R. Kelly’s ‘Trapped in the Closet’ 10 Years Later: An Oral History of R&B’s Drama-Filled Soap Opera
Music videos were pretty riveting and complex back in the late '90s and early 2000s. Directors such as Hype Williams and Director X, to name a few, were masters at creating epic videos to complement the sonic artistry of R&B and hip-hop's finest. But it was Grammy Award-wining singer (and to some, a musical genius) R. Kelly who executed the ultimate transformation of music to film 10 years ago with his hip-hopera Trapped in the Closet.
The Trapped in the Closet series was actually first revealed in audio form with the first five chapters on the singer's TP.3 Reloaded album, but then Kellz decided to do the unthinkable -- he brought the story to life on camera. Directed by the Piped Piper of R&B himself and Jim Swaffield, Trapped in the Closet was based on a story of a love triangle between Cathy (LeShay Tomlinson), her husband Rufus (Rolando Boyce) and Sylvester (R. Kelly). As each chapter unfolded, the storyline spiraled into a detailed account of sex, violence, scandal, betrayal and much more. Kellz brought his writing skills to new heights by transforming his gift of songwriting into a screenplay full of vibrant characters, including a midget stripper and crooked cop.
Led by the now famous beat, reminiscent of a leaking faucet with rhythmic water drops, Trapped in the Closet was uniquely narrated by R. Kelly and executed with the help of trained actors who lip-synced lines like, "Bitch, please you've got your nerves / With all your club hopping / Lying when you said you was shopping." At the time, nothing like this had ever been done before and to this day, it has never been done again outside of the 33 Chapters Trapped in the Closet evolved into.
The visual interpretation would go way beyond the music to make the Trapped in the Closet series one of the most prolific and innovative movements in music history. Before going viral and "internet sensations" were a thing, R. Kelly had the DVD market on smash as fans gravitated to the vignettes for their comedic and dramatic storylines. In fact, the visuals launched the same year as YouTube did in 2005, putting Kellz on the pulse of the digital era with respect to shaping visual arts in the music industry on a whole, but more specifically where urban music was concerned.
In celebration of the 10th anniversary (Oct. 1, 2005) of the first 12 chapters of Trapped in the Closet, we decided to take a closer look at how the project all came together. Characters Cathy and Rufus, who starred in chapters 1-22 as a cheating couple, are here to give their stories of what it was like to be a part of this epic series. LeShay Tomlinson, who plays Cathy, and Rufus, played by Rolando Boyce, are actually a real-life couple who got married in 2008. They were a huge part of Trapped in the Closet as it was their infidelity that kicked off the scandal and secrecy leading to spoofs and parodies from South Park to SNL. Here are their stories.
Part 1: Meeting R. Kelly
LeShay Tomlinson: "I first met him through the 'Trapped in the Closet' video. But I was a fan of R. Kelly since the Mr. Biggs video ["Down Low (Nobody Has to Know)"] with Garcelle Beauvais and Ron Isley. I really thought that was hot, so when I heard that he was doing something similar, a new trilogy, I was excited. But my first encounter was on set."
Rolando Boyce: "I think I actually probably met him in high school because we went to the same high school. I knew of him, but we weren't really close. Fast forward to [Trapped in the Closet], it wasn't before I got to the first day of rehearsal -- that was actually the first time I met LeShay, well, reintroduced myself."
Trapped in the Closet Chapter 1
Part 2: Trapped in the Closet's Unique Roles
LeShay: "First of all, I am an only child so I used to always try and lip-sync…performing at home by myself. When they said I had to do something similar to like a lip-syncing audition, I just knew it was for me. Then the aspect of playing a pastor's wife and I grew up in the church. I kind of experienced -- not that same situations as Trapped in the Closet -- but just different scandals. I already felt connected to the character early on. I knew I could get those words, they were very catchy. So it was right away for me."
Rolando: "It wasn't until auditions. Actually the casting process was pretty, pretty big. I don't know if you know this, but LeShay was cast in Los Angeles and I was cast in Chicago. This was one of the largest ones that I have ever been on. I remember when I got there it was like more than 100 people, men and women waiting. I think I had number 45. I was watching people and I was kind of intimidated looking at all the people.
I was like, 'I don't know, this is not for me.' When I finally auditioned they liked what I did. They told me 'We like you, we are looking for someone who is a good actor because this is not going to be like another video.' A few days later, I got the call back and that number from 100 was down to about 15 or 16 and I was the first guy they wanted to go in the room. I was like, 'Okay. Something is right.' After it was perfect. They told me I was Robert's [R. Kelly] and the directors No. 1 choice. My head was up and my chest was sticking out after that."
Part 3: Quiet on the Set
LeShay: "I remember Rolando and I had rehearsed together and I thought he was a good looking guy. The first thing I said to him when we started rehearsing was 'You must be my husband.' I meant on the set, I didn't really mean in life. But the next day they changed the order of the shooting. The next day, it was me and R. Kelly together in the bed first thing, 7:30 in the morning. I remember that very well. We were the first scene and getting it on in the bed."
Rolando: "Because that was the first order of shooting, I saw them. Her and Robert, they were going at it. You know when she first gets him in the closet. That process looks like 15 seconds in the film but really took about an hour or more of shooting. They were rolling, they were laughing. It was great. I was like, when it's my turn? I have to keep it up. I was thinking to myself 'I have to step it up.' I already knew of LeShay because she lived in Chicago and I admired her work. I just wanted to make sure that when I stepped in, I kept the ball and chain going.
As far as big moments, I think I can speak for both of us, I think Robert was very professional. He made us feel very comfortable and I think he respected our work ethic as actors. He took care of the singing but when it came to the acting we all stood out as equals."
LeShay: You know what else stood out to me… when R .Kelly started singing and we would just be talking. We both looked at each other like 'Wow this is R. Kelly!'"
Part 4: Witnessing R. Kelly in His Element
LeShay: When we were working on set, he was Robert. It was only when he started singing that we would remember that he was R. Kelly. Because he was one of us, an actor. But he had moments when we were shooting when it would become evident it was a superstar we working with. He had people on set. I made a joke at the time, because one of his right hand men would always come on set and talk to him really low in his ear. We would not know what that man was saying, but it reminded me, 'Oh, this is not the regular actor Rob we are dealing with, this is a a major superstar.' It was always some business that he would have to continue to be interrupted for and it was obviously something else that he had to take care."
Rolando: "I think he was a true professional and nothing was written in stone. We played around before we would shoot. He and the director would walk around set and ask questions, just so we had different choices. We were free to change some things. It was really incredible."
Trapped in the Closet Chapter 2
Part 5: Becoming Cathy and Rufus
LeShay: "For me personally, I felt like it was a scandal. The hardest part was okay, I am a Christian and I really didn't want people in the church to be mad at Cathy. I really wanted her to be explored and looked at as a human being that just has a hard time making a decision between her husband a lifestyle that she secretly wants, which most Christians have issue with. My challenge was to make Cathy a real person and not just some video chick. I am not size 24 waist with a big booty, I am real person. I just really anted to make Cathy relatable.
Another thing that I did was I looked at an actress who I really liked at the time and who I really still enjoy was Sharon Stone. I remember just doing a lot of research on the film Basic Instinct. Her character was powerful, but yet she had a vulnerable quality about her that wasn't revealed until the end of the movie. That kind of helped me prepare."
Rolando: "I am not gay so I wanted to just try to explore the complexity of everything that Rufus was going through. I just wanted to play it real, I didn't want to play it like a joker. I wanted to dive into that character and take the approach of someone who was torn in love and very upset. Basically I felt like someone would be watching it and was going through the same thing my character was going through."
Part 6: Impacting Music and Performance Art History
LeShay: "I felt like I was hoping it would be this big, because we were talking about pretty controversial topics that were not sang in songs. I mean Wendy Williams at the time -- you know because you are from New York -- was always talking about a 'gay rapper.' But people really weren't talking about gay relationships in bars and things like that. I thought that it would have more kickback than acceptance.
Rolando and I went during the summer to an African festival in Chicago and we were like celebrities at the festival. People started saying, 'There goes Rufus and Cathy. Are y'all really a couple?' But I am from New York and my father and most of my family is there. My dad called me and was like 'You know they are playing Trapped in the Closet on New York radio, they are playing it on the morning show.' I was like 'Oh, man.' You know once New York and L.A. start talking about it, it's a wrap."
Rolando: "The funny thing is when they first started playing the song ['Trapped in the Closet'] -- this was before the audition -- I hadn't heard it. I remember going into the audition and they were like 'Do you know the song?' So of course I said no and they gave me the track. I started listening to it. Then we shot the first five chapters. After the first chapter aired on TV, living in Chicago it was huge. It was everywhere.
I remember being an actor in Chicago, doing stage and theater, then I was working at the department store Marshalll Fields at the time. I could not go anywhere. I was catching the bus back then, but if I went on the bus with teenagers I had to hide my face. I was walking around downtown and this girl stopped me to sign her shirt. Looking back on it now, had it taken off in 2015, instead of 2005, the way things are viral I think it would have been even bigger than it actually is."
LeShay: "You know Upright Citizens Brigade? It's a collective of actors and actresses like Amy Poehler and other huge comedians that went on the Saturday Night Live. They just all did spoofs of Trapped in the Closet. Aziz Ansari, who has his own HBO special now, he loved it. We were panelists on his Aziz Ansari Trapped in the Closet Hour."
Trapped in the Closet Chapter 3
Part 7: Take Two, Three, Four…
LeShay: "You know the chapters went on like one through five, but then the later, chapters five through 12 is where Cathy just goes through it emotionally. Rufus goes through it emotionally. I remember Rufus and Cathy had this one scene in the church and they had to decide if they were going to get back together. I know that was emotionally draining because it was a long day, but at the same time we had to just keep doing it over, and over again. We had to have this full-fledged fight and sing, and have our true emotions."
Rolando: "I was thinking about Chapter 3 when Chuck was introduced. That was really intense. It was amazing because it was all four of us in the room and there was so much going on. The scene had a lot of arguing and it was something else."
LeShay: "During those moments, it's not easy to do the lip-syncing. You have to be on que. There is no room for adding your own touch. A lot of actors like to improvise but with R. Kelly's work, we were not improvising. We had to say his words and let our emotions do the rest. That was a huge challenge. The script supervisor would sometimes say, 'Well, you did add an 'uh huh' there and now the sync is off, so make sure you watch that.'"
Part 8: Accepting a Gay Character
Rolando: "Well, this is kind of how it happened after my second audition. The director pulled me aside and that's when I found out Rufus is gay. From the first chapter, you do not know that Rufus is gay. The producer Shelby Stone said I was the No. 1 choice but she then told me that it would be revealed that my character was gay."
LeShay: "Shelby has worked on a bunch of films [Bessie] and as actors, we really valued her passion for things and how she approached Rolando."
Rolando: "After Shelby told me that, the first thing I started thinking about were my two kids. They were around 10 and 12 at the time. I was thinking, 'I hope their friends don't give them a hard time seeing me on TV.' But other than that, I was totally fine with it because I am an artist and dipping into any role didn't bother me at all. After I explained it to my kids, they were cool and didn't have a problem with it, which made it even better.
Before it became a public movement, I was very accepting of the gay community. It was certainly easier for me to take on the role because I respected it and believe that everyone has the choice to live their lives the way that they feel. Before we shot that, mostly all of the work I have done was theater. In the theater world you get the instant feedback like 'Oh, man I had a cousin who was going through this.' Whereas in television, it's not like that. But I knew there would be people watching who would be going through a similar situation as Rufus. I had an uncle who was gay but although we all knew, he wasn't fully 'out of the closet.'"
Part 9: R. Kelly the Genius
LeShay: "For me, working with Robert really enhanced my opinion of R. Kelly. I mean, I knew of his music to be one way. In the club, we're going to do this and in my jeep we are going to do that. You know, I knew it really to be that. But sometimes I want to be in the club and in my jeep doing whatever. But at the same time, once I really heard the lyrics and read the screenplay and how he just tied all of that together, the storyline made me think 'Here's a person who is not only a talented musician but he could really go on to write screenplays.' He told me he watches a lot of movies. He really is a genius in terms of his creativity. I definitely came off with a greater respect for him."
Rolando: "When you are working as an actor, you come across people who may have errs on them or act a certain way. Although they don't change how they act as a professional, but it's great when you come across really good people. I have to say Robert is one of the biggest stars I have ever worked with and he was probably one of the most humble. I was really impressed with how we all worked together. He really cared about my opinion as an actor. Every time we went back to shoot new chapters we were like family. We were in New York for a premiere and R. Kelly happened to have a concert and he gave us passes and it was just like old times. He's a great guy, I have mad respect for him."
Part 10: Life After the Closet
LeShay: "Personally my life really changed. I met my husband. I just felt like for every milestone in my relationship we were doing something with Trapped in the Closet. Around the first five chapters, we got engaged. When the next chapters came, we got married. They they asked us to do more chapters and we had a baby. Then I did a short film with R. Kelly for his Love Letter tour and I think I was actually pregnant in that one. He kind of has a through-line in my growth over the past 10 years. I have an R. Kelly soundtrack for all the milestones in my personal life.
But professionally, I feel like it increased my visibility as an actress. Different casting directors and a lot of people saw it. We as actors determine our work but doing Trapped in the Closet put me in front of a lot of people -- all over with different types of people. Fans of Trapped in the Closet are not just black people. Fans are Asian, white -- rhere are so many different people who love it. Of course we all want to work more, but when I say I am Cathy from Trapped in the Closet that certainly has some leverage."
Rolando: "This whole project has been very life changing. We shot the first five chapters in a week. Pretty much a chapter a day. LeShay and my relationship grew because we spent so much time on and off set. After she was done filming and left, we kept in contact, we talked on the phone. It wasn't something we were trying to do but we knew the relationship couldn't work long-distance unless we had a plan. I was always pondering moving to New York or L.A., so I moved to L.A. and a year or two later, we got married. Working on Trapped in the Closet was really just life changing.
As far as an artist, it opened up a lot of doors for me. I was recognizable. People to this day still come up to me. I say to people 'You've got a good memory because that was a long time ago.' People still love it. Younger generations are watching it now. I have been on set plenty of times and people still want to know when is the next Trapped in the Closet. I just thank God because like I mentioned earlier, I almost walked out of the room at the first audition. But I learned you always just have to trust your gut and what you can bring to the table because you never know what the outcome is going to be."
Trapped in the Closet Chapter 4
Trapped in the Closet Chapter 5
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