Interview: Jill Scott Talks 'Get On Up' and Connection to James Brown
It’s not often that one gets the opportunity to meet one of the few people they admire and respect enough to call a role model. And it’s even more rare to have a chance to speak with them while overlooking one of the world’s best skylines, in a hotel fit for the royal family. Although Jill Scott’s and my experiences were different, those awe-inspiring feelings were mutual.
So while I sat inches away, staring at my she-ro, Jill Scott would occasionally tilt her head to the right and gaze out of the floor to ceiling windows. I can imagine her musings didn’t have anything to do with the view of Manhattan’s beautiful architecture. No, she was thinking of the amazing spirit she had encountered: that of the Godfather of Soul.
As she dished about her role in Get On Up to us, Jill Scott couldn’t help but reminisce about the admiration and love she felt in playing the second wife of James Brown, DeeDee Brown. She emphatically declared, “I miss him,” and “I fell in love with him” while describing the connection she had to both DeeDee and James Brown. And while the kindred spirit seems a bit bizarre, one conversation with this golden actress made me believe it’s definitely real. —Adrian Hunter
Photo Credits: Getty Images
So, what made you want to get involved with this film in particular?
Really it was James Brown, number one. I’m a huge fan of the man, the talent, the voice, the charisma, the stage presence, the command of [his] band…
Yeah, the fact that you can do that list is…
…amazing. I don’t idolize anybody. I don’t believe in idols. But there are a couple of people in this world that I do respect to such a degree: James Brown is one of them. Whoopi Goldberg is another one. Barbara Streisand, Beth Midler. I like the renaissance folks who can pretty much do it all. James Brown’s niche was being on that stage and writing these songs that go straight to the heart and singing them with such passion and conviction that you want to be a part of it too. Then two was the script itself. I was surprised at what I was reading. You know about his life. But I wasn’t quite prepared.
And Tate Taylor. I saw his work with The Help and I said I want to be around that. I’ll be anybody. I’ll be an extra. I’ll work the cafeteria. I just want to be in the room. That way I can learn something. So I auditioned and Tate and his good graces decided to create a role for me that wasn’t originally in the script.
I noticed that James Brown was one of the few big performers that you mentioned was someone you looked up to. How has he influenced your music?
It’s that guttural passion where those sounds come from. It’s not something that you learn in a class. You don’t get those sounds everyday—those high-pitched screeches and yelps. They’re coming from somewhere deep. So the film allows you to see where they’re really coming from. The man knew how to write a song from a place that’s so deep and so rich. How could you not be inspired by James Brown? If Michael Jackson were alive he would tell you the same thing; I’m certain of it. Prince is alive and he’ll tell you that as soon as you see him. There’s no way around being influenced by James Brown’s music.
What was it like working with other amazing actors?
I’m really still pinching myself. Watching Nelsan [Ellis] work with that gentleness in his eyes and that broad capacity to speak through them, all I got was lessons. All I did was learn. I’m a voyeur. I’m always in the cut looking, if I can help it. I got a chance to see Viola [Davis] and watch her change her walk from coming down the steps of the trailer to walking on set. Chad and I would be sitting and talking about whatever we were talking about in the morning, laughing it up. And then he’d put on that costume and he [was] James Brown.
I really fell in love with James Brown. I normally don’t claim feelings that I have from characters. You play a role. You bury them. You say peace and you keep it pushing. But I haven’t been able to let go of DeeDee. And I didn’t know that until I saw the film because as soon as he came up on the screen I wanted to cry immediately because I miss him. This is the first time I’ve ever had this reaction.
How do you take all those feelings and channel them into your next projects?
It’s a whole different person. I’ve got to get DeeDee off of me. I’ll see her and that will help me know that I am not DeeDee.
Right because she’s there. She’s DeeDee. You’re Jill.
Exactly. And it’s so crazy to have the feelings of someone for someone [else] that isn’t living, [but] a character created by another guy. That’s not James Brown. I know this. It’s just so weird to me.
What can you tell us about your next projects?
The next film is with Lifetime and it’s called With This Ring. I read the script, enjoyed it and said, “This will be fun.” I got cast but I don’t know who I’m playing yet.
I’m still working on the two albums. I realized something about what I do. I don’t want to sing anything that I don’t want to sing forever, because I’ll be singing them for the rest of my life.
Is that something you took from the film because you can see that in James Brown’s music?
Definitely. I just don’t want to sing anything that will be ridiculous in forty or fifty years. So I’m learning as I go.
'Get On Up' will be in theaters beginning, Friday (August 1).