Chanté Adams is living a dream—one she envisioned not too long ago as a 2016 graduate of the School of Drama at the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Less than two years later, the young actress is enjoying the premiere of her first film, starring as female rap prodigy and pioneer Roxanne Shanté in the biopic Roxanne, Roxanne, which premiered today on Netflix.
Born and raised in Detroit, Adams had just moved to New York when she was personally requested by casting agent Jessica Daniels—who’d seen Adams perform in her graduation showcase—to audition for the role of Roxanne Shanté.
“It was my first movie audition,” she told The Glow Up. “And I really just wanted to do a good job and make a really good impression on Jessica so that she might consider me for other things. Before I knew it, I was on set a couple of weeks later.”
Joining her on set? Black Hollywood royalty Nia Long and Mahershala Ali in the roles of Shanté’s world-weary mother and dominating lover, respectively. When asked how it felt to hold her own against veteran actress Long and the Oscar-winning Ali, Adams admitted to initially being a bit starstruck:
Of course it was nerve-racking at first, when you find out you’re going to be working with these great people—especially someone like Nia Long, who I grew up watching. She was so influential to me as a black woman, as an artist, as an activist, everything, all over. And so I was very nervous when I found out that I’d be working with her.
But it was so great. I really couldn’t have asked for a better cast; both of them were so patient with me and understood that this was my first project, and really just took me under their wing. They really did. ... I feel like I couldn’t have given the performance that I [gave] if I didn’t have those two people as my co-stars, really guiding me and leading me through the entire process.
That performance, combining the insecurity and angst of teenage girlhood with the sass and swagger of the Queens, N.Y.-bred Shanté, won Adams the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It was an honor Adams, less than a year out of college, never expected—which is why she’d left the festival the day before the awards ceremony.
I never thought that would be something I could get; I didn’t even know they gave awards to actors. I was completely shocked and just over the moon; I could not believe that I got awarded for my first movie role ever. It was just out of this world, and really just the best feeling ever to be recognized for something that I worked so hard on.
But ultimately, Adams’ hard work was in tribute to Roxanne Shanté, who was not only an on-set consultant but also an executive producer on the film, along with Pharrell Williams, Forest Whitaker and veteran DJ Ralph McDaniels, among others. To have Shanté herself on the set was a gift, as Adams told The Glow Up:
It was amazing having her there, and being able to just go right to the source if I had any questions or I needed advice. ... And as I dropped into the character more, as we continued filming, then I felt like I almost knew Shanté more than I knew myself, and it was easier to just kind of make those decisions.
Adams donned both prosthetic braces and bamboo earrings to play the hip-hop legend from age 13 to approximately 20, chronicling her rise to fame and subsequent challenges as a young woman from the Queensbridge Houses, coming of age in the early 1980s. Born a full decade after that era, the 23-year-old Adams credits two hip-hop-obsessed older siblings for an early musical education, as well as some unexpected contemporary influences for helping her perfect Shanté’s effortless flow:
I would always try to—when I would listen to different songs—I’d match their voice or match their tone or their cadence. Nicki Minaj and Drake, I always [think of] those two, because they’d always do accents and stuff in their raps. So I would always try to match their voices. ... It came in handy when I had the Roxanne audition, but I wouldn’t refer to myself as a rapper.
A consummate if up-and-coming actress, Adams more than pulls it off. Her portrayal of Shanté is both raw and nuanced, intimate and entertaining. It’s also winning her growing acclaim; since Sundance, the actress has been profiled widely, from Nylon magazine to a recent appearance on Good Morning America with producer Pharrell. And later this year, she’ll appear in her second film, Monsters and Men, opposite fellow up-and-comer Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Mudbound). But despite the industry buzz, Adams is taking it all in stride:
The buzz is great, and people are saying that they like it, and that just makes me happy. But above all—whether there was no buzz on the film or whether people watched it and didn’t like it—my main goal was to make sure that Shanté was satisfied with it, and that she felt like I did her justice.