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"Knowing that I made them smile, that I made them feel better, it feels really good."
"It got me excited to know that I would be doing those things."
"His key attribute is his undying love for equality."
"I was actually scared of that number!"
"I just want everyone to see and to understand that it was that ridiculous."
"If I had all of her success, as a male, it would be a dream come true."
Elijah Kelley  

Interviewed by Mark Sells
July 2007

"Now run and tell that," says Elijah Kelley's equality loving Seaweed J. Stubbs in the Broadway musical adaptation of "Hairspray." Set in Baltimore during the 1960's, "Hairspray" explores the issues of racial intolerance and interracial relationships amidst the backdrop of The Corny Collins Show, an "American Bandstand" like show for teens. Filled with colorful song and dance, the film features the many talents of John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer, and more. However, this updated version would not stand out were it not for the dazzling array of showmanship from newcomer, Elijah Kelley.

Born in the small town of Lagrange, Georgia, Elijah Kelley grew up an entertainer. He sang with a local gospel group, was the leading star in high school drama, and was featured in many commercials for Coca-Cola as well as made-for-TV movies, such as "Mama Flora's Family" and "A Lesson Before Dying." But it wasn't until after high school, when he and his family moved to California that things began to pick up. Appearances on hit shows like "The Shield," "Everybody Hates Chris," and "Numb3rs" followed. Not to mention a key role alongside ball room dance instructor, Antonio Banderas, in "Take the Lead."

A singer, songwriter, actor, comedian, and dancer - Elijah Kelley is an American entertainer. "I want to be universal, the kind of person that Frank Sinatra and Sammie Davis, Jr. used to be." Ironic, considering that Kelley will soon ring-a-ding-ding his way into theaters as Sammie Davis, Jr. in an upcoming biopic, a role that is sure to make his career soar. Multitalented and super cool, Elijah Kelley has the world on a string.

Reel Questions, Reel Answers

Born and raised in a small Georgia town. How'd you get the acting bug?

I grew up in Lagrange, Georgia. Population of about 60,000. I grew up there doing everything I'm doing now, but on a very, very small level.

And I always wanted to be in entertainment. Always. Especially after I found out how many books you had to read in high school!

It was my first dream. I grew up watching people like the Olsen twins, Raven-Symone, Will Smith, and Leonardo DiCaprio. And everybody was at the beginning of their careers and I too wanted to have the same opportunity.

Was there a defining moment when you realized you had to go to Hollywood?

Two weeks after high school, with the industry where it was, I felt it was the most lucrative time for me to make my move. So, my family quit their jobs and hopped on a plane with nothing but their clothes and their faith to help me pursue my dream of acting. They basically dropped everything on my behalf, for me to be able to do what I'm doing right now. And I'm so thankful!

"Hairspray" has enjoyed a long run on Broadway and exists already in film (John Waters' 1988 version). Were you familiar with the show before you auditioned?

Well, I must admit, I started kind of late. I didn't get to see it on Broadway. But I did see the original movie right before we started shooting. And it got me excited to know that I would be doing those things.

What did you think about the physical, vocal, and acting demands of the movie?

I found it was a great opportunity because there were not a lot of ways on that big of a level, where you could perform to that extent. I'm an actor. I'm a singer. And I dance. To be able to do all those things is amazing. And to have similar minded people all around you, doing what you love, is even more amazing.

Favorite musical?

My favorites would have to be "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and "The Wiz."

Seaweed is one of the key players involved in breaking through racial inequality in the film. What do you feel are his key attributes? And how does he change throughout the film?

I think his key attribute is his undying love for equality. I mean, once he meets Amanda Bynes' character, his reason for immigrating is so much more than equality. He's fighting for love at this point. He's about to lose out on the person he fell in love with at first sight. So, he really, really has to fight hard for it.

Not to mention his ties to Tracy and their cool friendship. Because he really wants to assist Tracy in making this whole place, this whole city of Boston in 1962, a place of freedom and integrity.

Did you change personally as a result of the film?

I was exposed to many of those kinds of experiences at a young age. Growing up in Georgia, it was sort of the last place to jump on the bandwagon of the integrated frontier. And I have aunts and uncles and grandparents that experienced the 'whites only' and segregated schools. So, I was able to have first hand accounts from their stories. And I came into the film with a much more sensitive approach than I would have had with any other film.

Their experiences were very real and it was one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie. I wanted to be a part of cinematic history in exploring how ridiculous the separation of these two cultures was.

A lot of the talk about "Hairspray" centers on the four hours a day it took John Travolta to go through the fat suit application and make up. But you also had some serious time in makeup and wardrobe. Talk to me a little about Seaweed's hair and the influences in its style.

Well, it took about six hours just for me to get into the pants alone...they were so tight! (Laughs).

It actually didn't take that long. But I did spend about an hour and a half in the hair chair, getting those finger waves, or the conk as they call it, done. We drew from Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., or how they used to wear their hair back in the day.

Nikki Blonsky tells the story of how when she first met John Travolta, his first words were "Come to Momma." What was the first thing(s) that Queen Latifah said to you that you remember?

Don't call me Momma! (Laughs).

No, I'm kidding. Queen is so cool. She's like a big sister. And she's livin' the life right now. She didn't want me calling her Momma off set because she's really like my big sister. We talked a lot then and we talk a lot now. She's just been a really big influence and a really big help in my life.

John Waters makes a cameo as the flasher next door. Did you have a chance to confer with him on your character or about the dynamics of a particular scene?

I did not have a chance to confer with him about my character. But I did see him at the New York premiere and he expressed how proud he was with me in portraying Seaweed the way I did. He was really excited and ecstatic about it and it meant a lot to me.

You've obviously got some mad dance skills. How much input did you have in the choreography of your scenes?

When I came to the set, all the choreography was already done. But I did add a few things.

Man, if it was up to me, I would have kept on going for days, but we just had to cut it off. We worked really, really hard on "Run and Tell That." And I was actually scared of that number. I'm not even going to lie. I didn't have the most confidence when I first saw the number being done. But they worked with me. And we pounded it and pounded it into my head and my system for about two months.

I'm guessing the rehearsal was a lot more intense than "Take the Lead?"

It was extremely more intense than "Take the Lead!" "Take the Lead" was a bit more technical. It didn't take as much energy, but it took just as much concentration. In all those dances, there's about six different holds just for your hand on the back of the girl's spine. And that was more like a schooling atmosphere.

But "Hairspray" was just so energetic, so wild, so all over the place. And it was great having numbers like "You Can't Stop the Beat," which has so much energy and is so dynamic, you can't help but put your all into it.

One of the dominant themes of "Hairspray" involves racial intolerance and the film explores interracial relationships, a theme touched on in a prior film of yours, "Rome & Jewel." Regarding the film's key themes, what do you specifically hope audiences take away from the film?

Just to live and let live. And love everybody. To see the ridiculousness in not being able to be with whomever you want to be with and sit down and talk to whomever you want to sit down and talk to.

In real life, forty or fifty years ago, me and Amanda Bynes wouldn't have been able to sit next to each other and talk and chill in Georgia. It would have been outlawed. It was not cool at all. And for it to be like that, I just want everyone to see and to understand that it was that ridiculous.

The star caliber in the film is tremendous: Queen Latifah, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, etc. What's the best piece of advice that any one of them has given you?

The best piece of advice came from Queen Latifah. And it was just to be myself. That, coming from her, was so amazing because she's crossed every barrier, every stereotypical instance of what a lady in Hollywood is supposed to be.

She's made them redefine their standards because she's not blond-haired, blue eyed, or size two. She's a full figured black woman that has been Oscar nominated, Golden Globe nominated, has won musical awards, she's done rap, she's done jazz, she's a cover girl. And she got all of that for just being Queen Latifah.

If I had all of her success, as a male, it would be a dream come true.

Elijah Kelley Interview (CONTINUED)



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