Q&A: Alexandra Shipp on becoming Aaliyah

Alexandra Shipp stars as Aaliyah in the Lifetime original movie "Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B," about the beloved singer and rising actress who died at the peak of fame in a 2001 plane crash.
Alexandra Shipp stars as Aaliyah in the Lifetime original movie “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B,” about the beloved singer and rising actress who died at the peak of fame in a 2001 plane crash.
(Christos Kalohoridis / Lifetime)

For actress-singer Alexandra Shipp, becoming Aaliyah wasn’t as simple as just re-creating the late R&B singer’s “street but sweet” style.

Shipp, best known from Nickelodeon’s “House of Anubis,” had to overcome the shaky beginnings of the Lifetime original film. Originally passed over for the role of the beloved singer, the 23-year-old Phoenix native received a second shot at playing her idol after its lead dropped out.

Ahead of the film’s premiere Shipp discussed Aaliyah’s lasting legacy, transforming into the singer and moving beyond controversy.

Was it strange stepping into the role after there was so much drama surrounding the film?


When I finished [VH1’s “Drumline: A New Beat”] I got a call that they wanted to revisit me for the role. I was nervous about it, but I knew that it would be such an honor to represent one of your idols in a movie about their life. I wanted to do the movie justice. I’m such a “Baby Girl” fan that I said, “I can’t let anybody else do this.” It has to be from someone who really loved her and grew up on her music.

There’s a lot of controversy, but there’s nothing overly salacious about it. It’s very respectful. We wanted to show the world who Aaliyah was. She was a human being. She grew up in front of people’s eyes and that’s not always easy and she always handled it with grace, elegance and poise. We wanted to capture that for the film.

What about Aaliyah did you want to nail most?

I was trying to encompass her from the very first audition. I started reading up on her and studying her movements. I’m very technical. I was trying to hit every beat and every cue. I wanted every second to be as technical as possible. It comes down to her hands, the way her shoulders move when she walks, when she was in interviews how much she would give emotionally, how she was behind the scenes with her family. I wanted everything to be 100%.


The family didn’t approve of the film, who did you go to for research?

I was able to speak with her old agent and people who knew her and worked with her. I don’t want to name names because the fan base is so [protective of her] and people wanted to remain anonymous because of that. But I was able to speak to people who actually knew her and could give me some insight. I wish the family could have been involved, which would have been better.

Were you worried, accepting the project knowing there wasn’t any family support?

Oh, yeah. If someone was making a movie about my life I would want my family to be involved. But if my family didn’t want to be involved then it would be hard. When you’re such a big, amazing, beautiful star the way that Aaliyah was, it’s almost impossible to not think that someone is going to make a movie about her or write a book or talk about her.


You were only 10 when she passed. Were you already a fan or did you discover her as you got older?

“One In A Million” was my album. [“Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number”] was a little before my time. My mother loved Aaliyah. She’s such a fangirl. My mom loved R&B and she loved R. Kelly and hip-hop. I grew up on her music. Aaliyah was actually really big in Arizona. When she passed there was a huge memorial for her in downtown Phoenix and I’m pretty sure this mural is still up to this day. She had a huge desert following. As I got older I learned about “Age” and the stuff I was too young for.

The timing of the film is fascinating, her influence is heavier now than ever.

She was so ahead of the time. So ahead. And you can hear it in the music, even in the production. Aaliyah revolutionized what it was to be a young black woman in America. She made it OK to be a nerd and to be a tomboy. She made it OK to wear leather and chains. She was the first black girl with an ombre. She was so far ahead of everything, and everyone. It was just who she was. She was an innovator but she didn’t even realize it. To this day her style is being re-created or drawn from.


There was such a mystique about Aaliyah. When you were researching the role, was there anything in particular that became go-to source material?

Her behind-the-scenes footage, especially what she did just before she left for the Bahamas. Her MTV “Diary,” I kept going back to. Before I’d go to set, I’d watch it. And depending on how old she was I’d be playing the music from that time to get into the feel. I wanted that whole evolution and arc. From her being 14 and doing an interview where she’s silly and having a good time to when she’s 22 and super reserved. I wanted people to see that. And I also wanted them to hear it. When she’s 15 she had a lighter voice but by the time she does “One In A Million” she’s killing. I wanted to do that with her songs. I also wanted to do that with her evolution as a woman, especially when it came to the men that she loved. Her and R. Kelly was completely different than her and Damon [Dash]. R. Kelly was her first love, but it’s like your first love at 14 ain’t your real first love. Her first real, real love is Damon Dash.

The R. Kelly situation is a tricky subject. The public still doesn’t know the full story.

And no one is going to know the whole story. Any relationship is between two people. Aaliyah has passed on and R. Kelly is not going to talk about. We’re never going to know the truth. I kind of love that there is going to be those interpretations. This isn’t going to be the last Aaliyah movie. Everyone is going to have a different interpretation, a different way of playing her and a different way of seeing the situation. We could have said forget any truth or reality and gone super salacious with this movie and made it too much for Lifetime, but that wasn’t the point of this movie. It wasn’t for the controversy.


When did it fall in place for you, when you felt like you really had her down?

Week one-and-a-half. It was the scene where Aaliyah and R. Kelly (Cle Bennett) tell her parents they got married. After that scene, we were all crying. It’s such a heated scene. It was such a powerful scene. I felt so connected to her in that moment, and from then on. Every time that red recording light came on I disappeared.

You went from playing Aaliyah to “Straight Outta Compton,” the N.W.A biopic. How was that experience?

It was fun. The ‘90s are a period now, so these are technically period pieces, which feels ridiculous. But I got to throw on the Timberlands and the doorknocker earrings that everyone wore. I play Kim, Ice Cube’s wife. She came on set. I got to really see the way that she walks. She’s very confident and smart and sexy. It was great seeing how she commands a room in that way. She is her husband’s right-hand man and nothing is getting in between those two. To be able to see, and feel, that is something I wish I could have had with Aaliyah.


“Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B” premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.