Exclusive: Chattrisse Dolabaille on playing Missy Elliott in Aaliyah: The Princess of R & BPosted by Wilson Morales
November 12, 2014
Coming out this week is the highly anticipated Lifetime TV biopic of singer Aaliyah in “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B.”
Before Beyonce and before Rihanna, self-proclaimed “street but sweet” Aaliyah was poised to become a global icon with top-selling albums, a hot movie career and an adoring fan base. But behind the spotlight, Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah Dana Haughton struggled to succeed in a tough business while staying grounded in the midst of her growing celebrity. The film follows the beautiful and talented performer’s inspirational journey, from her debut on “Star Search” at the age of ten to the challenges she faced during her rise to become the Princess of R&B. On August 25, 2001, at the height of her popularity, her life was tragically cut short when a plane carrying the singer and some of her video crew crashed after takeoff from a Bahamian runway. Although just 22-years-old at the time of her death, Aaliyah continues to lead a legacy as Billboard’s tenth most famous R&B artist of the past 25 years and one of the recording industry’s most successful artists in history.
Starring Nickelodeon actress Alexandra Shipp in the title role, the film also includes Rachael Crawford and Sterling Jarvis as Aaliyah’s parents Diane and Michael Haughton, Lyriq Bent as her uncle Barry Hankerson, Elise Neal as Gladys Knight, and Chattrisse Dolabaille and Izaak Smith as producer-rappers Missy Elliott and Timbaland, respectively.
Aaliyah worked with the both of them on her second album, “One In A Million,” which sold 3.7 million copies in the United States and more than eight million copies worldwide.
While there’s been some controversy as to her casting, that hasn’t deterred Canadian actress Dolabaille from making the most of her feature debut. Not only is she an actress, but a singer-songwriter as well.
Blackfilm.com exclusively spoke with Dolabaille on her role as Missy from the audition, the research, and her commentators.
Chattrisse Dolabaille: One of those classic stories that’s really boring yet it was really exciting at the same time. I had been out of the country for six months and when I came back I was expecting there to be a really long dry spell before I landed any auditions. That’s how it is, sometimes a casting director may not remember who you are. Instead, a week after I came back to Canada I got an email from my agent that said there was an Aaliyah movie and would I audition. Because I had been out of town I wasn’t even aware this movie had been up and on its feet, and I was really excited about. I cut my family trip short so I could come back and audition for the role, I went to the audition. It’s so difficult knowing what they’re looking for at an audition, you try to put it out of your mind once you’re done. In the best case scenario you get that next email or phone call offering you the role and that’s exactly what happened with this one. There wasn’t any callback or anything, but it was in June and I kept it quiet for awhile, it was obvious that there were going to be a lot of strong reactions. August was when the rest of the world figured out what was going and we were already pretty much filming by that point, and wrapped it up soon after that.
When you found out you were playing Missy what were your original thoughts?
Chattrisse Dolabaille: I’m a visual person and I’m also a writer as well, so I know that if I were writing the movie and had strong opinions of what someone should look like I would have put that in the breakdown. The first thing I said to my agent was, “Yeah I can do it, I can go, but are you sure? Are you positive?” This is Missy in the mid-nineties. She doesn’t look quite the same as she does today. If you wanted to argue in terms of looking like her, these days she’ll wear the long braids or things that are more my look, but back then it’s not the same image. I checked with my agent, who said, “They already want to see you.” So you prep your role, you learn your lines, you do the audition and like any role you gothere and give them what it is you think they want to see from you. I went for the role, I waited a really awkward second afterwards to see if they wanted me to read for someone else in the cast. They said, “No thanks, have a great day!” So I went home, did my best not to brood over it too much, then got the email a week later.
Did you do anything physically to look like Missy from back then?
Chattrisse Dolabaille: In terms of weight and hairstyle, I found out about this audition a little under 48hrs before it actually happened, so in terms of clothing I did my best and for everything else it was just, “this is what I have to work with at the moment.” I put on an Adidas zipup, I figured if Missy Elliott was gonna wear anything it was gonna be a cute Adidas. I put on hoop earings, dark lipstick, a cap I put on the back of my hair, the bandana, some black & white shoes in the Adidas style.
What do you make of the criticism? Are you a person who takes in what people are saying about you?
Chattrisse Dolabaille: Yeah, for me this is the first time I’d experienced criticism on that scale, and fortunately I was able to realize that most of it is not personal. Even if someone says it’s personal they don’t know me, they’ve never spoken to me in my life, so it isn’t. On one hand with a biopic there are people expecting those on screen to look exactly like what they looked like in real life. We’ve all seen biopics where that wasn’t the case and it turned out brilliantly anyway. This was definitely a first for me to have people talking about me and the work I’d done on such a huge scale before they’d seen the work that I’d done, that was a new experience for me for sure.
How much did you know about Missy and Timbaland’s background?
Chattrisse Dolabaille: I can only speak for myself, but one thing I found really challenging was striking that balance between playing a character and a real person who’s a well-known person. Ultimately, they weren’t casting for a lookalike who could hopefully act, they were casting for an actor and weren’t as concerned with the visuals. The director made it really clear, none of us our blind and know about what’s going on on the internet, and said we were there because of what we did in that audition room. People need to be a little more aware that a biopic is biographical but it’s still a picture, it’s still an image, a piece of art. What you’re about to watch on the screen is based on a screenplay written by the guy who did “Brown Sugar” which is based on a book and the book was based on someone who passed away. That’s already so many layers of interpretation. It’s not going to be real life on the screen, we have YouTube for that, so I was definitely looking into Missy Elliott, learning things I hadn’t known before, and I admire her even more now as an artist and writer and creator than I did back then. I’m actually glad I did some of that research, but at the same time it’s not my intention to completely mimic or copy. There’s a difference between portraying a character and copying a character. The differences are subtle sometimes but that is ultimately what I was hired to do, to portray this character in this script named Missy Elliott that’s going to bear some resemblance to the real Missy Elliott.
Chattrisse Dolabaille: I didn’t and I so wish I had. I really hope to one day. In the interest of timing in the movie I was advised to focus on what was in front of me and what I did at the audition and to focus on that.
How much did you know about Aaliyah before and after the film?
Chattrisse Dolabaille: I remember getting the phone call that she had passed away and it seemed like such a shock because she was obviously on the rise. There’s really no telling what would have been next or where she would be now if she were still with us. For me personally, music from the ’90s is what I always go back to. I’m a singer-songwriter and you hear a lot of those influences in what I come up with, and I’d rather listen to songs from the ’90s then stuff that comes out today, so Aaliyah has always been there. It’s always been in my iPod, there are two or three pieces that you know you can play if you just want to chill. I don’t know if I ever thought I’d have the chance to be about the narrative of Elliot now that she is gone. I certainly never sat down and thought, “You know what, I hope I have the chance to be cast in the Aaliyah biopic,” because for one thing they were talking about making this a few years ago and it just seemed so out of reach. I was a much newer performer then, it didn’t seem as attainable as today. It’s an even bigger deal than a typical movie role because if you’re from that age and remember this person as a living, breathing influence on you and your peers it’s kind of a big deal on top of a big deal on top of a big deal.