For 20-year-old Nickelodeon alum Keke Palmer, the role of TLC member Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas is something she’s been preparing for since she was a tiny tyke in overalls. “I’ve always loved Chilli, since I was a little girl,” she tells VH1. Palmer’s impression of the group’s sexiest member takes center stage in CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, in which she portrays the baby-haired beauty over the course of the best-selling female R&B group’s 20-year span in the spotlight. But as a fan, she’s just happy to spend time with one of her idols.
VH1 caught up with the ladies who’ll be playing Chilli, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins during filming in Atlanta. Check out what Palmer had to say about choosing how to portray an artist she’s always admired, and what kind of future female group could possibly compare to TLC.
How much of a role has Chilli had in your performance and how much have you talked to her about the role?
I’ve talked to her about every big moment that’s happened in the movie with my character. She’s been very open and honest–[she] even [talked to me] about events that happened prior, [saying] that it would help me have a better understanding of the emotion that she was feeling at that moment.
Was it intimidating to step into someone else’s life?
In the beginning it was extremely intimidating. I was like, “I hope she likes me.” Especially coming from not only an actress but a fan, it’s like, “I really hope she likes me and I hope we can get along.” We ended up hitting it off like the first weekend. After the first week or so it was immediately good.
Is it nerve-wracking to perform in front of her?
No. Not anymore.
Has she been giving you feedback after scenes?
She’s very confident in my abilities. She says, “I know you’re gonna kill it” or “I know you killed it.” Because [the film] is so different, it’s over-dramatized, she likes to make sure I know what’s really going on and then I can go from there. She really just wants to give me as much information, because she knows that with that information I’ll be able to execute. I feel like she trusts me with it. The fact that she’s able to talk to me and we’re able to create this friendship, it’s awesome.
Has there been any disconnect between what you thought you knew about Chilli as a fan, and what you’ve learned from her during filming?
For the most part I thought she would be a fun, cool person. And that’s what she turned out to be: a fun, cool person. But how I want to play her is really important; I don’t want her to be played weak. There are a lot of things that happen in her life that someone could take as weak-minded, but she really was just a young girl trying to find her way. She was talented, yes, she was in a group, she was successful, but that doesn’t mean that [she was] experienced in every aspect of the world. You can be as wise as you want to be but some things you just have to go through, and she went through a lot on her own and didn’t have any help. The main thing that I want people to see in this movie was that she wasn’t weak, she was strong; she was able to get through all of that while being in a group and she didn’t go insane. You didn’t see her doing anything crazy in the media or anything like that. I want people to be able to watch the movie — [especially] the young girls that are going through what she was going through — and look at her and say, “Well if she can do it, I can do it.”
Do you feel like this is a performance where you have to prove something?
I definitely think so, because I’m playing someone that so many people love. I’ve played a real person before but I’ve never played a real superstar before. She’s a superstar so there’s a lot of people that have expectations about the way she looks, the way she acts, the way she talks, and so as an actor — not only me but the other girls as well — really want to give people something they can be proud of.
What’s you’re earliest memory of TLC?
Earliest initial memory? Probably “Creep.”
Who do you think was the fourth member of TLC? Other than the three members, who is the person that’s most responsible for their success?
Dallas Austin. He would have to be the fourth member of TLC because he was pretty genius. And Babyface, he was a pretty big creative force within the group.
How important is it to shed light on the personal lives of TLC?
I think it’s really important because people know their musical lives–that’s all we saw, but I think if people knew what they were really going through during the time that they were on top, they would have just a better respect and understanding of them.
And that goes for the negative things, too. Are there any misconceptions that you want this film to clear up?
I think it’s very important because it lets people know the real truth. A lot of people thought that Lisa was just crazy. They didn’t realize that there was allegedly abuse involved, and she was going through a lot. And I think that’s what’s important, not only in the movie and with these women but in life in general. You never know what someone went through, you never know why they’re the way that they are, so I think when [people] see this they’ll have a better understanding of her and then also understand why she was so gifted in her expression. That was the only way she could find release from the pain and the hurt and all those things.
What do you think is the greatest gift that TLC gave to music and to female groups specifically?
Empowerment. I mean they started that whole movement. They were grown women first of all, and even when it was sexual, it gave women the power versus putting them in the weak position. They empowered themselves in a way that had never been done before. So you can take it any way you want to take it, but that movement, the way that they dressed, they were getting what they wanted to get and they were proud of it. I think that you can thank them for that.
Will there ever be a group that will be able to deliver the same message?
I think there always will be other people that can deliver the same message, but everybody’s message won’t be delivered in the same way. You have other great girl groups–you can think of Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls, but it wasn’t done in the way that TLC did it. The only people that can do it the way that TLC did it is TLC.
Catch the premiere of CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story on Monday, October 21 at 9 PM ET/PT.
[Photo Credit: Blake Tyers/VH1]