Rapper Andre Benjamin worked obsessively on his startling portrayal of Jimi Hendrix in the new film Jimi: All Is By My Side, and he already has ideas about a potential biopic for his group Outkast. "It would be great to make an Outkast movie right now, but instead of really serious, make it a full comedy — like Kevin Hart would play Big Boi," he said of his rapping partner last night. And as himself? "We should cast somebody stupid — like Leonardo [DiCaprio]."
Benjamin (AKA Andre 3000) was on a panel Sunday night following a preview screening of the Hendrix film at the Grammy Museum in L.A., where he was joined by writer-director John Ridley and producer Danny Bramson. Asked what he’d seriously like to see included in any film about Outkast, he said, "Probably the importance of balance within the group. One of the biggest things that kills me is when people try to put Big Boi down."
"The chemistry that made Outkast was the balance," the actor/rapper tells Rolling Stone. "And honestly, Big's a much sharper rapper than I am. If I was going to a battle, I'd definitely bet on him instead of me."
In Jimi: All Is By My Side, set for a Sept. 26th release, Benjamin takes on a crucial year in the life of the iconic rock guitarist, as Hendrix was being discovered and embraced by the London music scene in 1966-67. He lost 20 pounds for the role "because I am not naturally a skinny man," studied Hendrix interview footage, learned to play guitar left-handed before four weeks of rehearsals and six weeks of filming.
"To get that gait, to move in that way, I had to feel that way. I worked out twice a week, and ate just enough calories to keep myself going," Benjamin recalled. "Guitar training was strenuous because I’m a right-handed guitar-player. Left-handed is completely opposite. It’s like walking backwards."
He also recreates the relaxed, cosmic speech patterns of the guitarist, who died in 1970. To get there, he began each day with an impression of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon character Snagglepuss. "He sounds Jimi-ish," he said, to laughs from the audience.
Ridley, an Academy Award-winner this year for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay, said he cast Benjamin because "he has the look, he’s a musician, he’s so impactful on the cultural landscape," he said. "I felt this isn’t about trying to attract the right actor for the role. This is about trying to attract the right person who embodies a certain spirit."
The film explores the impact of two women on Hendrix’s life and career (Hayley Atwell as Kathy Etchingham and Imogen Poots as Linda Keith), along with the faith of manager Chas Chandler, former Animals bassist, and growing respect from his peers. "He would not be the Jimi Hendrix that we know if not for the people around him; if not for his contemporaries; if it wasn’t for the Who [and] Eric Clapton," Benjamin said.
"When you first start, you’re nervous. I remember the first Outkast shows I wouldn’t move at all," he explained. "It takes you a minute to get comfortable in front of people. With Jimi, the story is about these two women that were in his life that really in so many ways helped make this guy. He didn’t have a lot of confidence in his voice. He actually didn’t want to be the frontman in a band. He just wanted to be the guitarist."
For Ridley, the facts of the Hendrix story already had "emotional velocity," he said. "We’re here today because 47 years later, we’re still inspired by his music and that time and that era. That’s the story I wanted to tell."