The announcement that Lifetime was releasing a Michel'le's biopic wasn't a necessarily surprising one. For all of the acclaim that 2015's Straight Outta Compton received, there was just as much lip service paid to how it didn't include the stories of abuse that Michel'le and Dee Barnes have gone on record about. Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge, and Michel'le, which premieres tonight on Lifetime at 8 p.m., is based on the early rise of R&B singer Michel'le, who has claimed that Dr. Dre physically abused her, and her relationship with Death Row head Suge Knight, who Michel'le also says abused her. While the film highlights how she went from singing in her free time to being the first lady of Eazy E's Ruthless Records imprint, Surviving Compton is a behind-the-scenes look at the horrific life Michel'le says she lived behind closed doors.
One of the movie's more intriguing casting decisions is Jamie Kennedy (best known for starring in late '90s/early 2000s comedies including Scream and Malibu's Most Wanted) in the role of Jerry Heller, the recently deceased music manager who represented N.W.A. and Eazy E during their meteoric rise in the late 1980s. While he's traditionally been seen as more of a sheisty figure who had a heavy hand in the pockets of the members of N.W.A., Surviving Compton depicts a man who was always there for Michel'le when things got tough. It's an interesting take, made that much more interesting by Kennedy's casting. Because, no dis to the comedian-turned-actor, but this role isn't what we've normally seen from him. During a recent chat, Kennedy discussed why he decided to take on Heller and why Surviving Compton is so important at this very moment.
What made you want to take on the Jerry Heller role in Surviving Compton?
Well, I read the script and I really liked it; I'd heard about this story and I've heard about different rumors about the history of N.W.A. and such, and then Straight Outta Compton came out and I was like, "Oh man, I don't know if we'll be able to compete with that." I went in auditioned a couple of times, and they were like, "You play Jerry really good, you got the role." I was just so into it because it's a different type of role from me that people wouldn't normally expect.
How did go about making your portrayal of Jerry Heller different from what we saw in Straight Outta Compton and his reputation in general?
I watched a ton of YouTube videos on Jerry Heller and then I talked to Leslie Greif, our producer who knew him. I wanted it to be different than Giamatti, and Leslie was guiding me through it, like, "This is what he sounds like, this is how he was tough." He's from Cleveland and he has kind of a weird accent. He was a no bullshit guy, but he was also a fair guy.
The film suggests that Jerry was more protective of Miche'le than anyone thought. Were you able to feed off Miche'le and her personal experiences with Jerry while crafting your performance?
She was on set the whole time. And Rhyon [Nicole Brown], who plays Miche'le, is so cute and sweet and vulnerable, so my natural instinct was to protect her. And then Miche'le would tell me what happened. I'm a huge fan of hip-hop and to know these guys who created this great music and this backstory, you're twisted up, because you're like "This is Dre when he's making music and then it's like, oh damn, did he do that?"
Obviously Dr. Dre is not too happy with his portrayal in the film. With you being a hip-hop fan, is it weird to be attached to a project where one of the key figures in it is vocally not happy with how he was portrayed in the film?
Dr. Dre is on the Mt. Rushmore of hip-hop. He spans 30 years and some of the most amazing projects came from him. I love it, but this is not about his music—this is personal. It's twisted up, but I got to spend a lot of time with Miche'le and I haven't met anybody else. Listening to her and her stories and the script, I'm just gonna ride with her and be in this movie.
How important do you feel that it is to get her story out there, especially with the way people felt Straight Outta Compton downplayed some of those more personal aspects with guys like Dre?
Well, two things. Compton is a great movie—it was dope, it was dark, and it was hilarious. We're not trying to compete with that. This is the other side of it. That's why my portrayal is different. Everyone's always gonna compare us, but hopefully people will have their own takeaways.
Outside of this, what else do you have going on currently?
I was on Heartbeat last year, although it just got canceled... I was on a nice NBC drama, but it got canceled. [Laughs.] Now I'm on a cartoon on Comedy Central called Legends of Chamberlain Heights. That's on after South Park. I do multiple voices on that.
What I really want is—I guess I'm putting this out there. I just read the Pryor script. It's incredible. I just heard that Jay Z is finally going to produce it. There's an amazing role in there of his manager, and I really want a chance to go and screentest for that. That, to me, is an amazing role. He's another iconic guy, not as well known as Jerry, but he was [Pryor's] manager, and that would be perfect.
Is there anything else you want people to know about Surviving Compton?
I'm just gonna tell you what: This movie is very good. It was very moving, it was very touching, it was very painful, it was very real. It's a survivor's tale, and it needs to come to light with the way the world is right now, especially [in light of] our presidential candidates.