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Toni Braxton brings 'Unbreak My Heart' biopic to Lifetime

L-R: Tiffany Hines, Latoya Franklin, executive producer Toni Braxton, Lex Scott-Davis, Skye P. Marshall and Cortney Scott Wright on the set of "Unbreak My Heart."
L-R: Tiffany Hines, Latoya Franklin, executive producer Toni Braxton, Lex Scott-Davis, Skye P. Marshall and Cortney Scott Wright on the set of "Unbreak My Heart." (James Dittiger / Lifetime)

Toni Braxton knew it would be impossible to include every aspect of her life in her Lifetime biopic. Including her conservative Severn upbringing, however, was not negotiable.

"I don't think people understood that it was a cult-like upbringing," Braxton said recently on the phone from Los Angeles, where she lives now. "It explains the struggle of me being a singer was tough against those odds."

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Premiering at 8 p.m. Jan. 23, "Toni Braxton: Unbreak My Heart" outlines the Grammy winner's winding journey, from singing church songs with her four sisters under her mother's watchful eye in Anne Arundel County to achieving worldwide success on her own. The tidy narrative is familiar to biopics, but "Unbreak" attempts to explain the woman behind the 40 million albums sold, too. It depicts the preacher's daughter closed off from pop culture, the mother of an autistic son and the twice-bankrupt divorcee living with lupus who ultimately resuscitates her career.

It is Braxton, the movie's executive producer and narrator, told through her lens.

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"I can't tell others' stories while telling mine," she said. "I tried to be honest."

Lifetime approached Braxton last March about turning her 2014 memoir of the same name into a movie, the singer said. The 48-year-old singer dove into the project. Production came together quickly, but Braxton wanted nothing to do with making arguably the movie's most important decision: Who should play her.

Braxton had the final say, but she avoided picking the lead herself, she said.

"It's like a doctor who sends their kids and their family members to other doctors because it's too close to be objective," Braxton said. "I thought I wouldn't have been objective enough."

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Coincidentally, a Baltimore native named Lex Scott-Davis emerged. Before they met, casting directors told Braxton that the two could be cousins. Once Braxton spent time with the 24-year-old, the singer understood what others saw. Braxton noticed Scott-Davis held her hands on the piano the same way she did, and recognized shared mannerisms — such as how they tilt their heads when they talk.

And Scott-Davis' Baltimore accent felt like a sign.

"It's great her being a homegirl from Baltimore. She says, 'muh-thuh,'" Braxton said, referring to her pronunciation of "mother." "There were little things. She's a wonderful girl, super talented."

One area, however, bore little similarity.

"She doesn't sing like me, but she can lip-sync the hell out of me, OK?" Braxton said.

Braxton made sure to select the role of her mother, Evelyn. Played by Debbi Morgan, the role is one of the movie's more complicated characters, requiring the balance of a stern matriarch and a supportive mother, all while she deals with issues of her own.

Braxton's mother hasn't seen "Unbreak" yet, she said, but other family members approved the casting of Morgan.

"My kids, who saw her on the set, thought it was my mom — like, 'Hey grandma!'" Braxton said.

A central figure throughout "Unbreak" is Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds, the singer/songwriter who helped launch Braxton's career in 1992 and co-wrote many of her biggest hits, including 1993's "Another Sad Love Song" and 1996's "You're Makin' Me High."

Edmonds, one of the movie's producers, remains in Braxton's life. After a hiatus, the pair reunited for 2014's "Love, Marriage & Divorce," a collaborative R&B project that won the 2015 Grammy for Best R&B Album.

They remembered the timeline of her career similarly, but making the movie forced the old friends to dig deep to come up with the details, such as which artist Edmonds intended to give "Another Sad Love Song" to before it became Braxton's.

"There's a moment in the movie when 'Another Sad Love Song' was not for me, and I thought it was for [1980s-1990s singer] Pebbles," Braxton said. "He was like, 'No, it wasn't. I wrote it. I'm telling you, it was for TLC.' Little things like that."

As much as the music, "Unbreak" focuses on Braxton's personal trials — her battle with lupus ("There are good and bad days," she said of how she feels today), dealing with her son's autism and the embarrassing need to declare bankruptcy twice.

But what you won't find in "Unbreak" are salacious stories of excess. Braxton now wishes she had more to tell.

"I wish I would have lived more and enjoyed my 20s and the beginning of my career. Not to say I should have been the bad girl, but I love Rihanna," she said. "She's like, 'I'm going to live my life and live it my way, by my rules.' I love that freedom that she has. I wish I were more like her and had that spirit like she has."

Braxton — who expects to release a new single unrelated to the movie in the next couple of months — acknowledges thar she's anxious about the movie's release. But, like the release of her memoir, she knows it will be a relief to share her side.

"I'm a little nervous about the movie coming out. I can't deny it," she said. "But most of all, I'm proud and excited for myself, because when you've been through all of that — I see the movie and say, 'That happened and you're still here?' — well, kudos."

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