Williamstown, N.J. native Dexter Darden has a memorable supporting turn as Queen Latifah’s son Walter in the enjoyable new film Joyful Noise. The 20-year-old musician/actor holds his own on screen against both the Oscar-nominated actress and legendary country singer Dolly Parton. Darden, who grew up singing in church and at Victory Christian School, chatted with City Paper about getting his start from Paul Newman, Dolly Parton’s fried chicken and his favorite one-hit wonder.
City Paper: How did you get started in music and acting?
DD: My mother sent me to Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang camp [where] I did my Michael Jackson impersonation, and Newman saw the tape. He asked me to perform for the camp’s gala fundraiser. I got to perform with Kevin Kline, Whoopi Goldberg, Paul McCartney, Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld. Then, when I hit 13, Newman approached me and asked if I was interested in pursuing entertainment. I said it was something I wanted to do, but I was in school, getting good grades and playing basketball. But when I was 13, I took my first professional vocal lesson, and got an agent and manager and the rest took off from there.
CP: Why did this film/character appeal to you?
DD: A number of things interested me about Walter. The No. 1 thing about it is that he has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild, high-functioning form of autism. The average kid with Asperger’s is gifted, but they are socially awkward, and don’t want to talk or be touched, etc. My cousin Ray-Ray … has Asperger’s, so Walter immediately reminded me of him.
CP: The film may be about gospel and God, but it’s not very preachy. Are you spiritual?
DD: I’m very spiritual. I learned to sing in front of a crowd at church. Being part of a [congregation], there was a sense of camaraderie.
CP: What were some of the challenges to making a musical?
DD: The thing about Joyful Noise is how organized it was. Alcon, the production company, and [director] Todd [Graff] came together with a plan. We were in rehearsals for a month before filming began. It wasn’t a stressful process, but it was tiring. But I was working with performers used to putting in long hours. Coming to rehearsals, we all picked it up. It was an easy transition to film from theater.
CP: You have a very poignant scene with Queen Latifah. What was she like to work with, and how did you develop your on-screen rapport with her?
DD: Queen really took Keke and me under her wing — and not just as a motherly figure. I’m a big sports fan and she loves basketball, so we developed that relationship off camera. I’m a big bowling fan — I bowl a 185 — so me and Queen organized the whole cast to go out bowling.
CP: What about working with Dolly Parton?
DD: She’s an icon in her own right. How many people have a theme park named after them? For someone so larger-than-life, she’s so grandmotherly. She’d come in and make chicken and dumplings for the whole cast. She’ll sing a song for us, and provide that whole Southern hospitality. She made the best chicken and dumplings I’ve ever had in my life. In. My. Life!
CP: What about your relationship with your co-stars Keke Palmer and Jeremy Jordan?
DD: Me, Keke and J are really, really close. We still text each other. We talk every week. The camaraderie developed between Queen and Dolly was bestowed upon us. We all have music and dancing in common. We’d play Xbox in my apartment all night long on a Friday night and order a pizza. People think Keke and me are a lot alike. She’s so knowledgeable about what she wants to do and I’m the same way. So being able to relate with her on a personal level, and on our future was [awesome].
CP: Joyful Noise is all about the power of music. What kind of music do you listen to?
DD: I listen to everything. My biggest inspiration is Michael Jackson. If I didn’t do him in the talent show, I wouldn’t be where I am today. In my car’s CD changer is Eminem, Luther Vandross, J-Cole and gospel singer Donnie McClurkin.
CP: Speaking of music, Walter’s gimmick in the film is his obsession over one-hit wonders, specifically “Walk Away Renee.” What's your favorite one-hit wonder?
DD: Of all time? I don’t know if you can call it that. It’s Wham. “Wake Me Up Before you Go-Go” or “Jittterbug.” That’s my guilty-pleasure song. I play that once a week in my car when I’m driving.
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