Rapper André Benjamin had to learn to walk pigeon-toed before he could even begin to transform himself into guitarist Jimi Hendrix for writer-director John Ridley’s new biopic, “Jimi: All Is by My Side.” He started mumbling a bit more when he spoke too. But there’s one thing Benjamin didn’t anticipate when he agreed to depict the man behind Hendrix the icon, a sensitive, introverted sci-fi geek who was so terrified of singing he often turned his back on the audience.
“He wore heels,” Benjamin says, “so I had to learn to walk in heels. He also permed his hair, so I had to wear curlers. Heels and curlers, around my house, like all the time.”
Benjamin’s own rise to fame as OutKast’s Andre 3000 was markedly different than the rock legend he portrays, but like Hendrix he’s known for pushing boundaries — from his outlandish outfits to wonderfully bizarre wordplay (“Shake it like a Polaroid picture!”).
He arrives at a recent interview in a neon orange knit cap, white round sunglasses (indoors) and a baggy camouflage jacket over another baggy Army jacket over another article of clothing too buried to identify.
Yet for all his flamboyance on stage and album, Benjamin, 39, is a soft-spoken, thoughtful guy — not unlike the man he plays in the film. “I can relate to the story of an artist trying to become an entertainer,” Benjamin says. “Onstage, you have all these wild antics and have fun. When you’re in that world, you’re something different.”
“Jimi was an antihero,” says Ridley, who won an Oscar for his “12 Years a Slave” screenplay. “A typical Hollywood hero is very declarative — I’m gonna conquer the world! But he was just like, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ It took all these people around him to say you can do the thing you want, there just has to be some ownership of it. It was an evolution.”
A large part of that evolution takes place in 1966, the transformative year in which “Jimi: All Is by My Side” (out Friday) takes place. It’s when Keith Richard’s girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogene Poots) sees backup musician Jimmy James playing in a R&B band at New York’s Cheetah Bar. Blown away by his raw talent, she persuades the unsure artist to come to England.
Hendrix tears up London’s club circuit, impressing “cats” like Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney. A few groovy hats and velvet jackets later (the wardrobe here is fabulous), he takes back his birth name to become Jimi Hendrix. In a final push toward greatness, Keith introduces him to future manager and producer the Animals’ Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley). By the close of the two-hour film, Hendrix is headed to his breakout moment in America, the Monterey Pop Festival.
Benjamin, whose acting career has included roles in “Hollywood Homicide,” “Semi-Pro” and “Idlewild,” didn’t know much about Hendrix while growing up on hip-hop music in Atlanta. He was exposed to the guitarist’s music while watching a Vietnam War film. “I think it was ‘Platoon,’” he says.
From there, he became enamored with Hendrix and even emulated the artist in songs and videos such as 2000’s “Bombs Over Baghdad.”
Because of Benjamin’s physical likeness to Hendrix, he’s been approached at least five times over the years to play Hendrix in projects by various production houses and directors.
None of those productions ever got off the ground, likely because they all hit the same roadblock — Jimi Hendrix’s estate.
Ridley is one in a long line of filmmakers who tried and failed to get the rights to use Hendrix’s music in his film. But instead of stopping there, he figured another way around.
“Jimi: All Is By My Side” features tracks by other artists that the guitarist was known to play — the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.” In the film Benjamin sings over the work of professional guitarists channeling Hendrix’s style.
“We didn’t lean on those songs that everybody knows, we didn’t lean on the performances that everybody knows, we didn’t lean on the iconic figure that everybody knows,” says Benjamin when talking about the unexpected benefits of not having the hits to work with. “I think seeing the human Hendrix gave us a blank canvas in a way.”
But will audiences respond to this very different narrative of the guitarist’s rise? Ridley isn’t worried.
“If it’s a risk, what’s the inverse of that? To present material that people have seen dozens of times?” says the director on a break from his newest project, the forthcoming ABC series “American Crime.”
“They’ve seen Jimi do Monterey in other films, they’ve seen versions of his Woodstock performance in commercials,” Ridley says. “It’s try-and-chase-that, or show moments that no one’s ever seen — of Jimi onstage with Eric Clapton, or where he plays ‘Sgt. Pepper’ for the Beatles. It’s taking a level of history that’s unknown and presenting it to folks.”
To re-create those seminal but lesser-known moments, Benjamin first had to become Jimi. He practiced Hendrix’s lisp by wedging a cork between his gums and lips, mastered playing guitar left-handed via endless lessons and learned to drop the word “dig” into every third sentence.
Still, he wasn’t always successful in keeping his rap alter ego, Andre 3000, out of the picture. “We’d be doing performance scenes so we’d bring in a real crowd to be in the audience,” says Benjamin. “We’d be doing the scene, then they’d yell cut, and people would scream out ‘3000!’ I got my hair permed and all this stuff, and people still have that OutKast connection.”
Though the rap duo hasn’t put out new music as OutKast in nearly a decade, their legacy has deep roots thanks to game-changing albums such as “Stankonia” and “Speakerboxxx/Love Below.” Benjamin recently reunited with partner Antwan “Big Boi” Patton for a touring blitz that kicked off at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Moving between music and movies, Benjamin says, isn’t all that abrupt of a transition. He’s tapped some of the same performance elements he honed on film sets when playing his most recent stint with OutKast.
“I wrote a lot of the OutKast songs when I was 19, so [now I’m] kind of being a caricature of myself onstage,” he says. “The music means something different to me now. So I just go out there and have some fun, basically play this character that was in it at the time.”
Playing the role of Hendrix was a little more complex, requiring skills Benjamin didn’t yet have, such as playing guitar left-handed.
The rapper knew how to play but the “normal” way. He wasn’t worried about changing things around — at first. “Originally we were gonna do everything right-handed, then flip the image,” Benjamin says. “But they called me three days before shooting to tell me it was too expensive to do it that way. I thought, ‘That’s it! I’m done.’ Hendrix is the most comfortable-looking guitar player in the world.... I don’t want to mess this dude’s story up.”
Ridley talked Benjamin down, brought in a professional guitar coach, and told the actor to practice like his life depended on it.
Benjamin did just that and in the process learned even more about the enigmatic man behind the songs.
“From watching footage I knew certain inflections he would do,” Benjamin says. “When he was thinking a certain way, how he turned his head. If you do that long enough, it sort of becomes its own language. Jimi language.”