The name “Chattrisse” likely didn’t ring many bells with people until she was cast as Missy Elliott in the upcoming Aaliyah movie, soon to be released on Lifetime in the US (and M3 in Canada). What stood out to me was all the articles that talked ABOUT her, but not TO her in the aftermath of the casting.
So I reached out and we sat down for 2 hours of interviews. We talked girl talk, important food questions, the inside scoop on the audition and the subsequent fallout and backlash.
Here’s part 1 of our exclusive interview with Chattrisse.
A: So.. A/S/L. Lol
C: I’m 28 – believe it or not. I’m very much female. Born and raised in Toronto.
A: What is your background
C: Mom is from Jamaica. Dad is from Trinidad. I was born here.
A: Is it fried dumpling or fry bake? This is a very important question.
C: Dumplings are small things you put inside soup. Bakes are breakfast with maybe some fish on top.
A: I’ll allow it.
A: You are a singer and an actress…
C: …and a writer and a dancer. And I edit and I produce. And blog. And interview people. That’s it.
A: So in what order to you do you introduce yourself?
C: I always start with writing. Even if they know me as a singer or an actor; I write my own songs, and have been writing scripts for a really long time. I’m starting to get back into it more now.
Even on my business cards it says writer first. Then I say performer, because depending on who I’m talking to, they may not care at all that I sing at all. Saying performer, they have to specify what they are looking for. I will sometimes talk about editing or producing, but it depends on their answer to question number 2.
But I’m a writer first. If I had to pick one thing and stop all else, I would keep writing.
A: How did you get started? How long have you been doing this?
C: I was one of those kids that was always running around performing. So, my first time performing on stage – was children’s choir at church when I was 6. Then I started singing duets with my dad when I was 9, was in some other choirs and groups, and started singing solo in my teens.
I was 8 when I started writing poems; I thought I was going to be a poet for a while. When I was 6 I’d decided I was going to be an author. I was 8 when I started taking acting classes, though that didn’t last. For a child actor to succeed, your parents have to be able to drop everything and do that. It’s not a hobby – it’s a job. Headshots are expensive and you at 8, look so different from you at 9. For my family at that time, parents going through a divorce – it wasn’t in the cards.
At 10, I wrote my first song. Okay, I thought, I was going to be an author – but no, I’m actually going to be a singer-songwriter. I was very much inspired by Brandy. I love almost every song on [her self-titled album]. I remember looking at her like, She’s a kid, she’s not that much older than me! Made think that I could do it too. So I started writing my own music at 10.
My elevator pitch at age 10 was: “I’m gonna be a singer-songwriter, move to ATL, sign with LaFace, and record with Usher and TLC.”
At 12, I took my first dance class. I’m a really late bloomer in terms of trained or semi-trained dance. In high school, I went back to acting and took it more seriously.
A: What kind of dance?
C: Most of my training is in hip-hop, a little in salsa. Hollywood Jade teaches Urbanesque (hip hop meets burlesque) and I love taking his classes. I also took dancehall and reggae.
A: Who inspires you?
- At 10, it was Brandy. I adore her voice. Love that she sang and acted.
- Whitney Houston clearly. I don’t know any r&b singers not influenced by her.
- TLC. The first time there was a conflict between me and my mom was because she thought I was too young to be singing those lyrics and doing those dance moves. I was a complete wreck when Left-Eye died.
- Boy bands with the 4- and 5-part harmonies: Boyz II Men, Troop, Hi-Five, Backstreet Boys. Voices that interweave with each other. I’m usually a solo artist, but I love singing groups.
Huge influence: Janet Jackson. I remember renting Design of a Decade from Blockbuster and watching it on repeat. The singer I’m most often told I sound like is early Janet Jackson.
Mariah Carey. Same time period – incredible vocals.
Today: I’m hugely influenced by Ne-Yo; I love how he started as a writer. By the time he released his own albums, he didn’t have to care whether people bought them cuz he had written for Rihanna, Beyonce, Mario, and who knows who else singing his songs. I feel like that’s the way to do it. It’s so smart to me. The things that he writes – they remind me of things I’ve felt, but I didn’t know how to put into words, or that I wish I had come up with. But Shaffer beat me to it. Huge huge huge influence.
A: Those are the singers, other areas?
C: Actors? I love Will Smith. I feel like there’s nothing he can’t do. We’ve watched his growth from Fresh Prince, goofing off on camera to doing really serious roles, and being a really great role model.
I love Sandra Bullock for lots of the same reasons.
I have so much respect for anyone who dances professionally. I know I can mix with them sometimes, but most of them are on a whole other level.”
A: Now get specifically into the movie.
C: Let’s do it.
A: The casting call – does anything stand out? What was it asking for? Teach me the ways. In general what’s the process, but also specifically for what you auditioned for…
C: Okay. I should preface this by saying that I had been overseas for 6 months, and prepared to have a long dry spell before I got any auditions.
It was a huge relief to me – 1 week after coming back, I got an email from my agent, “You have an audition for the Aaliyah movie.” I didn’t know they were finally making this movie, so I was like WHOA. I was really really really excited. I remember being surprised when I saw they wanted me to audition for Missy because I thought, I’m obviously not a dead ringer for her.
You don’t turn down an audition just because you don’t think you look like the person or speak like the person. It’s not really your job to say, “Oh, you don’t want to see me for that” unless it’s a role that you object to.
For example, my agent has asked me before if I wanted to audition for Hair, a play where the cast appears nude. And I said no. Nothing against anyone who is. But that’s when I turn something down – when I personally object to it.
So I wasn’t about to turn down the role based on that. But I asked “Are you sure?” I emailed my agent: “This is what Missy Elliott looked like back then,” and I sent a photo from the ‘90s. “I’ll go. I’ll learn the lines, I’m an actor; but are you sure they want to see me?” I don’t want to waste their time. I’d rather find out sooner than later, that they don’t actually want to see me.
She emails me back, says They’ve already said they want to see you for the role. So go in and do what you do, prepare, dress the part. There are tons of other roles in the script that they can have you read for if they decide they want to see you do something other than that character. Show up and do it.
And I showed up and did it.
A: So the people putting on the movie, they need a Missy, they go through pics and say they want to see that girl?
C: They will send out a call to the agents, most of the cast happens to be Canadian for this movie. It was shot here. The agents would have sent in people on their rosters they felt could play certain roles. Not everyone’s headshots that get sent in, is going to get an audition. That’s up to the casting director.
When I walked into the room, it was the Toronto casting director, 1 of the executive producers, the director, the person reading lines (another actor), and the camera person. So I walked in and there was 5 people sitting on the other side of the table. Not all auditions are going to have that many people. But definitely some influencers and decision makers for this role, like the director, were sitting right there.
Your agent sends you in, and if they say, come in for an audition – that’s when you get the email. If they had said no, they don’t want to see Chattrisse, I never would’ve seen an email from my agent at all.
You do your homework. They send you the scene they want you to read, the lines they want you to learn, whatever it is they want you to do. If it’s going to involve singing and tap dancing, they tell you what you’re going to sing and tap-dance to.
I wasn’t in town when I got the email, I cut short a family trip to audition on a Thursday morning. I told myself the whole time, Don’t be upset if it’s a no. Remember there’s other parts they might ask you to read for. I remember looking over the script and picking out a couple of characters that I was ready to suggest. I went in there and did my audition. I was either the first or one of the first people of that day.
The first read-through, was … ehhhh, a little bit awkward. The director, who is super amazing to work with, was like “Okay … do it this way.” He gave me some direction. “It’s not wrong what you did; I just want to see if you can interpret it differently where you’re playing a joke on this person.” I did it that way and I guess he liked it; everyone kinda had a little chuckle. I stood there, for a half-second, waiting to see if they were going to ask me to read for another part. No one said anything; that’s your cue to pick up and leave the room.
You try to put an audition out of your mind because you cannot change the outcome by thinking about it once you leave the room. I really did try to stay calm: Either they will call me back for something else, or I’ll never hear from them again, or I’ll get a callback for this role . . . it doesn’t matter. I left it in there. That’s what you’re supposed to do. I did my job.
6 days later, I got an email from my agent, she’s laughing in it. “HAHA, you didn’t think you were right for the part – well they want to book you. Are you available for these dates.”
Yes! Yes I am!
I wasn’t always sure I was going to keep the role. When a new executive producer is brought in, for example that may or may not mean re-casting, So I was tight-lipped around that time.
A: Do you know how many people you are up against when you go up for a role?
C: Usually you don’t. I only personally know 2 people that went for the same role, 1 of whom is playing another role in the movie. The only person who has said something negative to my face about the casting happens to be another working actor in Toronto who did go for the same role.
A: What’s the timeline usually? When do you audition/confirmed/shoot etc…
C: My audition was June 12, and a week later they booked me.
At the time, the plan was to shoot for entire month of July, and Zendaya Coleman was going to play Aaliyah. End of June is when I read that she had backed out. So the whole production was on hold. We were hoping to still shoot in July, but the window to find a new Aaliyah was getting smaller. Nothing was happening. As an actor, you don’t know what’s going on with these decisions. They don’t need to fill you in. You are going to sit there until they call you.
I found out via Twitter, then emailed my agent for confirmation, that Wendy Williams had joined the group of executive producers (there were already 2 or 3). She announced via her Twitter that Alexandra Shipp was going to play Aaliyah. When that happened, I figured it was back on but I didn’t know if I was for sure still in it. Things change. You don’t count eggs before they hatch.
I’m excited to exec produce the Aaliyah @lifetimetv movie w/ @DebraMChase. Prod starts later this month and @AlexShipppp will play Aaliyah.
— Wendy Williams (@WendyWilliams) July 18, 2014
When I got the email from my agent, there was still a bit of a lag, but she wrote everything has been pushed back by a month, and asked if I was still available. I confirmed yes.
Late July is when the cast list was emailed to those in the production. That’s when I saw other names that were familiar. The actual announcement about the casting (August 8) broke on blackfilm.com. Wilson Morales tweeted me, to make sure I had seen it.
I was up north, so I didn’t have regular access to email or wifi. Every time I turned on my data to check my phone – it was blowing up. It was the funniest thing to me.
After that, everyone started copying and pasting the same information. There was very little actual journalism happening; a lot of regurgitation. And all the negative comments started coming.
The timing was bad – I hadn’t yet set foot on set. You don’t want to be doubting yourself before you do the job. I remember calling my agent because I was starting to doubt myself. Now, my agent isn’t sitting around reading Twitter. I had to tell her what was going on. Her reply was “You need to be not reading that right now” – excellent advice, but hard to follow. Especially in the first few days. I’m used to sitting and reading about certain hot topics – and now, the hot topic included me. This is so new. I wasn’t used to it at all.
I was on set from August 18th to the 20th.
A: Who was your first call to when you officially got the part?
I called my mom first. My mom was with me when I got the audition email, she drove me home from London [Ontario] early for the audition and was very much part of the process.
Second was my dad. I remember when I told my dad about it. I knew there was going to be a backlash, but he didn’t know there would be. When I shared with him my apprehension, he said “Maybe Missy will see it and really like it.” He was totally cool about everything.
I had already told a cousin about the audition, so it was mandatory to call her and update her.
I then started telling one or two people that I knew. Largely because I loved watching people’s reactions. To this day, I’ve saved some of the videos. I might put them on my blog.
Stay tuned for part 2 when we discuss the backlash to the casting. Sign up for email updates here to get the posts straight to your inbox.