From writer/director John Ridley (12 Years A Slave), the indie biopic Jimi: All Is By My Side covers the year from 1966 to 1967, when Jimi Hendrix (with a memorable and magnetic performance from OutKast’s André Benjamin) was an unknown back-up guitarist making his mark on London’s music scene. It’s an intimate portrait that shows the sensitive and complex man behind the rock legend.
During a conference at the film’s press day, André Benjamin talked about what he hopes audiences will take away from this film, his own experience with fame, his first exposure to Jimi Hendrix’s music, what most surprised him about the man behind the performer, having to play guitar with his left hand for the film, working with his female co-stars Imogen Poots and Hayley Atwell, how he found his performance, and whether he even considers himself an actor. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
ANDRE BENJAMIN: John [Ridley] actually came to me about it. I’d been approached about playing Jimi Hendrix when I was younger, but at that time, I was just a young guy excited about Jimi Hendrix.
Biopics are more popular than ever now. What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
BENJAMIN: I’m a fan of biopics, and I know we see a lot of biopics. Typically, it’s a telling of images and things that we’ve seen and that we know of an artist, and we just try to see if they can pull it off. I think what’s important about this one is that we get to see more of the person and the human side of Hendrix, which is really important in a lot of artists’ life. Being an entertainer myself, I know how important that is. Hendrix definitely wouldn’t have been Hendrix, if it wasn’t for the people around him, that supported and nurtured him. That’s what this movie is about, and you get to see that. We see these stars on stage. That’s the business of making people into stars and making them bigger than life. But, what resonates with a human is seeing the human side of another human, like knowing that Hendrix was nervous, knowing that he didn’t like his voice, knowing that it took a minute for him to get comfortable. There’s actually black and white footage on YouTube of his first performances in Paris, and he’s rolling around on stage, but it’s not as cool as it looked later. It took him a minute to learn and get the confidence. And as humans, we like to see that he’s just like us. We put him up here, but he had to get there first.
This movie is about that year that Jimi Hendrix became famous. What was that experience like, for you?
BENJAMIN: When I was approaching the Jimi role, it was about finding the human side. From being an entertainer for 20 years, I know how people approach me, I know what people write about me, and I know what people say when they see me on the street. They put you up here, but I’m just a kid doing this music that I love doing. I can look back now and say, “Woah, that was a few great years,” ‘cause it’s 20 years later, but when you’re in it, you don’t really know what’s going on. So, I can’t really pinpoint a date.
BENJAMIN: For me, it was in a film. As a young guy, I didn’t know about Hendrix. I was all into rap and sports. I discovered Hendrix in my early 20s. I think I was watching a war film. I don’t know if it was Platoon, Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now, but it was a helicopter scene and “All Along the Watchtower” was playing. That was the first time I’d ever heard a Hendrix song, and there were these crazy solos. From that point on, I was a Hendrix fan. Once I picked up the guitar myself, I wanted to know what other African Americans were playing. As a kid, you just knew Jimi as this wild black man that nobody understood. You didn’t know his music, really. You just knew this image of the dude.
When you were doing your research on Hendrix, what most surprised you about him?
BENJAMIN: Hendrix’s confidence in his playing. He was pretty ballsy. I heard interviews where he was shit-talking about other players. Not putting them down, but basically talking about his skill. Also, he had such remorse. Hendrix had to go on stage and play with [Eric] Clapton. Later on, there was an interview where Hendrix said, “Oh, man, I hate that that actually happened. I love Clapton and I really love his playing, and I would love to play with Clapton, every day. But I knew, at that point, that it came down to me or him. I knew, walking to the stage, that I would have to burn him to make it.” In the interview, he was like, “I feel so bad about it, but I had to do it.” He’s human, too. Everybody, especially young people, know Hendrix as this drug addict. But there’s an interview where Hendrix said, “I used to think that I was built to take all of these drugs. That I was made to do this. But, I know now that I’ve taken entirely too many drugs.” That’s just another side of somebody that you think is just high all the time and doesn’t give a fuck.
BENJAMIN: I’m a shit guitarist. I’m a right hand guitarist, but I’m a closet player. I’m more a punk guitarist than anything, so it’s just loud and fast. When we were preparing to make the movie, we thought that we could do it right-handed, and then flip the image, so that I could look as comfortable as possible. But it would be way too expensive to shoot that way, so we had to decide to go with the left-handed gig, and I was really not comfortable with it, at all. I remember having a conversation on the phone, two days before we started shooting, because I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I think any guitarist would agree that Jimi is probably the most comfortable looking guitarist in the world. Most guitarists, even if their great, look like they’re doing a task and working. But, Jimi never looked like he was working. It just looked like an extra hand. So, the confidence that I didn’t have, doing it left-handed, was because I was doing something that my motor skills are not used to doing, and I had to look like I was doing it all my life, and I had to look like Jimi Hendrix doing it. The confidence was just gone. Left-handed anything is just horrible [when you’re right-handed]. I don’t mean to be vulgar, but it’s like, if you masturbated with your right hand, all your life, and then you have to switch it up, it just throws you off. John said, “The way that we’ll shoot it, you will be okay.”
What was it like to work with Imogen Poots and Hayley Atwell?
BENJAMIN: It was great. I think the best director decision was to put that time in, before we actually started shooting. We actually got to spend time together and basically go on dates and have chill-out moments. I got to know both women. It was the best job in the world. I got to go out with those two women, and they were fine with it. It was cool. We had dinners, we had breakfasts, we had lunches. We just kicked it around the city. I think that was really important to the film because I got to know them, and they were really cool individuals. It wasn’t like I just showed up on day one and had to really act like I knew these women. Of course, there was a slight nervousness because they were actors to me, and I don’t consider myself an actor. So, just spending that time got me more comfortable with being around a true actor. And I learned pointers from them.
As an artist with your own philosophy and style, what was it like to transform into another musician’s style?
BENJAMIN: It was scary. People ask me about what it was like trying to find the essence of Hendrix, and I don’t know if I actually nailed it. I just know that John said, “Whatever you do, just own it.” We have to be honest, we’re doing trickery. I will never be Hendrix. It’s my interpretation of it. I just tried my best. I can’t say that I’m on a level with Hendrix. I can’t say that I’m spiritually connected to him, or any of that kind of stuff. I just read as much as I could read, and did as much research as possible. There are certain crossing points, in our careers, where I could agree. I know what it’s like to be a nervous artist. I know what it’s like to grow as an artist. I know what it’s like to want full freedom in what you’re doing. I know what it’s like to want to fully throw yourself into music, and to look cool while you’re doing it. There are points that we can agree on, but I don’t know him, in that way. I know him as much as you know him. I probably just read a little bit more than you to get into the role.
How did you find your performance, as far as how much you would mimic Jimi Hendrix and how much you would make it your own?
BENJAMIN: It was a process. You start off mimicking. You listen to tape and watch his movements and you hear some of the slang he may use, so it starts off as a mimic. But the more you do it, it becomes a part of you. One of the best things that John did, as a director, was have me stay in it, sometimes when we weren’t even on set. We would just be hanging around on a normal day, and he wanted to hear Hendrix. I think that helped the naturalness of it. The more you do it, the more it just starts to bleed into your own self, and then you find this meeting point. Once you connect to your real self, hopefully you give a portrayal that audiences can believe in. It’s really just repetition and time, and just staying in it.
After this, do you see yourself as an actor now?
BENJAMIN: I feel like I’m a very lucky man, is what it is. I don’t do a lot of work, so when John approached me, I was hesitant to do it. I’m more of an idealist. If I feel like it’s something that I can believe in, as a whole, and I think the outcome will be great, I’ll put my all into it. To be honest, I don’t necessarily think you have to be an actor to act. You don’t have to be a musician to make great music. If it comes along and you put your all into it, the outcome is what’s important. I still don’t consider myself an actor. I don’t go to classes, and that kind of thing. But if I have a project that I’m interested in and I need to go to classes, I will.
Jimi: All Is By My Side is now playing in limited release.