Tisha Campbell-Martin on Playing Simone Biles' Grandmother in New Biopic (Exclusive)

Tisha Campbell-Martin
Getty Images

The actress spoke to ET about 'The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar' which debuts on Lifetime on Feb. 3.

Tisha Campbell-Martin tapped into her dramatic acting roots for the new film The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar.

The biopic, which premieres on Lifetime next month and is based off Simone’s memoir, Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance, stars Jeanté Godlock as Simone, and follows the celebrated gymnast through the hard work and sacrifices that led her to win 19 Olympic and World Championship medals, cementing her place as “one of the greatest gymnasts of all time.” 

Campbell-Martin plays Simone Biles’ grandmother-turned-guardian, Nellie Biles. 

“It was a little intimidating playing someone who is still alive, but I worked really hard,” Campbell-Martin told ET during a phone interview. “They took a chance on me and I was not going to allow myself to let anybody down.”

The film’s cast also features How to Get Away With Murder actor Julius Tennon as Biles’ grandfather, Ron Biles; Raven Bowens as Simone’s sister, Adria; Kathleen Rose Perkins as gymnastics coach Aimee Boorman; Marilyn Norry as Russian gymnastics coach Márta Károlyi and Nakai Takawira as young Simone.

Although Campbell-Martin is more commonly known for “comedic” acting, she began her career in theater. In 1986, at age 16, Campbell-Martin made her film debut in Little Shop of Horrors, and would appear in other cult classics like School Daze and House Party

Portraying Nellie was a return to her theatrical side, and to prepare, she commissioned the help of actor-director and acting coach, Tasha Smith. 

On the first day of shooting, Campbell-Martin filmed an emotional scene in which Simone goes back to live with her biological mother (Simone and her siblings were adopted by their grandparents, Ron and Nellie). “It was like riding a bike,” Campbell-Martin said of slipping back into a dramatic role. “Even though I hadn’t done a lot of dramatic work in a long time, it was really easy for me to drop in quickly. Plus, I can relate [to Simone’s story], I have a son with special needs. With Simone’s character, they explore the fact that she had ADHD and so the director was wonderful. He would keep reminding me to tap into my heartstrings as a mother and a mother of a child with special needs. It was easy for me to do because it was real to me.” 

Campbell-Martin and her husband, Duane Martin, are parents to two sons, 8-year-old Ezekiel and 16-year-old Xen, the latter of whom has autism. Like Simone’s parents, Campbell-Martin doesn’t harp on her son’s “challenges” but encourages him to play up his “strengths.”

“The thing that is really just heartfelt about this particular story is that Nellie did not care what kind of challenge [Simone] had. It was about focusing on your goals, utilizing your strengths, and that’s how I am with my child,” she shared. “I’m a very tough mother, and that’s not to say that I’m a mean mother. I’m a very loving and very involved mother, but when it comes to challenges, I’m a tough cookie. We have to do this together, me and my son, and that is exactly how Nellie was and the Biles' were. We’re going to acknowledge the diagnosis, but we’re not going to label ourselves. You just have to work a little harder. We’re going to fight and we’re going to do this together, and I’m going to do my best to get you to your goal. This is exactly the same formula that the Biles’ had for Simone and all of their children, that you have to be super focused on your goal. Nobody’s going to hand you anything, you have to enjoy yourself and it’s OK to fall because you’re going to get back up.”

Last week, Biles accused former Team USA gymnastics physician, Larry Nassar, of sexual abuse, joining dozens of young women, including her teammates, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, in lodging allegations against Nassar, who is facing decades in prison. 

Simone's experience is one that Campbell-Martin can relate to, having been raped at age three. 

“It’s incredibly sad that something like this happened to her in her formative years and I can understand how she feels because I have spoken about being raped when I was three years old,” said Campbell-Martin, who first revealed in a 2014 interview that she had been raped as a toddler. “You feel like, 'Could I have done something differently?’ You have guilt, shame, all of these things. There’s so many horrible feelings that come with it when you are a young child, you don’t know what to do. So you carry it.”

In regard to Simone and Nassar’s other victims, Campbell-Martin praised them for finding their voices. “All of the girls had to carry this guilt, and it took a lot of courage for all of them to speak out. And now it’s time for so many women to come out and speak,” she added.  

As more abuse survivors step forward to share their stories, Campbell-Martin welcomes the change in an unspoken code of silence that worked to keep survivors paralyzed in a state of mental, emotional and physical trauma. “When it happened back in the day, you kept your mouth shut,” Campbell-Martin said before explaining that, in the acting world, “You navigated around it, you avoided casting couches.” 

When it comes to abuse, as Campbell-Martin noted, many victims keep the secret from their parents. With her own children, she has long encouraged them to come to her if they were to ever experience anything inappropriate. “Those kinds of things have to be drilled into our children over and over again -- ‘trust me, I will fight for you.’ I tell my kids that so much they’re like, ‘Yes mom, we know.’" 

But even with warnings, there’s no way of completely protecting children from “predators,” and speaking up can be hard when victims are groomed and threatened into silence. “They’ll say the craziest and most horrific things to keep your voice suppressed,” she said. “But it is not the parents' fault, a predator is a predator, and parents can’t feel guilty.”

“The way this family comes across, they’re very close,” she said of the Biles family. “Sadly, with a tragedy like this, it is not [about] who’s closer to their kids, or who hasn’t established [a sense of] security with their children. That is so evident when you’re around this family, how much they love each other. How considerate they are with one another, how much they support one another, how much they draw strength from one another. It probably hurts a lot when your kid carries this kind of secret because you think you’ve done all you can, and you probably have. But the victim always feels like they did something to deserve it.”

And with the ongoing discourse in Hollywood focussing on exposing and ultimately dismantling a system of sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse, Campbell-Martin is a pioneer for actresses in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. In 1996, Campbell-Martin sued comedian Martin Lawrence, accusing him of sexual harassment, sexual battery and violent threats while working on the ‘90s sitcom Martinwhere she played his wife, Gina Paine. Lawrence denied the allegations

At the time, Martin was one of the highest-rated shows on Fox, and though Campbell-Martin initially quit, she won her lawsuit and eventually returned, under the agreement that she would film separately from Lawrence. The sitcom ended in May of the following year, with Lawrence and Campbell-Martin never sharing screen time together. 

After the show ended, Lawrence continued to move up the ranks of box-office brawn, starring in Life with Eddie Murphy, the second of two Bad Boys films alongside Will Smith and kicking off his own successful franchise with Big Momma’s House.

Campbell-Martin would go on to appear in a mixture of television and film projects including the 1997 comedy Sprung, the short-lived sitcom Between Brothers and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. In 2001, Campbell-Martin landed another successful sitcom, starring opposite Damon Wayans on My Wife and Kids. More recently, she has appeared on ABC's Dr. Ken and the Comedy Central animated series Legends of Chamberlain Heights

While speaking with ET, Campbell-Martin didn’t specifically reference Lawrence, but in reflecting on her years in the entertainment industry, she knows firsthand that many women (and some men) were conditioned to believe that sexual harassment “came with the territory.”

“Trying to avoid the casting couch, or allowing certain things to happen because our careers would be threatened, our families would be threatened, you learn how to navigate around it, and that was our norm,” she explained. 

In the shift to end a culture of abuse, one that far outstretches the realms of the entertainment world, both #MeToo and #TimesUp appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel. 

“I love [that] there are so many people that are able to speak without being persecuted,” Campbell-Martin remarked. “There are people before my time that were in the workplace, who took a lot of bullets for me. It was not the norm to be able to speak out and say ‘no more.’ For me, being able to watch people speak aloud, that is a movement forward. Everything’s not going to be perfect, but it’s a movement. It makes me proud to watch because, at the end of the day, everybody just wants to feel like they have a fair and safe environment.”

Despite Martin being surrounded in controversy when it went off the air, fans still laud the show as an important chapter in television, particularly for black sitcoms. Campbell-Martin and her Martin co-star and longtime friend, Tichina Arnold, are even prepping a secret project together.

“Tichina and I were talking [the other] night about how much people love Martin, and hold in it such high regard, and see us as, like, icons. We were just trying to work, feed our families," recalled the Newark, New Jersey, native, who explained that while she grew up poor, she never let her circumstances dictate her future. "I’ve been paying bills since I was five years old. We come from a different place where you had to do everything, including tap dance, if you wanted to be considered average.”

Four decades in the business have all but proven Campbell-Martin to be more than just “average,” she's resilient. On Feb. 2, the accomplished singer, dancer and actress is set to debut “I Don’t Want to Be Alone Tonight,” the lead single from her upcoming album. She will also guest star on Empire as a “has-been” singer from a ‘90s girl group in an episode airing Feb. 17. 

While ageism in Hollywood looks to be another barrier for actresses, Campbell-Martin “jumps at the chance” to take “has-been” and “grandmother” roles that other veteran actors may shy away from.

“I’m having a great, great year so far," she shared. "And I’m completely grateful that I’m able to do so many different things at once.”  

The Simone Biles Story: Courage to Soar airs on Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.