Biopics are tricky. The family or the artist or the estate of a deceased person usually has to agree on the finer points. Sometimes they flat out refuse permission to use key songs or images. Lawyers are involved. Writers have to work to get approval of usage and mentions of real bits of drama such as drug use and rape. And then there’s the actor, the person who portrays the subject of said movie.
But Teyonah Parris says her process of becoming ‘80s R&B songstress Miki Howard, for an upcoming TV One movie event Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story, wasn’t as intimidating as it could have been.
“I was totally freaking out because yes this is my first time doing a biopic and not only is it a true story but that person is alive and they very much will be judging whatever it is that you do,” says Parris, who we first saw in the film Dear White People and later, in Chi-Raq. “But Miki was so open and forthcoming with information and is a bit removed from it at this point because it happened so long ago and she’s gone through the process of healing and deconstructing what it is that happened.”
And what happened was massive. As the superstar was recording songs such as “Love Under New Management” and “Come Share My Love” she was battling drug addiction and having an off and on again relationship with Gerald Levert. Howard’s life was the stuff that gossip sites would gobble up.
“It was a different time,” says Parris. “People could live a life and experience it without it being all plastered on the internet while they lived it.. You could make mistakes and grow from them in the privacy of your own circle of friends.”
But those times are over and Parris, for herself, embraces social media. She’s lately been tweeting about a natural hair care event she will be attending in Paris. She’s Snapchatting about her family. She engages with fans. Happily. And why not?
It’s been a good year for Parris, who snagged the TV One role at the end of last year, just after she wrapped shooting for a movie and a popular cable series. “I went straight from filming the second season of ‘Survivor’s Remorse’ and the creators over there were so supportive in letting me go early so I could film ‘Chi-Raq.’ And that was an amazing experience. Then I got this, and I said ‘whoa.’
“I was like, ‘Can I be so blessed to have this project close out the year I just had?’ We were able to squeeze it in between the promos for ‘Chi-raq.’”
Parris had only three weeks to prep for her role in The Miki Howard Story and she did it by remembering her South Carolina childhood listening to Howard on the radio and by talking to the woman herself. She didn’t shy away from talking about drugs. “I didn’t want to ask this women about the darkest days of her life,” says Parris, who shares a production credit with Miki Howard on the film. “But she sorta just took the lead in it and was like ‘what do you want to know? Miki definitely let me go for it. She said. ‘I’m grateful. I trust you.’”
Parris costars include Darius McCrary as Levert, Gary Dourdan as Augie Johnson, LisaRaye as Sylvia Rhone and Amari Cheatom as Eddie Phelps.
From here Parris is prepping for a new film about the first and only female Buffalo Soldier and she plans to attend the American Black Film Festival in Miami. Of the Western, she’ll only say a few things. First, she will reunite with Howard director Christine Swanson, who is also directing the Western. Second, she can’t wait to start filming.
“Nothing’s been finalized so I can’t really speak on it,” she says of the news that she is in talks to star in the film. “I definitely am excited that they’re going to tell the story of Cathay Williams, the first and only woman to have ever fought with the Buffalo Soldiers.”
Love Under New Management: The Miki Howard Story, airs June 12 at 7 p.m. ET
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a Chicago-based writer.