The André Benjamin drought is over. After a long break from the spotlight, the man also known as Andre 3000 not only launched a headline-making reunion tour with his formative rap duo this summer but also stars in the excellent Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side, written and directed by Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. Thoughtful and forthcoming, Benjamin, 39, spoke via phone from his home in Atlanta about the evolution of Jimi and what takes to be true to the parts he plays both on stage and off.
EW: You’ve been trying to play Jimi Hendrix for a while. What drew you into this script?
André Benjamin: The take that John Ridley devised. I’ve been kind of close to or attached to a few different Hendrix projects over the years. 15 years ago, I started hearing the Hendrix calls from different directors and producers. I’ve read about four or five different scripts—great scripts, at that—but for some reason or another they just didn’t get made. When John Ridley came with this take, years later I’m like, “Wow, I’m pretty old at this point, but if you still feel like it can work…” And John was really, really into it. The first thing he said was, “I’m going to make this movie, and I want you to be in it.” I was just going off of John’s energy.
How much did your interpretation of the character change between when you first wanted to be Hendrix and the actual performance?
If I had made the movie 15 years ago, it wouldn’t have been the same movie. I was young at the time, and I think I was just giddy about the sensationalized Hendrix. I was giddy about the wild man on stage. I was giddy about all the clips I had seen. But in doing this movie, I think it took a certain maturity, because Hendrix was a complex individual. Fifteen years ago, [OutKast] were new artists on the rise, and so now when you look back at it 15 or 20 years later and how people look at you and the pedestal they put you on and all this kind of stuff, you realize that when you’re in it, you don’t know that you’re going to be held as a rock god, or all this kind of stuff.
So thinking back at it now, Hendrix didn’t know it. He was just just being himself. So I was just trying to find the human part of him. It’s about what made him, and about his insecurities. I know what it is gaining your confidence and being a little timid on stage at first and finding your actual voice and finding a stride. A lot of artists go through this. You can go through every artist in history and watch it. It’s funny because, if you watch a lot of Hendrix tapes, you’ll see him grow. You’ll watch his first shows in Paris, and he’s rolling around on stage. People think that his rolling around on stage at Monterrey was genius and spontaneous. But he’d been practicing that for a long time. And he didn’t have it quite right!
You see him grow as an artist, and I think that’s the most beautiful part about it. Taking a long time to make this movie gave me a long time to go through my own career and see what it takes. Approaching the Hendrix project, I just wanted to make sure that I tried to show some kind of personal side, the sensitive side. Because the bold wild man, that’s what the media put out there when he first came on the scene, and I know from being a performer on stage that when you’re out there it’s like being a kid, and you’re kind of going for it. Then once the lights go down and you’re back in your hotel room and you’re walking around, it’s different. So I wanted to make sure we brought that out in the movie.
So you needed to be older to play the Hendrix of 25?
I had to understand what part of Hendrix I wanted to play. I could have easily just done the whole wild man thing. Easily. If I would have played him at 15, I would have played him as this super high, stoned out character. But if you watch a lot of Hendrix footage, he really never looks high! There’s one famous clip where he’s really drunk, and that’s about it. You have to really figure out what you’re playing, and that’s why it took years for me to mature as an actor and as somebody studying a person.
Your version of Hendrix goes to some dark places. How did you tap into the darkness in Hendrix’s life?
John’s script really addressed it really well, and I think as humans we’ve got to start being more lenient. We’ve got to realize that everybody has their days, everybody has their downfalls, and I think when we try to take these idols and these stars and these famous people and we whitewash what’s going on, we take away a lot of them.
Hendrix, man, he did a lot of drugs. He wasn’t great when he drank alcohol. He could do all the drugs in the world, but when it came to alcohol, that just did something to him. I was reading one interview with Hendrix later on in his life, toward the end, and this was his quote: “I clearly know I’ve taken too many drugs. I used to think I was made for these drugs.” That’s what he said. He said he was made for it. So you get both sides of it, and I think young kids need to know that too. Especially a young guitarist. I think young guitarists might think, “I’ll just get high, and get up on stage, and do whatever.” But people gotta realize that his training ground was—he was a great guitarist before he got high. He was great already.
A lot of people think of Hendrix as a guy who dropped out of the sky, but he really put in work and went through quite a bit to get to where he needed to be.
He had an arsenal of training, and that’s why I think there needs to be 50 more Hendrix movies made by 50 different producers and 50 different actors. There’s so much more to tell in this story. He played with so many people before he even became the Hendrix that we know. He toured the whole R&B circuit, so he’s from it. A lot of the English guitarists he was looking up to, like Clapton, they were studying the artists he was actually on the road with. Hendrix had it in him. He had an arsenal of things to pull from, so when he threw it all together and put his own emotion in it, it was impressive.
Do you enjoy music biopics in general?
I’ve seen a couple. It’s funny—a lot of times it’s kind of forced, because you’re trying to squeeze so much into a two hour box, and a lot of times you do [a] disservice to the artist. But I’ve seen a lot of cool ones. It’s kind of hard. I don’t want to nitpick any other films in that way.
You mean just doing that one small, formative period in Hendrix’s life?
Yeah. I think it’s fair. I think sometimes we’ve gotta be conscious of the time that we have. It’s like if you’re being rushed to get a story out, and you’ve only got five minutes to pitch this idea. If you know you can’t pitch the story in five minutes, maybe you need to pitch it another way or you need more time. I’m just happy John did it in this way.
How would you compare this performance to the other acting you’ve done? Are you able to watch and evaluate yourself on screen?
It’s kind of weird looking at myself on screen. I honestly don’t think I’m an actor in that way. I’ve had opportunities that have worked out for me because I’ve been in OutKast. You come up in the ’90s, when Hollywood wanted to put certain artists on screen—because at the end of the day it’s about numbers, and they want to get people into the theaters. There was a trend of using rappers in films, and I’m aware of that.
I’m not a serious actor who has been doing this all my life, even though I was in a drama troupe in school. I take it as separate opportunities. With the Hendrix opportunity, I just thought, “Oh man, I cannot f— this man’s story up.” So I had to concentrate and get in there and do the work. But I can’t say that acting is my gig or that I don’t know how many other films I’ll do. Whatever comes across the desk, if it’s something I think I can do, yeah, but I can’t say that I’m an actor. I play the guitar, but I’m not a guitarist. I’m horrible at it, but I like to tinker around in it and if I can put it in my songs effectively enough, I’ll do it. But that’s how I approach the acting thing. So really, I’m just an excited kid who gets opportunities. I’m a really lucky man, is what it is.
What do you get from acting that you don’t get from music?
Constraints—like a box to play in. When I’m doing my own music, I’m thinking of my own stories, I’m coming up with the visuals, I’m creating my own concepts. It’s all coming from one brain. But when you’re attached to a movie, you’re riding with a hundred-plus people. You’re showing up to work. I think there’s joy in that too, especially if you’ve been kind of running your own ship in music. I think that’s the difference between film and music.
So right now, I’m just trusting directors. I don’t even look at playback when I’m acting. I don’t go and watch it and say, “Oh, let me do this a little bit better.” I’m so sensitive about my acting that I don’t want to see it. I’ll freak myself out. So I just live it and trust that the director is getting what he wants. It’s a new challenge. It’s refreshing. I haven’t had a job since I was like 17 or 18, you know, like a “You have to clock in” kind of job. So signing myself on to a film is like getting a job. I have to wake up at a certain time. It’s not my time. It may sound weird, but it’s kind of refreshing. It kind of grounds you. Another weird thing about it is when you’re an entertainer, you don’t really have a life. It’s hard for me to go out in public and be normal. So when I get to play normal characters on screen, it’s fun.
Did getting inside Jimi and working on the movie have an effect on the OutKast tour?
No, because we shot this about two years ago. They weren’t connected in any kind of way. But I can tell you it was weird when I had to do the performances as Hendrix. They would bring in locals in from the city to be the crowd, and I would come out on stage as Hendrix and do these scenes. It was weird, because I hadn’t performed as OutKast in years, and people were coming to see André 3000. It was weird. There were nerves. Super nerves.
So was playing the music the most difficult part?
Yeah. I rehearsed left-handed to look like I knew what I was doing, but the hardest part was stepping out in front of all those people. You’re in costume, you’re in character, wearing these ’60s tight-ass pants, and these boots, and in between takes, when they yell “Cut!” somebody in the crowd would be like “Stacks! Three stacks!” So it was kind of crazy. It was a ride, man. I’m glad I did the experience. About halfway through I was thinking, “Man, why did I think I could do this? Who plays Hendrix? He’s too cool for everybody.”
Do you feel like you’d go back to the role?
I don’t think I would, man. Never say never, but I don’t think I could come back to it. It was so much to go through that ride. Even now, friends ask me to do the voice, and it’s just so much to go back to that time and remember and shape my mouth and my voice to do it. I don’t know if I want to go back to it.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard for me to do television. I want to keep it moving. I like the newness of things. But I think there should be a lot of Hendrix movies, man. I think Kid Cudi should play Hendrix. When Ridley called, I was like, “I’m old, man. You should get somebody else to do it.” And people that came to mind were Kid Cudi, and of course Wiz Khalifa is skinny enough. I’ve never seen him act. There are a lot of young actors who could do it.
What’s next for you, now that the movie is finally coming out and the OutKast shows are wrapping?
I’m kind of floating right now. I don’t know which direction I’m going. I feel in a weird space, because this is like my second part of life. With OutKast, those were all my high school dreams, and we did that. So now, I gotta figure out what I’m passionate about and what I can put my time to and be honest about. The older you get, you have to be more honest about what you’re doing. It’s harder to be flexible and just going along with what you’re doing. You have to really want to do it. So I’m just trying to figure out what are those next steps.
But as an artist, do you still feel creatively curious, or is that something you now have to push yourself into?
I’m still creatively curious. I do have projects and things I’ve been thinking about. But it’s all about the thing that’s charging it. It’s all about the excitement. I’m all about the excitement of it. So I just gotta find that. At the same time, I just gotta feel honest and true about it. I gotta feel like what I’m doing is something I’m excited about, and if I’m excited about it, hopefully the fans are excited about it. I guess the biggest blessing is I’ve been blessed enough to have success as a youngster, so I’m not looking to sell millions of records or anything, and I’m not trying to top any OutKast sales. So at this point if I put out something, it’s definitely going to be a passion project. It’s going to be personal. I’m not even really worried about failing at that point. I’m just worried about being excited.