Keke Palmer

Over the past decade, Keke Palmer has grown up right before our eyes. The former child actress may have got her start with more sugary roles in films like Akeelah and the Bee and her Nickelodeon show True Jackson, VP, but these days the 20-year-old triple threat (she’s also a singer and dancer) is stretching her acting chops to a new level.

Tonight, the world will see Palmer in what may very well be the most defining role of her career as she portrays Chilli, one-third of R&B chart-topping girl group TLC, in Vh1's long-anticipated biopic CrazySexyCool: the TLC Story. That role, however, was an opportunity that almost didn’t happen. After TLC surviving members and the movie’s executive producers, Chilli and T-Boz, announced that they were looking for unknown girls to play them in the film, Palmer thought her chance of playing such an iconic role was lost forever.

“When they called me back and told me they wanted me to be a part of the film, I couldn’t believe it,” Palmer tells EBONY.com in an exclusive interview. Palmer also dishes on the one scene she says was tough getting through in her portrayal of Chilli, the personal relationship she formed with the singer and why she thinks TLC’s story is ready for a small-screen debut.

EBONY: How does it feel to be portraying Chilli? 

Keke Palmer: It feels unbelievable. I was just so honored. When I was filming the movie, I put a lot of pressure on myself...TLC... is so iconic and people have so many memories of them that you just want to feel nostalgia as their watching the movie. You want to make sure that you make your portrayal as genuine as possible.

EBONY: Take us back to the moment you got the call. What went through your mind?

KP: It was complete disbelief because I wanted the role and they had said they wanted to go with someone who was completely unknown. I was bummed about it and let it go. When they called me back and told me they wanted me to be a part of the film, I couldn’t believe it. That almost never happens. A role doesn’t leave you and then comes back to you. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. So the fact that it came back to me, I was like 'Oh my gosh!'

EBONY: Growing up, were you inspired by TLC as a singer and performer? 

KP: I think they inspired me in ways that I’m probably not aware of. I know I loved how authentic they were as a group. Whether it be in acting, music, or even in dancing, I only want to do things that I truly connect to, and with my music, it’s everything that I am. To be authentic has been their main message. Even after knowing their stories, all the way down to the nitty gritty from doing the movie, I learned even more so how important it is to be authentic to who you are.

EBONY: You really do look like Chilli in the film. Did people ever say you resembled her, or did you ever think you favored her?

KP: When I was a kid people people would always say, ‘Oh you look like Chilli from TLC.’ It wasn’t until I did Akeelah and the Bee that people started saying I looked like Angela Bassett, but before then it was Chilli.

EBONY: Chilli brings the sexy in “CrazySexyCool.” Was it difficult embodying that?

KP: After spending time with her and just her talking to me about it, I realized that first of all it’s intimidating because it’s like 'OK, how do I make you feel that I’m sexy?' You really do it by not trying. Chilli wasn’t sexy because she tried to be. She was actually like the tomboy who was just gorgeous. For me, it’s just about embodying that attitude.

I learned her mannerisms by watching her. I watched a lot of videotapes and we spent a lot of time together. We got along really well and she was willing to share a lot of the stories of their lives with me, even the ones that didn’t make the script. There were times when she would help me get a better understanding of her.

EBONY: Was there any particular moment in Chilli’s life that was difficult to film?

KP: Probably her abortion. We talked about that scene a bunch. She was very open with that, about everything she felt about it and how hard it was for her.

EBONY: It appears that you, Drew Sidora (T-Boz) and Lil Mama (Left Eye) have great chemistry in the film. Did you guys have time to bond prior to filming? In what ways has the film brought the three of you together?

KP: The movie filmed very fast, so it wasn’t a situation where we got a lot of rehearsal time as far