Navi remembers the very moment he knew Michael Jackson would change his life. It was 1983 and the grade-schooler’s parents let their music-loving boy stay up to watch Don Mischer and Suzanne de Passe’s Emmy-winning documentary Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever — the first time Jackson displayed his signature moonwalk dance move, during a thrilling performance of “Billie Jean.” “I taped the performance and ran upstairs, woke up my parents and played it for them,” the mononymous Londoner recalls. “I played it maybe 20 or 30 times that night. I couldn’t believe this performance … and this man.”
As a teen, Navi began portraying his idol in appearances and tribute shows that have since taken him to 61 countries and earned him work as a decoy and performer for the King of Pop himself. Now the self-professed “ultra fan” steps into Jackson’s skin in a way he never imagined, playing the icon in Lifetime’s biopic Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland.
But he didn’t exactly leap at the role.
The Trinidad native admits his own protective instincts toward Jackson and his fans left him wary of the project, which is based on the best-selling memoir Remember the Time: Protecting Michael Jackson in His Final Days from Jackson’s personal security team. The film presents an insider’s look at the tumultuous final years of Jackson’s life, as the pressures of famous fatherhood, an opportunistic inner circle, a rabid tabloid media and the fallout of his own increasingly erratic behavior spiraled the singer toward tragedy.
“I’ve turned down many opportunities over the years, even when Michael was around,” Navi explains. Executive producer de Passe — an entertainment multi-hyphenate who helped launch the Jackson 5 while working at Motown Records and also coproduced the Emmy-nominated miniseries The Jacksons: An American Dream — helped seal the deal. “To work in this film with her was something in itself,” Navi says. “And then to sit with her and get to know her and realize that she loved Michael, that she brought Michael to Motown, it was special that she was involved. Because this project, to me, is not about an achievement in my career, but the first time I’m able to do something back for Michael. I felt that I had a voice when he’s been silenced, and that maybe the voice that I have is the voice he wanted to be heard.”
Navi says he’s grateful the filmmakers took a chance on him, because he hopes his participation reassures Jackson super-fans that the film isn’t yet another cheap shot at a doomed genius. “What was presented to them was not an impersonator, but a person who worked with Jackson, who’s been around him, who knows how to portray him onstage — but also, somebody who could bring the character and the spirit of him to the film,” Navi says. “During a couple of points [portrayed] in the film, I was there personally. I remember the moment when we turned back to America from the Middle East. I remember when he announced the ‘This Is It’ concerts. And I remember when he passed away, when I heard it.”
Navi hopes audiences are as touched as he is by the revelation of Jackson as a devoted and fun-loving dad. “I could imagine what Michael went through as a father wanting to protect these children from the limelight, from the pitfalls of fame, and wanting to find them a home,” he says, adding that he was sometimes moved to tears on set.
“What I took away most was how sorry I felt for him. As a fan, I looked at him in terms of what he could deliver in music, in videos, in performance and in appearances. I never looked at what it cost him. You’re seeing the lights and the dancers and the band and people enjoying the magic — but you don’t see the cost of what it entails. When I walked away from this film, I realized how I actually love Michael more as a person than as an entertainer.”
Michael Jackson: Searching for Neverland premieres May 29 at 8/7c on Lifetime.