Professional Michael Jackson doppelgänger Navi has spent 28 years traveling the globe impersonating the most iconic pop star of all time at sold-out shows from New York to Beijing. “I have one of the most famous faces in the world, but it isn’t mine,” he says. But when he signed on to portray the King of Pop in Lifetime’s upcoming Dianne Houston-directed drama Searching for Neverland, Navi had one arena left to conquer: his own sense of fulfillment.
“I didn’t want it to be some glorified movie about allegations of crimes when he was proven innocent. … I wanted something that was made from the right perspective, that, even if it was showing an insight into his private life, people who knew him could look at it and understand he was a human being,” Navi tells EW of playing the part he’s spent most of his adult life preparing for. “I’m the Michael fan that stood outside the trial at the courthouse in Santa Maria with a sign that said, ‘Smooth, but not a criminal.’ When Michael passed away, I was at the Conrad Murray trial … because I’m a Michael fan and I wear it on my sleeve. … You’d think that would be the best swan song, but for me, it was this opportunity. If these 28 years [of impersonation] were building up to have this one moment, I’ll accept that, and I’m happy to walk away from the Jackson thing now. … I’m happy to be done because I had an opportunity to do something back for Michael.”
Indeed, Navi says he’s hanging up his dancing shoes following the release of this project, which premieres Monday and is based on the nonfiction book Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days, written by Jackson’s former bodyguards Bill Whitfield (played by The Walking Dead‘s Chad L. Coleman) and Javon Beard (Sam Adegoke), about the days leading to his 2009 death. It’s a portrayal that Navi says isn’t obscene or exploitative, but rather a humanizing portrait of a tortured soul who was never given a fair shake in the eyes of the public.
“I want [everyone] to watch this film without a preconceived idea of who Michael Jackson was,” he muses. “Forget what the media said about him. Just watch the film, and then ask yourself one question: How different are you?”
While he came to know Jackson personally (and even worked for him as a body double) before the legendary singer-songwriter died of acute propofol intoxication in 2009, Navi says the film brought him closer to Jackson’s spirit, which he says manifested itself in unique ways during production.
“There was a connection to Michael Jackson, and I didn’t want to talk about it… but did I feel his spirit? I felt so much like Michael,” he says. “I felt I was Michael Jackson for a moment. I had the same joys, the same fears; I had the same laughter, the same caring, and the same anger.”
Read on for EW’s full interview with Navi, in which he discusses whether or not he’s spoken to the Jackson family about the project, why he originally turned Searching for Neverland down, and the connection he felt with Jackson while shooting the film.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve essentially been preparing to play this part for most of your adult life, right? Is this a stylized version of Michael Jackson we’re not used to seeing?
NAVI: This film is going to highlight a side the public never knew. He’s got issues that everybody has in their life, the drama of it all. It’s not the Michael Jackson everyone knows about, with big money and jets and concerts and amazing videos. … It puts a spotlight onto his personal life in a tasteful but genuine way.
I’m assuming you’ve had other opportunities to play him on screen in the past, so what spoke to you about this one?
They offered me this five time,s and I turned it down. … If you think about it, it’s the first time they looked for an impersonator to play Michael, not an actor. They’re looking for someone who can bring Michael’s character and being to the film … and I’ve appreciated that. I’ve been offered many things over the years, and I’ve turned them down because I didn’t want to do it for a quick buck or publicity. I’m a Jackson fan, foremost, so it had to be genuine. When I read the script, I asked myself, “Does Michael want this to be known?” but then there were times I thought it was so genuine that it should be known, the bitter and the sweet.
What made you turn it down at first?
I didn’t want it to be some glorified movie about allegations of crimes when he was proven innocent. I wanted something that was made from the right perspective, that, even if it was showing an insight into his private life, people who knew him could look at it and understand he was a human being. …[Dianne Houston is] not someone looking to use Jackson’s name as a payday; she wants to do this correctly. I was surprised that everybody on the set was so dedicated to making it right and not making it tacky. … Michael’s fans know me. They know I wouldn’t be involved if that wasn’t the case.
They trust you.
They do trust me. I’m the Michael fan that stood outside the trial at the courthouse in Santa Maria with a sign that said, “Smooth, but not a criminal.” When Michael passed away, I was at the Conrad Murray trial … because I’m a Michael fan, and I wear it on my sleeve. It had to be right, even though there are [darker] scenes that are personal to him, scenes that show him needing painkillers because he was genuinely in pain from the burning and the scarring from trying to dance at 50 years old, but he had to go back on stage to have a home. These are things he might not want to be seen, but we understood they had to be seen, so we all knew this wasn’t going to be a one-sided movie about Michael about how glorious he was. This was about good and bad, about how he was behind the scenes: desperate and in need.
In a spiritual way, do you feel Michael’s presence in your life?
Yes, I do. The fact that I had this opportunity [with this film] concreted the journey I’ve had traveling around the world doing other shows, working for Michael as a decoy, going to his house and performing at birthday parties in Los Angeles and New York … having that journey. This was my final chapter. This has ended it beautifully for me. I was there for a lot of those moments that we captured in the film, and I watched him at the This Is It concerts in London. For me to portray him and give him a voice when he’d been silenced, it has been my finest moment, and I’ve performed in front of 25,000 people at Formula 1 and been given a standing ovation by Michael himself. You’d think that would be the best swan song, but for me, it was this opportunity. If these 28 years [of impersonation] were building up to have this one moment, I’ll accept that, and I’m happy to walk way from the Jackson thing now. … I’m happy to be done because I had an opportunity to do something back for Michael.
Did you feel his presence on set at all?
I’ve never felt more like Michael Jackson than I did here. Surreal things happened behind the scenes. We were filming pictures on the wall [for scenes depicting] the night he passed away, and one of them fell on the floor when no one was near it. We were filming the This Is It concerts, and the trusses came down while I was standing there dressed as Michael, holding the curtain. They picked a mansion to do a photo shoot out of a catalog, not by an address, and the mansion ended up being on the opposite side of the street as the house Michael passed away in.
There was a connection to Michael Jackson, and I didn’t want to talk about it… but did I feel his spirit? I felt so much like Michael. … I felt I was Michael Jackson for a moment. I had the same joys, the same fears; I had the same laughter, the same caring, and the same anger. I could see things. If you watch this film, you’ll see this roulette of emotions that a human being has but you’ve never seen before with Michael Jackson because he never let people see it. Here I was able to connect with portraying Michael in a Michael way.
Have you spoken to the family at all about any of that or this project?
I’ve spoken to his family over the years, but I haven’t spoken to them about this film because I feel there are things they might not be happy with. … But I feel the general public needs to know that Michael Jackson was a human being, and he said many years ago that nobody wants to see the boy next door; you’d see that on your own street. So he created [a persona] that was bigger, but what this film tells you is he really was the guy next door.
And the film will communicate these things, but what would you like to communicate to Michael’s family?
I want his family to know that my intention was to do something genuine, that it was about time he was not victimized. If he wasn’t glorified for his performances, he was victimized about his personality or his private life, and I wanted the world to know that the rumors and the slander were so untrue. That’s why I took this role. I did not need this role; I just wanted Michael Jackson to be known as the person he truly was, and that his family knows he was. I hope his family watches this and sees the angle that we’re coming from and, hopefully, embrace it.
I want [everyone] to watch this film without a preconceived idea of who Michael Jackson was. Forget what the media said about him. Just watch the film, and then ask yourself one question: How different are you?
Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET on Lifetime.