Chanté Adams had already left Park City when she won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2017 for her first-ever film role, as Roxanne Shante in Netflix’s Roxanne Roxanne. “When I won the award, my friend and I were watching Bad Girls Club and eating pizza,” Adams tells Vulture. “All of a sudden, my phone starts blowing up, like, Congrats!”
In the film, based on Shante’s life, Adams plays the hip-hop visionary — whose real name is Lolita Shanté Gooden — as she ascends to fame at 14 years old, spitting rhymes on “Roxanne’s Revenge,” which became a radio hit in the mid-’80s. But behind the scenes, Shante was dealing with real-world hardships, including a harsh mother (Nia Long), an abusive, much-older boyfriend (Mahershala Ali), and younger sisters to look after. Though Roxanne Roxanne charts the rapper’s reign in the 1980s rap scene, Shante later left the music industry behind in her 20s to care for her family. According to Adams, Shante has no regrets about her decision. “The other day, she told me, ‘I had a job. I opened the door for this person, who opened the door for that person,’” Adams says. “Shante is so content with her place in hip-hop. If you’re a real hip-hop fan, you know who she is, and you recognize her status as a legend. I’m happy that this movie is giving her overdue recognition that she deserves.” Vulture caught up with Adams before the movie’s premiere to talk about rapping, wearing prosthetic braces, and why Nia Long will never age.
Roxanne Roxanne was your first film audition out of college. Is this all a whirlwind for you?
One week after graduation, I moved to New York. Two weeks after that, I get this audition. You know, you get your first movie audition and you don’t think, I’m gonna get this. This is the role. It was more so, This is good practice. I’m gonna try my best. My goal was to make a good impression on the casting director so she’d consider me for more things in the future. Of course, I would have been — and I am — so lucky to get the role. It’s a role that any actor would want, with its ups and downs. I’m over-the-moon ecstatic.
What I love about Roxanne Shante and how you play her is that she’s so young and ambitious, it’s almost like she’s just waiting for everyone to catch up to her talent. She was so ahead of her time.
I admired that. Everything about her being so far ahead of her time, everything about her being a girl, and a woman, and a black woman — she was struggling through these teenage years, and coming out on top. You see her today, and she’s the definition of not looking like what you go through. She’s so inspirational, so happy. And yet, you see it in the movie, she didn’t have the easiest life growing up. For her to be the person that she is today is just awe-inspiring.
There’s Roxanne Shante, her stage name, and then there’s Lolita, who she was at home. What was it like juggling a character with two identities?
She doesn’t really like to be called Lolita! There’s Shante and then there’s Roxanne Shante. I can relate to that personally because you have Chanté Adams the actor, and then you have Tay, when I’m with my family. Shante had a lot more responsibilities than I do, but it was important to differentiate those two personalities. She’s Shante when she’s handling her business, taking care of her sisters, making sure her mom is all right, trying to make money for her family, and she’s Roxanne Shante when she lets loose a little bit onstage. That’s her happy place. I tried to figure that out, and find a good balance between the two.
What was the hardest scene for you to shoot?
On the first day, I had to put on these prosthetic braces that I wore for the film. I’d never worn braces before. If you’ve had braces, I bow down to you; I don’t know how you did it. I couldn’t last a month. The braces were cutting my mouth, and I didn’t know what to do! I was supposed to get the braces days before, but I didn’t. Instead, the braces came 30 minutes before we started filming! I had 30 minutes to say some vowels and try not to have a complete lisp. Those braces were cutting up my mouth so bad. We went to lunch and I couldn’t eat because everything was stinging. That’s when Shante came in and was like, “We’ve gotta get this girl some wax.” She sent the assistant off to the store, and then Shante taught me how to put wax on my braces: “Girl, I went through this. This is how you do it. It’s okay! It’s only gonna help you get into character a little bit more!”
Talk to me about working with Nia Long. I’m sure you grew up watching her movies.
Of course! The earliest memory I have of her is watching her in Big Momma’s House. That came out when I was really young, and it wasn’t until I was older that I started watching the stuff she did before Big Momma’s House — her on Fresh Prince, The Best Man, that stuff. I just remember looking at her and thinking that she was so pretty. She was literally one of my idols growing up, especially once I got into acting. The longevity that she has sustained in her career is definitely something I aspire to.
What was it like developing such a contentious but loving mother-daughter relationship with her?
We were developing a friendship offscreen that felt more like she was my big sister. I mean, you know, she’s not old enough to be my mom! She doesn’t age. She became such a mentor to me. It was my first film. I didn’t know anything about shooting a movie. I went to theater school. I came on set knowing two things: how to act and how to learn. She would stay behind and come to set on days she wasn’t called just to help give me a little bit of extra direction. I’m so used to theater directors who are so focused on the acting. Film directors are focused on the shot, that the camera is at this angle or that the light looks good. Nia would sneak in and tell me to cheat my head a certain way or to try a scene a little differently. I really appreciated that. I couldn’t have given the performance if she hadn’t been there.
Your scenes with Mahershala were really grueling. What was it like working with him? I have such a crush on him.
I like to say that it feels like I got paid to take a master class, working with him and Nia both. I learned so much from him just by watching him. Me, I’m like, “How do you want me to do it,” and I do it that way all five takes. Mahershala tries something in one take, tries something different the next take, then he’s like, “Ooh, let’s talk about it; let’s create this moment together.” I was just in the corner in awe, like, I’d like try something, too! I know a lot of those scenes are hard to watch because he played such an evil person. But he was the sweetest, making sure I felt good after every cut, after every take. A complete gentleman.
A scene that really struck me was when Roxanne reaches a personal reckoning and chops all of her hair off. Hair is so important for black women, and that was a real turning point. What did that moment mean to you?
I’ve cut my hair after a breakup before! Roxanne cuts her hair, and then takes a bath and slips underwater. First, black girls don’t get their hair wet! That’s when you know you’re completely done, though. She submerged herself. Some people have said that they weren’t sure she was going to come back up. She doesn’t want to come back up. She doesn’t want to deal with this. So, as an actor in that scene, I’m trying to figure out the motivation for her coming back up for air. By that time in the story, it’s her son and her sisters. She cut her hair off, yes, but it didn’t actually change her. You cut your hair off to feel free, but she was still caged.
I read that, growing up, you listened to gospel in your dad’s car and R&B in your mom’s car. What’s the story there?
It’s actually a funny story. I was like 8 years old and “Ignition (Remix)” came out, and I was in the back seat. That song came on the radio and I was in the back seat singing along. My dad was like, No! From that moment on, we only listened to gospel in his car. Occasionally, it was Stevie Wonder if it was a holiday. We only had gospel or NPR if I was in the car. My mom was a really big fan of oldies and R&B. As I got older, I developed my own taste in music, and that’s when I got into rap through my brothers and my sister.
What’s your big ambition? What do you want to do next?
I want to do more movies like Roxanne Roxanne. I want to do movies with a strong female lead of color, movies that tell stories we haven’t heard before, movies that inspire little girls. I’ve got two nieces and they can’t watch this movie yet — they’re only 6 and 11 — but one day they’re going to watch the movie, and I want them to be proud that I’m their aunt.
This interview has been edited and condensed.