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January 2006
An Interview with NEYO

An Interview with NEYO
By Wilson Morales

January 11, 2007

For musicians, coming into the film business is just the next transition to a long line of work outside their day job until they can make both of them work at the same time. We have seen the like Queen Latifah, Will Smith take film world and embraced it to the point where they rarely sing these days, but for others, music is still their day job. After writing hit songs for Beyonce, Heather Hedley, and others, Ne-Yo broke out on his own and release his CD that exploded with several hits songs such as “Sexy Love” and “So Sick”. To follow up on his recent success, he’s making the transition to acting as well having been in “Save The Last Dance 2” and will be featured heavily in his next film, “Stomp the Yard” which also stars Columbus Short, Meagan Good, and his good friend, Chris Brown. In speaking to blackfilm.com, amongst other journalists, Ne-Yo talks at length about working on this movie, his music, and his son, Chimere.

What is the origin of your name?

Ne-Yo: It was given to me by a producer friend of mine, and his name is Big D. Evans. He said, “In my opinion, you see music the way Neo sees the Matrix” from the movie, “The Matrix”. That’s a reference from that movie.

Is that your favorite movie?

Ne-Yo: One of my favorites.

What is your given name?

Ne-Yo: Shaffer Chimere Smith.

What was it like to dance in the film?

Ne-Yo: It was a challenge all the way across the board, just because this something that I never done before. As far as dancing to this level and acting, all the way across the board, it was something new for me. I thank God for Columbus (Short) and Meagan (Good), especially as far as the acting is concerned because when I got in there, I swear you could hear my heart beat. I was so nervous. I had no idea what I was doing and they literally held my hand through the whole situation. They helped me with my lines and with this scene and that scene. I was expecting ego and attitude, like “here comes this R & B dude trying to do the acting thing” and that was what I was expecting. It was complete opposite. Every body was overly helpful. Before I had the question out of my mouth, they hit me with the answer. I just really, really thank God for that.

Was acting an inspiration or was it the right time and right place?

Ne-Yo: To be completely honest with you, I never really had the desire to act, just because it looked difficult to me. Even before I knew it, I knew that acting was more than standing in front of the camera pretending. So, I never had the desire to try but actually I met Columbus on the set or “Save the Last Dance 2”, and that was another movie I did where I had a really small part, and we became friends realty fast, and so when they approached him about this film, he actually said my name to them. They gave me a call and they said they would love for me to come down and audition. I did with my knees shaking and all and I got it.

Are you any close to the character that you play?

Ne-Yo: A little bit. Rich Brown is loud, energetic and just don’t care, 24 hours a day, whereas Ne-Yo: might not care, these few hours out of the day, but for this, I have to put the serious face on.

Are you as stingy with the condoms as your character is in the film?

Ne-Yo: You have to be. (Laughs) There’s too much stuff floating in the water to swim everywhere. I need all mine.

Can you talk about doing the step dancing and had you done it before?

Ne-Yo: I had never done it before. It looks easier than it is. I would definitely say that. I went in there thinking that I was just going to knock it out. I had been to a couple of step shows before. I have family that’s in college, so I had seen it, but I had never done it. In the beginning, I was like, “Can I sit in here in the corner, so these professional dancers don’t laugh at me” and then I looked and the professional dancers were also having problems with some of the steps, so I wasn’t completely dumb in here. This was some of the most difficult stuff I have ever done. Everyone is doing completely different from each side and it all has make sense as one beat. It’s not like regular dancing where you are actually dancing to music. In stepping, you are the music. You make the music as you are dancing. Me and Meagan keep saying that it’s tapping your head, rubbing your stomach, doing the alphabet backwards in tap dancing all while upside down.

She didn’t have to do it.

Ne-Yo: No, but she watch. She vicariously felt our pain.

It didn’t look easy at all.

Ne-Yo: Not at all. On top of that, you can’t really tell in the film because of the way that they shot it. With the camera in one angle, you have the whole dance sequence from start to finish, then you have to do again with another camera in a different position and so forth. By the end of it, you have done it 15 times from start to finish and it has to look like one take. You have to keep your energy up. Certain cats that were not in shape had to get in shape. I was one of those cats.

Is acting the same as dancing and singing to you?

Ne-Yo: Not really. The dancing stuff. I’m not Chris Brown, but I can dance a little bit. That wasn’t as difficult. The acting was the hardest part for me. For a person to have that much control over their emotions, that was something that was completely alien to me. In songwriting, you make the emotion, whereas in acting, “you’re sad, go”. I don’t call myself an actual actor. You will hear me refer to Columbus and all of them as actual because I am not. For example, it was me, Columbus, and Meagan and we were sitting, talking, and laughing about something, and the director goes, “Action”, and Meagan just turned the tears on. Until I can do that, I am not an actor. Overall, I had a lot of fun.

Will you learn more about the craft?

Ne-Yo: Oh yeah. Before I step foot on the set of another movie, I definitely will take some acting classes, something to really hone that skill because I luck out this time around. They gave me the silly role. It has never been an issue for me to be silly. If they had given me Columbus’s role, the movie might not been as good.

Have you seen the whole film?

Ne-Yo: Nope, I haven’t seen the finished product. I saw a rough copy, but it was enough to show the story; and what I got from that rough copy, is that this is not a dance movie. This is a movie with a strong story and powerful characters and fantastic dancing in it, but the dancing is not the driving force of this movie, at least not to me. The historical elements and the tradition of the fraternities and just not being afraid to better yourself and there’s a real serious underline meaning in this movie that definitely makes the dancing almost secondary to what is going on in the story and that’s what I want people to take from this movie. You are go in expecting a dance movie and do that. I want you to do that. I want you to see how much heart this story has, it just really blows your mind that much more.

What did you think of your performance?

Ne-Yo: If I must toot my own horn, I think I did pretty good. Being my first out, I think I did alright. With the help of the actual actors on set, I did okay.

Was it hard to watch yourself?

Ne-Yo: Yeah. It was hard because I have always been my worse critic in anything that I have ever done and to go into something like that, completely knowing nothing of it, I was extra special critic of it. I was like, “That looks so corny” and I’m looking around at everyone else and that are like, “That’s not bad” and I’m like, “They like it, cool”. I guess I did alright then.

As you were walking around campus and interacting with people, and thinking about traditions, was there anything that came up for you in terms of feelings?

Ne-Yo: I was blown away by how ignorant I was to the whole thing going in. I had been to a few step shows before I didn’t anything of the historics of it. I didn’t know where it came from. I didn’t know that Martin Luther King Jr. was in a fraternity. It goes back so far and it’s so much more than a group of guys with funny letters on their jacket that get together and clap hands and stomp their feet. There is so much more than that and I had no idea. The other actors as well. Nobody really knew much about it other than the small portrayal that you see on TV. That was another reason why I wanted to do this movie, just to really get that out there; to really show that a fraternity and sorority is more than just a boys clubs or girls club. There were actually Greeks on set as we were doing this film and there a little scary just because there were really passionate and super adamant about, “It has to look like this and if doesn’t, it is not Greek” and they were really making sure that we were on our feet about making it look good.

Was it a challenge when they asked you to contribute music to the film?

Ne-Yo: No. I only submitted one or two songs for the soundtrack. Honestly, it was a little bit of a challenge because I was so removed from as far as being a singer/ songwriter from this whole situation. I was trying to approach it like I am a actor so when they asked me about music I was like skeptical, but I said ok. I had taken myself out of it mentally so I didn’t know what to give. I had to step away for a minute and then regroup and turn back into the singer/ songwriter and come up with songs that make sense of what’s going on.

Where are you from originally and how did you get from there to here?

Ne-Yo: I was born in Camden, Arkansas. Candem is a town, not a city, because it’s literally that big and not even on most maps. It’s closer to Pine Bluff in Arkansas. I was born there. I was there til I was about five. My dad moved us all to Las Vegas where I did the majority of my growing up in. Right after high school, I moved from Vegas to California to pursue music and the ball has been pretty much rolling ever since.

That’s a big change and transition from a small town in Arkansas…

Ne-Yo: I know. My mom is from Arkansas, and dad is from Vegas. My dad drives trucks. He was driving, met my mom, had me, fell in love, moved the family to Vegas, dad turned out to be a jerk, separated, dad moved to Arkansas, mom stayed in Vegas, so the first half of my life, it was ping pong back and forth. My dad finally said, “Screw this” so me, my sister, and my mom stayed in Vegas.

Can you talk about some of the songs you have written, like for Heather Hedley and and Beyonce (Irreplacable). What is your writing process like?

Ne-Yo: It really depends on the songs. The majority of the times, it’s personal experience. I try to go with something that happened to me personally because I don’t feel I can write a song about something I don’t know anything about.

So for Beyonce’s Irreplaceable, are you “back to left” or is it her back to left?

Ne-Yo: Well, with that particular song, the way that song came about, I wasn’t really thinking about any personal experience. I was thinking about Shania Twain and Faith Hill when I wrote that song.


Ne-Yo: Let me explain. When I first heard the track, produced by Norwegian production team Stargate, they just played the guitar. There was no drums to it and sounded like country western music and when they put the drums on it, it brought it back to the R & B side of things. I was then thinking of making an R & B country western music song. If you listen to any country music, there’s always a story, a depth story and it’s always empowering or get your bags and leave or whatever case may be. The truth of the matter, that’s how country music is. So, I just basically did my version of how an R & B country western song would sound like in my opinion. I love country music. R & B is sometimes about self glorification or sex, and there’s a country song and I don’t know who sings it but the line is “I’m not as good as I was once was, but I’m as good as I ever was once”, meaning I’m not going put it on you as I used but I’m going to give it to you one time and then I’m going to sleep. (Laughs). There’s not an R & B song on the face of this planet that is going to say that. That talks about male impotence. You don’t hear that in R & B and that’s why I love country western music. They are not afraid to go there.

When is your next album coming out?

Ne-Yo: I’m putting it together as we speak. We are trying to shoot for April or May but you should hear a single in February.

How do you decide about singer and writing for yourself and writing for others?

Ne-Yo: I really don’t. If an artist comes to me and asks me for a song and I go into the studio, then whatever comes out of that particular session is for that artist, no matter how good it is. If it came from a session that was for this person, then it’s their song. Now, if I’m just writing, just random, for nobody in particular, and I come up with something fantastic, then of course, I’m keeping it for myself.

Is there anyone you would love to write for?

Ne-Yo: Oh god, that is a list a mile long but at the top of that list, if I could write a song for this person, I could die the following day and be alright with that. It would have to be Prince. I would love, love, love to write a song with or for Prince. I would love it. That would be the one where I could really sit back and go, ‘You know what? I’ve made it.’

Now is he your musical inspiration?

Ne-Yo: One of, absolutely.

Who are the others?

Ne-Yo: Well there’s Prince, there’s Michael Jackson, there’s Stevie Wonder and then there’s Sammy Davis, Jr. Actually the whole rat pack, honestly.

So who makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? That’s my favorite line from "Sexy Love.”

Ne-Yo: Thank you very much. As of right this second, nobody. I’m really so focused on everything that’s going on. I’m trying to make 2007 what 2006 wasn’t better so I don’t really have the time to find that woman that’s going to make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Because that’s not a woman that you just bump into. You gotta look for her.

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STOMP THE YARD opens on January 12, 2007





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