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Interview: Elijah Kelley, Luke James and Keith Powers Talk The New Edition Story (Exclusive)

Sometimes the very thing that brings a group of friends and colleagues together can also be the same element that ultimately tears their connection apart. That’s certainly the case with the R&B group, New Edition, whose natural talent in part propelled them to fame. The close, effortless bond between the members also helped fortify the recognition they’ve received as one of the earliest pioneers of the boy band era during the rise in their popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But the band’s ever-increasing acclaim inevitably contributed to their downfall and ultimate break-up in the 1990s, as highlighted in BET’s new mini-series, ‘The New Edition Story.’ The members allowed their popularity to negatively impact their life-long friendships, as they all became eager to see their individual names take over the spotlight.

As the singers eventually did find their own success in their solo careers, they eventually realized how important their personal and professional bonds are, and decided to reunite as a group in recent years. All six New Edition members also decided to serve as co-producers on ‘The New Edition Story,’ along with their longtime manager and original choreographer, Brooke Payne. Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, who also worked with the band during their initial climb to success, served as the producers of the film’s soundtrack. All three episodes of the mini-series were directed by ‘ATL’ helmer, Chris Robinson.

The three parts of the six-hour mini-series are set to premiere this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, January 24-26, at 9/8c on BET. In addition to the much-anticipated biopic, New Edition will also be celebrated this week when when they receive their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame tomorrow, the day before Part One of the television event begins.

‘The New Edition Story’ follows the famed title group from their humble beginnings as children in Boston to their achievement of their global mega stardom. The members of the R&B-inspired boy band experienced the highs and lows of controversy, personnel changes and the ultimate cost of fame.

Ronnie DeVoe (Keith Powers as an adult and Myles Truitt as a child), Ralph Tresvant (Algee Smith as an adult and Jahi Winston as a child), Bobby Brown (Woody McClain as an adult and Tyler Williams as a child), Michael Bivins (Bryshere Y. Gray as an adult and Dante Hoagl as a child) and Ricky Bell (Elijah Kelley as an adult and Caleb McLaughlin as a child) joined forces to form New Edition in 1978. Under the guidance of producer Maurice Starr (Faizon Love), the quintet released double platinum LPs, including ‘Heart Break,’ and love songs like ‘Telephone Man’ and ‘Cool It Now.’

In 1985, Bobby left the group for a superstar solo career, and was replaced by Johnny Gill (Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, Luke James). Most of the other singers later went on to produce their own hit music outside of New Edition, especially Ronnie, Michael and Ricky, who scored major hits as the group Bell Biv Devoe. But despite the members’ solo successes, New Edition was at the forefront of the boy band craze that would later take over the 1990s.

Kelley, James and Powers generously took the time recently to talk about starring in ‘The New Edition Story’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actors discussed how they were drawn to play their respective roles in the mini-series, as they wanted to introduce New Edition’s musical legacy to a new generation. The trio also expressed their appreciation that the members of New Edition allowed the actors to ask them anything they needed to know about the band, especially during the three week rehearsal period they had before filming began. The actors referred to the rehearsal time as their boot camp, as they dedicatedly worked hard to achieve the look and sound they needed to play the band members.

ShockYa (SY): Elijah, you play Ricky Bell, Luke, you play Johnny Gill, and Keith, you play Ronnie Devoe, in BET’s biopic, ‘The New Edition Story.’ How did you all become involved in playing your respective characters in the mini-series?

Elijah Kelley (EK): For me personally, to be able to be a part of such a legendary group experience, and tell the group’s story to a new generation that probably isn’t as familiar with it as they should be, was an honor. We wanted to take the opportunity to make New Edition the staple that they should be through this wonderful piece of art that we created.

Luke James (LJ): When I was presented with this opportunity, like everyone else, I knew how important making this movie was. Telling this story the proper way, and showing how important it is to black and pop culture, is essential. These guys went through a lot. When I spoke with Chris Robinson and Jesse Collins (who served as one of the mini-series’ executive producers), and they revealed the depth of how far they were going to go with the story, I was immediately intrigued.

Keith Powers (KP): Like Elijah and Luke said, I was immediately intrigued by the possibility of being a part of this project. We’re representing this music to the younger generation, so we have to present it the right way. If we don’t, the younger kids won’t want to look at New Edition, and discover who the group is. So we are New Edition to them.

The members of New Edition have been doing this for 30 years, and we only worked on the film for a couple of months. So it was an honor to get to play them, but we also had to dive right into it and be ready. If we weren’t ready, we weren’t going to present something like this the right way. This story isn’t just important because of the music; it’s also important because of the lessons. It’s the money situation, the professionalism, the brotherhood and simply the great music and the people behind that.

When I was offered the role, and found out that New Edition was actually behind the project, I was like, I need to be a part of this. I knew it would be on point, and that’s what matters when you’re making a biopic.

SY: All six New Edition members served as co-producers on ‘The New Edition Story,’ liked you just mentioned. How involved were they in the development and shooting of the mini-series? Were you all able to speak with the respective band members you play?

LJ: Just like when Jamie Foxx hung out with, and studied everything he could possibly learn about, Ray Charles (for his Oscar-winning title role in the 2004 biopic, ‘Ray’), we did the same thing with New Edition. We were able to hang out, and talk, with these guys. We were able to ask them anything we needed to know, and they were there for us, especially during our boot camp.

Not only did we have to learn their songs and choreography, we also had to learn their mannerisms. Each member has distinctive mannerisms that people know, and are in some ways iconic to their own artistry. So it was important that we all tapped into our own character. That way, when you saw us on screen, you were seeing what New Edition was really like. This movie was very important, so we took it very seriously.

EK: Just to reiterate what Luke just said, learning about the members’ individual mannerisms was amazing. But as a collective unit, they looked a certain way. When they were together, they looked differently from when they were performing by themselves. When you see Luke perform as Johnny Gill by himself, it’s totally different than when he’s with the group. Or when you see Keith and I performing as RonnieDeVoe and Ricky Bell by ourselves, it was totally different than when we were performing with the group. Understanding and blocking different mannerisms within a whole group was important.

Beyond the mannerisms, with the voices you hear in the movie, Luke was actually singing Johnny Gill’s music. I was actually singing all of Ricky’s parts. Algee Smith sang all of Ralph Tresvant’s vocals. We were sang our own parts. We made our voices sound like theirs during their different ages, from when they were 15 and 16, and all the way up to when they were 30.

That was a big feat that we wanted to do when we came in, because we knew all of the other high-caliber projects that did that before us, like ‘Walk the Line,’ ‘Ray’ and ‘American Dreams.’ We wanted to be in the realm of those top picks.

SY: The biopic follows the famed title group from their humble beginnings as kids in Boston to global mega stardom, like you mentioned. Since the drama encompasses elements from the band’s entire career, what was your research process like into the members’ personal and professional lives, beyond what you already knew about them?

LJ: We went to the same depths as any other Oscar-, Emmy and Golden Globe-worthy movie. Whatever the actors did in those films, we did the same thing. That’s how serious this movie is to us, and when people see it, they’ll feel it. We only had three weeks to become New Edition.

KP: Yes, we had to build a 30-year vibe in three weeks.

LJ: The whole team of New Edition was there to help us. The process of how they taught us the routines also helped us become closer as brothers. So what you see us portraying on TV is true. There hasn’t been a day since we started boot camp that we haven’t spoken to each other. We’re a really tight cast. The kids who are in the movie are also best friends.

EK: They’re so talented.

LJ: The kids are absolutely brilliant. They’ll do anything to help the youth become inspired. They give a great picture to what black excellence looks like.

SY: How did having the group portrayed as teens on-screen also inform the way you approached playing your characters? Elijah and Keith, were you able to speak with Caleb McLaughlin and Myles Truitt, who play the younger versions of Ricky and Ronnie on screen?

EK: We didn’t have a separate preparation from the kids; everyone was together all the time. New Edition, us and the kids were in the same rehearsal space in the same hall everyday.

LJ: The kids practiced the first six hours by themselves, from 8am to 2pm, and then we went in the next six hours, from 2pm to 8pm. When we went in, the kids would still be rehearsing. The kids were at 100 percent, so we knew we had to go in and be at 1,000 percent.

This whole project made us a family, and we were always together. We shot the entire project in L.A. We all studied and ate together. We shot scenes together. We were able to present things to Chris, our director, together. As the actors, we all delved deep into our characters.

We even worked scenes together when we were off the clock, and decided on what shots to use. We would decide if we should use a certain fight scene, because we didn’t use stunt doubles.

We also did our own dancing and sang our own songs, thanks to Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, as they were our music supervisors. That also helped us jump into our characters.

We were all forced into method acting, so that we really became New Edition. When you watch us on camera, what you’re seeing is authenticity.

SY: Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds signed on as music producers for the mini-series, like you mentioned, and also served as producers on the film’s soundtrack. Since the trio played an integral roles in the rise of the band, what was your experience of working with them on the musical aspects of the drama?

LJ: That experience was beyond amazing. It was a beautiful experience to be in the room with, and be coached by, Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. They worked on all of the original music with New Edition. Just to think that they have worked with artists who we consider legendary was mind-blowing. But that reminded us that we were making a real-deal motion picture.

SY: One of the key elements that drive the plot in ‘The New Edition Story’ is the life performances the title band gives, from the time they began singing together in Boston in the 1970s through their national tours into the 1990s. What was the rehearsal, as well as the filming, process like for the performances while making the drama?

KP: The training was super beneficial, because we had to get the performances down so fast. The rehearsals helped us become ready, because when the cameras when on, we needed to have a sense of urgency to bring the performances to live.

By the cameras came on, we were tired and hot, as we didn’t have the AC on. We had to film our performances multiple times, sometimes even up to 10 times. We shot 12 hour days, so we were doing the same scenes and routines over and over again. It wasn’t like a regular acting scene, where you could give several different acting choices; we had to be on point, in the same way, every single time.

Our rehearsals helped us mentally, so we wouldn’t break down while we were shooting. I think that was important, because it’s easy to break down doing that.

LJ: Yes, our rehearsals really brought us together. Most of the members of New Edition are brothers, as they grew up together, and they met Johnny when they were 18.

We went through the same training, and had the same discomforts, as they did. If one guy messes up, we would all mess up.

Brooke Payne, who was their manager and choreographer, also worked with us, and taught us the same way he taught New Edition. Within our three weeks of rehearsal, we were able to create a bond that has yet to be broken, to this day.

SY: How did playing real-life performers in a mini-series influence your acting and singing approaches while you were preparing for, and filming, your roles?

LJ: I think this is a little bit more difficult…

KP: …It’s a lot more difficult.

LJ: Yes-these are real guys who are still dancing and on tour. So it’s important that you nail your performance of people who are still walking around. You have to tell their story in the best possible way that you can.

When you play a fictional character, you can make all of your own choices; you create that character from within. But we had to take what we see in the real group, and relate to it. That way when viewers see it on screen, it’s real and honest.

EK: We knew going into that how serious that was. When we walk on the street individually, it may not cause any kind of stir. But when we walk down the street as a collective, people are looking at us as our characters. So they come up to us and say, ‘I saw you in the trailer, and that was how Ronnie and Johnny danced!’ Seeing the fans and their reactions served a great purpose for the film.

SY: What was your experience of collaborating with the series’ director, Chris Robinson, who you mentioned earlier, on creating your creators’ for the mini-series?

EK: Chris Robinson is probably one of the most creative directors of our time. We has worked with everyone you can name in our modern black pop culture. He and Jesse Collins had a vision to not only lean on the music, but also the genuine sincerity of the brotherhood.

We didn’t just want to be nostalgic; this project is about honoring the group, and then showing how relevant they are in the present, as well as in the future. The group is still thriving, and they’re getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I feel honored to be a part of the fact that they’re being immortalized.

Watch ‘The New Edition Story: Extended Promo’ below.

Courtesy of BET.

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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