Ahead of his huge film role as the famed musician, André Benjamin tells Hamish MacBain why he’s always pushing forward...
Along with this year’s other big, biopic'd musical legend James Brown, Jimi Hendrix is an artist you’d think would be impossible for an actor to convincingly recreate. But André Benjamin (AKA Outkast’s André 3000) has managed it in Jimi: All Is By My Side.
Focusing on the year between Hendrix being spotted in a New York dive bar and going to the Monterey Pop Festival (which made him a star), it actually helps that none of the big Hendrix songs are featured – the closest it gets to a money shot is when Jimi blasts out Sgt Pepper’s to a crowd of London hipsters two days after it came out. But mainly, it’s André’s performance – the lazy slur, the dreamy nonchalance – that makes it one of the most unique music films in a long, long time.
Given the image often presented of Hendrix – setting fire to guitars, outrageous clothes and moves – will people be surprised at how low key this film is?
It’s just a different type of movie. I think there will be a lot of Hendrix movies made. We’ll see Hendrix with all the hits, the whole story. But we wanted to make a more human, more character-based film, rather than just trying to recreate existing footage.
It focuses on one of his very formative years.
Yeah. I’m glad that was the story we focused on. We see the growth and the people nurturing him. Because that happens, that’s real life. And performers, especially young performers, need to know that. Jumping on stage day one, you might not be ‘The Star’. It takes growth. It takes time. Confidence takes building. I watched a lot of Hendrix footage, and some of his early performances – there’s this black and white footage where he’s in Paris on his first tour – he does the whole guitar thing, he does the rolling around on stage, but it’s not quite as confident, it’s not quite as worked out. It’s not as cool as it was by the time you see him at the Monterey Festival. Even the burning of the guitar – a lot of people think Monterey was the first time he burned his guitar, but it’s not. He practised it, he’d done it before. It was a performance. Sometimes the stage is a training ground for an artist.
You’re also known for having a flamboyant on-stage persona. Was the stage your training ground too?
Yeah, I remember some of our first performances, I hardly moved on stage at all. And even starting as a rapper, trying to be melodic – to sing at all – that was like a huge step. It was a scary thing to do.
Hendrix played guitar left handed. You’re right handed. Was it hard to switch?
It was very hard. It’s almost the same as walking backwards.
It must have taken some time…
Well, the crazy part was when we first approached the film we thought that, production-wise, we were going to be able to shoot it right handed, so I could have the confidence and full movement of knowing how to do it in the way I know. We were going to try to flip the image. But that meant we were going to have to change everything in the scene, which was really expensive. We got this information just a couple of days before I was supposed to go and shoot it. I was kind of bummed about it. I didn’t know if I could pull it off. At one point during the meeting, I was not going to do it. I was going to say, “The movie’s not gonna work, because I don’t want to f*ck Hendrix up and make him look terrible.” I hadn’t practised the left-hand thing once.
So what did you do?
I just had to dive in with the few days I had before shooting – I think we had a week or two – I had to just practise every day left handed, until I could get it to a place where I felt comfortable enough to do it. But at one point I thought the movie was falling apart.
You’ve said that playing Jimi was therapeutic, that it helped you through some difficult times with depression. Is this an appealing part of being an actor?
It’s just a distracting focus. I mean, it’s funny that I’m even called an actor.
You look like an actor to me in the film.
I guess you could say that, because I’ve played a character on screen, but I don’t really do this a lot. I’ve only done four or five films, over, what, 10 years? I’ve had the opportunity to play characters, but I haven’t said, “Hey man, I’m an actor, I work at it as a craft every day.” When Hendrix came along, it was a great distraction, because a lot of sh*t had just happened. To be able to focus on a project, to take attention away from myself and not think about the heavy things that were around, it was a great distraction. But it could have been me working anywhere. It just happened to be on an acting job.
So it’s not so much acting as just having something intensive to do?
Well, and it being Hendrix. I didn’t want to fluff his story. I couldn’t just ‘show up’. I made promises to myself, to not just walk through it. You have to hold yourself to certain standards, and so that distraction and that dedication to it were important, and it helped pull me away from thinking about myself.
You seem to be described in the media as “the reclusive Oukast rapper” a lot. Is that fair?
I just think that, as an entertainer, so much of your life is for sale. Once you become a part of the public eye, people want as much as they can get. But I didn’t grow up that way. I’m an only child, I’ve always just been to myself. Sometimes I have to take a break from it, so I don’t like to be out a lot. And I’ve never had a Twitter, I’ve never had Facebook, or Instagram.
Are young pop stars and rappers too ensconced in social media?
If you look at the curses, you have to look at the blessings, too. Because it’s just technology. You gotta figure out how to use it, how to roll with it. I guess you’ve got to use it for what it is. I think it’s great, technology, it’s just… email and texting is enough for me. I do see the positive of it, but I’ve seen too many people get distracted and get into trouble. Sometimes you don’t have to say everything you think, and when you have that power to quickly say whatever you want to say, you get in trouble sometimes. And it’s a physical addiction, too – you become addicted to just posting. You just like the fact of, “I’m saying this and a lot of people are hearing it.” Sometimes what you say, you’ve maybe not thought about it. I feel like I just want to try to preserve something of myself.
Is that why people get so excited about David Bowie or Kate Bush, do you think? Because they have that mystery?
No, I just think people have grown up with those songs. People miss them, and they just want to hear or see anything about them. Even with the Outkast reunion, it’s like people have grown up with them. So it would be cool to just go and see it. And I don’t know if there’s a mystery thing, I just think there are these songs that are a part of people’s lives. We all have those songs that remind us of being with your first or second girlfriend. I remember when we were 16 years old, this is how we felt. So it’s that nostalgia thing and, I think, as a fan, nostalgia is comforting.
Is there too much nostalgia in modern music?
You don’t want to call out any kind of bands, but when bands tour now, it’s like, “That was then.” But I know that I am a fan of progression, and a fan of the urgency of what’s going on right now. I just want to keep it moving forward, I don’t like to keep rehashing or repeating… it’s about the urgency. I kind of wish I’d caught it then. When it was fresh on the brain, instead of the presentation. It’s like you had to be there. If Hendrix was still alive now, it would be great to see him doing Purple Haze, but wouldn't it be so much greater if you could have caught it when it was in its time? Is that not what makes the song magical, that you know there was a time in 1964, that all this other music was going on and then this song just comes out of nowhere?
Was the Outkast tour this year positive? I know you said you didn’t love the first Coachella show…
Oh yeah, the whole run was positive, I’m glad it happened. You’ve got people who have grown up on these songs, and I’m a fan of music, so I know how it feels to be into a band or into a song, and have the opportunity to go and see it. It’s cool when you look out into the crowd and they’re into it, and they’re saying the words of something that you wrote when you were 17 years old. You know, it is kind of weird, at 39, to be doing it, or saying those words, but it’s cool that the fans are happy about it. I think when people read into saying, ”Oh André, he’s on stage but he’s saying he doesn’t get anything out of it, it’s just part of the performance,” that’s not completely true. You get the fan appreciation. What I was just saying was it’s not the same as when I was 19 and those lyrics were fresh in my brain and I was trying to fight the world and change the world. When you wrote it, you were so into it, but now it’s really a presentation. It’s kind of like a picture of what it used to be. So when you say you don’t get anything out of it, it just doesn’t mean the same. But it does mean something that the fans are out there remembering. That’s what it means.
Can you see yourself becoming a full-time musician again soon, in terms of intensively touring and promoting an album?
I honestly don’t know. I’ll just have to get to a certain point and see how I feel. The older I get, physically, I don’t necessarily see myself hitting it as hard as I did when I was 25, but if I put out a record and, once again, we were talking about the urgency of songs – like when I wrote Bombs Over Baghdad, I was feeling a certain way, so I wanted to go say it, I wanted to go do it, I wanted to go perform it, right then and there. So if I write those songs, and I have something I want to say, maybe I will want to go out and do it. I can say that, because we’ve got to a certain place where we’ve been blessed to do arenas and festivals, I’d love to just do small little clubs, the smallest places ever, because I miss that energy. So hopefully if I make music that is something smaller, then I would possibly go out like that.
Jimi: All Is By My Side is at cinemas nationwide from 24 October