Elijah Kelley danced, sang and acted his way into our hearts as Seaweed Stubbs in the big screen adaptation of Hairspray. Since then, he’s continued to make major Hollywood moves, appearing in box office hits like Red Tails and the upcoming The Butler. Playing the son of Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey may seem a daunting task, but the 27-year old makes it look easy as their youngest son “Charlie Gaines.”
During our exclusive Vixen Chat, Elijah told us how he won over Lee Daniels, why he gets along with other actors and working with the queen of talk. He also dished on “the perfect woman” and former co-star Amanda Bynes’ Twitter antics.
VIBE Vixen: How has The Butler journey been so far?
Elijah Kelley: It’s been a dream come true. You get to see your heroes acting on a daily basis. Everybody from Oprah to Lenny Kravitz—it’s amazing.
Is Oprah really as amazing as she seems?
(Laughs) You know what? I think she’s better than what people imagine. I think if she had the time, she would go through person by person and help out because that’s her spirit; that’s her heart and that’s what she does best.
Did you get any one-on-one time with her behind the scenes?
Absolutely. She gave me some incredible wisdom. She will put her neck on the line and say, ‘This person is talented. This person is the next. This person has such a bright future.‘ People listen to her. She’s so generous in that way. She taught me it’s all about the hard work. Success, the money, the fame- everything is secondary. It’s a by product of how hard you work. It’s vital to your staying power because I can go so far with talent and charisma and everybody can do that. But, at the end of the day, who’s working and who’s sleeping?
How did you get involved with this project?
When a film like this comes around, everybody in Hollywood wants to be a part of it, period. It’s like rappers. When a dope song comes out, everybody wanna be on the remix. Lee Daniels announced that he was doing this and I went to audition for the role. The audition was at this really famous hotel in LA called the Chateau Marmont. We get there and everybody is in the lobby. You’ve got everyone from David Oyelowo to Michael B. Jordan is in the lobby. You go there and it looks like an awards show downstairs because everybody wants to be a part of it. I went in and we (Lee) had a conversation. He’s looking at me and I’m looking right back at him. I tell him, ‘I can do this role.’ And he’s like ‘What?!’ I told him I want to be brilliant and he said, ‘Let me show you brilliance.’ And then he proceeds to pop in one of his movies. And so for 35 minutes in my audition, we sit there and he shows me a movie that’s not out yet and he said ‘that’s brilliance.’ After he said that to me, I looked him in his eyes and said ‘I can beat that.’ And he said ‘You gon’ have to show me.’ He gave me the role right there, before I even read for the part.
Tell us about your character.
I play a character by the name of Charlie Gaines. I’m the son of Gloria Gaines (Oprah) and Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and the younger brother of Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo). I get my jokes in where I can. If something serious is going on, I try my best to make light of it.
Are you anything like your character?
Absolutely. I’m a grandchild of the civil rights movement. My mother went to a segregated school. My grandmother and grandfather worked in the field. It wasn’t something out of the history books for me. It was more so looking through a portfolio of your family and seeing what they did. Seeing the blood on those leaves is the same blood that’s running through my veins, so it was very important for me that I be a part of this.
Who were you closest to on set?
Me and David bonded on Red Tails together, so him and I always had a bond. A lot of things were shot separately so there weren’t many characters that were on set at the same time. You might be flying out when Jane Fonda or Robin Williams could be coming in for three days to do all of their work. I find it very interesting that now is the time that a lot of people are getting to bond during this press run and the green rooms and red carpets.
What will a young person living today get from this film?
Number one: We sometimes don’t acknowledge the severity of the actions that went down in the civil rights movement. It’s hard to grasp that these kids younger than us were being hosed down, dogs were being siced on them. They were even working at the White House for a number of years and being treated unfairly. There’s so much that we don’t revel in because we have it so good, but we have so far to go. The Trayvon Martin thing just happened and everybody’s in an uproar about that, but there’s so many Trayvons and Oscar Grants.
Number two: There are not a lot of movies that [positively portray the] relationship between father and son. It shows that not all of our sons are in jail. Not all of our fathers are out of control. There is love in the black household.
Is there camaderie between you and other black actors in Hollywood?
There’s something that happens in Hollywood. A lot of the time, it pigeonholes you against you’re brother. And I’m not saying that in a sense of the color thing. They make it a competition, like there’s one spot. So there’s an immediate tension that is created. You’re competing with Tristan (Wilds). You’re competing with Michael B. Jordan. Within that, finding the camaraderie is easy, but it can be difficult, too. I don’t feel like any other man is better than me at all in what I do. But, what’s for me is for me and what’s for them is for them.
You’re a triple threat: you sing, dance and act? Will we be hearing more music in the future?
It’s always been on the horizon. I just had to wait for the right time. I like the quality in what I do and when the market is sometimes oversaturated with things that aren’t so good, the greatness can be lost inside of that. Right now is a time where I think real music is making its way back and artists like myself will be acknowledged. My time is coming and you’ll be one of the first to hear and you’ll listen to it and go out to it and party to it and all of that stuff (laughs).
Whose music are you enjoying most right now?
My boy Tristan (Wilds). I like his songs. There’s actually a song I just produced for a girl group. This is something most people don’t know, but I produce. I’ve been working with these two wonderful ladies; their name is Faarrow. Right now, they’re the faces of the Diesel Studio Africa campaign. The song is called ‘Say My Name.’ I’ve been doing it secretly for awhile. I do what I do when I feel the impulse to.
Speaking of girls, do you have a girlfriend?
(Laughs) Should I?
Should you have a girlfriend or should you answer the question?
Should I have a girlfriend? Because a lot of girls tell me that I don’t need to have a girlfriend. I do want a girl in my life and there is someone special, but I’m working out the kinks.
So you’re casually dating?
You’re going to get me in trouble because…well…I’m single. I’m dating my job.
What type of girl are you looking for?
I love strong, assertive, driven women. Very, very clear vision in what they want. Somebody sexy, stylish and very centered. Somebody I can walk into a room with and no man in that room can say, “Oh, I been with her” or “I had a date with her last night.” I pride myself on being able to say, “That’s me and nobody else.”
What is sexy to you?
A conversation. I’m very witty and charming and as a guy in this industry, you learn to be able to say the right things at the right moment. I think it’s sexy when a woman can totally call me on my B.S. and I’m speechless. I think it’s extremely sexy when she can say “boy, stop doing this and that.” I love that. It’s not a lot of women that can do it.
What’s next for you?
There’s a couple projects that I’m very interested in that I can’t actually talk about because they’re not set in stone. But the next thing that I do I can tell you will be life changing and you guys will probably remember me forever for it.
You worked with Amanda Bynes on Hairspray and she’s had her share of bad press lately? What are your thoughts on her situation?
A lot of publicists and managers tell me to stay away from the question, but I’ll say this. Amanda’s a beautiful person. She’s strong, I’m praying for her and she’ll get through it. She has a beautiful family and support system and she will get through it.
Anything else our vixens should now?
I’m dark skin and dark skin is beautiful (laughs).
The Butler is in theaters now. Will you be watching? Check out the preview below.