Vamp to vampire

In a chat with Aaliyah, Matt Lee learns that the singer-actress sinks her teeth into her work

In an interview last August with British men’s magazine FHM, singer and actress Aaliyah told the interviewer a story about nervously waiting backstage with Michael Bolton before performing at the 1998 Oscars.

Cueing her for a cheap shot, the interviewer asked if she had “made fun of [Bolton’s] laughable poodle haircut?”

“No, that was long gone,” Aaliyah said. “It was cut short and he looked adorable.”

It was a small gesture, this display of tact. It would have been just as easy for her to take a dig at Bolton. But cheap shots don’t seem to be the 22-year-old Detroiter’s style. Hip? Yes. “Edgy?” Absolutely. (It’s how she describes her new album.) But, more than anything, professional.

Born in Brooklyn, brought up in Detroit, Aaliyah has sold more than 3 million albums between 1994’s Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number and One in a Million, released in 1996. Making her film debut opposite Chinese kung fu star Jet Li in last year’s Romeo Must Die, she since has recorded a third album after a four-year break, hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts with the single “Try Again” from Romeo Must Die, and landed the title role of Queen Akasha in The Queen of the Damned, the sequel to 1994’s Interview With the Vampire. As if that weren’t enough, she recently signed to play a character named Zee in two sequels with Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.

Hour Detroit talked with Aaliyah by phone just as she finished filming The Queen of the Damned in Australia.

Romeo Must Die was your first film. What was it like working with Jet Li and acting for the first time?

Working with Jet was great. Romeo Must Die took several months to shoot, and I was very nervous going into my first film. But I took time off to prepare for it; I took a break from singing and took time off to train myself. I had my acting coach with me on the set. It was a fun film to do, especially the fight scenes.

I’m a shy person, so I still get nervous before everything I do, every performance. I knew that people would be looking at me to see if I could do it. But once I arrived on set, everybody was so nice to me. They just welcomed me with open arms. It was Andrzej Bartkowiak’s first time directing, so we were on the same page with the whole “first time” thing. It really turned into a fun project.

What about the new film, The Queen of the Damned? What intrigued you about the role of Akasha?

What I liked about the script for Queen of the Damned was that it was totally different from Romeo Must Die, and I wanted to show my versatility as an actress. And I have always been a lover of vampires since I was a little girl — a lover of vampires. As soon as I got the script I said, “This character is me, from head to toe; I know I can do this.” She’s Egyptian, and I love Egypt. I just got a new apartment in New York, in fact, and I decorated it with Egyptian artifacts. She was a vampire, she was Egyptian — it was perfect.

How would you describe her as a character?

She’s the queen. She’s the original vampire, and she made all the other vampires. She’s very evil. She has an insatiable thirst for blood. And she loves her kind: she loves vampires and she thinks that there’s no reason to hide; that we should just be the killers that we are. She’s very forward and evil.

Can you relate to her attitude?

Well, I can relate to her loving who she is. I think that there are some messages that audiences will be able to pull from Queen of the Damned; that it’s not just a vampire film. There are some things people can get out of it that are positive: love who you are, love what you do. That’s what Akasha does. She wants all vampires to accept who they are and not hide. She’s a bit of a witch, but in that, she’s got a pretty good message. (Laughs.)

It must be fun to play a character like that sometimes.

It is. That’s what’s cool about acting; you get to do things that you wouldn’t normally do in your regular life. You get to explore sides of yourself that you curb or keep hidden. It’s very fun.

Had you read the Interview with the Vampire books before you got the script?

I read The Vampire Lestat. Actually, even though this film is title Queen of the Damned, which is one book, they fused the two books together. The movie tells the story of Lestat, and then it tells you the story of the queen. I had just bought Queen when I got the part, so I hadn’t even finished reading it.

You recorded the new album at the same time you were filming Queen. You must have been going crazy, doing them both at the same time.

It actually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. My producers flew out here, which was wonderful, and they were very understanding. The days that I was tired and beat, they’d say, “Don’t worry about it, just come in tomorrow.” When I was working on the film in the day I’d go into the studio at night, and when we did night shoots I’d go into the studio in the day. I’d just do a couple of hours here and there and it really worked out pretty well.

Why did you choose to wait for years to record again after One in a Million?

It was a conscious decision to take a break. I felt it was something that I wanted to do to get myself ready for the next project. The break turned out to be a little bit longer than I anticipated, since Romeo came out. But I made sure in the interim that I did things to keep myself visible by doing soundtracks.

Two of the host soundtrack songs were big hits. Is there a part of you that wishes you had saved them to put on an album?

No, I’m glad they were big hits. I was very shocked with “Are You That Somebody,” that it was the big hit that it was and, of course, very happy about it. But no, I never do that to myself. I never say, “Oh, I wish I would have saved it for the album.” Because it was right for that particular time, and at that point I wasn’t thinking about releasing an album any time soon.

You come from a family of entertainers. How did that influence your career?

Well, I’m signed to my uncle Barry Hankerson’s label. He owns Blackground records. Heather (her media contact) is my cousin’s fiancée, so it’s a family affair. My uncle was married to Gladys Knight and I performed with her. Show business is something I’ve been privy to since I was a little girl.

Speaking of childhood, what was it like growing up in Detroit and attending the Detroit High School for the Fine and Performing Arts?

It was wonderful. I grew up on the northwest side. I went to Catholic schools and then to DSA, which is like going to Fame – we’d dance in the halls, sing in the hallways. They were extremely supportive of me; they made it very easy for me to travel and work and still be a part of school activities. I went to prom; I got to be a part of school performances. It was great.

See, I basically started all of this when I was 6 with singing and dancing. When I went to DSA, I majored in dance because I had already started recording Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number and I was taking vocal lessons outside of school anyway. At first, I went in as a vocal major, but then I switched to dance, because I figured I should go ahead and brush up on my dance training.

You must have studied hard – Janet Jackson recently complimented you on your dancing.

(Laughs.) Being formally trained always helps. I continue to train to this day and that’s something I will always do.

Is that how you see performing, as a craft?

Oh, yeah. This is my job. I love it and it’s wonderful to wake up and do what you love every day, and it is fun, and it is glamorous, but it is, at the same time, my job. It’s my work. I go to my acting coach, I go to my dance classes, I go to my vocal lessons. It is a 24-hour thing.

There was a lot of maturity from your first album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, to One in a Million. Where do you see the third album going?

Well, thank you for saying that. I’m glad that you felt that. I definitely feel that maturity will be even more obvious with the new album. It’s very edgy. There are a lot of good, upbeat songs and a few ballads. It’s a very emotional record. I think people will get really into it.

You have three tattoos, right?

I do.

One of them is in memory of your grandmother. What was so special about that relationship?

I was very close with my grandmother. She lived with my brother and me since we were babies. She got ill; she passed away with Alzheimer’s and breast cancer, which are two causes that I’m very into now because of her. She was a part of my life since I was a baby and we were very, very close. When she passed away, since she had such a devastating illness that … you know, someone that you were with since you were a kid doesn’t recognize you — that’s very painful. So we went through a lot. She’s just such a part of me, I wanted to get a tattoo in memory of her. And I wear a ring that she gave me on my wedding finger. Never take it off. Everything I do I keep her in mind.

You’ve mentioned going to college in the past. Is that something you still think about, or are you too far immersed in what you’re doing now to consider school?

No, it’s still something I want to do. I come from an educated family. I’m going to get my degree.

You’ve said on several occasions that you’ve never had a boyfriend. You have got to be kidding.

(Laughs.) No, I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m sure it’s coming but, you know, I’m going to let it happen. I’m not really searching for it.