Crew Love: How ‘The New Edition Story’ Made A Band Of Brothers
Hollywood wanted no parts of it. For television vet Jesse Collins, the whole idea of the project was as perplexing as it was frustrating. After all, the improbable rise of New Edition—a group of unpolished and brazenly raw African-American kids hailing from Boston’s notorious Orchard Park projects who would go on to become one of the ‘80s most impactful vocal acts—seemed ripe and ready for the big screen.
“We developed and pitched it, and then a lot of people passed on it,” says Collins, the executive producer of the much hyped, ambitious, big budget BET mini-series The New Edition Story, which is set to run on three consecutive nights (January 24, 25 and 26). “It was a big leap of faith because when we started [the process] we didn’t have a deal. I didn’t have a deal and the writer that I got to do it, Abdul Williams, he didn’t have a deal. It could have very easily been all for naught.”
Indeed, one has to wonder just what exactly studio suits were thinking? Any script chronicling the dramatic careers of New Edition’s Ralph Tresvant, Bobby Brown, Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins, Ronnie DeVoe and Johnny Gill, practically writes itself. An over-the-top shady music producer plucks a band of rambunctious lads out from obscurity and robs them blind (millions!) during their ascent to R&B, chart-topping success. From there, the group finds superstardom, battles drug addiction, captures solo glory, loses a fortune, reunites, suffers paralyzing tragedy, literally implodes onstage during an actual concert, and finds redemption.
New Edition would go on to influence the diverse ties of white and black acts alike in, New Kids On The Block, Boyz II Men, the Backstreet Boys, 112, N’Sync and a legion of boys bands brave enough to step up to the mic. N.E.’s hits come at you at a seemingly furious pace: “Candy Girl” (1983), “Mr. Telephone Man” (1984), “Cool It Now” (1984), “Count Me Out” (1985); “If It Isn’t Love” (1987); “Can You Stand The Rain” (1988); “Hit Me Off” (1996) and “I’m Still In Love With You” (1996). When you combine the group’s record sales and off-shoot pursuits headlined by Brown’s seven million-plus behemoth solo album Don’t Be Cruel (1988), Ralph Tresvant’s self-titled, critically acclaimed, platinum solo set, Bell Biv DeVoe’s groundbreaking and frankly ballsy quadruple platinum R&B/hip-hop mash-up Poison (1990) and Johnny Gill’s double platinum, self-titled statement, the collective have sold close to 30 million albums.
Which is why this grizzled VIBE editor has found himself at BET’s Manhattan offices in New York’s Times Square on an unseasonably warm January afternoon to speak with the principles behind The New Edition Story. The first thing that pops out is the free-flowing chemistry between the actors tasked with pulling off this N.E. biopic. The perpetually upbeat Collins and his we’re-just-happy-to-be-here cast, Bryshere Y. Gray (Bivins), Woody McClain (Brown), Luke James (Gill), Elijah Kelley (Bell), Algee Smith (Tresvant) and Keith Powers (DeVoe) come off like a well-oiled comedy troupe.
There are a barrage of jokes about late night hair braiding, hotel aliases and Kevin Hart body doubles. The close-knit feel exuded by the fellas is all the more surprising when you realize that they just met during the days of shooting for The New Edition Story just a few months ago. So what was it like filling the proverbial shoes of one of rhythm and blues’ most influential yet underappreciated acts? What was it like working with top dog director Chris Robinson? How did they survive learning N.E.’s classic dance steps from the group’s longtime, no-nonsense choreographer Brooke Payne, played with simmering patience by veteran actor Wood Harris? How did Bobby Brown almost sink any hopes of a New Edition movie? And will the same kids who worship at the altar of Drake, Migos, and Future tune in to witness the boundless legacy of the last legit lineage to the Jackson 5? Read on.
Who: Jesse Collins
Role: Executive Producer of The New Edition Story
Ask About Me: One of the most respected writer-producers in Tinsel Town, Collins’ acclaimed work on the BET Awards, The BET Honors and BET Hip Hop Awards has made the visionary behind the hilarious Kevin Hart reality show spoof Real Husbands of Hollywood, an in-demand talent. And there’s more. BET recently signed his Jesse Collins Entertainment company to a first-look deal. Show off.
VIBE: Your fight to make this film happen has become folklore. Can you describe the arduous task of getting The New Edition Story to the screen?
Jesse Collins: It was 10 years of chasing it; of getting the life rights and getting the story. We just believed that somehow it was going to work out. We started the process, flew Abdul all over the country to meet with each one [of the members of New Edition], their friends, their family, and people that have worked with them.
Two people believed in it and one of them was at BET, but even then we still didn’t have Bobby [Brown’s] life rights. I remember seven or six years ago, me and Brooke Payne [were] in a club trying to get Bob to sign, with a contract in our hand. We are talking to Tommy (Bobby Brown’s brother). Bobby at that time just wasn’t ready to sign, so once he finally committed it was definitely a pop champagne moment when we saw all six signatures.
You were very meticulous and deliberate in the way you went about picking the actors who would play New Edition. What in your mind were you trying to find with each of these actors?
There were so many boxes that they had to check. When we first started talking to Robi Reed about the casting we were like, “They have to be able to dance…they got to be able sing.” There are some very dramatic scenes in this movie, so they have to be able to act. And we want them to at least somewhat resemble the original members. So it was this crazy combination of trying to check [all] these boxes.
With Jahi Winston, who plays Ralph Tresvant, I found a random picture of Ralph that was very obscure where he kind of looks like Jahi. I kind of used that like, “I found this picture…they look just alike! It’s bad lighting, but still they look just alike [laughs]!” And Babyface was also a big supporter of Jahi. We just thought, “At the end of the day, this guy sings better than anyone else we have seen as Ralph.”
That’s the big thing I noticed…that you allowed these guys to sing in the movie.
It was something that I really wanted. I really wanted the actors to provide real vocals in this movie.
That was a gamble, right? Because you have the New Edition fans who just want to hear Ralph’s, Bobby’s, Ricky’s Mike’s, Ronnie’s and Johnny’s vocals from the actual records.
Absolutely. It was all about finding people that could sing in those tones and make it their own. That’s why it was so important to have Babyface, who did all the music [in the film] for the younger New Edition. And then of course once you get to Heartbreak you have Jam & Lewis. I’ve been talking to Jimmy Jam for years like, “Oh, it’s going to happen.” And once it really was done, Jimmy and Terry [Lewis] came on right away and we had this incredible meeting.
Jam, Lewis and Babyface have only worked together one other time.
So to have all of them in the same room and we are talking about the music and they are dividing [the songs up] like, “Kenny is going to do these songs, Jam and Lewis are going to do the songs that they produced. Kenny is going to do [Johnny Gill’s] “My, My, My” because he produced that and Jam and Lewis are going to do [Ralph Trevant’s] “Sensitivity.” I told Chris [Robinson], [BET programming head] Stephen Hill and everyone, “We’re set. We’re going to be good in the music department because of these guys.”
You have been the ringleader for all of the BET award shows. How were you able to transfer that skillset to something like this? Because making movies is an entirely different animal.
It’s a whole other thing. Before the BET Awards, I was a writer on some sitcom stuff, so I was familiar with scripting and of course [I had been involved with] Real Husbands of Hollywood. Preparing for New Edition it was [all about] surrounding myself with great people. Chris Robinson to direct, Valerie Sharp, who is an awesome producer, handled all the production stuff…just an incredible team all the way around.
With the BET Awards, it’s about creating cultural [moments]. That’s the mindset that we approached [The New Edition Story]. Are we creating moments? Are we just creating moments for memory lane where people remember the videos and album covers? Or are we creating dramatic moments for people, finding out things that they never thought happened or were possible with these guys? I think that mindset helped carry us through.
What do you want the legacy of New Edition to be after people see this film? Because it’s going to be that 16 to 30-year-old that have heard about the group, but they don’t know about New Edition. What do you want them to get out of this?
I want them to get out of this that these six young black men were able to maintain their brotherhood. They started out as some kids from Orchard Park who really wanted to win some talent shows, win some money and get some sneakers and maybe kiss a couple of girls. It grew into a super group that spawned individual supergroups and acts: BBD, Johnny Gill, Ralph Tresvant, and Bobby Brown, of course. So you have all that and all these challenges and they’ve had money issues. But, today they have figured out how to survive all of that and take it back to the essence of what they were in the beginning—which was best friends.
Who: Bryshere Y. Gray
Role: Michael Bivins
Ask About Me: Gray is one of the breakout talents of a little television show by FOX you may have heard of called Empire. The Black-Twitter-igniting, meme-generating, still going strong hip-hop soap opera has made the Philadelphia representative [also known as Yazz the Greatest], who gamely plays ambitious, chest-beating, bad boy rapper with a heart-of-gold, Hakeem Lyons, a budding star. And he’s only 23.
VIBE: Did you have any preconceptions on how you wanted Michael Bivins to come across on screen?
Bryshere Gray: Well, man, to be honest, this character is so legendary in so many ways. I was raised on most of the songs that New Edition created. Michael Bivins needed to be expressed in the highest light, period.
You are dealing with someone who initially didn’t even want to be a singer. Bivins saw himself playing basketball. How did you want to get that part of his story across…the irony of Bivins becoming this superstar artist and powerful music mogul?
Well, like you said, it’s interesting. He didn’t want to be a singer…he was a basketball player from Boston. Being a singer was something that [Bivins] saw as something to provide money for himself. Of course, [he would go on] to grow a brotherhood with New Edition. And how did I pick that up? Staying there for two weeks in Boston; getting to know Bivins’ mom, his friends, and his family.
You really went in, huh?
Well, I talked to Will Smith, who is like a mentor to me. And when he did Muhammad Ali he studied him. He woke up and watched videos of him. So I stayed there for two weeks to get locked down into the character. It made me realize how impactful Mike was in a group like New Edition.
Biv was that cool cat. He was very smart with contracts. He wasn’t as [musically] talented as the other [members], but he was talented with numbers. And he caught on to things fast that could have stopped the group from signing contracts that they didn’t want to sign later on. Michael Bivins was a legit businessman.
New Edition’s choreography has become quite iconic. How hard was it going through those famous steps?
[Laughs] What’s funny is you watch these guys on TV and you think it’s easy. But it’s hard. Brooke [Payne] put us through bootcamp. It was about two to three weeks of boot camp and it was intense. We had to learn moves from the 1970’s and the 1980’s. We are 2000 steppers…that’s our generation. So that was a little challenging, but Brooke Payne made it easy for us.
There were times when Brooke would say, “Bryshere, you have to be exactly like Mike.” And Mike would be there putting the pressure on me. I didn’t find it disrespectful or anything like that. I knew that he was a perfectionist like me.
Let’s talk about Jesse Collins’ impact as the executive producer of The New Edition Story. I’ve heard the stories of how he was shopping the script around and he was getting no’s from everywhere. What has Jesse meant to this project?
If it wasn’t for Jesse, I might not have been in the movie. We had a meeting together….Chris [Robinson], Jesse, [and few other folks]. And Jesse felt as though I captured Mike Bivins already from watching me from Empire. Thanks to him and thanks to Teasha Bivins (Michael’s wife), who requested me to play the role, the stars aligned. I was just so honored. I knew how big and impactful this would be for our community and for hip hop period. I was just blown away.
How would you like to see this movie impact the legacy of New Edition?
I want people to realize how impactful New Edition is. How inspirational…changing lives through their music. For our generation, who really don’t know about New Edition, I want us to really give them that praise and to find out things that we never knew.
Who: Woody McClain
Role: Bobby Brown
Ask About Me: A relative newcomer, McClain once worked, ironically enough, as a dancing Bobby Brown body double in the 2015 Lifetime television movie Whitney. The project chronicled the rise and fall of the iconic pop queen and Brown’s late wife Whitney Houston. Given his raw and riveting performance as the most charismatic member of New Edition, it’s safe to say that McClain is ready for his close up.
VIBE: Bobby Brown is such an over-the-top character, an icon of his time. How hard was it playing someone so gloriously infamous on and off the stage?
Woddy McClain: It’s not easy at all. I think it would have been harder if we didn’t have Bobby here. But it’s a blessing to have those guys here so we can really get the true story. And we know it’s a real story because you have the actual guys that were there on set every single day with us.
There’s this public image of Bobby Brown being the ultimate bad boy. What did you learn that most shocked and surprised you about him?
Just watching his whole life I started to see Superman. Bobby went through the drugs, Bobby lost his wife and he lost his daughter. But he’s still here on earth with us…still going strong. And he still has his head on his shoulders. A lot of people couldn’t handle that.
Were you aware of New Edition’s musical history before filming started or did you have to bone up on their history?
I knew the music, but I didn’t know about New Edition. They didn’t have social media back then. My [generation], we have social media, so a biopic wouldn’t be as interesting because we see everything on Instagram. [We can see] their whole life on Facebook. But what makes [The New Edition Story] so special is [their fans have heard the stories], but they don’t know how exactly it went down. Now we get to show you exactly how it all went down.
Bobby Brown is arguably one of the most coveted roles in The New Edition Story. When BET announced it was making this mini-series there must have been thousands of actors your age gunning for that part. How did you land such a once-in-an-a-lifetime gig?
Choreographer Fatima Robinson actually called me and was like, “They have a New Edition movie coming out. You should audition for Bobby Brown.” Fatima actually brought me in when she did the Whitney Houston movie. I was Bobby Brown’s dance double. She got to see me move. I was ready for it.
There’s a scene in the movie that has gone down in infamy. Bobby Brown is leading the police on a high-speed chase. He opens up the car door and he is busted for cocaine possession. It’s a pretty pivotal moment in the film. In your mind, how did your prepare yourself for such a heavy scene?
That was probably the hardest part. I don’t do those kind of drugs. I had to do a lot of research. I had to talk to Bob like forever.
So Bobby Brown is telling you everything that went down?
Yeah…He’s telling me everything. It’s really best to have him and the other New Edition members here because no one else can really tell their story. No one can tell the story like them because they are the actual people that lived through it.
So what is a day with Bobby Brown like?
A day with Bobby Brown? Soon as we leave out of rehearsal paparazzi are there snapping pictures. I’m looking crazy! Going to restaurants…that was the fun part. Just being in the car…you roll down the window and everybody is screaming “BOBBY, BOBBY!” That was the best experience I ever had. He really is the “King of Stage”. I’ve always heard about Bobby Brown, but I had never seen his performances until Fatima told me about it. I actually watched it and I found myself watching all his stuff.
He was so fluid onstage…a natural…
I was just watching all of his concerts. That dude was a beast. He’s like my generation’s Chris Brown. Chris Brown does everything and Bobby was doing everything back then.
New Edition fans expect you guys to emulate those classic dance steps. Was it hard getting Bobby’s moves down?
You wake up 6 a.m. in the morning, ready. And then you have Brooke Payne on your back. He’s New Edition’s original choreographer. And he’s hardcore. I’m thinking I got some rhythm, so I’m doing my steps. I feel like I’m killing it. And [Brooke] cuts the music off…I’m smiling. And he’s like, “Yeah, sit on down, you ain’t got it.” And I’m like, “Yo…this is crazy!” I loved it though. He pushed us extremely hard to not only look good [individually], but to look good as a group. That was the most important thing. These guys have been doing it for like 30 plus years, so we had to build that same chemistry with only three weeks.
What do you want the legacy of New Edition to be for the younger kids watching this film?
Business. You got to have your business right. People will try to get over on you. They feel like they can make a lot of money on you and not pay you for it. But if you know your business can’t nobody get over on you. So I really want my generation to get our business down [after watching The New Edition Story].
Who: Algee Smith
Role: Ralph Tresvant
Ask About Me: If the perpetually upbeat singer, actor, and rapper looks familiar that’s because he’s been around, despite his youthful 22-year-old gaze. Smith had a recurring role in USA’s Complications and was a lead in Disney’s 2014 big screen science fiction comedy Earth to Echo.
VIBE: There’s a heavy burden playing a vocalist that was the lead voice and at times the face of New Edition. Did you come into this project with any trepidation of having to carry such a load for somebody that was in the spotlight so much?
Algee Smith: It was definitely nerve-racking to start with, especially the auditioning process. My first call back audition lasted for 10 hours. I was in this one building re-doing parts for Ralph. Chris Robinson would be like, “Come on in and read.” And he would then go, “Go out…let’s have somebody else read for Ralph.” So that was nerve-racking, but then after I got the part I felt like we all just wanted to just get it right so bad. We all knew how important [this film was].
Everybody has told me their story about meeting the actual members of New Edition. When you first met Tresvant, what was going through your head and what shocked you most about him?
First of all, [Ralph Tresvant] is an OG. He has traveled the world since he was 12-13 years old. He’s seen a lot, more than a lot of people. We just have a lot of things in common from being super mama’s boys to our uncles both being boxers. There are different family things [that I was surprised to learn about]. So just on a personal level me and him connected on a pretty dope level.
I find it interesting that Ralph caught a lot of grief in the group because people wanted to push him to the front so bad. And yet he stayed loyal to his brothers. Is that the point you really wanted to convey…the fact that this guy was always conflicted?
Definitely. He was pushed to the front, and so there were times that you will see in the movie that Ralph didn’t want to be [in that position]. He was humble…he wanted his brothers to all shine. I really wanted to convey that. I wanted to show the sensitive side, but also the man about him because even though he would sacrifice he still wanted his solo album. He still wanted Sensitivity to come out. I wanted to play off [those sides].
How ironic is it that we are talking about New Edition as they are about to receive their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
It’s a God moment…we’ve been saying that since we started filming. All of this is something we could never have thought would happen. We said that in the boot camp: “What if they get a star in Hollywood?” And then all of a sudden they get a star! It’s just crazy…something we can’t explain. It’s stuff that’s coming back full circle.
The “Home Again” tour is infamous for a lot of things, the main thing being the implosion of New Edition. Were you shocked that someone was actually shooting a gun backstage during an actual show?
First of all, there were so many questions. We didn’t even fully know the whole story. So I had all these things in my head like, “Who got shot? Did somebody really die?” But filming that scene was such a crazy thing. It was the longest day on set getting into those emotions. Chris Robinson is a genius. He set the whole thing up [frame by frame] with no preparation. Finding out that [New Edition] had so much drama for me personally was just surprising. I didn’t know they only got paid $1.80 cents after touring the world. So finding out all that stuff was just crazy.
I was in the room with you before the shoot. You guys are like a comedy troupe. The jokes were coming at a rapid pace. You act like you have known each other for 10 years. How did you and the other actors bond that quickly?
Those are my brothers, man. That doesn’t really happen on film with a lot of different casts. You got people that butt heads and don’t get along, but we talk in a group message everyday. We keep up with each other; we hold each other accountable and make sure that we are staying on our job and working. That’s really rare to have, and we believe in the importance of that. We are showing others, the people of our culture, that we have to be together. So now when people see us out, it’s not just a New Edition thing. They see us as having a bond.
Who: Elijah Kelley
Role: Ricky Bell
Ask About Me: The kid has a knack for landing some buzz-heavy gigs. Yes, that was Kelley in the reboot for the SAG nominated New Line musical Hairspray. And you probably spotted him in the George Lucas produced Tuskegee airman biopic Red Tails. Following appearances in the acclaimed independent film The Boys of Abu Ghraib and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Kelley found himself in the middle of a television event in 2015, taking on the legendary character Scarecrow in NBC’s ratings winning special The Wiz Live!
VIBE: You are playing the unsung member of New Edition. Ricky Bell sung lead on songs, but he often times played the background, and yet he was the group’s biggest cheerleader. How did you want to convey that complex underdog feel on screen?
Elijah Kelley: The thing with Rick is he came from a really big family. And a lot of those [family members] he wasn’t really that close with. So when it came to [his] New Edition brothers he wanted to do all that he could to ensure that the group would have success. If that meant Ralph would sing more songs lead he was down for it. If that meant Bobby singing more songs, okay, cool, he was down for it. Everybody obviously wants to shine, but it doesn’t become an issue until it starts to mess with the camaraderie and the money.
Rick’s passion was more so for the group to be a collective. When BBD got their chance he wasn’t even thinking about singing lead at that point. New Edition was New Edition. On an all-star team like the Chicago Bulls, Ricky might have been a Dennis Rodman. He might be a clutch Toni Kukoc. But when BBD came out, it became a Jordan moment [for him].
What’s the biggest difference between playing New Edition’s Ricky Bell and BBD’s Ricky Bell?
It’s like your church friends and your ‘hood friends [laughs]. When I go with my church friends, I play my part; I’m the drummer or I will sing in the choir. It’s the same thing with BBD, but BBD is more like, “We doing whatever the F we want to do. Period.” We are wearing the air-brushed suits, the Timberlands, the high top boots…everything. It was their chance to be as raw as they wanted to be.
I don’t think people understand how groundbreaking Bell Biv Devoe were…
They don’t understand! Like singing and rapping….BBD was one of the first to start that modern day scene. Ralph Tresvant had a rap song…Bobby Brown had a rap song. They tried to do that after BBD did their stuff because they saw it was possible.
So I have to ask you about how Brooke Payne was trying to bring the pain. He was serious with the choreography, wasn’t he?
Man, absolutely [laughs]. Brooke ain’t got no respect for us! We had three weeks to learn everything. We had three weeks to come up with 30 plus years of camaraderie; 30 plus years of organization when it comes to those dance steps; 30 plus years when it comes to just how organic we were supposed to be onstage together. So I respect Brooke because he understood from jump that there is no time to play.
There is no time to be lackluster in any shape, form or fashion. Brooke saw the steps…he made those [New Edition] steps. It was to the point that the [actual members] of New Edition and BBD came in…Johnny Gill and everybody. And we performed the steps together. At one point you literally had the [child actors who played the younger versions of New Edition], and you had us and you had the [real] New Edition [in the room together].
What was going through your mind at that surreal moment?
That was the moment where I knew it was bigger than me. We had 16 to 18 people up there and everybody was there because of [New Edition’s] legacy. Because of everything that they survived. And you are just a [small] part of this whole thing, so we have to get it together…we have to get this right. New Edition is a group that is in everybody’s hearts. But because they are not fame hungry they don’t beg for it; they don’t beg to be in your heads.
Now there’s talk that they may even be considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s stories like [New Edition’s] that have to get done so we can honor our own. We have to give these guys their flowers while they can still smell them. It’s us as a society that says BBD and New Edition should be staples in rap and R&B for all of time. That’s how we did with the Rolling Stones; that’s how we did with the Eagles; that’s how we did with the Temptations and the Jackson 5. And you go through all of those groups and none of them have had [the kind of solo break-out] success as New Edition has.
You got the chance to meet and hang out with Ricky Bell. What did he mean to you as you were preparing for this role?
He meant everything to me. Ricky was extremely open about his life and his ups and downs. One of the things that attracted me to the role is he really wanted to put the most raw and the most secretive things out there that nobody had known. You see in the trailer where I’m vomiting at the mouth and I drop down and nobody knows why that is. And you will find that out. That was a near death experience [for Ricky Bell]. It was caused by a lot of things but when you watch it you will really understand how much he felt for this group…that it could bring him to that much pain.
We are not talking about random people. We talking about your brothers, your life falling apart; the culmination of making $1.87 cents [off a tour] all the way up to finding out that there is again no money while you are walking around in the streets [while being Ricky Bell from New Edition]. That’s difficult to handle.
What do you want the fans and viewers to gain from watching The New Edition story?
I hope people gain the real feeling again when you could put on a New Edition song whether it’s “Can You Stand The Rain,” “If It Isn’t Love,” and if you go all the way back to “Candy Girl. If you go to their solo records they give an undeniable feeling. This group gives a specific feeling. You can’t say, “Oh, that reminds me of New Edition.” No, New Edition gives you a certain feeling. The Temptations gives you a certain feeling. Jackson 5 gives you a certain feeling. I’m happy that people will understand that New Edition [gave the world a] unique feeling.
Who: Luke James
Role: Johnny Gill
Ask About Me: This Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter, who drew critical acclaim for his 2008 debut Bright, 2011’s Can’t Look and his 2014 self-titled album is not a inconspicuous soul. Indeed, when you have written songs for everyone from Chris Brown and Keri Hilson to Britney Spears and Justin Bieber and has been praised by Nylon magazine as “the guy who may just save R&B,” who has time for subtlety?
VIBE: You play Johnny Gill, a vocalist who joined New Edition during a moment of serious group turmoil. What was it like playing an artist who basically was thrown into the eye of a hurricane as he replaced the most charismatic member of New Edition, Bobby Brown?
To be honest, I didn’t cry at night thinking about how I was going to pull this off. [I’ve been] preparing for this the majority of my life. I use to mimic Johnny Gill when I was a kid. My first song I learned by New Edition was “Can You Stand The Rain.” I’ve always had a big take-it-home type tone, [which is why Gill’s] voice resonated with me. I was ready to bat. The funny thing is, I opened up for Johnny Gill maybe four years ago at an event and I met him briefly right before he went on stage.
I want to make sure that when people watch [The New Edition Story] and when they hear me sing that they don’t feel like they are hearing Luke James. That they [are] hearing JG. So I think that was more important to me, not only to portray him to the best of my ability, but also for when I sing, that I sound like him. I have to say that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Babyface really helped coach me into becoming Johnny Gill vocally.
There are certain aspects of Johnny Gill that has to come out on screen, such as his reputation as being a strong vocalist with roots in the church. How did you approach Gill’s powerful vocal prowess?
That’s some intense [vocals]. That’s Luther Vandross, who was Johnny Gill’s inspiration and where he saw his career being able to sing these beautiful love songs and build a career—a lifelong career like Luther Vandross did. So I had to go listen to Luther. I had to get into what Johnny was listening to as a kid. I wanted to get all of that and that helped me to get closer to becoming Johnny Gill.
What was the experience like being on The New Edition Story set?
I would say this whole New Edition, BET, Jesse Collins experience [was] divine. I feel like from cast to crew to everyone who was working this project…everyone has a story, a New Edition experience of some sort and it really ties us all in. Algee was the first person I met. I knew Elijah from running around L.A. hustling.
But meeting the other guys, it just happened that we kind of knew internally what we had to do and what we had to become.
So we came in knowing that no matter who came through that door automatically [that’s] my brother. [With] these dudes there is an understanding that we need each other and that was something that we learned from New Edition.
What did you learn about Johnny Gill from your brief time with him?
Johnny Gill is a very confident man, as am I. I feel that me as Luke James, there is no stage that I can’t get on and not shut it down. Johnny feels the exact same way. He didn’t come to fill any shoes; he came to create those shoes. I don’t think he ever felt like he had to fill Bobby Brown’s shoes for dancing as far as keeping up with the fellas. I got two left feet and [Johnny] has two left feet, so it worked out in the casting. Johnny knew what his strength was and he knew that eventually that he would get the dance moves.
All he had to do was be Johnny Gill, and that’s what [New Edition] wanted. That’s what Bivins wanted. He wanted Johnny Gill to be Johnny in order to propel the group to the next level. The group had Ralph and he was amazing. I mean the last time you heard a voice like that was MJ…so soft and beautiful. But you needed a rough edge and Johnny brought that power.
You mentioned having two left feet. How did you survive Brooke Payne?
Brooke really put us through it the first night. New Edition talked Brooke into teaching them and seeing if they got what it takes. He put them through some sort of boot camp where he turns off the air and tells them don’t ask no questions because that means you are not listening. We went through that same process, it was no different. They didn’t treat us like you guys are the actors. The first time we came in and the moment 8 a.m. came around there was no time for BS. This is serious and [New Edition] are a legacy.
We had fights. We had cabin fever. One guy would mess up and we would have to start all the way over. Our first routine was 11 minutes long and we were moving at a fast pace. Elijah, being such a seasoned actor, we had to rely on him. Keith had to step it up not being a dancer himself. He had to become this [great] dancer [like Ronnie DeVoe], and we needed him to step it up because Ronnie held it down and made sure the formation was right.
What do you want that young kid who has never heard New Edition’s music to learn from this movie?
[I want them to] see guys that look just like them, not too far in age, pursuing their dreams, ‘cause people don’t know that these guys paved the way for everything that we hear today. The way we dress, the way we look at a group; the way we look at R&B artists in general; the whole merging hip hop with R&B. [New Edition] were the first to do it. They were the first super group. There was no other super group before them. Yes, people can say the Jackson 5, and no disrespect, but only Michael really truly had absolute maximum success.
With New Edition, every single member had maximum success. [They] changed the way you looked at artists. BBD was the first group of people anywhere to attend the Grammy’s in some regular street wear. They paved the way for that. Singing and rapping at the same time? BBD was the first to do that. Before there was Migos there was BBD. That’s the beauty about this movie because this is a life lesson. I’ve learned so much from this that I’ve made changes in my own life.
What changes have you made?
Just how to be a better businessman. At the end of the day, I love to sing. I love to act. I love to perform. But how do I provide and survive…how can I walk into this thing [thinking] I’m forever young and that somebody is going to handle my business for me? You are your own boss and you are the only thing that is going to keep this thing going. It’s your dream and you need to [pay] attention to it.
Who: Keith Powers
Role: Ronnie DeVoe
Ask About Me: Powers is best known as “Theo” in the MTV comedy series Faking It. But true film heads will no doubt recognize the 24-year-old Sacramento native as Dr. Dre’s younger brother in the 2015 NWA blockbuster biopic Straight Outta Compton.
VIBE: So let’s get into Ronnie DeVoe because he’s one of the more interesting characters in that his reputation as a dancer is so profound within the group. Was there any apprehension of coming into this project knowing that I am going to have to dance my ass off?
Keith Powers: Yeah, when doing my research—just finding out that Ronnie was the best dancer—I was kind of in the awe, man. Because I’m not a natural dancer, so I [had] to train and go there ‘cause I never did choreography. So it was a type of thing where this is going to be the first time, as an actor, where I am going to have to become a researcher; where I am going to have to become a true storyteller. Because now I have to get outside of my box in order to become someone else.
Everybody talks about how the casting call for the movie went down. How there were a million actors coming in to compete for the roles of New Edition. Just how competitive did it get?
Yeah, it’s funny cause I tested with Algee and Woody [McClain]. I went against Algee [Smith], who plays Ralph. I didn’t get [the role], which I knew I wouldn’t ‘cause I wasn’t right for Ralph. They let me go and I came back for Ronnie. I remember going up against a lot of guys. Chris [Robinson] and Jesse [Collins] will put you in a scene with the people you are going against and like switch everybody in and out. But even though we were all competing, it was dope to see young black men all cheering each other on still. Like no matter how much we were competing, it was a type of thing that at the same time we all got to work together. It made you feel more solidified because you were going through the trenches for this. It was a scary process, but it made you feel even more solidified once you got in. And that was before boot camp. So that was only 10 to 5 percent of the whole job because we still had to learn our [Boston] accents and we still had to get to the dancing and we still had to start researching.
The dancing…everybody has talked about Brooke Payne and what he put you guys through, the good and the bad. Can you describe having that man in front of you telling you to do that step over again a million times?
The thing about Brooke is he is a very calm man. He is the type of guy that he doesn’t have to watch the rehearsal to see that you messed up. I think that those type of guys scare me the most…or I respect the most. I respect him the most mainly because he doesn’t have to do too much. He is more laid back, more mafia godfather type…”Do it again.” [Laughs.]
It’s funny because [Brooke] might be on the phone looking away doing business and he will say, “Keith, do that again.” He will keep doing it until we get on point. He will be like run it back, run it back. Brooke is like an uncle. He is really somebody to mirror as far as being a leader and you are going to see it in this film played by Wood Harris. Wood just gives this demeanor that is just so cool, calm and collected. That’s Brooke Payne.
I like the fact you guys got the chance to hang out with your doppelgängers in New Edition. What was the experience like being around Ronnie, who has been called the coolest member of the group?
Man, when you hang out with Ronnie, he’s the type of guy where it’s like you instantly feel at home with his spirit. He’s such a relaxed, smooth guy, just like his uncle Brooke Payne. He is so much like him that it makes you happy that he’s helping you. When I was doing the moves, Brooke and Leon would teach me and they were amazing. But sometimes they wouldn’t get to me like Ronnie would teach me. Ronnie would give you these tricks. It would just be little tricks that he would do and I’m like, “Oh, snap…that made it easier for me!”
[Ronnie] is so cool that you can already relate to the moves without even knowing it because he’s telling you in a way that he can level it down for you. And I love that about Ronnie. He’s always smiling. He’s always cheering us on. They say Ronnie was always the core of the group. He is the mediator, and you feel it when he walks into the room.
We have to talk about the BBD era. Here we have the three members of New Edition that people thought would never find that kind of massive success away from the group. Can you talk about how it felt to put that goody-goody New Edition thing to the side and just go full on crazy and wild with Bell Biv DeVoe?
The BBD side was a whole other beast. After you learn all the New Edition moves it’s like, “Now we are going to get into BBD!” And I was like, “Ahhh, this is the hip-hop dancing part.” I was just doing the soul and the steps and “Mr. Telephone Man” and now I got to really sweat. I just remember being scared to get to “Poison.” If you mess up “Poison” you might not be able to work again in this town [laughs].
Ronnie always tells me that when he was young [and in New Edition] that was “shy Ronnie.” He stayed out the way, he was trying to find his way in the group because he was coming from a different [housing] project, which was Cathedral. He said when N.E. Heartbreak came, that’s when his stock rose. I was trying to show that [while playing] this character. I tried to show that in my demeanor. So when it got to BBD it was like, “We are one of the hardest things to branch off from New Edition!” Who would have thought that?
That’s the brilliance of Bell Biv DeVoe. No one saw that coming, right?
I mean, If you look at BBD, a lot of artists today are 100% influenced by [them]. Almost 90 percent of rap, nowadays rappers can’t even get on the radio without a singer on the hook. That’s a branch from BBD.
The legacy of New Edition…what do you hope for the impact of this movie?
One, I need the newer generation to respect the legacy. Especially if you want to learn music, you have to know who New Edition was to a certain extent. I want them to see how professional New Edition was. I want them to see where they messed up business wise so that they can learn from it. So we can have our young African-American artists knowing how to manage their money and to have the right team. And I want them to take away brotherhood from it. I want them to realize it wasn’t New Edition against each other…it was New Edition vs. the corporations.
I always say that we are introducing New Edition to the younger generation so we have a responsibility. ‘Cause if they don’t like it, they won’t go back and look at the real New Edition. I had one comment on Instagram after I posted a clip of New Edition’s “If It Isn’t Love.” And a girl was like, “This reminds me of [Beyonce’s] ‘Love On Top.’” And I said, “Yeah, it was inspired by ‘If It Isn’t Love.’” And she said, “Oh, I didn’t know that, thank you!” I want this to be a history lesson.