Actress, singer and Grammy-winner Jill Scott knows what it’s like to tour and perform with a large band — but nothing prepared her for the world of James Brown’s public performances, as seen in Get On Up. The story of James Brown — as played by Chadwick Boseman — Get On Up features Scott as Brown’s second wife, DeeDee Jenkins; in part one of our interview, Scott talked with us about how she found
the project, how it changed her relationship to Brown’s music — and how Chadwick Boseman’s capacity for transformation messed with her head just the littlest bit …
How exactly did you come to play DeeDee Jenkins, Mr. Brown’s second wife — how did the script come to you? I know that you were signed after Mr. Boseman …
Well, I heard about it, and asked around — asked my agent, asked a few other people: “Have you heard of this James Brown script business?” And finally, somebody got the script — the script looked like someone had taken a bath with it, and spilled all their coffee on it, and I read it, and I thought “If this actually happens, I need to be a part of it.” So in the middle of the press junket for Baggage Claim, I got an audition — so I left the press junket, and auditioned for another role that was maybe about a day’s work, and I guess I did pretty well in the auditions, because I got word that the director and producers were creating a role for me, and that was the second
wife of James Brown.
Or, rather, expanding that part of his history.
Is part of the thing of signing on for a film like this the question of which parts of someone’s life the film will be looking at?
Yeah — there’s a lot. I think that they were trying to not make a regular bio-pic; one that always ends well, and that’s always light hearted at the end, and ‘Oh, what an experience!’ But with this film, I believe that you leave with a feeling — you understand James Brown so much more than you ever thought you would or could. And because of that, I understand the music so much more — when you listen to “Please, Please, Please,” I feel DeeDee; when I listen to “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” I understand more; when those notes come, I understand — or I believe I do — where that spirit comes from. You don’t yelp like that, you don’t scream like that for nothing; there’s a reason for all of that. People don’t just wake up gifted; there’s always an underbelly. And UI think this film educates all of us about the man and the legend.
It’s not just Mr. Brown’s talent for expression; it’s all the things from his life he had to express.
Can we talk briefly about Mr. Boseman? Because as a fan of 20th Century popular music, I know that Mr. Boseman is the wrong height, body shape and even, a little bit, skin tone to resemble Mr. Brown — but he really wills himself into being Mr. Brown for this film. Was that intriguing to watch?
Oh my God — he’d come in in the morning, and he’s Chad, and he’s silly, and he’s cool — kind of quiet, nice guy to be around … and then he would put on that make-up and that wig, and he was Mr. Brown — and that’s what we called him all day, until he was done being Mr. Brown. And even some times after — we’d just be talking, having a conversation, and he’d look at me with Mr. Brown’s eyes, and I’d tell him ‘You have to stop it; you have to cut it out; you’re playing with my feelings, you know?’ He embodied everything Mr. Brown was; it was kind of freaky, but inspiring …
Was it kind of like a Samson thing, where when he got his wig he got his strength?
No, it would happen gradually; there’s something he would do with his hands that Mr. Brown would do, and sometime during the make-up process his hands would start moving — and he was listening to the music of James Brown constantly, constantly. he had to get there, and he got there every day by any means necessary. Wow. Damn, Chad! Amazing!
In the first part of our interview with actress and singer Jill Scott, the singer and actress talked about how she came to play James Brown’s wife DeeDee Jenkins — and her admiration for co-star Chadwick Boseman’s work in the film. In this second part, Ms. Scott shares her thoughts on transformation and its pleasures, the dangers of the music industry in Brown’s age and our own, plus which James
Brown record is, for her, a must-own.
While we’re talking about Mr. Boseman’s transformation into Mr. Brown, it should be noted that you’ve pulled off those kinds of transformations yourself — in one year voicing super heroine Storm for a Marvel animated production and leading The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency for HBO … Do you like the way acting gives you the chance to be so many human beings, albeit temporarily?
Yes I do — and maybe that’s the reason everybody does it. it’s something that I’ve loved for over 25 years; I’m a theater baby, and it’s a bug that’s never gone away — and I hope it never does. The research, the homework, the costume changes, the slight changes to a voice, or diction — all those little things are so exciting and fulfilling to me. I don’t think I could ever give it up for any reason … I’m just always looking for a better role … just a slightly better role. (Laughs)
You are, of course someone who’s been involved in the music industry — but when you look at how this film depicts the music industry of the past, as depicted in Get On Up, do you think “Well, it’s a little better …” Or is it just that all of the people in the music industry that want to rip you off are a little more polite these days?
Yeah, it can definitely be a business of snakes … but my business manager is someone I’ve known since I was 16 years old; my assistant, I’ve known her since I was in 4th grade — I keep a crew of really good, solid, hearty people around me that mean no harm, will do no harm and I treat them the same. That is like a shield, a protective force; I’ve definitely had some shyster managers, but I’ve learned, so I appreciate them. I’ve had a rough time with a record label, but I’ve learned, and that’s really all you can ask for. Everybody takes their hits in this business. Everyone — it’s just a part of it, unfortunately.
What’s the best part of working with Mr. Taylor? He directed The Help, his direction of this is very interesting as it tries to shun a lot of the cradle-to-grave bio-pic clichés … what’s he like as a director on set?
Easy … he’s very easy. he comes on to set with a very positive attitude; he kind of sits back and allows the actors to do their work. If he has a word, it’s pretty quick, and he knows how to not get in the way — I think that the biggest benefit to him is that he casts well, and once he trusts you, he trusts you, and then he allows you to do what you’re to do. It’s freeing, as an actor. I like it both ways — I like a director that’s all in my neck, like Anthony Mingella — all in my neck, all in my business, forcing me and inspiring me to be my best — I like that too.
As one final question, Ms. Scott — if this film does what it should, and re-introduces a true showbiz innovator — one of the most sampled and imitated artists of all time, one of the greatest showmen of all time — what’s the album people should get?
I think … that’s really hard. I’m biased, so I’m going to take Jazz.
Because it’s different, like the pleasures of the Ray Charles country records?
No, it was right in his … genre. The man was able to leap genres. He jumped into jazz and you would have thought that’s all he ever did. With the same tone, the same screech, the same passion; it’s a glorious project. For any vocalist to listen to how James Brown records a song .. there’s a mastery in it all. He’s reaching form somewhere deep; it’s not just using that voice, using his body — when he dances, it’s all-out, it’s all passion, it’s almost primal — and his singing is the same way. It didn’t matter whether he was singing jazz or funk or soul or gospel — didn’t make a difference. That’s where you want to be.
Was he one of those singers like Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, where the phrasing and timing made all the difference?
Absolutely, because I don’t know if there’s anyone who can find that timing, the way he used the horn section. The horns were drums, the guitars were drums; everything on that stage was a drum. And he found the rhythms, that’s — Whew. The man is an educator of the study of music, actually. He’s the teacher, and we all need to go school, and I know I’m in school right now — believe that.