The André Benjamin drought is over. After a long break from the spotlight, the man also known as Andre 3000 not only launched a headline-making reunion tour with his formative rap duo this summer but also stars in the excellent Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side, written and directed by Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. Thoughtful and forth-coming, Benjamin, 39, spoke via phone from his home in Atlanta about the evolution of Jimi and the work it takes to be true to the parts he plays both on stage and off.
What drew you to playing this role on film?
John Ridley’s take on it. I’ve been attached to a few different Hendrix projects over the years. I’d read four or five different scripts — great scripts at that — but for some reason or another they just didn’t get made. When John came to me with this one, I was like, ”Wow, I’m pretty old at this point…” And the first thing he said was ”I’m going to make this movie, and I want you to be in it.” I was just going off his energy.
How did your interpretation of Hendrix change from those early days?
If I had made this 15 years ago, it wouldn’t have been the same movie. I was young at the time, and I think I was just giddy about the sensationalized Hendrix — the wild man on stage. I would have played him as this super-high, stoned-out character. But I think doing this movie took a certain maturity, because Hendrix was a complex individual. Fifteen years ago [OutKast] were new artists on the rise, and now when you look back at how people looked at you and the pedestal they put you on, you realize that, man, when you’re in it, you don’t know that you’re going to be held up as a rock god. Hendrix didn’t know it. He was just being himself, so I was trying to find the human part of him. I know what it is being a little timid on stage at first and finding your actual voice. Then once the lights go down and you’re back in your hotel room, it’s different. So I wanted to make sure we brought that out.
The movie goes to some pretty dark places. How did you tap into that?
I think when we try to take these idols and whitewash what’s going on, we take away a lot of them. It’s important that we show that. I was reading one interview where he said, ”I clearly know I’ve taken too many drugs. I used to think I was made for these drugs.” Young guitarists might think, ”I’ll just get high and get up on stage and do whatever,” but people gotta realize that he was already a great guitarist before he got high.
What do you get from making movies that you don’t get from music?
Constraints. When I’m doing my own music, I’m thinking of my own stories, I’m coming up with the visuals, I’m creating my own concepts. It’s all coming from one brain. But when you’re attached to a movie, you’re riding with a hundred-plus people. You’re lending a service, just getting in and helping out. So signing myself on was like getting my first job since I was 17 or 18. It’s refreshing; it kind of grounds you. And believe it or not, when you’re an entertainer you don’t really have a life. It’s hard for me to go out in public and be normal. So it’s fun to play that on screen.
Did the experience of this role bleed into the OutKast reunion tour at all?
No, because we shot it about two years ago. But I can tell you, it was weird when I had to do the performances as Hendrix. They would bring in locals to be in the crowd scenes, and people knew they were extras in a Hendrix movie, but they were coming to see Andre 3000 perform. You’re in costume, in character, wearing these tight-ass ’60s pants and these boots, and in between takes, somebody in the crowd would be [yelling my nickname] ”Stacks! Three Stacks!” But I’m glad I got the experience, even though about halfway through I was thinking, ”Man, why did I think I could do this? Who plays Hendrix? He’s too cool for everybody.”