Celebrity Interview: Talking With Teyonah Parris, CHI-RAQ Star, on Spike Lee, Gun Violence and Angela Bassett

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CHI-RAQ, the recent release from legendary director Spike Lee, brought to the forefront of the American psyche the reminder of the devastations of gun violence, an issue played out every day in inner cities and now an unfortunate common occurrence globally.


Teyonah Parris, the tough talking Nubian South-sider cast to play the lead role of Lysistrata, joined a who's who including Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Jennifer Hudson, Wesley Snipes, John Cusack and Angela Bassett as Lee took the Greek play from Aristophanes modernized it and found a way to create a poignant, timely and extreme film.

The role of Lysistrata, a leader among women had to be someone who could hold her own against the extreme storyline, maintain the professionalism and willing to go in brave and deeply vulnerable places.

We had the pleasure of speaking during the press day held at the Four Seasons Los Angeles in Beverly Hills. I found her lovely, articulate, dedicated and honest. Below is our interview.

Janet Walker: How did you get involved in this project?

Teyonah Parris: I had a meeting with Spike, just a lunch meeting. I had no idea he was working on anything and a couple weeks after that lunch meeting, a meet and greet, just get to know each other, he sent me a script, no explanation, just read this, so I remember reading it an opening it and I was a bit confused as to what was happening, then I saw the name Lystatrata, and thought is he doing the modern version of the Greek play Lysastrata?

I couldn't put it down, and I'm reading it and reading it. And it's set in Chicago. I just remember being really excited because he just sent it to me and I'm thinking is this what I think it is, and I had no clue because he just sent it to me no explanation but then, once we had the conversation and I realized what was happening I was really excited.

And then, yes, I just, I don't know if I was ever offered the role, it just all happened so fast I just remember reading the script and then I'm doing it.

JW: So how long between when you got the script and when shooting started?

TP: Well I don't know. . . a few weeks.  But if you put it in context from the day we started filming until the day the movie comes out, I think will only be six months.

JW: Wow.

TP: So this is all happening very fast.

JW: Yes. It is. It's a poignant, timely, determined film. It presents especially now, with the events in Paris and around the world, we're focused on [our interview was before San Bernardino]. They are. .the statistics are stunning. What are your hopes for the film and the message of the film?

TP: My hope is that people will see this movie and regardless of how you see the statistics or how it is told that you focus on the message and what needs to happen in these communities and not just in Chicago but in communities around the nation and the world, as you just brought up.

Gun violence and senseless murders just that people will start talking about what's important and getting into these communities and helping develop them giving them, all the way back to the socio-economic issues. There are no jobs, there is nothing for them to do, and there is no hope.

For many their one hope is they make it to 18. I remember Father Michael Flagger sharing a story with us about that about him asking a young girl what do you want to be when you grow up and she was like "I'd just like to make it to 18." There are so many that don't.

JW: So. .You have a metamorphosis in the film. You go from . . .

TP: (joins in) a part of the shenanigans  . . . a part of that lifestyle, very much an advocate and active participant to someone who is fighting against it.

I think that is also an important message to see that this girl doesn't start as the warrior, the hero she finds herself as she grows and as she becomes more disturbed by the things that are happening in her community she is empowered by the elders in her community in this case, Angela Bassett who plays Ms. Helen to make a difference and to make a change and to believe that she alone can affect change and she can get others to mobilize behind her.

Talking on Angela Bassett

JW: Tell me about your work with Angela Bassett?

TP: Um. . Angela Bassett since I was a very little girl has been one of my idols. Um. . I remember watching her on screen and she is so beautiful and she looks like me and she is so powerful and magical and I remember my mom would always compare me to Angela and I'm like 8, 9, 10 and my mom would say "'oh you look like Angela Basset you have to give a stronger performance think of Angela when you'" This was our thing, Angela was our, [Teyonah hits high note, indicating pinnacle], and then to show up and to realize  Angela Basset was going to be my character's mentor and she has no clue she has been a mentor of sorts, from afar, for me, growing up was truly, truly a special occasion.

I tried to, you know when you meet someone you've admired so much? You try to explain to them but end seeming a little crazy, blabbering at the mouth. But it's okay if she doesn't understand I know what it means. Not that she doesn't understand but if I didn't completely convey my awe of her and her work when I met her.

She's smart and she's very kind. I just remember being in the scenes and trying to stay in the scene and not watch her as an actress and ask "what are you doing" trying to learn from her but staying engaged hoping to tell the story was a challenge in a great way.

Lysistrata, Nudity, and the Message

JW: So there's a lot of nudity in the film.

TP: Absolutely. You know this is a story about a women who gets her girlfriends and the women in her community to go on a sex strike and go can't go on a sex strike if people aren't having sex. Quite ineffective. Yea, there is a lot of nudity and sexuality. Yea, there is.

JW: And when you got the script. . Were the scenes outlined that way? I mean, I want to say "Did you know what you were going into?"

TP: This is the story of Lysistrata so I knew that much and I'm familiar with Spike's work so I knew that much and so there is a level of okay, alright, when you go into it.

I feel like what I did in telling the story and everything I did was told in service to the story. So I hope everyone gets all hot and steaming and then you're pulled out of it because we snatch it away as a mechanism to get the men in this world to buckle up, to tighten up and start caring and valuing their lives and others.

JW: Do you think that will have a moving message to any community not just to Chicago's Southside area, Philadelphia was mentioned, Brooklyn was mentioned, South Central all the areas where and it's not just those areas. Do you think the movie will have a message to those hardest hit areas?

TP: There is absolutely a message there. Do I hope people will get it? Yes. Do I hope they will? Yes. I think once people see the film in its context and not just a 2 1/2 minute trailer and they're able to make a fully realized opinion and have an analysis of the film, I think they will completely understand and be inspired to make a difference.

To change what is happening from the ground level up and from the top level down, from the government all the way down, just making very practical changes even some that we speak about in the movies, getting jobs in these communities, getting social community centers for kids to have something to do, instilling and conditioning the mind to value your life and those around you is extremely important and I think a huge message we try to get across.

JW: What would be, what would consider your most challenging moment during the making of the film?

TP: I think the day . . .Our entire time in Chicago we were in the Southside and the community really embraced us and we had the mothers who are a part of an organization at St. Sabina called "Purpose over pain" all comprised of women and men, people who have lost someone to gun violence in Chicago.

They were on set with us and the day we shot the scene with, really the reckoning with Nick Cannon's character "CHI-RAQ" and Jennifer Hudson's character, Irene, I think that was a tough day for all of us.

Those weren't extra's on the set. The women and the men you see behind standing next to Nick Cannon's, Jennifer Hudson's and Angela Bassett's characters those are real members of the community who have lost loved ones. It was quite emotional.

JW: Emotional to watch also.

Also CHI-RAQ - Spike Lee's Timely Gangland Gun Violence Pic Hits a Bulls Eye

On Working with Spike Lee

JW: So tell me what is it like working with Spike?

TP: Spike is a character. Spike is Hilarious. We all know that. I learned so much being on that set. He really called out every artistic part of my being in order to fill this world and explore it in a way that was truthful to these character. Keeping in mind it is heightened reality we're speaking in verse. It was a lot going on but I always trusted him and that is certainly what got me through the process because he has a huge vision.  It's just that he doesn't always let us in on what that vision is  so it really becomes a moment of "I have to trust this  man who has been doing this a very long time" and I know he cares and I know he is passionate and he is not going to let the community down.

So that was what I learned in that moment and throughout the whole process just trusting Spike's vision. I'm really just honored to have been a part of it. I've always wanted to work with Spike. I can't believe it has already happened. It's like whoa, that's crazy.

JW: If you had a memorable moment throughout the process what would it be?

TP: [sigh] There are so many. I really think sitting down and talking with members of the community who have been affected by what is going on there and pour into us and trust us to tell their stories in a way that will get people's attention and get people talking because these women and men are desperate. They're frustrated, they're hurting and they trust Spike with getting their story out and getting people to make a change and I would say sitting down with them and really talking to them during his process was certainly a memorable moment of mine.

Thanks so much. It was pleasure. You put yourself out there.

TP: [laugh] Yes, I did,

CHI-RAQ is in playing in cities everywhere. Check your local listings.


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