Keke Palmer: In TLC film, she's no scrub

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Keke Palmer (center) stars as Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas in “Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story,” debuting on VH1 Monday night.

Robbins’ own Keke Palmer, who captured national attention — and rave reviews — for her breakout performance as the title character in “Akeelah and the Bee” in 2006, has carved out an ongoing, successful career in Hollywood. Now the 20-year-old actress and singer continues her transition to adult roles by portraying Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas in the VH1 movie “Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story” — a film about the iconic girl R&B/hip-hop group that became a phenomenon in the music world in the 1990s. The title comes from the group’s second album that went multi-platinum, ultimately selling 23 million albums worldwide.

Tragically, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (portrayed by Lil’ Mama in the film) was killed in a car crash in Honduras in 2002. Actress Drew Sidora (“Step Up,” “Wild Hogs,” “The Game”) plays Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins in the movie. Speaking of Sidora, the Floosmoor native will host a viewing party for the TLC film with Chicago fans to benefit her charity, Dream Makers, beginning at 5 p.m. Monday at Municipal Bar, 216 W. Ohio. The film airs at 8 p.m. on VH1.

Keke Palmer chatted with me from her Los Angeles home about the film, getting to know the real Chilli and how she is combining her love of acting and singing in her career today.

Q: How did you get involved in this project?

A: I knew TLC for their later albums, but when I heard there was going to be film about them I thought, ‘I got to be a part of this — doing both of my favorite things at once: singing and acting.’ Unfortunately, at first they wanted to cast all unknowns, and I was so disappointed. I thought ‘That sucks!’

But then they came back to me with the role of Chilli, so it all worked out in the end.

Q: What do you think is the lasting legacy of TLC?

A: The most important thing was how they used their music to inspire a generation — especially young girls. What they did was take their personal experiences — their own lives — and then turned them into these beautiful songs. They really inspired and motivated a generation. It’s pretty amazing. What I love about the movie is how it shows how these three girls put their lives on the line, and didn’t hesitate to expose very personal stories, in order to get their points across through the music and how lessons could be learned.

Q: I know Chilli Thomas was a consultant on the film. Can I assume you got to know her well?

A: Yes, we ended up spending a lot of time together. It wasn’t even intentional, but we became really cool — and became good friends.

Q: Was it kind of weird to not only play someone real, but get to know her so well?

A: That is so true. It was surreal, but a great experience, because I’m also a fan — both of Chilli and the group. We had a few sleepovers and I would say, ‘This is my dream come true — to be here spending time with you.’ But it never wigged her out. She was so kind about it all and so nurturing toward me.

Q: What were some of the most important things she told you about the relationship between the three girls?

A: I think main thing was about their love for music and how it brought them together. How they came from separate places, but their love for their music, their passion and the message they wanted to get out – was the most important thing. Also, they connected in such a way that Chilli told me — frankly they could not explain. It just happened. They clicked.

Q; What else is coming up for you?

A: I also have my single, “Work Like You Love Me,” coming out the same day as this film, Oct. 21. It is the first single from my new album. This song is about who I am growing into. About when you’re with a guy and you’re not sure of his love. But it’s not so much about the guy, but about the girl. About being young and inexperienced and seeing things for the very first time — and being cautious.

Q: When you come back to Harvey and Chicago, what do you like to do?

A: I love to eat Harold’s Chicken. I love to hang out at my grandma’s house and with my cousins. I love hanging out downtown — and how easy it is to get around Chicago. Here in California, there’s not a lot of places where you can go without driving. But in Chicago, you just jump on the CTA — get on the subway — and go! I love that about Chicago. A lot to do, and how easy it is to get places.

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