Feb 1 kicks off Black Heritage Month, and Lifetime Television’s premiere of The Gabby Douglas Story is an excellent commencement film for this year’s commemoration of African-American history. The television biopic stars Imani Hakim, who brings personal nuance and depth to the teenage Olympian Gabby Douglas, and Regina King who artfully plays the resolutely supportive Natalie Hawkins, Gabby Douglas’ mother.
For 20-year-old Imani, this is a crossover role on a number of levels. Imani first cut her acting teeth in comedy as “Tonya Rock” on the television series Everybody Hates Chris. But save for a few guest turns on procedural dramas like ER and CSI, and a supporting role in the movie Reign Over Me, she had yet to snag a meaty dramatic role—until now.
Pure timing and the help of a good friend is how Imani came to learn about casting for the movie. “I actually found out that they were looking for Gabby over Twitter. The casting director tweeted, ‘Open Call in Atlanta and New York’, so my friend—I guess he followed the casting director—he mentioned me in the reply tweet: ‘I know the perfect Gabby Douglas! Thank me later.’”
If Imani has learned anything from being in the business, it’s when to jump on an opportunity. “When I saw that, I called my manager up right away, and said, ‘Why am I not auditioning for this role?!’ Then I emailed my agent, and they got me in the next morning. I auditioned, then I got a call back, and then I ended up booking the role!”
Imani plays Gabby Douglas from ages 14-16, and had to film many of the gymnastics scenes. “I've never taken gymnastics, so that was a little scary. They originally wanted someone with gymnastics background and dance ability, and everyone in the audition lobby were doing flips and stretching, and I was just like, Okay, I'm an actress, that's what I can do!”
Imani more than held her own, partnering with acting veterans King and Brian Tee as Coach Liang Chow to recreate Gabby Douglas’ critical developments and turning points in her young life, and her gymnastics career.
“I definitely studied her. As soon as I saw that tweet I looked her up and began to study her. After receiving the role I was able to communicate with Gabrielle and her mom—they were just a phone call or a text away if I had any questions. The director (Greg Champion) knew a lot about them as well, so he was able to help and answered a lot of my questions too. Ms. Regina was able to communicate with Ms. Natalie, so everyone was throwing out information, and we got it all together.”
Having done the lion’s share of her acting roles during her formative years, Imani acknowledged that she was not cognizant of her great casting fortune.
“Being on set I learned a lot with the comedy, watching Ms. Tachina [Arnold] and Mr. Terry [Crews] go back and forth. But I feel like I didn't appreciate it as much as a child, because it did come pretty fast for me, and that's not normal.”
Imani gained a new appreciation of her craft, and of the unique opportunity to embody a still-living American icon.
“With the Gabby Douglas project, I worked my butt off, I appreciated every moment I spent on set, I really cherish and value that moment, and that experience, hopefully everyone can see that when they watch the movie that I worked very hard.”
There are a number of parallels between Imani’s young life and Gabby Douglas’. One of them is that both young women had a vision of who they wanted to be from an early age.
“I decided that I wanted to be an actress at the age of 7. This is something I've always known. I was a big fan of Raven Symone, when That's So Raven was out. I used to say, Oh my God, that should be my show!”
After some community theater roles in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, Imani’s father entered her into a talent search. The talent scouts saw the 11-year-old Imani’s potential, and invited her to L.A. for an open talent scout experience with talent agents, managers, and casting directors.
“So that was the one weekend we flew to L.A. to do a continuation of the talent scouting thing. After we met with the different managers and agents, they were all interested, so they said, ‘Hey, come out here for pilot season.’”
Imani and her father packed up a van and came to Los Angeles, but ran into logistical and financial roadblocks.
“We couldn't make contact with any of those people once we got here. Then we ran out of money, and we were living out of our van, eating Vienna sausages for lunch, breakfast, dinner, and bathing in Starbucks bathrooms!”
Despite this difficulty, Imani was resolute in sticking to their plan. “When we were living in our van, my Dad said, ‘You know, we can always go home if you want to.’ I'm 11—I'm a little girl. But I was like, I miss my mom, and I miss all my friends at school, but I do not want to go home. I will live in my van for the rest of my life if I have to, as long as I get to achieve my goal.”
This mirrors 14-year-old Gabby’s determination to move to Iowa to train with Liang Chow, as well as her determination to make it to the 2012 London Olympics; despite the doubts of Marta Karolyi, the U.S. Gymnastics Team coordinator. Gabby beat the odds and went on to Olympic gold. And so did Imani.
Within a few months of their arrival in L.A., she was finally contacted by the talent search agency that had originally invited them to come out. This agency connected Imani with Carla Alexander, her current manager, then Imani soon landed the “Tonya Rock” role on Everybody Hates Chris.
“When people say, ‘If you could do anything else, what would you do?’ I would be an actress. That's something that I would do—I can't see myself doing anything else. I know it sounds really cliché to say, Oh, I just knew, but I did. We are all meant to do certain things in life, and I think this was a path I was meant to take. This is my dream, and I'm living my dream!”
Imani and Gabby also share another parallel: “I've been out in California without my parents since I was 15—that's a similarity that Gabrielle and I both have. That's why my manager and I are really close. She's like family to me.”
Gabby moved away from her family in Virginia Beach, Va. to Iowa, and was welcomed into the home of the Travis and Missy Parton who sponsored her with room, board, and oversight while she trained with Chow.
In a Des Moines Patch article, Missy Parton referred to Gabby as their “fifth daughter. It’s always been that way. I told Natalie from day one that I’d live and die for her and I’d sacrifice for her, give our time and our well-being to be sure she reaches her dream. And we’ve held true to that.”
Also like Gabby Douglas, Imani attributes her success to being surrounded by a good team. “My dad really believed in me, because he saw something in me, so that was great. But everything else is having a great team, people who also believe in me, and push me.”
As Imani makes the transition to adult actor, she looks forward to being pushed further and finding more diverse roles. “I just would like to be challenged. I want to push myself to the limit, and constantly challenge myself and grow as an artist. That's where I want to go. Explore different things, different characters, in film, and just everything!”
The Gabby Douglas Story airs on February 1 at 8:00 p.m. ET, 7:00 p.m. CT on Lifetime.