This extraordinary choreographer cum actor teaches us how to save the world one dance off at a time!
In the new coming-of-age dance-off drama How She Move, Tre Armstrong plays the tough-minded Michelle. The girl is gifted in step dancing, yet must turn to her rival and one-time friend Raya Green (Rutina Wesley) for help on and off the dance floor. The two girls resolve their differences through a dance-off, and go on to help each other with the tough world that surrounds them in their youth.
Armstrong is no stranger to the dance genre. She has starred in a number of dance related films throughout the last five years of her career. These projects include Honey, Shall We Dance?, and Save the Last Dance 2. She will next be seen in the highly anticipated Darren Lynn Bousman horror musical Repo! The Genetic Opera!, a film which also utilizes her skills as a dance choreographer. But it is in How She Move that the sexy young actress gets to show off how truly talented she is in both the dancing and acting departments.
Last week, we met up with Tre for a quick chat about the film and her career. Here is our conversation:
Tre Armstrong: Hi, Paulington! How are you?
I'm great. Let's just jump right into this, shall we? I'm wondering if you are first an actor or first a dancer by trade?
Tre Armstrong: How do you deny something that is natural to you from birth? I have always been a dancer by trade, but I've always acted while I danced.
Can you tell me a little bit about the casting process on this film?
Tre Armstrong: It was a fun process. I was contacted by Stephanie Gorin, the casting director for this film. She asked me to hold an audition myself, and choreograph the routine. So I did that. I decided to put myself on the tape. I figured, "What the Hell?" Stephanie saw the tape and said, "Great." She wanted me to come in for the role.
So they had you choreograph your own moves for the audition. Did they have you bring some of those original moves into the actual film itself?
Tre Armstrong: I didn't really bring my own moves into this film, per se. Only because we had such a wickedly amazing and talent choreographer already by the name of Hi-Hat. I had previously worked with her before on the Missy Elliot tour, as well as some other projects. I felt it disrespectful to change what she already had planned out for us. What I would do is, in the film, when they had us acting out certain movements, I would add my own personality to that. And Hi-Hat is such a wicked person. She is so easy to get along with. Once she saw what I was doing, if it fit the mood, she had no problem with it.
I noticed that this is your fourth dance movie in a row. What do you love about the genre?
Tre Armstrong: I am a dancer. Going back to your first question regarding the acting versus the dancing? And what my first love is? I come form the school that dancing is acting. When you do a certain movement; that is fine. But you have to express it in a certain way for people to understand it fully. That involves facial movements and characterization. I found that's what I wanted to bring to this movie. It was just such a beautiful experience to explore these two different worlds together. Acting and dancing.
Were there any new moves that you learned while working on this that you have been able to apply to your own personal dance routines?
Tre Armstrong: There is one scene early in the movie. The "quote-unquote" battle. It was between me and the lead character Rutina Wesley. There is a move where I am walking across the floor on my hands and my feet. People call it the crab. That's what I've been told. It has become known as the crab-walk. That was fun to do. It was hard, but it was fun. I still like to do that.
Do you think the world would be a better place if we could solve all of our problems with a dance-off?
Tre Armstrong: (Laughs) I wish we could solve the world's problems with dance, cause boy, I would be happy. I've been working at this forever. I really feel that dance is a universal language. Violence has its moments. Don't get me wrong, violence is never right. But there are different ways to be a violent person. You can be violent verbally. You can be violent physically. I prefer to be a violent dancer. I don't have to touch you for you to know that I am going to beat you up. All you have to do is feel that feeling of, "God, she is serious!" People will back off from that. I don't look to violence for any promotional means, but dance allows you to express yourself that way. That is the beauty of it.
I think the dance-off is very interesting. You see that in movies sometimes. Instead of fighting, the two characters that are at odds will have a dance-off. A lot of people think that is something you just see in these types of movies. But it actually happens. I saw it happen in Amsterdam. It was way cooler than any fight. Have you ever seen the "dance-off" take place outside the realm of the film world?
Tre Armstrong: Oh, I've seen battles. I've had to battle people myself. Personally. It happens all the time. As a dancer, there is a lot of competition. Who is the prettiest, the most talented, the man with the best body or the best moves. Just like life, there is a stepping ladder. People want to take you down. If you are at the top or getting to the top, it gets that much harder. I've had to do that in my life. I have won three times, thankfully. My mantra in life is: Given the choice to choose, I choose not to loose. That is how I protract and progress myself through this life. And I do that in everything I try.
Having been in a few of these dance films yourself, was there one stereotype that you often see in the dance genre that you guys tried to avoid here?
Tre Armstrong: For me, personally, the biggest stereotype was playing a "quote-unquote" bitchy character. They always want you to have the mean grill face on all the time. They want you to be mad, and aggressive. They want you to be Rah-rah-rah! I am a muscular woman. I come off as being a gorilla roar physically. I found it very important for Michelle to have a human woman-sensitive side. There is a part in the movie where I am having a confrontation with my mother. You would think that I would be yelling at her in a harsh way. But I am actually pleading with her. I could be on the verge of crying if it went any further. I feel that is where being too hard has to stop. Everyone has a soft side.
How do you perfect the art of choreographing a dance moves, while at the same time choreographing where your camera placement is at?
Tre Armstrong: Oh, wow. That is actually a really good question. You are good. In terms of perfecting my choreography, its just practice. The creativity just drives itself. I find that when an idea comes out, it is just perfect the way it is. If you try to adjust it too much, you mess it up. With choreography, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes. And the better it becomes. It's sort of a scaffold. It is a form of pedagogy. You are always adding layers onto it. That's how that goes. In terms of camera angles, that one is something I am still developing. That is something I leave in the hands of the cinematographers. They can help me out. When I choreograph something, I will bring that to the director. I say, "Listen, this is my choreographed masterpiece. This is where I think you should film it at certain times to get the best overall image and the best overall story."
So, the director was pretty open to your ideas?
Tre Armstrong: He was extremely open. The great thing about Ian Rashid was that he was so laid back. He was the best director that I have worked with. I didn't have any acting training before this. I did have one movie that I worked on, but it was a smaller role. Though be it, I played the bad girl still. When I went to go see Ian, I said, "Ian, I don't have any training. I thank you for taking me on this, I know I can do this role. Where the Hell do I begin?" He said, "Listen, lets just do some improv and get it going." He didn't know how much I love improv. That is what a dancer does every day. We do improv. He made my life so comfortable ever day that by the time I got on set, I didn't have to be worried about not having any acting classes. I just had to worry about being true to myself. Being true to what my heart was telling me.
Are you currently working on any other dance genre movies?
Tre Armstrong: I just actually finished choreographing a movie by Darren Lynn Bousman, the director of "Saw VI".
That was Repo! The Genetic Opera!? I didn't know you worked on that.
Tre Armstrong: Yeah, I was actually the head choreographer. I also played an actor on that film as well.
Wow! What can you tell me about the experience on that set?
Tre Armstrong: Geez. This film is a combination of The Rocky Horror Picture Show meets Saw meets Sweeney Todd. It is a horror rock opera. It takes place in the year 2057. A blood disease hits the world, and there are a lot of organ transplants that have to be done for human sake. It is expensive to do that, so you have payment plans. Like a normal car payment plan. If you default on your payment, what is going to happen? They are going to come get your car. Same thing with the organs. If you default on your payments, "Knock, knock, knock! Hi! We need our heart back! Can you pay the payment?" "No, I can't." "Well, then, we'll just take that heart back. Thank you." That is the hub of the movie. And there is so much taking place around that. That is just the basic synopsis.
which character are you playing in that film?
Tre Armstrong: I play two characters. I play a sexy gentern. A gentern is a nurse. We basically do the surgery alongside the doctors. We are looking sexy in our high skirts and our high heels and panties. Of course. I also play an Opera Gentern. The whole essence of the movie is one company monopolizes this organ transplant business. They always hold a yearly opera. The whole deal is, "Hey, are you going to go to the opera?" "Yeah, we are going to get free hearts! Free livers for everybody." I play one of the nurses at the opera. I dance very seductively, enticing people in. "Yes. Please, buy my organ. Buy it now! Surgeries are done free of charge right over there. Bye-bye." It is very, very out there. It is so awesome.
That sort of answers my next question. If you are planning to move away from the realm of the dance genre?
Tre Armstrong: Yes. I am one of those people that believe when you are talented in the world of art, you are really talented at more than one thing. You might not know it. I have been learning that. Yes, I choreograph, but I am also developing myself as an actress. I grew up as a tomboy. I grew up playing basketball, volleyball, and running track all of the time. I am so interested in playing a sports character. I can do that. I'd also love to play a superhero. I am so perspiring water to play a super hero. I should say dieing to. But I'd rather not. I don't want to put that out there. I'd rather say I am perspiring.
I like that.
Tre Armstrong: Our words are very powerful. That is where I am at. I only say what I believe.
Do you have a particular superhero that you remember as a kid that you'd want to play?
Tre Armstrong: Boy, I really like Thundercats. Do you remember that cartoon?
Yeah, you know they are making a movie of that right now.
Tre Armstrong: Get out! Oh, my God! My friend and me were just doing the Thundercats roar before you called.
On this film, were there ever days where you didn't want to get up and dance? What do you have to do to motivate yourself when you just aren't feeling it?
Tre Armstrong: There were definitely a few days where, while rehearsing it on my own, I just didn't get it. I didn't have any acting coaches, so I had to do it on my own. It was frustrating. Unfortunately, that doesn't matter. You just have to do it. For me, I would try to get back into the dance part of it. That would calm me down and soothe my nerves. I would become relaxed again. I would just rehearse it, rehearse it, rehearse it, and then give it up to the lord. When you get to set, and you do it, it is what it is. Because Ian was such an amazing director, he would definitely say, "That is great. Now lets try it this way." He was so focused and personable with me, it was amazing.
How closely did you have to work with your co-stars, and how close did you guys become off the set?
Tre Armstrong: Out of everyone, Rutina and I are still friends to this day. We still talk all the time. Which is so cool. Because you are rehearsing 8 hours a day for seven days a week for one month, you become very personalized with everyone. You need that. What we found before we shot the movie was that it had become real. That happened through the rehearsals. In the beginning it was just dancing. By the time we had gotten three weeks into it, we were really battling. We were really grilling each other with our eyes. Then we would laugh about it. It was so intense. They should have shot that and put it on the bloopers. Because that was a movie in itself right there. You need that in a movie.
I've got one last question. Were you jealous of the knit caps that Rutina wears in the film?
Tre Armstrong: Yes! Actually we had some folks from Toronto that came onto set. They sell those hats. I didn't get to buy one. I was so mad. I have contacted them. I want them to make me a whole outfit now. I want a knitted outfit.
That would be awesome.
Tre Armstrong: You know what? I am going to get one made and put it on my website.
Okay, It was great getting to talk with you today.
Tre Armstrong: It was beautiful getting to hear you. We will talk very soon!
How She Move opens this Friday, January 25th, 2008.