Selita Ebanks is a model, philanthropist, reality-TV-show vet, former Nick Cannon fiancée, and — starting with Saturday’s simulcast premiere of Kanye’s crazy-sounding but most likely fantastic extended music-video project — a fictional doomed phoenix. Don’t worry, Selita was confused at first, too: “I mean, you sit down with someone, and they say, ‘Hey, I want to make a movie where a phoenix falls from the sky and she becomes my girlfriend … ,’ you look at him like, ‘okaaaay.’” The star of Runaway chats with Vulture about breastplate fittings, giant Michael Jackson heads, and the directorial vision of Mr. Kanye West.
How did you get the part of the phoenix?
I’ve known Kanye for a very long time, since I did the music video for Pharrell’s “Number One.” We’ve been good friends for a while. [This summer] I had dinner with him and Ivanka Trump and a few other friends. I had just done Celebrity Apprentice. He was telling everyone at dinner about this concept; he’s had this idea for so long, he wants to do a movie for an album, not a music video. And everyone was like, “You’re crazy! You can’t do that!” And Ivanka was like, “Who’s gonna do it, Selita?” ‘Cause the phoenix was originally going to be completely naked. And I was like, “No way. I’d never do that.” And then as times went on, we discussed it more and more. He explained that there’d be a lot of nonverbal acting and he thought I would be really great at it. I’ve been studying acting for like ten years, and I’ve always wanted to do something that off the wall.
When was the actual shoot?
About a month or two ago, we flew to Prague and we shot it in four days. It’s so crazy: I got there, and I went straight to a molding fitting for the breastplate that I wear at the end. I’m so jet-lagged I don’t even know what’s going on, and I’m trying to understand it, ‘cause the breastplate wasn’t even something that we discussed previously. A lot of it is putting trust into his creativity and into his vision.
Was there a screenplay?
The way ‘Ye operates, everything is in his mind. He tries to verbally explain it. It’s a lot of conversation, a lot of character development and us working together, collaborating. Then he called in the big dogs, [art director] Vanessa Beecroft, as well as Philip Lim to do the wings [for the phoenix]. It was a big process of going in and fitting them and figuring out what looks more realistic. That was done in New York, all within two to three weeks.
Kanye’s very out front about the things that inspire him. Was he constantly dropping references to other art or music or movies?
No, no, no. I can’t speak for him, but from what I understood he wanted to do something that was completely different. I mean, you sit down with someone, and they say, “Hey, I want to make a movie where a phoenix falls from the sky and she becomes my girlfriend … ,” you look at him like, “Okaaaay.” But you have to have a certain amount of trust, and then it’s pretty easy for him to convince you what his vision is, and for it to be compelling. Just like, “Wow.” I completely caught what he wanted from the beginning.
What’s he like as a director?
He’s a great director. Gives great instructions, very patient. When he wasn’t on set is when the chaos started. Because of our conversations, I knew the scenes exactly, and when he wasn’t on set, it was hard for me to explain it to Vanessa. So pretty much nothing really happened when he wasn’t on set.
Did Kanye have one of those director chairs with his name on it?
No, no, no. It was nothing like that that. There was definitely no ego. It was pretty much people willing to work hard.
What can you tell us about the plot?
I come to earth in a fireball, and I cause a bit of destruction, and he finds me. He’s driving along, and he carries me from the scene, and there’s a huge explosion behind us. I don’t think it’s the car blowing up, I think it’s just a big fire as a whole, because there’s a forest. And then he takes me to his place and he tries to teach me the way of his world, and I think that’s the moral of the film: The world doesn’t accept, or they try to change, what is different, instead of trying to understand it. There’s this huge dinner scene, and as soon as we walk in people are talking, and there’s this really great line. Someone says to him, “Your girlfriend’s very beautiful. You know she’s a bird, right?” And he says, “No, I didn’t notice that.” There’s also really graphic scene in the middle, where he takes me to this amazing carnival, and there’s this huge Michael Jackson head that he had made in Prague, and there’s a whole band, and these people marching.
You recently tweeted that you feel vulnerable about the movie premiere.
The lesson of the movie, that’s exactly how I feel: If you do anything that’s different, people always want to be negative and tear it down. I’ve always been very sensitive about harsh criticism, so I feel vulnerable, but I’m also very pleased and excited.
What did you think of the album cover? According to his Twitter, it’s another representation of the phoenix character.
I know he’s a really huge fan of art, and just things that can be interpreted in different ways. Its kind of the same with his music, the things that he raps about. You shouldn’t take everything as literal as it may look. I think it’s all about that douchebag thing. You know, there he is on that couch with a drink in his hand and a phoenix naked. There’s nothing wrong with that.
You’re mentioned on Kanye’s “Christian Dior Denim Flow” verse along with a bunch of your modeling colleagues. Did you have advanced notice for that?
No, not at all. He actually e-mailed me and was like, “Hey, do you like the new song?” And I was like, “I think I missed it Friday.” Went back, checked it out, thought it was super-cool. I’m in great company with all the other great models, and he’s always very respectful and considerate of my feelings. He’s a great friend.
What other projects are you working on?
Shine on Sierra Leone, the organization that I represented on Celebrity Apprentice, we’re gonna be building our first female health clinic in Sierra Leone. And the charity event will be on the new show Running Russell Simmons. And acting’s always been my passion, but being a model you automatically get typecast. I’ve been studying for so long, but I’m not a starving artist, so I’ve been able to turn down things.