Actor Keith Powers

Sacramento native Keith Powers boasts a half-million swooning Instagram followers, thanks to his roles in two critically acclaimed musical biopics, Straight Outta Compton and The New Edition Story. Now the 24-year-old actor is romancing Bella Thorne in the new television drama Famous in Love, which premieres April 18 on Freeform (formerly ABC Family). He shares a few choice anecdotes, like how he learned to bust a move from Ronnie DeVoe and that awkward moment when he met Dr. Dre.
Portrait by Solmaz Saberi

How would you describe the new show? People are calling it the next Pretty Little Liars.
It has Pretty Little Liars nuances because Marlene King [produces both programs], so you’ll get those thrills, but it’s a fresh new show of its own. The only show I can say it’s close to is Entourage. Another one is Gossip Girl, because of the lies, the scandal, the sexiness. [Bella Thorne plays a college student and aspiring actress who gets cast opposite Powers’ character in a Twilight-like movie, and becomes torn romantically between him and a longtime guy friend.] If you want to see what an actress can go through after gaining overnight success, watch Famous in Love, because it’s so accurate. You get to see what she goes through, still wanting to be in school and dealing with fame. And then it gets dark and goes to a whole other place.

Your character, Jordan Wilder, sports a black eye. He’s the series’ bad boy, isn’t he?
Jordan is not really a bad boy, he’s just a guy who makes mistakes, but the negatives get put on front street more than the positives. Jordan is the type not to interact with many others because of people throwing his name in dirt, but once you get to know [him], he has a lot of substance—he’s a cares-so-much type of guy. One mistake [in particular] haunts him: he moved in on his best friend’s girlfriend. What I love about the show is we get a chance to love and hate something about every character, and at the same time we can relate to all of them because they’re not perfect.

Speaking of relatable, you are awfully cozy with your fans on Twitter and Instagram—you answer many tweets personally. Can you keep it up now that your star is rising?
I’ve always been a people person. With social media you have the luxury of reaching out to people directly. Once you have them, whatever you feed them they’ll take with an open heart. So I think it’s important. There are some who are grandfathered in and don’t have to do that—the Denzels, the Will Smiths, the Leonardo DiCaprios, the Channing Tatums. But things have changed, and social media has taken a primary role in the entertainment industry. It’s part of the job. I try to look at most tweets, but ever since The New Edition Story came out [on BET in January], my Twitter account has been in a shambles, and my Instagram too—the comments sections are crazy. So I’ve readjusted.

Let’s talk about The New Edition Story, in which you played group member Ronnie DeVoe, and Straight Outta Compton, about the rap group N.W.A.—you played Dr. Dre’s late brother, Tyree. What was it like portraying these real people?
Playing Tyree was like playing a fictional character because people didn’t know him. Dr. Dre made a song about his brother on the 2001 album, [but] I got to introduce the character. But people know Ronnie—he’s still breathing and walking around. So people could pick out when I wasn’t authentic right off the bat.

Did you get to meet Ronnie?
We met all of New Edition—they were there when we were learning the dance moves. We had New Edition boot camp [where] we basically had to shadow them—we had to keep up. It was good and bad: good because we’d get everything straight from the source, and bad when they’d come on set and say, “Aw, I would have never said that!” So it got a little tricky. Ronnie always gave me feedback. At first I couldn’t learn to dance, and he made it easy for me and kept my head on straight, rooting me on. That always felt good.

If you’d been a teenager in the ’80s or ’90s, whose poster would you have had on your wall, N.W.A.’s or New Edition’s?
Definitely both, because I heard a lot of R&B growing up, [and] a lot of West Coast hip-hop—that was the time when West Coast and East Coast were beefin’. You’ve got the best of both worlds with those two. [New Edition’s] music is so timeless. I don’t think “Can You Stand the Rain” will ever be an old song. That’s one of the greatest songs of all time.

What was it like meeting Dr. Dre for the first time, when you’d been hired to play his late brother in the movie?
It was awkward at first. We met at LA Center Studios. He didn’t want to look at me—he’d look at me, then look away. He was probably thinking, “Wow, this dude looks like my little brother!” I’d look at him, then he’d look at me, then I’d get shy. Then it was like, “This is going to be good.” Then, “All right, let’s do this!” And my middle name is Tyree, which was his brother’s name—it’s funny how things work out. [Dr. Dre] was one of my idols growing up, one of my heroes, so it’s dope I got to play his little brother.

Your character’s death is a big emotional turning point in the movie.
[Tyree] idolized his big brother. He just wanted to be with his big brother at a time when N.W.A. was hot, but his mom said “No, you’re in school, you’ve got to focus on that.” And right when Dr. Dre was about to let him come [on a tour], that’s when he passed away. [Tyree was killed in a street fight in 1989 at the age of 21.] That’s what hurt, because, man, he just wanted to go on the tour. It’s always a sensitive subject talking about that with Dr. Dre, because he probably thinks about that all the time. I’m just glad I was able to show people his little brother because of this movie.

Was your mom protective of you like Tyree and Dr. Dre’s?
I think all moms are—but my mom wasn’t overprotective. When [my siblings and I] were young we were always outside on our bikes and we’d be gone for hours. That was our vibe. But we obeyed our parents, so my mom trusted us.

What kind of childhood did you have?
I had a very normal childhood, a fun childhood. I grew up in South Sacramento and went to high school in Elk Grove. I thank God [for] the childhood I had because I think it helps my acting. I was able to experience natural things that I think all kids should experience. You should go outside and [pop] wheelies on your bike and fall down and scrape your knee. I got to play basketball after school for hours, climb mountains, go out into the fields. There was no care in the world. I think a lot of parents suffocate their kids, and when they get out into the real world they don’t know how to act.

You played wide receiver in high school, and had plans to go into the NFL.
I definitely had aspirations, but it didn’t work out, and I’m glad because I love what I do. Looking back, I didn’t love sports as much as I thought I did. You grow up thinking you can play sports for the rest of your life, but you have to work at it, and I wasn’t putting in the work. But acting I love, and I put in the work.

Your family still lives in South Sacramento. Do you get home much?
I come up for holidays and birthdays. I stay with my grandparents, my mom—I hop from house to house. Everything has changed in Sacramento, but at the same time it’s still the same. Last time I was there, I was courtside with my mom [at a Kings game at Golden 1 Center]. It was super dope. I was so excited being courtside I didn’t even eat.