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Lifetime’s ‘Aaliyah’ Star Alexandra Shipp on Controversial Role: ‘I’m Just an Actress Doing Her Job’

”I think that this is a great movie and I hope [Aaliyah’s family likes] it,“ the actress tells TheWrap

Former Nickelodeon star Alexandra Shipp was fully aware that she walked into a very controversial situation when she accepted the lead role in Lifetime’s biopic “Aaliyah: Princess of R&B.”

Although Shipp told TheWrap she had some initial reservations about taking the role, she says that she learned a big career lesson from the project.

“As an artist I’m going to be doing things in my life that are going to be controversial and people are not always going to agree with it,” Shipp, 23, told TheWrap. “But at the end of the day, that is what art is. And so if I were to take anything away from this Aaliyah experience, is that I threw my blood, sweat, tears, heart and soul into portraying this woman and I hope that people like it. And if they don’t, well, that’s just art.”

Not only was Aaliyah’s family opposed to the movie, its first star, Disney Channel actress Zendaya Coleman, dropped out of the project amid controversy over her casting and her own personal issues over the production. That would be followed with further furor from fans when additional castings, particularly the movie’s choice for Aaliyah’s longtime producer Missy Elliott, led to accusations of “Hollywood colorism” and body bias.

As for Aaliyah’s family’s opposition to the project, Shipp is hoping the movie will earn their approval.

“I think that this is a great movie and I hope that they like it,” Shipp, who will be releasing her own new music in December, said. “When it comes to the controversy, I’m just an actress doing her job and trying to portray one of her icons. I don’t think very many people get the opportunity to do that. When it comes to portrayal, I think we did a really great job.”

Executive produced by daytime talk show host Wendy Williams, Howard Braunstein and Debra Martin Chase, the two-hour movie is based on Christopher John Farley’s bestselling book “Aaliyah: More Than a Woman.” It charts Aaliyah’s life from the age of 10 when she appeared on “Star Search,” through her volatile relationship with her first album’s producer R. Kelly (Clé Bennett), her meteoric rise and then to age 22 when she died in a plane crash in 2001.

TheWrap: What was your familiarity with Aaliyah before taking the role?
Alexandra Shipp: I was a big fan of Aaliyah’s. Growing up, my mom was a big fan of her music. When I grew to have my own taste in music, I really loved ‘One In A Million.’ That was my jam. I had a little bit of knowledge about her. But, I didn’t know a lot about her back-story. So it was really cool to be able to do this movie, because I had an idea of the big stuff, but it was the little stuff that I was able to discover that was really fun.

aaliyah lifetime alexandra shipp

Christos Kalohoridis/Lifetime

Of the things that you learned about Aaliyah, what were the things that you wanted to make sure came across in your performance — whether it be physical, vocally or emotional?
I tried to hit all three of those. Physically, during the performance of ages 14 to 22, that was a major  change. I wanted to get her walk down. I wanted to show the evolution of how she presented herself. When she was around her family, she was more relaxed. And then when she was in public, she was that fierce icon kind of deal, but still sweet and normal because that was her main thing that people described, her amount of power but also her amount of great humility within it. I really wanted to capture that.

Many people wondered how the movie was going to capture the R. Kelly relationship. What were your expectations going in and how do you feel that was done?
I think that we did the R. Kelly story the way that it happened, which was it was like any 14-year-old first love. It was there and then it was gone. It lasted maybe a year, two years and then it was move on, you have to persevere. We couldn’t avoid the R. Kelly story. He was the first producer to believe in her and want to produce her album. On top of that, he was a major record producer at the time. So, we told that story and also the love story that we wanted to tell.

Physically, did you have to change your diet or workout?
It all happened very quickly, yes, and I was just coming off shooting “Drumline: A New Beat” and I had about a week, a week-and-a-half between jobs. I wasn’t able to physically prepare for it as much as I possibly would have, but I kind of got a kick-start from all that marching, all that stuff. I really did lose a lot of weight on “Drumline,” and so it kind of helped kick-start getting my body right for Aaliyah. But, it wasn’t just a physical part. I don’t think I look in any way, shape or form bad in the movie. But, I like to think I sucked it in long enough (laughs).

You do sing some Aaliyah classics. Are you worried about comparisons between your singing and hers?
Of course. I think people are always going to have opinions. For me, I worked really hard on it and I’m happy with the work I’ve done. So, I’m really excited about what people have to say, but at the same time everyone’s a critic these days when it comes to music. I wasn’t trying to be Aaliyah. I was trying to be accurate when it came down to the runs and really trying to be dipping into this character and her method — when she was belting and things like that. I also tried to create a mature arc, because the singing voice at 14 is completely different from the one at 22. So, I tried to incorporate that. This is really my artistic interpretation.

How do you think the viewers will react to the way the movie portrays the end of her life?
I think we handled it in a very beautiful way. And I love the way that Bradley Walsh, our director, shot it, as well. I thought it was very tasteful and that it wouldn’t have been tasteful if we had done anything else. So, I think it ends pretty well.

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