Fame, the cinematic dance phenomenon of the 1980's, is being reborn here in 2009 for a new generation, with a whole new class of students... Two of thosee students within that cast are played by Naturi Naughton (of the R&B group 3LW) and Walter Perez (who has appeared on Friday Night Lights, The Closer and Cold Case). They recently chatted with Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier in Hollywood,
Emmanuel Itier: How old were you when you started?
Naturi Naughton: I started performing when I was five.
EI: Wow, you’re a veteran.
NN: I don’t know about a veteran — you’re just figuring it out then. At five years old, your like, “Does this sound good?” I was five years old and I started singing in my church.
EI: Walter, when did you start performing? How old were you when you started begging your parents…
Walter Perez: I was begging, yes, I was. At age seven, I started dancing. They put me in a Folklorico, which is a Mexican folk dance. I did that onstage and caught the bug instantly. But at home, I was always entertaining my family and they always kind of knew I enjoyed doing that, and they knew that eventually, one day, I would become a huge entertainer. I would film movies at my house. I was a big fan of Charlie Chaplin. I actually had a stack of footage of stuff that I did. I dressed up like Charlie Chaplin at age 9 or 10, with the face paint and the moustache and everything. I did that for a long time, and then did a performing arts program in high school called Colors United. It was like a nonprofit organization that was aimed at exposing inner city kids to the arts, and I got involved with that and took full advantage of it. After I graduated high school, I really started professionally auditioning and pursuing the dream.
NN: Five years old, I was singing in my church in East Orange — New Hope Baptist Church. I decided instantly, after that moment, I have to be a singer. I have to be a performer. I just knew. I didn’t know if I wanted to sing gospel, but I sang in church most of my life. That’s mainly where I was singing, but I started to do other things and I wanted to be on stage and perform. I joined talent shows. I was singing at local events. My parents put me in dancing lessons. I have pretty much the same journey. My parents pretty much figured it out and put me in stuff to take voice lessons and things like that. Before you know it, it actually starts to catch on with other people, and my career really officially started to take off.
WP: I actually said I was begging my parents because once I got out of high school and I was able to audition…my parents are very traditional Mexican parents, and the whole idea of acting and being an entertainer, they didn’t understand it at all. So they were like, “No, no, no, what are you doing? What do you mean, acting? Don’t do that.” Because they would see that I was broke, that I had no money and I was auditioning…
NN: Actors don’t make money unless you’re a big actor — neither do the singers.
WP: So they didn’t understand that. They don’t want to see their son broke and not making any money. So then I begged and begged and I was like, “Look, just…please…” and then eventually, when they saw the first paycheck, they were like, “Ooohhhh! Now we know…that’s why you…okay.” So ever since the first paycheck, they’ve been very supportive, and I love it. I don’t blame them for being the way they were, but now they have open minds, and hopefully, if my little sisters would want to pursue that career also…
EI: So now you’re not doing it for the paycheck anymore?
NN: He started not getting paid, so apparently he was doing it just for the love of it.
WP: Yeah, it’s all for the love.
EI: How old are you guys?
NN: I just turned 25.
WP: I just turned 27.
EI: Can you tell us about Color United? How was is different to the Performing Arts High School in New York?
WP: I didn’t go to performing arts school, but that was kind of like the same thing. We had a lot of passionate students, very good at what they did — singers, actors, dancers… So yeah, it was kind of like my performing arts school. It was every Saturday from 9:00 to 5:00. Like this program, it’s aimed at exposing the arts to these inner city kids. I just happened to take full advantage of this program. The thing is, you have performing arts high schools like the one in the movie, where they audition, like, 4,000 students and only, like, 400 get in. My program, since it was an inner city, was more like trying to get kids to come to the program as opposed to auditioning. It was like, “Get off the street. You’re going to come and you’re going to act and you’re going to go onstage and you’re going to rap, you’re going dance,” or whatever. So I just happened to take full advantage. There are a couple of people that came out of the program — Tyrese the singer. Then there is a friend, Latoya Hackett, who did shoot on the show Dangerous Minds back in 1993-94.
EI: Where was that?
WP: This was in the city of Watts, south LA. I grew up in South Gate. I went to high school in Watts.
EI: Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the inner city kids. He was very helpful, and he has the Inner City Games where he brought kids from that neighborhood to perform in the ’90s. That was his claim to fame — besides his status in Hollywood — before he became Governor.
NN: I’m from New Jersey, so I don’t know.
EI: I was wondering if you ever met him.
WP: No, I didn’t meet him, but Hillary Clinton was a big fan of the program. We got to do a big show for Hillary Clinton and Stevie Wonder, which is amazing. I was like, wow! I was still in high school and performing for them at the Los Angeles Theater in downtown LA.
WP: Just like any other audition. I got a call from my agent. They were like, “Hey Walter, you have this audition for Fame.” He was like, “Check your phone.” So I checked on the phone and I saw Fame, and then it said that I need to do a whole lot of dancing and acting, and I was like okay, cool. I just put it down. I was like, “Wait until I get home…” Never did I make the connection; never did think that Fame, because it says “Fame” on the paper — I never thought they would remake the movie Fame, so when I got home, I Googled it, and obviously all the stuff came out and I was like, “Wait, I have an audition for that movie, Fame,” and I was like, “This is the movie Fame. This is kind of crazy.” So a lot of pressure after that.
EI: Have you seen the original before?
WP: I remember seeing it on TV and stuff, bits and pieces of it. I don’t remember the whole entire thing, but I remember all the big scenes in the movie, like the one with the cab, of course. Everyone remembers that one. And the song was always in my head. And the TV show, I remember seeing a few times on TV.
EI: Did you sing in the cab in the remake?
NN: No, we had the music video that we kind of paid tribute to that. I auditioned in New York. I’m from New Jersey. I was in the show called Hairspray at the time, when I got a call from my agent saying, “They want you to come in and audition for this character called Denise in Fame.” I was like, “Oh cool, wow. They’re redoing Fame.” And the fact that she is a singer is what I’ve always been doing, and she was a classical pianist, which kind of scared me because I didn’t play piano. I knew nothing about classical music, which is something I actually have to learn for my role. I’ve studied piano with a coach. Both of us did actually learn Beethoven. We had a four-hand piano piece, “Sonata in D.” I learned “Moonlight Sonata” — just a lot of different classical music that I would have never been exposed to if it wasn’t for Fame.
EI: You actually played in the movie?
NN: I learned how to play, but the prerecords…it’s not me. It’s all prerecorded by a professional, as opposed to me just going [making music sounds]… But we actually learned it.
WP: They wanted us to really learn how to play.
NN: To be genuine and really learn how to play. He was very persistent about that.
WP: They had doubles there, but we didn’t have to use them.
NN: Essentially, they got fired because we were just so good. Long story short, I went to various auditions. I didn’t hear anything up to my first audition. They didn’t even call me. I was disappointed. A month went by, and I got a call back, and then three more call backs, and then, after four auditions here in New York, they flew me to California for my final screen test with Walter and with a bunch of other kids from the movie. It was about ten of us just screen-testing to see the chemistry between us.
WP: Mix and matching.
NN: They want to make sure we really had chemistry and worked well together, because a movie like Fame is an ensemble piece where it’s not just like one person’s movie. It’s about all these kids working together to create this story about fame and about performing arts, and about the struggle and the fight for success.
WP: There was instant chemistry between me and Naturi and Collins [Pennie].
NN: It was good. I’m so glad. The people they cast, to me, were the perfect choices because we’re all, I think, genuinely talented, which is nice, and it’s not a gimmick and it’s not like, “Oh, well, he can’t really do this.” We don’t have to fake anything. We can talk in interviews or we can go onstage or do whatever it is that we do and be genuinely good at it.
EI: You studied political science in the past, right?
NN: I did. I went to college at Seton Hall University, which is also in New Jersey — South Orange — studying political science. After, I took some time off. I had a moment where I was actually struggling in my own career and feeling like I didn’t know if I was willing to sacrifice my happiness or whatever for fame, literally, or if it’s for success. It’s not worth my peace of mind, at the end of the day. I was going to be a lawyer and I was studying political science. I was in school. I was doing great in my junior year because, of course, I was still auditioning. I was singing at small events on my days off from school. I got a call from a casting agency — really big casting people — and I still love them to this day. I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have a manager. I had absolutely nothing. They just kept calling me in to audition for a bunch of Broadway shows. By my junior year, I booked Hairspray and they offered me the National Tour, and it was really hard for me to choose, but I chose to leave school to go to Hairspray and I was going to come back. I told Hairspray I was only going to do six months, and six months turned into three years, and I never made it back to school because, from Hairspray, I booked Notorious. From Notorious, I booked Fame. Years later, here I am.
EI: And you studied criminal justice?
WP: Criminal justice, yeah. I got a B.A.
NN: I was going to do criminal justice when I first started, but I just didn’t like that major. It was too much, and I switched to political science.
WP: I always had a fascination for law enforcement.
NN: I was always fascinated with the law.
WP: That was always my thing.
NN: I really want it.
WP: My dad was very involved with the South Gate Police Department and the City Council. I’ve always been around law enforcement, I guess. Not because I’ve been arrested or anything like that.
NN: I’ve had a great relationship with the law. I’m always with them and in cuffs. [Laughs]
EI: How was it to work with such a young director [Kevin Tancharoen]?
WP: It’s great. It doesn’t even feel like he’s a young director. He’s very talented. He’s been in the business for a long time. He’s young, but he has been in the business for…
NN: But him being young is an asset because he’s able to bring this fresh new Fame to the younger generation. It’s like young people speaking to young people. We have our own code. To me, it opens it up where you get a chance to see how creative he is and how fresh-minded, and not stuck in his old or specific ways. He was willing to listen to us. When we first started, we came with ideas or criticisms about what we wanted to do differently that we didn’t like, and he was very willing to work around what we felt. I think his youth only added to the creativity of the project because he wanted to make it as fun and fresh and new as possible.
EI: Can you talk about the code young people have, speaking to each other?
NN: What’s the code? I don’t really know why I just said that in that a way. I probably shouldn’t say that because I can talk to all people really, but I think young people just…
WP: You get each other because it’s all about pop culture and knowing what’s in and what’s not, so I think if there was an older director, if there was something in the scene that you thought was cool because you’re younger…
NN: And he might think, “Is that what they say?” or, “Is that cool?”
WP: If it was wrong, he wouldn’t even know it. But Kevin, since he is young, he understands …
NN: He was like, “We don’t talk like that. Young people don’t…”
WP: There were a couple of lines in the movie, like in the beginning, where there were a lot of lines in the original script that were changed — we made it our own.
EI: Were you allowed to edit it?
WP: Oh yes. That was one of the great things.
NN: That was the biggest thing. Thank goodness we were. We had to make it our own.
EI: The screenwriter was not on the set.
NN: I know, like, “How dare you take my line?!” I think we had her blessing and respect, because she understood, “Let these young people do what they do.”
WP: Every single actor in this movie is very close to what our characters are like, so it was easy for them to go, “Okay, cool. You’re pretty much okay, you got it.” They trusted us.
EI: Can you tell us a little bit about your characters in the movie?
WP: I play Victor Taveras. He is this kid from Spanish Harlem in New York. He is an aspiring music producer, so he goes to this school in hopes to collaborate with someone that shares the same interest. He wants to make music and create a group. He has this freestyle, rebellious attitude. He is not literally from the street. It’s in Spanish Harlem in the inner city. I guess you could consider Spanish Harlem a ‘hood. I’m from LA, so I got a brief opportunity to come to New York to see Spanish Harlem before we started filming. It’s pretty similar to where I went to high school, which is in Watts. So he goes to this school, and he’s never had any formal training. He was one of those kids that can pick up any instrument in hours and rock out. He can start doing the piano and he has an ear for music, but he’s never had any formal training, so he goes to this school, he bumps heads with Kelsey Grammer, who is my piano instructor, and he’s like, “Look, Victor, your little freestyle isn’t going to work here; you gotta read…” Oh yeah, and on top of that, he can’t read music because it’s all ears. That pretty sums it up.
EI: Do you have a love interest?
WP: I did have a love interest.
NN: He was like, “You can’t leave that out.”
WP: She is the girl from the other side of town. He has never seen a girl like that.
WP: Very rich, yeah. Blond, blue eyes, and he’s never been exposed to any girls like her, so he’s very excited. He gets kind of sprung on her — loses everything, loses all of himself.
NN: He gets his heart broken, I think.
WP: A little heart broken.
NN: My character is Denise. She is this classical pianist. She’s very sheltered and insecure. Her parents are very over-protective. She’s never made her own decisions about anything before. When she comes to the Fame school, freshman year, she is a classical pianist. That’s her focus in the school; however, that’s what her parents want her to do. My character has this great journey and arc, I believe, because she gets a chance to grow from being this young, demure shy girl to figuring out what she really wants, and Denise is actually a great singer. She’s passionate about music. She just had been holding all of these inside and she starts to realize I had to start living for me and my parents, and what they want me to pursue is not necessarily my dream. Her dream is being a singer. She decides to rebel. She joins a group, actually, that’s created with myself, Walter, and another character, Collins, who plays Malik, and the three of us have a group. We do some performances. We create this great sound. It’s like R&B, hip-hop music, and I get in trouble for it because it’s not what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be the good girl — classical, upstanding, but I realize that’s not who I am, and whether my parents like it or not, I’m going to go for it. And Denise does, and she proves to them that it’s worth it.
EI: Any love interest?
NN: No love interests for me. It’s all about the music. My parents, let alone, would definitely not let me like have a boyfriend, but I could have snuck on the side, but we didn’t have that…maybe next time. I didn’t get to have fun.
EI: What’s your take on fame? You’ve been in the business and, thinking about all the reality shows, TV shows — American Idol and all these things — where do you stand?
NN: I like American Idol, and I like So You Think You Can Dance. It’s cool because it opens up a door that would’ve never been there for these young, talented people, so in that sense, I think it’s cool. I don’t necessarily condone the idea of reality stars that are just on a show for no reason becoming famous and having clothing lines and albums out that don’t even sing really. They just decided, “You know, I’ve always wanted to…” or because of money or connections, or their parents may own lots of hotels. The thing is, it’s nothing against anybody — I just feel like I work too hard in this business. To me, the ability to get where we want to be should be for people who really work hard at it. Success and fame and all of that, I think, can be a wonderful thing. I just feel like its being spread out and diluted in a way that it’s just not cool. People don’t realize that fame is not just about having money and cars and looking fabulous in videos. It’s about being inspirational or inspiring another young person to do this, or giving back to where you came from — the community. Hello, there is more to life than just being famous.
WP: I think what you were saying is that you can use fame in a positive way, as opposed to just thinking about the cars and the money and the thrills and drama and attention and stuff. For somebody who likes fame nowadays, when you hear about fame, the first thing you think about are the negative things.
WP: And you never think about the positive aspects of fame.
WP: You can do so much with fame. Instead of creating drama, going to clubs and getting drunk and whatever, you can use that and you have the power to inspire the masses, because everyone is there listening to you and looking at you, and waiting for you to say something. I think it’s perfect timing…
NN: Yeah, for a movie like this.
EI: Are you going to go work with inner city kids?
WP: I’d love to. Unfortunately, Colors United — the year I left was the last year of the program.
EI: But you can always start doing your own…
WP: Maybe do my own Colors United. Maybe start it right back up. I’d love to, yeah.
EI: And Google what Arnold Schwarzenegger did with the inner city kids.
WP: I’m gonna check that out, yeah.
EI: Check it out, and maybe you want to approach him. It’s really big. It started in the ’80s. It went until, I think, ’93.
WP: It’s interesting because now that he is the governor, he’s cutting back on all these after-school programs…
NN: To get him back in the right … it seems like he’s doing everything to take away.
WP: I would love to do it all over again, and I’m going to be the face of the program, or not, but I would love to because I got a great opportunity. I just happened to take full advantage of it. We had a reunion last week for Colors United. It’s been ten years since we’ve all seen each other, and the creator of the program, Phil Simms, is living in Sweden now. He came back, and we had this really cool reunion. It was great. I just loved seeing everybody and I talked to Phil, and it’s very possible.
EI: You have the credibility to…
WP: That’s what fame is about — using it in a positive way.
NN: Yeah, we’re both very excited. We all like to feel like the hard work is paying off in some way.
WP: Because you’re broke the first five or six years of your career.
NN: It would be nice to finally feel like it was worth it. It was worth not having a dime, but it’s all coming together.
MGM's new version of 'Fame' is in theaters now.