Bryshere Gray, Woody McClain & Algee Smith on Working With Legends for BET's 'The New Edition Story'

Bennett Raglin/BET
The cast of BET's The New Edition Story.

Only a handful of music biopics are sacred. Oftentimes, on-screen stories of iconic artists are premature or ill-cast, leaving Twitter timelines riddled with (hilarious) slander. However, news of BET’s The New Edition Story centering on the untold hurdles of the platinum-selling, Grammy-winning R&B quintet was immediately and warmly welcomed. Proof positive that New Edition and its musical extensions -- their catalogs include BBD (Bell Biv Devoe) and solo career hits -- remain a mainstay of music.

Directed by Chris Robinson, the film stars Bryshere Y. Gray as Michael Bivins, Elijah Kelley as Ricky Bell, Algee Smith as Ralph Tresvant, Keith Powers as Ronnie Devoe, Woody McClain as Bobby Brown and Luke James as Johnny Gill. To prepare for their roles, each cast member endured boot camp-style rehearsals overseen by New Edition to learn the group’s high-energy charisma and mannerisms. "The pressure of us performing authentically and doing it how they did it was challenging," Gray says. "They wanted us to play them in the highest light."

The rigorous training for the feature film, though, made for stellar small-screen performances. It also helped the cast bond, much like New Edition, off-set. "We talk in group message every day still to this day, and it’s just genuine," says Smith, whose dad, a guitarist, used to tour with Tresvant, Gill and Bobby. "It’s good to have a brotherhood like that." "This is my first time I get to work with people I’ve looked up to; it was a great feeling for me,” McClain adds.

Billboard snatched some telephone time with Smith, Gray and McClain to talk working with their New Edition counterparts, recording with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Babyface on the soundtrack, and what’s next for them.

How are you similar to your characters?

Bryshere: I’m similar to Mike -- with contracts. [Laughs] [I'm always thinking about each job like] how long is this for, and what am I doing it for? I’m just like Mike in that way. As far as being a perfectionist, I take on that part too.

Algee: I’m just as smooth as Ralph. In all seriousness, we really do have similar personalities, which is really weird. Ralph is never gonna try and take the shine. If it comes to him, he accepts it but he’s so humble that if he has to play the back, he’ll play the back because it doesn’t matter to him. He wants the best out of every situation. And in that sense, we share very similar personalities.

Woody: Me and Bobby are two totally different people, because Bobby’s more outspoken and super turnt, and I’m super laid-back and shy. I can relate to Bobby when it comes to performing. We have that same high energy.

What advice did you receive for your roles from Mike, Bobby and Ralph?

Bryshere: I was doing Empire and I was on tour while I was getting into [this role]. He told me, "This industry is only for the people who were born to be in this industry. It’s not for everybody.” And I really took that and developed Mike Bivins the character.

Algee: Ralph told me that I already embodied him, so he didn’t want me to try to be like him. He just told me to put myself into everything and I’d be good. Then he told me that once the movie came out, to just get ready, stay humble and stay fly. [He said,] "That’s the street combo. Humility and stay fly and you’ll be good."

Woody: Bobby just told me, be myself and keep praying. He was saying that prayer gets you through anything. I had to take that into consideration because Bobby’s been through so much. He’s been through the drugs, he’s been through losing his ex-wife and his daughter, but he’s still here going strong, and he said he can only do that with prayer. My faith coming into this wasn’t as strong as it is leaving it.

I’ve watched Part 1 and 2, and there are so many untold details of NE’s history. Were there any facts that you all were particularly surprised by?

Bryshere: You’ll be surprised at how [New Edition’s deal] was very under the table. You’re gonna see that Bobby had hate for New Edition and New Edition had hate for Bobby, but that’s what the industry can do. It can make you and your brothers fight.

Even little Bobby, played by Tyler Williams, wanted the shine early.

Woody: Yeah, the kids did amazing.

Bryshere: Shout out to the kids. They worked so hard. They were in school while they were filming.

Bryshere, you’re on Fox’s Empire. Woody, you’re filming for CBS’ Training Day while filming for your YouTube channel, and Algee, you’re recording music and filming movies. How does making this TV film differ from the other platforms you all work on?

Woody: For me, doing social media, you can sit there and record videos all day in your house. But with the New Edition movie, we had to shoot three feature films within 30 days, so we only had two takes for a lot of scenes.

Bryshere: Doing Empire, I get one take. They focus on Cookie and Lucious, and I only got one take to give you the expression of Hakeem Lyon. Playing a drama is different than playing something so fun. Doing a drama, you constantly have to cry, you gotta fight. But with this, every day was fun. Yeah, we had to fight but we had to dance at the end of the day, so it was cool.

Algee: To be honest, doing this was harder than any movie that I’ve done because there were so many elements. Our voices would be shot from singing in boot camp rehearsal than we had to go to the studio and sing the record with Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis and Babyface. Having to go through all of that was a different preparation. It’s just a different playing field. You have a six-hour movie, opposed to a two-hour movie.

Working with greats like that, though, has to be worth it.

Algee: Working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis was crazy. That whole process of even just working with those guys is legendary in itself. Being able to say that we did is amazing. These are geniuses. Babyface is one of the top songwriters in the world ever, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis have worked with everybody that I grew up listening to. So I’m grateful that we had that opportunity to work with the real people who recorded New Edition back in the day.

Woody: The first time in the studio was the hardest because you have people like Algee, Elijah and Luke that actually really sing. I’m in there trying to sing and you see Luke through the mirror shaking his head no. I’m like, "Hey, Babyface, you gotta get them all out." [Laughs] But I mean, working with Babyface, he really put that magic on it.

Did you all pick up anything from those sessions that you’d use for your own art?

Algee: I became a better singer and actor during this movie. I just got done filming this movie about the Detroit riots in 1967 directed by Kathryn Bigelow, so doing New Edition prepared me so much for that. I had to sing in that movie as well. The movie doesn’t have a name yet but it’s called Untitled Detroit Project right now.

After The New Edition Story airs, what’s next?

Woody: I love creating, so I’m really in the lab writing some features and some series.

For Kevin Hart’s HartBeat Productions?

Woody: How you know about that? [Laughs] Yeah, I actually have something picked up with HartBeat. We’re collaborating with Lionsgate and that’s definitely in the process. I’m just creating.

Bryshere: I just got done filming a movie called Sprinter, where I play Marcus Briggs, an Olympic track runner for USA. This is Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith’s film and it’s based around Usain Bolt. It comes out this year when we take it to Paris.

Algee: Other than the Untitled Detroit Project that comes out later this year, I have an EP that’s getting ready to drop no later than April so you can be on the lookout for that.

The New Edition Story airs Jan. 24, 25 and 26 on BET at 9 p.m. ET.