Afton Williamson on Comparing ‘Empire’ to ‘The Breaks': ‘I Kind of Cringe’

“Music and hip hop is so relevant now, and kids don’t really know where it came from,” actress tells TheWrap

Coming on the heels of “Empire” and “Straight Out of Compton,” VH1’s upcoming original movie “The Breaks,” is the latest in a string of movies and TV shows set in the world of hip hop.

Set in 1990, “The Breaks” follows Afton Williamson’s character Nikki as she decides to turn away from pursuing a law career to try to make it big as a record executive in New York.

“It’s interesting that we’re now doing a story about the ’90s as a period piece,” Williamson said in an interview with TheWrap. “Music and hip-hop is so relevant now, and kids don’t really know where it came from. And I learned a lot too, even thinking that I already knew about it.”

Williamson spoke with TheWrap “The Breaks,” her stint on “Nashville” and the rise of hip-hop-centric movies and TV such as “Empire” and “Straight Outta Compton,” below:

TheWrap: What about “The Breaks” made you want to be a part of it?
Williamson: When I read the breakdown, the character of Nikki, she was described as this brilliant George Washington grad that rips up a Harvard Law scholarship to go and try to be the newest hip-hop manager in New York City. The balls of that — excuse my language — is really what appealed to me. To me, she was like the coolest feminine anti-hero. I liked that, and I liked that all of these characters were kind of like that. They had this attitude we would’ve needed to start the birth of hip hop, which is what these characters kind of did in this fictitious world.

Do you identify with Nikki as a rising artist in New York City?
Oh extremely. I thought it was freaky how weirdly related we were. I came to New York in August 2008. I got here with a few degrees and an air mattress. I was ten days out of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival masters program, and I came here and that was it. I had gone straight through school, no breaks, and ended up here … I did it my way, and have been pretty successful. I really know what it means to pave the hard ground in New York, and if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I had no clue that that was the tag line from the posters, until they came out. Which was funny, because that’s why I came to New York. Anytime someone would ask me, I would say, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

You were on “Nashville” for a while, a very different kind of music show. How did that compare?
Well the funny thing about “Nashville,” I was Makena, Hayden Panettiere‘s character’s publicist. I didn’t even know it was fully a musical until it aired. We didn’t know anything about this because we were still filming until it aired. And every time we read through, we never did the songs, because that was separate stuff. That would be in recordings and they’d film that separately. And I wasn’t really in any of those scenes. There were a couple scenes where I was overseeing things in the studio with Hayden, and that was when I started to realize how good the music was. But I didn’t know everybody could sing.

I’m still a huge fan of that show. That’s one show that I religiously watch because I thought it was the coolest thing. I love the idea of it.

Between “The Breaks,” “Straight Outta Compton” and “Empire,” why do you think hip-hop is having such a moment in movies and TV right now?
To compare “Straight Outta Compton” and “Empire,” they’re so hugely different. So I kind of cringe sometimes when I hear that because the only comparison is that they’re African American movies and shows. “Empire” is extremely different, and for it to be on television is super, super cool. It’s in everybody’s lap. It’s this new version of something that I never even knew about, the inside of hip-hop today. “Straight Outta Compton,” I think that was just a story that people wanted to hear told.

It’s interesting that we’re now doing a story about the ’90s as a period piece. They were adults, and they lived through it, so I think that’s why everybody wants to do the ’90s right now. Music and hip-hop is so relevant now, and kids don’t really know where it came from. And I learned a lot too, even thinking that I already knew about it.

'The Breaks' Star Afton Williamson Exclusive StudioWrap Portraits (Photos)

Partners

Featured