The millions of viewers who previously watched the world premiere of VH1’s TV movie The Breaks are in for a treat this February. Not only did the hip-hop drama reel in 2.6 million total viewers, according to Nielsen ratings, but the film was turned into a small screen series.
While The Breaks film concluded with a cliff-hanger, the storylines will remain in tact as standout characters return in the syndicated version. Author Dan Charnas, who penned the extensive book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop that inspired The Breaks, applauded the actors for studying up before heading to set. “First day on set, when we shot the pilot, I said that I was going to gift the actors with copies of the book,” he said. “They already had the books! They bought them themselves. They did the work. They do the work every single day when they dive into their characters.”
During a visit to the set last fall, Billboard caught up with stars Afton Williamson, Mack Wilds, Wood Harris and cast newcomer Teyana Taylor among others to break down their roles for the inaugural season of The Breaks. Meet the major players below.
Nikki (Afton Williamson)
Afton Williamson gave a stellar performance in the original movie as Nikki, the eager and aspiring record executive. For season one, she kicks her career into overdrive, working under Barry Foray as an assistant in his management company.
“Nikki now has a job. She earned her way into Foray Management, and we now see her figuring that out as Barry’s new assistant. So, it picks right back up there,” explains Williamson. “I love the relationship between Nikki and Barry. I love that she is learning so much now. I love that she is taking so much of his finesse and figuring out how to put that into her unreasonableness.”
Williamson adds that more women will be joining the mix, including singer/actress Teyana Taylor. “One of the coolest aspects is that we do have a lot of new women. I’ve always been the only woman. It’s nice to shoot these best friend scenes, and [embrace the joining] of women, which I think was big in the ’90s. It was all about women power.”
Imani X (Teyana Taylor)
Teyana Taylor admirers will be excited to see the R&B songstress dive back into her acting career on The Breaks, where she plays a tomboy rapper named Imani X. Describing Imani as “a pretty cool character,” Taylor adds, “I love that I get to play someone completely different.”
She also grabbed inspiration for the role from a beloved era. “I’m obsessed with the ’90s so I’ve taken a lot from the culture for my character. I loved the way [people] dressed. The way they rhymed was the best. The way the videos were made was the best. Nothing can replace the ’90s. [Playing this role] is my chance to be an older teenager in that era.”
Despite being one of the few women in the male-dominated music culture on the show, she notes there is a positive message for viewers to take away. “I feel like my role in the show will help fans believe in themselves. I’m always learning her as they go. She’s super talented. She doesn’t feel like she has to be half-naked to show off her talent. She’s a super tomboy, and has a hell of a pen.”
DeeVee (Mack Wilds)
Mack Wilds, who plays the risk-taking producer DeeVee, returns to the series as well with the same driven demeanor. From fighting through his father’s disapproval of his hip-hop career, to keeping Ahm out of prison and away from trouble lingering from his street past, he has a lot of baggage to address in the series debut. “DeeVee is still that same hungry, jump-off-of-a-bridge-before-looking guy as he was in the pilot,” shares Wilds before joking, “Now you get to see if he actually lands in water or in the fiery depths of hell.”
Without dishing any spoilers, Wilds adds that the plot picks up where the drama left off. “I think the biggest question is what happens now that Ahm has used DeeVee as an alibi. You’ll get to see as the story progresses throughout the season and how they build their relationship,” he teases.
Ahm (Antoine Harris)
In the pilot, viewers were introduced to the hardcore spitter Ahm, who brought the heat to each microphone he touched despite some of his intense struggles between performances. Fans will recall seeing him face some of the uglier sides of his street hustler past in the movie, such as the death of friends and the killing of some enemies. While he holds some of that harsh weight as an MC, his relationship with DeeVee could help make or break his ability to prevail.
Harris describes his character as being in a state of evolution. “Ahm is in a transitional space mentally, but his physicality is still very much in the streets,” he says. “He has a few situations going on so he’s trying to balance that fine line between where he can be and where he is.”
Barry Fouray (Wood Harris)
Barry Fouray Management is back in business as Wood Harris, who plays the unfiltered mogul, sets the tone for the storyline. “The season starts off with [Barry] growing his company to be a label, and not just a management company,” Harris says. “With that comes a lot of different problems. He starts out there, but is dealing with his own personal demons at the same time.”
Despite the show being embedded in ’90s hip hop, Harris says his inspiration for Fouray stemmed from another era. “For this role, I’ve been watching different actors from the ’80s and ’90s. One of my favorite actors is Carroll O’Connor from All In The Family, believe it or not. It may not seem like it but I’m really checking for him and looking at how he works. He may not have anything to do with Barry Fouray, but I’m seeing how he brings his science to it and his magical television ability. That’s where some of the facial expressions come from when I’m engaging with my character. Fouray himself is representing every mogul, whether it’s a Russell Simmons or Jay Z.”
Lil Ray (Sinqua Walls)
You may recognize Sinqua Walls from his stint on the Starz hit series, Power. Now, he joins The Breaks lineup as another fresh face, with the street nickname, Lil Ray. “To start off the season, Lil Ray is growing. He comes in and is learning how the business is set up. He’s very close to Nikki. He’s very close to Barry Fouray, and he’s actually reluctant to work with Fouray in the beginning,” Walls explains. “But through much persuasion, Barry convinces him it’s a good look, and he realizes for his future that it is a good look. He’s learning how to grow into a new space.”
Josie Cho (Ali Ahn)
Ali Ahn is another new name added to the cast lineup, and she has hopes to bring light to the Asian-American community in the world of hip hop culture as she portrays the Art Director. “I think it’s really great to be a part of a story where they’re actually exploring the racial dynamics of the time, such as the tensions between blacks and Asians. My character is actually someone who is invested in music, loves music, and is pursuing her art. There’s a multi-dynamic to the character that, as a woman of color, I don’t always get access to. That’s been amazing,” she mentions of her character’s background. As far as what attracted her to sign on to her role, Ahn says, “I think it’s cool to have an Asian character who is not passive, and is really involved in something that is counter-cultural and is revolutionary.”
Damita Alonzo (Melonie Diaz)
Melonie Diaz, who previously starred in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival favorite Fruitvale Station, arrives as the cast’s resident music journalist. “She’s a new character that is old friends with Nikki, so they’re rekindling their friendship. She’s also a journalist who works for the Village Voice,” Diaz describes. Playing a journalist attracted her to the script. “That was definitely an interesting thing for me in wanting to join the cast,” she adds. “I don’t know of many female journalists during the specific era of the ’90s, trying to report about hip-hop and what’s happening in that world. She’s a young mother who is working full-time, and she’s pretty cool.”
Mattie Taylor (Gloria Reuben)
Another boss lady to hit The Breaks is Gloria Reuben, who signed on to play record label owner, Malthuas “Mattie” Taylor. Offering her character’s back story, Reuben revealed, “Mattie Taylor has just been assigned to take over the rap world of her record label, EBJ. She comes from the R&B world, which is more of her forte, as she really loves that style of music.” Even though she is a veteran of the business, Reuben says that her character may have to adjust to the task at hand. “It’s kind of a tricky transition for her because she’s not really a fan of rap and hip-hop. Yet, what she wants to bring to the table is something progressive, and something that does happen. In a way she’s kind of ahead of her time, but also struggling to transition into the times.”
The Breaks premieres Monday, Feb. 20 at 9/8c on VH1.