Alexandra Shipp isn't here to cause a fuss. The up-and-coming actress/singer and star of Lifetime's Aaliyah biopic, Aaliyah: Princess of R&B (premiering Saturday at 8 p.m. EST) is only interested in one thing: honoring her hero. While gossip sites have made sure to track the film's rollercoaster ride of a production, Shipp—who's just getting started on writing her own music—has remained calm, collected, and gracious, asking fans, naysayers, and casual viewers instead to celebrate the legendary singer with her.
As she walks through the Complex office and says hello to everyone in her path, it's clear that's just who Shipp is, really: an old hippie reincarnated in the body of a goofy 23-year-old who isn't interested in flames. And after a few minutes of talking to her, you can see why the Phoenix native is as easygoing as the desert town that raised her.
In the video above, get to know what Shipp really thinks about embodying Aaliyah and the backlash surrounding her biopic. And below, read all about what makes her the artist she is today.
What was the music scene like in Phoenix?
For me, growing up, it was emo music. It was mosh pits, it was Blessthefall. It was just before Paramore came out. Of course, my first concert was Janet Jackson. Going and seeing her put on these big, amazing live shows. But going out with my friends to see shows, I’m talking getting punched in the face, mosh pits, wearing way too much eyeliner, having the checkered Vans—this was by the time I was old enough to go without my mom. I grew up with a single mother, so that leash was always very tight. It’s still tight today. I keep telling her to cut the cord and she won’t. [Laughs.] But I was so emo. My Myspace was all black. I loved that stuff.
I grew up on so many different types of music, which I was really fortunate with. My dad loves Funkadelics, he loves the Jacksons. He really got me into funk R&B music growing up. And then my mom is like the total opposite, listening to Deva Premal, hippie kirtan music, and all kinds of classic rock as well. I grew up loving Janis Joplin. I have a very long and beautiful love affair with Elvis Presley. I own every record he ever made, so I have about 150, almost 200 records of his. So much that I haven’t even listened to all of them. I see an Elvis record that I don’t have and I’ll buy it and put it in my collection.
There’s something about his voice. It's low, and that little scratch with the record player just gets people excited. He just smooths you out and yet lifts you up. It’s great for dinner parties. Anyone who ever asks me what kind of music to play, [I say] Elvis. People love it.
When did you realize your infatuation with him?
My grandmother was a huge fan of Elvis Presley. Every time you’d go to my grandma’s house, it was Elvis. [Sings.] “Are you lonesome tonight?” She loved it when I would sing his songs for her. I used to walk around when I was about 4 or 5—my mom thought it was a really great party joke, while I, of course, took it very seriously—and my mom would ask me in front of people who my husband was and I’d be like, “Elvis Presley.” No one had the heart to tell me that he had already passed away by the time I was born. My boyfriend slightly looks like him, so it’s like a dream come true.
It’s like you subconsciously sought that out.
Yes. I think subconsciously I’ve been telling him, “Babe, grow your hair out.” So he’ll have that Elvis Presley coif in the front. I might be turning my boyfriend into Elvis Presley.
What inspired you to get into acting?
I have a stepsister, an older brother who plays sports, and a younger brother who plays sports. My stepsister was always years older than me, so we weren’t in the house at the same time. So I grew up mostly around boys, and I am not an athlete, to say the least. I can play one on TV, but in real life I have no hand-eye coordination. And I have a lot of energy and I can be a bit of a spazz. I don’t have ADD, but in the '90s when they were diagnosing everyone with it, my mother, being the hippie that she is, was like, “I’m going to do this the holistic way and get her to channel all of her energy through theater.” By the time I was 10, I was doing plays for Phoenix theater. My first lead role was as the Stinky Cheese Man. I got a taste of the limelight and I just couldn’t stop. It was a way for me to be the artistic, geeky kid that I was, and not get beat up.
Who are your acting influences?
My influences are, number one, hand to Jesus, Halle Berry. I think that she’s so brilliant and I love everything that she does, even Catwoman. I thought she killed Catwoman and she looked fierce in it. I loved her in Monster’s Ball. She is a trailblazer and, on top of it, she’s a great talent. I love her career, I love her trajectory, I love her acting. I love her. If she wants to get married, it’s legal now so you can tell her that.
I also love Meryl Streep, just the way she submerges herself. She is a chameleon to the utmost degree. You can’t be yourself playing a person, you gotta be that person. There’s so much work that goes into developing characters the way that she does. That’s why she’s so brilliant, because she meticulously goes through and really divulges, gets in there. She gets dirty and I like that.
When you’re on stage, who do you channel?
You know how Beyoncé has the Sasha Fierce? I think that Alexandra comes out. Whereas for me, I’m Alex, I’m goofy and weird. I like to do silly things and I like to pull pranks and I can be a bit of a needy cling-on. We all have our emotional quirks, though when you get up and you put on that Sasha Fierce-esque persona, that's also like a peek into who you are. Because with music, it’s not like acting. With music, you’re really showing someone a piece of your soul. You’re saying, "This is mine, I wrote this, I made this, I’m performing this. This is how I’m presenting it to you." There’s something really scary about that, but there’s also something next-worldly about it, too. This is what I do. This is what I love. This is who I am. In a sense it’s like a Sasha Fierce, but it’s also that person within you, that lightning bolt that you get to share with the world.
I feel like I’m able to do that through acting, too, but in a different way. I’m able to create and encompass and show you something completely different than who I am. With music, I’m stepping up there, and I guess my Sasha Fierce is who I really am in a sense. I’m peeling my skin back and showing you my innards, and that’s me. That’s who I am. I am the emo kid who wants to talk about all the heartbreak and all the terribleness in the world and yet lift you out of it.
Is that what inspires your songwriting?
Yeah, because I think that you can have a bubbly personality, but there's also another side to you. It’s what you present to the world and then it’s what you have inside. Through my music, I’m able to show people what’s really bubbling beneath the surface. Sometimes it’s not beautiful and that’s the best part about it. It can be raw, and it can be ugly, and it can be terrible, and yet there’s someone listening to it who is going through that. That resonates within them and that pulls them out of it. It says, "Hey, dude, we’re all going through crap. We all have hard times. Life sucks, but at least we’re able to sit here and sing about it together."
I feel like that’s the reason why so many people say they went through an emo phase.
Yeah. You gotta go through at least one. Now, granted, I’m probably still in my emo phase because black is a great color. There’s darkness in everybody, and I think that through my music I’m able to sing to that side and to also soothe it as well.
Tara Aquino is the Pop Culture editor. She tweets here.