Tresvant in director Chris Robinson miniseries that will begin airing TONIGHT, Jan. 24.
Check out part 1 of our Q&A with the actors below:
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How intimidating was it having New Edition on set critiquing your every move?
Woody: It was a little nerve wrecking but they were so supportive. They would say stuff to encourage us and push harder.
Luke: It was fun. Also for us, it’s exciting because these guys, we didn’t grow up on them but our older brothers and parents grew up on them and we understand how important they are. So to be in their presence, to be able to call them big homie and to hear them say, “You nailed it, baby!” was awesome. As actors you just want to portray these guys the best that you can.
Elijah: It was inspiring. It was a challenge. It was just a call to step up. Having them there every day being able to shadow them, being able to ask them questions about the real stuff that nobody knows. They were extremely helpful and it became a partnership of like, “Yo, I need to give you everything that I have so you can build this character the way it needs to be built and presented they way it needs to be presented.”
Algee: Having New Edition on the set was like a cheat sheet because you have the actual format of how it’s supposed to be done right in front of you. Copy and mimic the steps and pay attention and just live and be in the role. It’s amazing for them to even still be alive to come to set to do that for us.
Keith: It was amazing. It was a luxury. Of course it was also challenging because straight up they would tell you if they weren’t feeling something, or if something didn’t seem right, or maybe they’d come on set and say, “I never said that,” which is very funny but it’s real and it’s a luxury to have because you want it to be as authentic as possible. I think them couching us on that and keeping us on point really helps to keep it authentic.
You guys are essentially making history about history. What sort of elements did you immerse yourselves in to help prepare for these roles?
Woody: They gave each member a flash drive of their character and we stayed up all night just studying and getting locked in to that mode.
What was on the flash drive?
Luke: Interviews, choreography, pictures, lost of interviews with Johnny when he was with Stacy Lattisaw — a lot of interviews. It was just awesome. Let me just say this, it’s a blessing to be in a movie and to portray some giants…people who have done something for the culture. It’s also great that out of the movie I’ve gained brothers. These dudes….what we went through to become New Edition. We only had three weeks to become 33 years.
Talk about your training during that three weeks.
Luke: It was 8 hour days, early morning at 8am we’re dancing. Our first routine was an 11-minute long routine. I’m not a dancer. I have rhythm but sometimes I get a little overzealous and my right foot turns into my left foot and my left foot stays the left foot. So it’s just all awkward. But luckily Johnny has two left feet too, so it worked out for me to be Johnny. But it was intense.
How familiar were you with New Edition’s music before you started this project?
Elijah: Everybody pretty much knew the hits but as far as the music is concerned, it got deeper when we were able to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and Babyface, the actual composers of this music. We were able to go down memory lane and listen to the original tracks and original vocals. That was really getting into it for the first time for me.
Algee: My dad actually toured playing with Ralph and Johnny and Bobby before I was even considered for the role. I had New Edition in my head since I was younger. Everyone has heard ‘Poison.’ Everyone has heard a BBD song, or everyone has heard ‘Candy Girl,’ so we know those songs. But when we got the role we really had to learn.
And your experience working with icons Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis….
Keith: I didn’t know too much about Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis before this. I heard the names but I didn’t know that they basically shaped everything that I’ve heard all my life. I knew about Babyface. They were teaching me how to sing in the studio. Like, he’ll tell me to keep hitting the note, and he’ll just keep saying it, and I’m like, “I’m doing it!” Like, I was getting mad. I was getting so discouraged, like “Dude, I can’t hit these notes.” And these guys have worked with Janet Jackson, Prince…I feel like I was wasting their time. But it was amazing because they got me there and it was like… wow. They were surprisingly patient, especially with me.
Jesse Collins: One thing that was great, Babyface, Jam and Lewis were involved with the audition process. Kenny (Babyface) came when we were auditioning the little kids and Kenny was a big supporter of who ultimately wound up playing Ralph as a child. And then with Jam and Lewis, when we were auditing for the bigs, and Algee had to sing for them and we didn’t tell them that Jimmy and Terry were in there, so we just put them center and lined up everybody that we wanted to play Ralph and we were like, just sing “If It Isn’t Love” a capella right now.
Did they have say in final casting?
Jesse Collins: Yes, especially in particular the role of Ralph. Everyone was like, “Who should be this guy?” And then Terry looked over, he said. “I don’t know if that motha f*cka can act, but he sings just like Ralph. So, it’s up to you.”
Why is BET the perfect home for the New Edition story?
Jesse Collins: We went around and pitched it to a couple of different places and it became a bidding war between Tracy Edmonds and BET, and BET won. BET wound up being the perfect home because they understood the story and they support it from top to bottom. And so it was the place that made the most sense.
People should know that BET earned this project. They stepped up and made the right deal with New Edition for their life rights and when you look at it on screen you can tell that the financial support was there to make this look right.
What did you take away from this project, personally or profesionally?
Elijah: I took from it, you never know what God has in store. I’m a spiritual person. I believe in God but sometimes your beliefs start to waver. When I met with Jesse and Chris I could not have imagined the magnitude of this project at this point. I had to just let God do his thing because I see it in the group. I see how he’s able to work in the group and how they’re still together. An unbreakable bond is an unbreakable bond.
Algee: This film helped me become a better singer, become a better actor. Other than that, I took away the brotherhood (and ) the business side of it…watch who you get into business with. Trust in yourself.
Keith: We had such a brotherhood and it taught me that everyone has to be on one accord. Kicking it with each other off set really helped bring the brotherhood to life. It helped us to embody it because it created chemistry and it shows you that chemistry is everything..
Tune in to “The New Edition” story tonight at 9/8c on BET, and check back soon for part 2 of our chat with EP Jesse Collins and the cast.