Elise Neal: Trailblazer

Angela Basset. Halle Berry. Elise Neal? Neal’s name may not be familiar to mainstream audiences yet, but after a credible performance as Yvette in the award-winning film Hustle & Flow, Neal’s road to greatness is building before our very eyes.

After traveling around the world in musical theater, Neal’s talents in performing on stage led her to commercials, which led to feature films including Scream 2. Her acting career has continued to climb to the point that Neal is now producing her own projects and her musical career. Her group, Assorted Flavors, recently recorded a song with 50 Cent.

We spoke to Elise Neal shortly after she received her African-American Women in Cinema Trailblazer Award. She was excited, and you can bet we were too!

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: Congratulations on your award!

Elise Neal: Thank you! I had a great time at the event. The award was from the African-American Women in Cinema and it was the Trailblazer Award. Nia Long and I were the winners this year. It was an honor.

AHHA: Which African-American women inspire you and why?

Elise: I am so inspired by the work of Oprah Winfrey. It’s always amazing to see women who comes from absolutely nothing to create something and then go beyond that. Women like her have goals, dreams, and great success, but then continue to take it to the next level. Those are the type of women who are truly an inspiration to me.

AHHA: When did you know you wanted to get into acting?

Elise: I was always a performer; from the time I was six-years-old. I just didn’t know that me wanting to be on Broadway would give me an acting career. It was a blessing. I started out doing musical theater, and that’s how I lost most of my accent. I was touring all over the world. I was doing commercials for a little bit, and I didn’t know anything about what do in front of the camera. So I took a commercial workshop just to be better at that. I fell in love with the process of acting. It was a new challenge. I wasn’t good at first. But it was a new step and the parts started to come and things happened from there.

AHHA: How did you get the part in Hustle & Flow?

Elise: That was a blessing. I had worked with John Singleton before in Rosewood. He actually gave me my big feature film debut. I’ve known John ever since, and that was basically a phone call. After being a lead in one of his movies, I’m sure he knew I could handle the role.

AHHA: What are you working on now?

Elise: Well right now, as we speak, I’m finishing off a project called For Life. It’s a film with Wood Harris - this is our third time working together. We were laughing, because once I was his aunt in Paid In Full, and then we were rivals in Ransom Games, and now we’re boyfriend and girlfriend. Basically, I’m this sexy girlfriend trying to get her life right. It’s definitely a departure for me because I’m playing a sexy character. Let’s leave it that! [laughs]

AHHA: Tell us about Wyclef Jean in America.

Elise: It’s a pilot I did for HBO. Hopefully at some point they will pick it up. It was a great experience and I loved working with him.

AHHA: You play his wife, right?

Elise: Yes. There are a lot of Haitian references and a lot of flashbacks to him as a child in Haiti, and they wanted me to play his wife Josephine. Literally, 24 hours before shooting they were like, “Do you know what would be great Elise? If you had an accent!” I was like “Are you kidding me?” I had no notice! But I’m always up for a challenge. So Wyclef set it up and I went to his house, met his wife, and spent the whole afternoon there with him, his kids and his wife. She was so uncomfortable, because I kept staring at her! But I think it definitely helped me with the role.

AHHA: Tell us about your music. How did Assorted Flavors come about?

Elise: In fact, in this movie For Life they have one of my solo songs on the soundtrack. Assorted Flavors is a group that I started about two and half years ago. I missed performing and being on stage, and I wanted to have an outlet to perform. We were dancing and doing covers of other people’s songs. People asked us to perform at events and different venues, and we just started performing our own original music. It has been really successful. We had a great summer. Now I’m just trying to fine-tune some other things around it but I’m very excited.

AHHA: How did the collaboration with 50 Cent come about?

Elise: Yeah, he’s on one of our songs. It’s a blessing. Kwame wrote a track, and G-Unit and 50’s record company has always worked with Kwame in the past. So I think that sparked his interest. It’s nice just to have someone hear what your doing and to get excited about [your] music. And he does. [50 Cent] gets excited about new artists and new music, and that’s what makes him great. He heard the song and was nice enough to get on it.

AHHA: Have you had a chance to meet him?

Elise: Yes, I’ve got to meet him and I’m very happy. I’m happy that he supported my endeavor like that.

AHHA: What should people expect from Assorted Flavors?

Elise: Music has always been in my life. I love Hip-Hop. I’ve done music videos. Music has surrounded my life for so many years. I wanted to make a group that was exciting, that spoke to women, and which was incredibly performance-driven. I felt like there wasn’t an R&B group out there that gave you those old school group elements. I mean, like En Vogue. I felt like there was something missing. It wasn’t exciting me. My group Assorted Flavors promises to bring not just eye candy, but incredible performances with a little street flair mixed in. I think people are really, really going to appreciate it.

AHHA: Are you looking for a label deal or is it all in the works?

Elise: It’s all in the works. We are lightly shopping, but I’m trying to make sure everything - our music, our image - is correct because that’s so important.

AHHA: Have you seen Terrence Howard since Hustle & Flow? And what do you think of his success?

Elise: Well, you would have to ask him about his success, but I think it’s great what he has been able to do. I’ve seen him a couple of times, but not a lot. He’s a busy guy. I’m happy for anyone that I’ve known since I got in the game. Seeing them get the success they deserve means I’m right around the corner.

AHHA: Who is your favorite co-star?

Elise: I love working with everyone. But you know what? I really loved working with Anthony Anderson. He’s a hilarious guy but he’s also such a genuine person. He and I have maintained a friendship since the movie, and I would love to work with him again.

AHHA: What about your favorite director or producer?

Elise: I’m going to sidestep that and say I’m working on this project that I’m co-producing on. It’s called Black Betty Brown. I play an undercover cop. I’m shopping it and getting the finance together now. That’s something I’m excited about. I’m not complaining anymore, I’m creating what I want to do.