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 as the script goes, but we were in choreography together. We did become really good friends. We got a long naturally and we put the same amount of pressure on ourselves because we knew how much people were anticipating the film, how these girls have fans all over world, and so we wanted to portray them to the best ability that we could. 

EBONY: How was it learning TLC’s iconic dance moves?

KP: The choreography was the fun part for all of us. We all are dancers as well so that was a blessing, because we were able to learn it quickly. Also, we had TLC helping us. That was amazing.

EBONY: You guys also recreate some of TLC’s most iconic videos. Which one was your favorite?

KP: Probably the "[No] Scrubs" video. We didn’t get to film the whole video for "Creep," but I wanted to do it so much.

EBONY: What part of the film resonates with you the most?

KP: I think the whole story in general resonated with me as an artist, as far as the ups and downs of the music industry and still trying to believe and stay faithful even when things are going wrong and even sometimes when people don’t believe in you. 

EBONY: Do you think this role is a defining moment in your acting career?

KP: I truly do. You get to see me in a different light. I had to challenge myself. It’s a growing role. I’ve been in this industry for a decade or more now. This definitely marks the more older and mature Keke. It’s very weird, even for me, to realize I’ve been doing it this long. Now I’m having love scenes [laughs]. It will show people that I’m not a young girl anymore, but in the right way. I’m not the kind of person who wants to move rashly, and I think this role came at a perfect time.

EBONY: What do you hope fans and viewers will take from this biopic?

KP: I really hope that they see you have to follow your dreams. You have to stay true to you. These girls went through hell and back and the only thing that allowed them to move forward was their belief in themselves and love for the music. You have to understand that when things go wrong in your life it doesn’t mean you need to quit. It means you need to get stronger and change your plan. You have to fight for your dreams and these girls did just that.

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a freelance writer in New York City and a graduate of Morehouse College and Columbia University Journalism School. He’s also a movie and television writer for XXLmag.com and contributor for JET and DELUX Magazines. Read more of his work on his blog, MrGerrenalist.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MrGerrenalist.