Andre Benjamin doesn’t consider himself an actor.
But his breakout performance as rock legend Jimi Hendrix in the new biopic Jimi: All Is By My Side, has critics showering the star – best known as Andre 3000 from the rap duo Outkast – with superlatives such as “spellbinding” “stunning” and “uncanny.” The movie opened this past weekend in select theaters.
“I feel like a very lucky man. I don’t do a lot of acting,” Benjamin, 39, says at a Los Angeles press junket that included the film’s writer, director and executive producer John Ridley. “I put my all into it. You don’t have to be an actor to act. You don’t have to be a musician to make great music. If it comes along and you put your all into it, the outcome is what’s important.”
Jimi: All Is By My Side follows Hendrix’s ascension to stardom from 1966-67, the year before he became an internationally beloved rock god thanks to his career defining turn at the Monterey Pop Festival. To prepare for the role, Benjamin, whose film credits include Idlewild and Semi-Pro, spent months watching and listening to endless footage of Hendrix. The already slender vegan also went on a strict diet to capture Hendrix’s wiry physique, enjoyed mini-dates with his on-screen love interests for believable chemistry and worked with a vocal coach to transform his Georgian twang into the laidback Seattle cadence the rocker had.
“You start off mimicking — listening to tape, watching movies and footage,” Benjamin says. “But the more you do it, the more it becomes a part of you. There were times when John (Ridley) would have us stay in it even when we weren’t on the set. We would just be going through scenes. He wanted to hear Hendrix and I think that helped the naturalness of it.”
When Ridley talked to Benjamin about playing Hendrix, he was unaware that the Grammy winning performer had been approached for the same role for another movie in the past. In the end, Ridley’s project and timing were a better fit.
“He’s a humble man,” says Ridley, who won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave. “Andre really put everything into this. He really did. He cares about music. He cares about history and anthropology.”
Although Ridley wasn’t able to secure the rights to Hendrix’s music, Benjamin still had to do everything he could to appear as agile as the famously left-handed guitarist. This included relying on the help of a guitar coach.
“I’m a [expletive] guitarist,” he says. “I’m more of a punk guitarist than anything. So, it’s just like loud noise. When we were preparing to make the movie, we thought that we could do it right-handed and then flip the image so I could look as comfortable as possible. But it would be way too expensive to shoot that way, so we had to go with the left-handed gig. I was really not comfortable in it at all.”
“Jimi is the most comfortable looking guitarist in the world,” Benjamin adds in awe. “Most guitarists, even if they’re great, look like they’re doing a task. They’re working. But Jimi never looked like he was working. He always played like he had extra hands.”
Ultimately, Benjamin tapped into his own discomfort to convey the anxieties Hendrix felt at times before stardom struck.
“We see these stars. That’s the business of making it big,” Benjamin says. “What resonates is seeing that human side knowing that Jimi was nervous. Knowing that he didn’t like his voice. Knowing that it actually took a minute for him to get comfortable.”