Woody McClain on 'The Bobby Brown Story' & Stepping Into the R&B Icon's Shoes

Woody McClain
Earl Gibson III/Getty Images for BET

Woody McClain attends BET Presents the American Black Film Festival Honors on Feb. 17, 2017 in Beverly Hills, Calif. 

Woody McClain is ready to become a household name. The up-and-coming actor had us dancing in our living room when he portrayed Bobby Brown in BET’s The New Edition Story last January. The television mini-series was a hit for the network, with the premiere of its three-part installment raking in 4.4 million total viewers, with 2.6 million of those viewers in the 19-49 age range. McClain is continuing to ride the wave of its success, as he will play Brown once again in BET’s The Bobby Brown Story -- a two-part series that is set to premiere in September.

Along with McClain, the cast includes Gabrielle Dennis as Whitney Houston, Mekhi Phifer, Lil Rel Howery, Lance Gross, Laz Alonso, Sandi McCree, T.K. Carter and Alyssa Goss. Based on the real-life Brown’s tearful reaction to certain scenes (like the passing of his daughter Bobbi Kristina) while on set, this mini-series is shaping up to be an emotional rollercoaster ride. Before it hits the TV screen, Billboard spoke with McClain about what it takes to transform into the original bad boy of R&B.

I think what made The New Edition Story so enjoyable was the way you all portrayed the real-life members perfectly. How do you get into the character of Bobby Brown?

Being with Bobby [on set] helped tremendously, just being able to talk with him and seeing all those videos of him. That helped me out. But once you actually have the clothes on, have the hair, put the teeth on...that character just feels like a spirit. I don’t know what it is, but it’s like something that comes over you and makes the character come to life.

You channel that persona well, because you seem like such a funny guy on social media. But the younger version of Bobby Brown was so cocky and arrogant…

Yeah, exactly. That’s what I love about acting: You can be somebody that you’re not and also tell someone’s truth. I really appreciate that about acting and I want to dig deeper into that.

And that was you singing in the movie, right?

Nah, nah, I don’t sing. [Laughs] I can only talk! I sung some of my parts, but we also had Babyface to put his magic on some of the vocals. So that worked out perfectly. I also worked with Leon Thomas, and he’s super dope.

I mean, you killed the choreography, so that was something! How grueling were those rehearsals to learn the dances to “Every Little Step I Take” and “My Prerogative”?

What people don’t know for “My Prerogative” is that we learned [the choreography] the day of filming. We got to the set at 6 a.m. and we started filming it at 8 a.m. I got the chance to work with Leon [Lee], who was one of the assistant choreographers for Brooke Payne. I also had Codie Wiggins and Ajaye Skeene as my backup dancers, and we danced together a long time ago so we already had chemistry. Those guys are super professional so they got the routine in like 30 minutes. Stuff like that is super exciting for me because I loved to be challenged.

You mentioned the fashion and the dance moves, but what was the most fun part about coming on set for the upcoming The Bobby Brown Story?

For me, it was knowing that everyone was depending on me to be on my P’s and Q’s. I love when people depend on me, and I love to deliver. I love to show people that this is why I’m in the industry and the greatness that I bring to the table. [Laughs] I loved being around the cast and crew too; everybody was such a joy to work with. And my director Kiel [Adrien Scott] would always come with creative ideas that we’d collaborate on. He allowed me to express how I felt and vice versa, and I think that helped to level up the project.

This movie also has big names like Mekhi Phifer, Lance Gross and Laz Alonso. Was there anything they taught you while filming?

Mekhi was always like “Let’s run it!” There was no time to play [while on set]. So when it was time to film, it becomes a cakewalk. That’s what I learned from Mekhi, that it’s OK to sit in the corner and talk to yourself while going over your lines. It’s OK not to look cool and to be vulnerable. I’m so grateful that I got a chance to work with all of those legends because they brought me to a whole ‘nother level.

And Bobby himself was also on set, so were you intimidated by that at all?

No, I don’t think I got nervous. Bobby has always made it clear that he wanted me to play him and has expressed how confident he was about what I bring to the table. He’s always been there to support me in any way. If he had any suggestions or things to say [on set], then we would work on it. So it wasn’t a nervous thing, it was more of a blessing that I had Bobby Brown still here today living to be there with me.

Did he give you any pointers? Like, “No you’re doing that dance move wrong!”

Oh yeah, oh yeah! [Laughs] Listen, if Bobby could’ve jumped on the stage and they recorded him doing his thing, he would’ve definitely done it! But that’s why I like him. He’s such a funny guy and I’m goofy as well, so that’s where we really clicked. He would say, “You can give me some more! I need more hits!” He doesn’t make me get too comfortable and makes me go harder.

Is there anything that viewers will be surprised to learn about Bobby? Because what we know about him comes from the tabloids.

Oh there’s a lot of juicy things in the movie, and I can’t even talk about it! When I was reading [the script], I was like, “What?!” Bobby would look at me and be like, “Yep!” I asked him, “Are you sure you want to put this in the movie? You don’t want to take this out?” He’d say, “No, this is my truth.” And I respect that about him.

This will be your second time playing Bobby Brown and many people know you from this role. How do you plan to combat typecasting?

I’m a creator, first off. So I feel like I can’t be typecasted because I can create my own projects. I’m too talented and this is just a stepping stone. That’s like saying if Robert Downey Jr. will be typecasted because he plays Iron Man. No, he just goes on to do other films.

So we have The New Edition Story and The Bobby Brown Story. I’d personally like to see The Jodeci Story.

Ooh yeah, I’d love to see that too. DMX would be a good one too.

You’ll be reuniting with Bryshere Gray in your new movie Canal Street. Do you guys have scenes together?

Yeah, we play best friends and that was super cool. The movie is really about what’s going on today. [Director] Rhyan LaMarr and [screenwriter] Adam Key worked on the script back in 2005. And what’s crazy is that it’s about what we’re going through now: [Black] stereotypes, police brutality and just being accused of the wrong things. That’s what the film is about.

In this current political climate, we as black people are often being put down. But the roles you play help to bring positivity to our community.

Man, we really need it. At first, I never really looked at it that way because I love acting. I’d just play whatever role I’m interested in. But I got a chance to speak with Michael B. Jordan and he was like, “Yo, it’s bigger than that.” We want to educate our people, so we want to pick projects that’s going to put us in a good light and to show different sides of how we live. Michael’s production company Outlier Society Productions has so many great projects [in the works] and I’ve been in talks with them. I’m really, really wanting to work with them.