Since April, André 3000 has been on the road, traveling from festival to festival with his old partner Big Boi to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their debut album as Outkast. And on Sept. 26, he’ll star, under his original name, André Benjamin, as Jimi Hendrix in Jimi: All Is by My Side, a biopic about the year just before Hendrix’s breakthrough, when he moved to London, underwent a style transformation and squared off against Eric Clapton.
In an interview with The New York Times, Benjamin, 39, is open-eared, contemplative and unselfconscious. And he’s a careful student of Hendrix, nailing his sing-songy accent (likening it to Snagglepuss) and even losing 20 pounds off his already slim frame for the part.
You’ve been attached to various Hendrix projects over the years. What did you hope to convey about him through this one?
I thought, “What would Hendrix want people to know that’s not on YouTube?” He’s a god, he’s an idol. But he did that onstage. He was totally the opposite in real life.
Given that playing Hendrix had been discussed for so long, were you reluctant?
I may have said it to [director] John Ridley: “Man, I’m old. I have gray hair. Get some young unknown kid to play Hendrix.” I turned it down. They kept at it. I actually asked my son. He said, “Yeah, man.” Honestly, I needed it in my life, too. Hendrix kind of saved me. I was in a not-so-great space, just in a dark place every day. I needed something to focus on to get me out of my depression and rut. Sometimes, when you’re alone, you can let yourself go. I knew if I got on a train with a lot of different people, then I couldn’t let them down.
What spoke to you about this particular Hendrix treatment?
Really, this movie is about what made him. You study any great artist, there’s always women that help support that or turn them on to new things.
The film shows how open he was to letting women in.
It’s funny, the parallels. People like to joke about [ex] Erykah Badu, the mother of my child: “Oh, you completely changed.” I was on my path before I even met Erykah. But one thing I can say. I’m singing around the house, and Erykah’s like: “That sounds great. Why you not doing it?”
Why the tour now, in addition to everything?
Honestly, I never planned to go onstage again in that way. If I feel like I’m getting to a place where it’s mimicking or a caricature, I just want to move on. But I felt like: Let me do it now ’cause these kids [in the audience], it feels good to know that they’re happy. I really don’t actually get anything from performing.
Not even over the course of the whole tour?
I feel good in being able to look at Big Boi and say, “Hey, man, we did it.” Big Boi’s got these great records on his own, but this means something else for him.
When you started the tour, was it difficult to be onstage after so long?
Yeah, I think people could see it at Coachella, the very first show. It was foreign. My head wasn’t there. I kind of fluffed through rehearsals. A few hours before the Coachella show, I get a message that Prince and Paul McCartney are going to be there. My spirit is not right, and idols are standing side-stage, so as the show started, I’m bummed. This is horrible. In my mind I was already gone to my hotel room halfway through. So Prince called a couple days after. It was my first time actually talking to Prince. He said: “When you come back, people want to be wowed. And what’s the best way to wow people? Just give them the hits.”