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Ne-Yo talks about his role as Andrew “Smoky” Salem in “Red Tails,” the World War II saga recounting the daring exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Kam Williams
Ne-Yo talks about his role as Andrew “Smoky” Salem in “Red Tails,” the World War II saga recounting the daring exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen.
(Photo: courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Ne-Yo talks about his role as Andrew “Smoky” Salem in “Red Tails,” the World War II saga recounting the daring exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Shaffer Chimere Smith, also known as Ne-Yo, was born in Camden, Ark., but raised in Las Vegas, Nev., by his mom, a musician of Chinese and African American descent. He began making a name for himself as a singer/songwriter in 1999, going on to compose hits for Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Christina Milian, B2K, Mario and others, and also record four solo albums.

In 2006, he added acting to his repertoire, making his screen debut in “Save the Last Dance,” later appearing in “Stomp the Yard” and, more recently, in “Battle: Los Angeles.”

What interested you in “Red Tails”?

For starters, I wanted to do an acting role in a movie that had nothing to do with the music business or in which I would play a singer or a songwriter. When I act, I don’t even want to be thought of as Ne-Yo. I want to be Shaffer Smith, which is my government name.

So, my initial attraction to “Red Tails” was the opportunity to play a character that was not me. “Stomp the Yard” was a great film, but I played myself there. When “Red Tails” came along, all I knew was that they were the first African American fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force.

I had no idea how deep the story went or about all their amazing achievements. There were a few Tuskegee Airmen on the set to make sure everything was as authentic as possible. And just to sit back and listen to these cats talk about the discrimination they faced while fighting for their country really got to me.

So, I was really happy to be a part of this film, and excited that their story is being told in the way it’s being told. It’s more than just entertainment. It’s educational at the same time. [Producer] George Lucas and [director] Anthony Hemingway knew what they were doing.

How do you expect “Red Tails” to contribute to the public’s rethinking about the historic role of the Tuskegee Airmen?

By focusing on their triumphs as much on the tragedy. I like how Anthony decided not to hit the audience over the head about the racism. We all know that racism was rampant in the U.S. in 1942.

So, instead of simply highlighting the segregation and discrimination these aviators had to endure, he accentuated their positive experiences, like the fact that they wound up doing their job better than anyone had before them.   

What message do you think people will take away from the film?

For me, that any and everything is possible, if your heart is in it and your mind is in the right place. If you believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter what others might be telling you is impossible. It’s all up to you!

Did meeting the real-life Tuskegee Airmen affect how you approached your character, Smoky?

Absolutely! They were there for authenticity, to help us get closer to our characters. Even though Smoky is fictional, I based him on one of the guys I spent time with. Having an opportunity to sit and listen to his stories and to hear how things really went down definitely helped.

 When will your next album, “The Cracks in Mr. Perfect,” be released?

I’m thinking April or May. I’m still putting the finishing bells and whistles on it. I don’t want to call myself a perfectionist because perfection is imperfection. But, at the same time, I can’t give it away to the world until it’s all the way right.  

What should fans expect from the album?

Everything that you’ve come to expect from me, plus a little bit more. This is slightly Ne-Yo unpolished. This is me with the tie loosened up a little bit and with the hat cocked to the side.  

Why did you go over to Japan right after the earthquake and tsunami?  

We were scheduled to go over there anyway. So, we didn’t back out like a lot of other artists, because we figured they needed us more than ever.  

Are you happy?

I’m actually a lot happier now than I’ve ever been. I have to credit that to my two beautiful children. My daughter’s one and my son’s three months old. They have definitely put life in perspective for me, by showing me just how unimportant a lot of things are I’d thought were important. Now my priorities are in order.

When was the last time you had a good laugh?

Three days ago, when my son smiled for the first time. I fell over laughing.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Cartoons. I watch cartoons the way most adults watch reality-TV shows.  

What was the last book you read?

“The 48 Laws of Power.”

What excites you?

The creative process, a great necktie knot and music.

Who is your favorite clothes designer?

Tom Ford and Paul Smith are amazing. So are Gucci suits. I can wear them right off the rack.

What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?

My worst and best are kind of the same: spending way too much money on something stupid. But it taught me the value of a dollar.

If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?

That people appreciated music in the way they once did.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

Busting up my chin on an electric car I got for Christmas by driving it off a bike ramp. I never got on it again.

How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?

It definitely taught me the true meaning of pain. There is no pain like the first time you get your heart broken.

What key quality do you believe all successful people share?

Above everything and anything, a good work ethic. The ability to keep going. When everybody else is partying, you’re in the office.   

What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

The same answer as the last question. If you want to be successful, you have to be the best person doing it. And in order to be the best person doing it, you have to get your work ethic right and keep going.  

How do you want to be remembered?

As a great singer/songwriter, but above all, as a great man.

Are you still in touch with any folks back in your birthplace back in Arkansas?

Yes, I am. You know what? It’s especially beautiful to be able to go back, visit family, hang out and help them out with bills and other stuff.