Chanté Adams glides through the 10th floor of The Chamber Group’s downtown New York building. She’s especially jubilant. Not because the city has issued a snow day due to snowflakes the size of ping pong balls plunging from the sky. Moreso, because she is just two days away from making her cinematic debut in Netflix’s latest original film, Roxanne Roxanne – the true story of hip-hop’s pioneering female emcee, Roxanne Shanté.
Sundance’s newest breakthrough talent delicately sits crossed-legged on a nude couch in the Moroccan-decorated office, so not to dishevel her ‘80s-inspired, white pants suit. The excitement of her first performance is bouncing from her neatly coiled locks and her massive grin, yet the actress taps into her expanding palette of emotions to pull out an essence of power and allure for her photo shoot. The fact that she’s only 23 years old doesn’t become prominent until she whispers a request to a member of her four-woman posse in between takes: “Can you text my dad?”
Since Roxanne Roxanne debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan. 2017, it’s been an out-of-body experience for the recent college graduate. Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1994, Chanté never dreamed of playing a 14-year-old girl out of Queensbridge representing for the Juice Crew. During the Roxanne Wars of 1984, the budding actress wasn’t even a twinkle in her parents’ eyes, making Adams’ personal knowledge of the original Shanté and New York’s burgeoning rap scene practically non-existent. In fact, her earliest memory of hip-hop came nearly 15 years later when she was a young child, courtesy of Brooklyn’s budding talent, JAY-Z. “There’s this video of me. I have to be about three or four. We’re at our family reunion, and [my oldest brother is] banging ‘90s JAY-Z, so it’s super explicit, with his two younger siblings in the room who are like three and seven,” she vividly recalls. “And he’s like, ‘go Tay-Tay.’ And I’m just banging it out to some hard core JAY-Z. This is on tape.”
Her ignorance of the golden era of hip-hop may be highlighted by tales of her younger years, but it most definitely isn’t conveyed on screen. During the hour and 40-minute film, it’s clear that Chanté shares more than a name with the protagonist she plays; she transforms into her character – a woman who endured domestic violence and was metaphorically beaten by her managers and industry for much of her career – in a way that is believable and truthful. Scenes like her triumphant live concert alongside Biz Markie leave a pleasant aftertaste, while impassioned exchanges between her mother (played by Nia Long) and her abusive lover (played by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) leave many viewers with a stale and sour feeling.
This may not be the extravagant fairytale we want to see, but according to the film’s producer, Mimi Valdes, this is a part of hip-hop history (and even women’s history) that we should see. “Hollywood does not respect our stories,” Valdes proclaims. “Even with the success of Black Panther, or Hidden Figures, or Get Out, or Girls Trip, there’s still this perception that movies with people of color don’t do well or are not valued. I want all of us to see ourselves represented on the screen. These stories are important.”
As “The Voice of New York’s” Angie Martinez said during an exclusive screening: “Women in hip-hop don’t have movies.”
Well now, with Chanté’s remarkable performance, that’s changed.
VIBE: How did you manage to land an audition and role straight out of college?
Chanté Adams: I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in drama, and at the end of four years, we do a showcase in New York and LA for managers and agents. An agent that saw me reached out to the casting director [for Roxanne Roxanne]. So, I got an email from [the casting director]. It was my first movie audition. I had just moved to New York two weeks prior to auditioning. Never in my mind did I think this is my role; I’m just trying to get practice because I know that I have a lifetime of auditions. I went in for it and felt like I did a good job. I left and said, ‘Welp that was fun.’ Then I went about my day. I ended up getting the call back, and again, that was just another hey, I got my first call back. I’m proud of myself. Still, no thought in my mind that I would get it. Then I got the final call back, and that’s when it set in: I can get this. I went to the final call back, and I didn’t feel as good as I did about the first two, probably because that was the pressure setting in. But a couple of days later, I got a phone call telling me that I got the part, and I was starting the next week.
You’re a formally trained actress. What formal practices did you bring to the set? Which ones did you have to break out of?
I went into production for Roxanne Roxanne knowing nothing about shooting a movie. I knew two things: how to act and how to learn. The rest I had to figure out along the way. I’m so grateful that I did get this role out of school because that training was fresh. [I just did] that deep text work that any classically trained actor would do. But then I got a call from the [director Michael Larnell] telling me how excited he was about me having the part and telling me that we needed to have a camera rehearsal. I got in front of that camera at the audition and I’m like: ‘We can’t do the laundry! We need to do the laundry!’ [It was] so over the top because I’m so used to being on stage where I have to be loud and have to be big for the people all the way in the back. You get in front of that camera, and it’s right there, capturing every little thing. So [Larnell] met me at my wardrobe fitting and we had rehearsal for a couple of hours, where he would tape me on his iPhone and then play it back for me. Every time I watched myself, I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, no!’ It did not make me feel good about going into production, but I immediately understood what I had to do from day one. That was my crash course in film acting.
You were born in 1994, so you probably had very little knowledge of Roxanne Shanté. How did you prepare for the role?
I read and watched every interview that Roxanne Shanté has. Then I went to the people that were kids in that era and that was my two older siblings. I asked them how they felt [about her], especially my sister. She was nine years old when “Roxanne’s Revenge” dropped. And she remembered singing in her mirror and trying to memorize the words and what that meant for her having never seen a female rapper before.
You mentioned only having eight days to prepare. How did that affect you?
The good thing about only having eight days is that I did not have time to freak out. There was no time to be like, ‘What am I going to do?’ It was immediately: okay, let me scream for a second. Call my parents. Let’s get to work. But, of course, the butterflies and the nerves were still there. I was moreso trying to focus on the work because I knew I was going to meet her soon [and] she needs to be happy with this choice.
What was that first encounter with Roxanne Shanté like?
[Our meeting was] the same day I had the wardrobe fitting and camera rehearsal. I was there for six or seven hours. I had to try on 40 outfits, then go to camera rehearsal for two hours. Then I had to meet Shanté. I remember I was sitting on a couch like this, and I heard her heels clicking down the hallway, and my heart just started pounding. I was so nervous, but as soon as she walked in, she had the biggest smile on her face. She just took me in her arms, and I was [thought]: ‘Thank you God, she’s nice!’
How was your conversation?
I’m going to be completely honest. I do not know what that conversation was about. I was so focused on watching everything she was doing because this was the only time I had with her before we started shooting. What’s her tone of voice? What’s she doing with her hands? What facial expressions is she making? What is she doing right now that I can put into this character over the next few days that I have to prepare?
She was also the executive producer. Was it intimidating having her on set, watching you play her?
It was intimidating at first. But then I realized how great it was to have her there and how I needed to use that. If I had any questions or needed advice, she was there. Then the nerves eventually wore off. She wore a bunch of hats, especially when it came to me. She was quick to jump into a mother role if she could sense that anything was wrong. With those braces especially, they were cutting up my mouth and as soon as I showed her and was near tears, she sent the assistants to get me wax and taught me how to put it on my braces – stuff a producer doesn’t have to do. But she also wore that producer hat, so if I wasn’t doing something correctly or the way that she would have done it, she was quick to pull me off to the side. I couldn’t do the Wop at all, the dance. You got to Wop during “Roxanne’s Revenge,” and she’s like ‘Nah, nah, come off the stage.’ She took me around the corner, her and her son, to practice. One, two, one, two. She taught me how to Wop in between takes. Every take, we’d go off to the side and practice a little more.
What other scenes or practices did Shanté have to guide you through?
How to boost properly. The funny thing about that story is we were almost done shooting the scene. We were on the last take. Shanté comes in and watches it and is like we got to do this over, but we can’t. She’s like, ‘No, you have to do this over.’ I don’t know how to steal clothes! I was going through the racks, picking which ones to steal. I wish I could watch that footage, because I’m sure it’s me really thinking I’m a robber. And she’s like you never look down. You got the bag, drop the bag, grab the clothes, fold it up. Eyes up at all times, watching. Grab the bag. Never look at the bag. Now I know how to boost properly.
Aside from this movie following Shanté’s rap career, it also delves into emotional and personal moments (i.e. domestic abuse, sexual assault, etc). How did that impact you from an acting standpoint and as a woman?
It definitely gave me insight into what all types of women, particularly those who are in abusive relationships go through. Granted, what we did was for film, it’s not fun to be put in that situation. Mahershala [Ali] is also a very large man, so seeing him come at me with his fists, those reactions were genuine. Just to see that would invoke something in me. Also, Nia [Long] gave me some really good advice because I was nervous about that. Portraying a victim of domestic violence, you have to think about all of those women who are going through that. It’s not just Shanté. She represents so many more women. Hearing that definitely helped me settle into it because it wasn’t just Shanté’s story during those moments.
Considering our current social climate with the various movements championing women, did that also play a factor in how you represented Shanté on screen?
When we shot it, it was before the sexual harassment scandals were happening. But I’m so happy that the movie is releasing during the Time’s Up and Me Too movements and this time of female empowerment. It’s the perfect time for women who are still in situations like that to watch this movie and know that they are not alone and there is a way out. This is our time.
You mentioned Nia Long and Mahershala Ali. Was there any other memorable advice they gave you while filming?
It wasn’t even advice that [Nia] gave me. It was just how she treated me. Hopefully I have the career of Nia Long and get to that point where I got this young actress under me, and I can take her under my wing like Nia did me. Nia would come on days she wasn’t called or stay late when she was technically released just to to help me out with a scene. I [was] so used to a director in theater who’s so focused on the actor, and film isn’t like that. The director is focused on the shot and the angles and lights. I’m just standing there half the time. Nia saw that and was like, ‘Hey, come over here. How about you try it this way.’ She would stand in the corner and watch me do the take. We’d cut, and she’d be like, ‘Do it again, tilt your head to the camera.’ Little things like that meant so much to me. I could not have given the performance I did if Nia wasn’t there helping me.
What was one memorable moment shooting for you?
A memorable moment, which isn’t in the movie, was me and Mahershala walking into the club with our white fur coats on. The movie shows us in the middle [of that scene] with our matching fur coats on. It really got me into Roxanne Shanté mode.
What do you hope people take away from Roxanne Roxanne?
I’m really hoping that women take away the message that they’re not alone. No matter what you’re going through, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and you just have to keep pushing towards it. It’s bright and it’s beautiful on the other side. Look at Roxanne Shanté, who went through hell and high water for most of her childhood and for some of her adult years too, and she is happy and healthy and inspirational. She’s the definition of you don’t have to look like what you’ve been through.
What’s next for you?
I want to do more movies like Roxanne Roxanne that have a strong female lead, that tell stories that we have not heard before. It’s always my dream to be a superhero. Marvel, if you’re listening, I’m available. I just want to be a bad a** superhero. I was a really big fan of Storm growing up. I thought that was the only superhero I could be. I’m a black girl and Storm’s the only black, female superhero. I was so crushed when they re-did X-Men and they found a new Storm. But then movies like Black Panther came out and there are more superheroes than Storm now. So I’m really excited.