Ne-Yo plays one of the distinguished Tuskegee Airmen


Front Row Features

NEW YORK—Ne-Yo is better known for making hit songs. Lately, though, he’s ventured into acting, with some success. (He had roles in “Stomp the Yard” and “Battle Los Angeles.”). He now plays one of the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen in the George Lucas-produced “Red Tails.”

Ne-Yo (born Shaffer Chimere Smith) plays Andrew “Smoky” Salem, a guitar-playing aerial combat pilot, defending America against the Germans while stationed in Italy during World War II. He recently explained what attracted him to the project, preparing for the role and what’s ahead  for him. (Hint: a new album is due this spring).

Front Row Features: Tell us about your character in the movie.

Ne-Yo: I play Andrew “Smoky” Salem. Smoky’s kind of—I hate to call him the comic relief of the film—the kind of more lighthearted part in the seriousness of what’s going on around him.

Front Row Features: Talk about your boot camp experience? Was it similar to what you had to do to prepare for the combat sequences of “Battle Los Angeles?”

Ne-Yo: Boot camp for “Battle: Los Angeles” was modern-day boot camp. I was playing a Marine. It was definitely difficult. But boot camp for this movie was boot camp circa 1942. There was music from 1942 and food from 1942. No cell phones. Everything was from 1942. It was more intense. It was (director Anthony Hemingway’s) decision. We had two drill sergeants from South Africa and they literally would come in and wake us up with M-80s. Stank breath. It was just horrible, horrible.

Front Row Features: What did you find out in your research about the Tuskegee Airmen?

Ne-Yo: If you didn’t know and were told about what the Tuskegee Airmen accomplished, you would think they were older men with families. But they were between the ages of 17-25 doing incredible things. That alone is amazing. It speaks to the amazing-ness—I can do that. I’m a songwriter—the amazing-ness of these individuals. It wasn’t just about how old they were or their levels of maturity, it was about: we’ve got a job to do and we’ve got to get it done. That’s one of the amazing things about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Front Row Features: You had to work a lot with green screen. How was that versus doing a non-effects movie?

Ne-Yo: I used to laugh at people who did special effects movies like “The Terminator” and “Transformers.” I thought: that looks so easy. Well, it’s the hardest thing. Period. You have somebody next to you reading lines like “You’re in the plane” (He makes gunfire noise). “You get shot. They’re coming after you. Look harder. Move faster.” And you’re thinking, I’m being shot at? You gotta give me something more than that! The Sam Worthingtons, Shia LaBeoufs and Arnold Schwarzeneggers that have stood in front of that screen and have made something from nothing—kudos!

Front Row Features: Was it more difficult coming from music?

Ne-Yo: Definitely. It was easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. On top of the whole green screen and trying to make something out of nothing, a lot of the times we had masks on so it wasn’t like you had your full face to create. You had to do it with just your eyes. For a guy (like me) that doesn’t know a lot about this game, I was looking at Anthony like, what am I supposed to do with this? It was difficult to say the least.

Front Row Features: How were you cast?

Ne-Yo: I went through the process just like everybody else. I auditioned. I told my people I don’t want roles just because I’m Ne-Yo. That kind of would defeat the purpose of doing this. So I cold read. It was my third time doing a cold reading in my life, and it was enough to impress Anthony.

Front Row Features: What was it like working on this with veteran actors Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard?

Ne-Yo: It’s safe to say I’m the novice here. Towards the beginning of the movie, when we hear we might be getting shut down and Terrence has this really powerful monologue. I remember that day. Anthony made him do that monologue about 12 times, and every time he did it, it was different from the time before, which blew my mind. That, to me, is the essence of acting. That’s the level I aspire to.. I said to myself I’m going to need to step it up if I’m going to be part of this film.

Front Row Features: What’s next for you?

Ne-Yo: I’m putting together an album now. I’m just putting on the finishing touches. The running title is “The Cracks of Mr. Perfect.” It speaks about the perfection that is imperfection. It’s the more human side of Ne-Yo, not Ne-Yo, the celebrity, not Ne-Yo, the singer-songwriter but Ne-Yo, the man, and the things we deal with as men, as human beings. Sometimes as a celebrity, you’re expected to be perfect. You’re not allowed to have a bad day or not want to deal with people or take a picture with them. And the one day you don’t do that, you’re called an a**hole. But we’re human beings, and everybody’s allowed to not feel like it some days. This album expresses how I’m a human being. I’m not perfect in any way, shape or form. And I feel it’s relatable to everybody because there’s no such thing as perfection.

Front Row Features: When does it come out?

Ne-Yo: It’ll be out in April or May. Also, I have a couple artists of my own that I’m moving. I’m doing artist development. Outside of entertainment, I’ve got a new hat line that just got placed in Saks Fifth Avenue. It’s called Francis Ellargo. The hats are unisex fedoras. Also, I’m the chief creative executive for Malibu Bay. It’s a drink from Malibu Rum, which has rum and tequila.