Just five years into her career and Teyonah Parris adroitly has carved out her place in Hollywood by landing such notable roles as Don Draper’s best secretary, Dawn, on AMC’s award-winning drama Mad Men. From there, she appeared as Coco in the critically-acclaimed, satirical indie film Dear White People by first time writer and director Justin Simien. Recently, Teyonah was the lead character Lysistrata in Spike Lee’s controversial film Chi-raq and won an African-American Film Critics Association Award for best actress, while also starring as Missy Vaughn in Survivor’s Remorse on Starz. Teyonah is a successfully employed, remarkably talented, beautiful African-American actress in a town that tends to underserve and overlook African-American talent especially women; however, Teyonah has proven she is a force to be reckoned with, and Hollywood has taken notice.
Her latest venture has her depicting Grammy Award-nominated R&B chanteuse Miki Howard in TV One’s first-ever Unsung-inspired biopic, Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story on Sunday, June 12 at 7 pm ET. Teyonah spoke with Sheen Magazine about her riveting performance that candidly explores Howard’s rise to fame in the late 1980s and continued success in the 1990s and how her battles to overcome abuse and drug addiction will inspire audiences.
What drew you to portray R&B singer Miki Howard?
When I read this script, it read like a feature film. [Her life] is so dramatic, and this woman has had such a dynamic life, you watch her hit rock bottom many times and pick herself up many times and start her life over many times. So it’s truly a story of how to persevere through faith. To be able to tell her story was exciting and then the fact that she’s still alive, and I was able to draw from the woman who lived this life. I’ve never done that before; I’ve never done a biopic.
So that was also intriguing to me, figuring out how to tell a story, not just from what you can imagine and the research you do on your own, but having to incorporate someone else’s true life fact and there are certain marks you have to hit because it happened.
What aspects of her life are the most relatable to you?
Oh my goodness. Being told no, as the movie opens she’s a young woman, and she has the dream, she wants to be a singer, she wants to be a star. I certainly share that with her, being a young girl and having this dream to tell stories and for her through her songs and for me through acting. Then throughout the movie you watch her have to struggle, I mean we all have our own demons whatever that may be, for Miki it was physical and drug abuse, and not understanding her self-worth. There are so many things I relate to, and others will relate to in this film like loss and love.
You have such a glowing and warm personality, and this is a testament to your craft, but Miki lived through some dark days, where do you go as an actor to pull those emotions to portray those periods in her life?
Well, thank you first of all for saying that, like I said we all have our issues and shortcomings that we had to face in life. For me it is picking a couple of things and remembering what it felt like to go through that and using that memory of that experience and try to relive [it], it’s a very crazy thing we do as actors. Because it is not a matter of just remembering it, you have to relive it and put yourself back in that place. Also, [I had] the luxury of Miki to help transport me to that [point] by telling me the stories when she was in this very place. So for me it was a matter of coupling my life experiences with what I can imagine from Miki’s life experiences.
How much was Miki involved in the production of the film?
Miki was a huge part of the process in the telling of her story. I wanted to make sure everything I did was true to who she was and Miki, much credit to her, gave me that confidence in the freedom to play [her] and like you said, she has been through some very dark moments some and very light, beautiful, inspiring moments as well. [She gave] me the permission to explore that and not feel ashamed or guilty.
She said don’t worry about it I’ve done everything possible, you can’t embarrass me, it is what it is, I’m not ashamed of it [because] I came out on the other side and I want to inspire people. Just from talking to her and spending time with her, she’s so full of love and [has] such a bright spirit she truly blessed me to explore this role as I saw fit.
What did she think about your portrayal of her?
Miki said she absolutely adored it and that when she thinks of herself now, she sees my face, and that was a very touching comment for me from her. She’s so full of love and so supremely talented; I think people are going to be inspired by her incredible story.
What was it like working with your star-studded cast members?
It was so much fun, Vanessa Belle Calloway, oh my god, she’s a legend and [it] was crazy to have her [play] my mother, we had a very emotional scene so to watch her work as well, how lucky was I! Darius McCrary as Gerald Levert, Gary Dourdan as Augie Johnson, and Amari Cheatom as Eddie Phelps, those are the men in Miki’s life. They were so much fun also to work with; they all marked a different chapter in [her] life, so the way we got to play with one another was so different. They were all so handsome and talented; I had fun. But, [at the same time] there was that same underlying thread of Miki not knowing her self-worth and seeking love in a way that was ultimately damaging to herself and her career.
Did you sing in the movie?
Listen (laughs), I sang all throughout filming. I lived out my R&B pop star dreams. Will you hear my voice in this movie, absolutely not because I cannot sing.
What are your top three Miki Howard songs?
“Ain’t Nobody Like You” is number one, “Come Share My Love”, and “Georgy Porgy” that she did with Side Effect, that was the hardest song to learn for the movie because Miki decided that day she was just going to be feeling the music. There was no rhyme or reason to each riff that she did, she was just feeling it from her gut, and that is very hard to emulate when you are not a musician, but I got it, and it was ultimately my favorite [song] to perform.
Join the conversation on social media using hashtag #MikiHowardStory.
Photo Credit: Shareif Ziyadat, Courtesy of TV One