Former Nickelodeon Star Tackles Teen Dating Violence

Sixteen-year-old Jordan Coleman was a voice on the hit TV show The Backyardigans. Then he decided to write and direct his own films — the latest of which is Payin' the Price. He's showing it in multiple cities, and encouraging teens to "speak up and get out" if they are in abusive relationships. Coleman talks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Did you ever hear about a big problem and you wanted to tell other people about it, but you weren't quite sure how to get people to listen? Teen actor Jordan Coleman - perhaps better known as the voice of Tyrone, the Moose, on the Nickelodeon series "The Backyardigans" - felt that way about teen dating violence.

He started thinking about it after the arrest of pop star Chris Brown on charges of beating up his then-girlfriend and fellow pop star Rihanna. And then he found out that one in 10 teens nationwide reports that a boyfriend or girlfriend has physically hurt them in the last year - that according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But Jordan Coleman didn't just stew about this. He decided to make a film about it to show how teen dating violence happens and the cost on young lives. It's called "Payin' the Price." It won the 2011 HBO Best Feature Film competition at the Martha's Vineyard African-American Film Festival. It's being seen in schools around the country now. And Jordan Coleman is with us now to tell us more about it.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JORDAN COLEMAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So how did you go from Tyrone the Moose to making films? And I want to mention that "Payin' the Price" is actually your second film.

COLEMAN: Yes. When I first started on "The Backyardigans," I started getting checks in my name. And my mother said, you can't spend all your money buying Jordans and video games. So I thought how I could help out my community, and I realized by making a film. And I saw how a lot of African-American males weren't really focusing on their schoolwork. So I got all their favorite celebrities, from Kobe Bryant to Michael Strahan, to different hip-hop artists, they're all in the film talking about education. So AMC sponsored the seven-city tour for "Say it Loud," and people just loved the film. And it made me feel good inside that I'm helping other people.

MARTIN: So you were looking for another topic, something - another subject to make a film about when the whole Chris Brown-Rihanna thing broke?

COLEMAN: Yes. In 2009, a lot of my friends were choosing whether Chris Brown or Rihanna were right in the situation that they had. And I did research, and I found that one in every three teens are victimized through teen dating violence, which is scary. So as I did more and more research, I felt like this was a serious topic, and we need to stop teen dating violence.

MARTIN: Talk to me a little bit, if you would, about some of the conversations you overheard with friends and peers around this issue that kind of sparked your thinking about it.

COLEMAN: I was hearing stuff like Chris Brown doesn't need Rihanna, or Rihanna doesn't need Chris Brown. Chris Brown only likes her because of her money and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

MARTIN: But were you hearing people play it off, like it wasn't a big deal?

COLEMAN: Yes. People were definitely playing it off like it wasn't a big deal, like, OK, so what? He hit her. Or so what? She got hurt. It doesn't really matter. And being raised by a mother who told me to always love women, it struck a nerve for me. I felt kind of weird hearing this conversation in my school with my friends. So that's kind of what made me go and do research about it. And then once I did research about it, I felt like this was a serious topic, that we need to stop teen dating violence.

MARTIN: Let's just play a short clip from the film. "Payin' the Price" follows the story of Jazz Johnson. He's a high school student. He's very popular, comes from a prominent family. He's got a reputation as a big man on campus. And then a young woman whom he dated accuses him of hitting her. And here's a short clip from the film. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PAYIN' THE PRICE")

MORGAN POWELL: (as Sabrina) He criticized me. He called me fat and ugly. He said that nobody would want me, I needed to keep it a secret. But I was in pain, you know, after covering bruises, getting slammed into a wall. I stopped seeing Jazz.

MARTIN: That is actress Morgan Powell, who plays the alleged victim in the film, Sabrina, in the movie. The story's very painful. I mean, this is not - you're not shying away from some of the details here.

COLEMAN: Right.

MARTIN: I just wanted to ask you how you came up with the story and how you decided on the approach to take.

COLEMAN: As I started to plot out my storyline for "Payin' the Price," a lot of different girls from my school started telling me about their abusive relationships. So the film has a compilation of different relationships that I've heard stories about.

MARTIN: Was there a surprise for you in the course of doing your research and doing your work on this film? Was there something that shocked you?

COLEMAN: The biggest surprise for me was probably that boys are victims of teen dating violence, as well. I always think that the guy was trying to be the dominant one or the one that's trying to abuse the woman.

MARTIN: You know, in fact, you did have a scene in there about that, which I think it comes early in the film, where you actually show this. And I thought it was very powerful. And the other point that the film makes is that this isn't just one race or another. Your stars of the film, if you will, happen to be African-American.

COLEMAN: Yes.

MARTIN: But you also show that this is something that affects people from all different backgrounds. Why did you decide to make Jazz such a celeb kind of guy, you know what I mean? His parents are both celebs in the film. You know, his father's a big-time lawyer. His mom's a big-time talk show host. Why did you decide to sort of position it that way?

COLEMAN: Even though I'm trying to get my message out, I also was creating a film. So I wanted the film to be interesting. And I thought if we have a guy who's on top of the world and his life comes crashing down when he meets a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, I felt like that would give a little bit better twist to the story.

MARTIN: Do you think it was part of the idea here that he thought he was entitled to do whatever?

COLEMAN: Yes. He could do whatever he want. He was born with a silver spoon in the mouth, so whatever he wanted he could get.

MARTIN: How did you understand Sabrina, her motivation for allowing him to treat her that way?

COLEMAN: Well, from the stories that I was hearing from the different people in my school, saying how they stayed in a relationship because they loved the person and they would ask their parents what should they do. And their parents would say: Do whatever you wanted to do, but just know that we are going to support you either way. And I felt that was kind of scary because the parents are allowing them to stay in the relationship, even though their daughter is being hurt. So I felt that Sabrina was being hurt, but she wanted to stay in the relationship because she really loved Jazz.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Jordan Coleman. He is a filmmaker. He's a former Nickelodeon star. You might recognize that voice. That was the voice of Tyrone the Moose on "The Backyardigans." He has made a new film. It's actually his second film. It's called "Payin' the Price," and it describes teen dating violence. And he's hoping to spark conversations about teen dating violence by showing this in schools around the country.

Again, I have to go back to the fact that when I first heard that you had made this film and you were only 14 years old, I was expecting it to be like, you know, one-room schoolhouse type of thing.

COLEMAN: Right.

MARTIN: I didn't expect it to have, like, multiple scenes, indoor scenes, outdoor scenes, you know, tracking shots, you know, like the whole thing. How did you manage all that? And I understand that you kind of worked very quickly.

COLEMAN: Definitely. We shot the whole film in 11 days. I needed to get to football practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yes you did.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLEMAN: But regarding the funding and stuff like that, I took loans from my mother. I used her whole retirement fund.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLEMAN: And I took loans from my grandparents, and I won $10,000 on MTV's dance show, "America's Best Dance Crew." And so that kind of, like, fueled me to continue to me to make the film. But I knew that I was on a tight schedule because, of course, of football practice, and I knew I was on a tight budget because I didn't have a lot of money to work with.

MARTIN: And now your mom doesn't have a retirement, so my goodness. Oh, my...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

COLEMAN: I'll pay you back, mommy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Yes. Let's hope so. We might have to start a collection out here. So the film better do well. So what are you hoping to accomplish with the film? What are you hoping will happen?

COLEMAN: I'm going all across the country showing my film. And I just really want to get my message out, that...

MARTIN: Which is what?

COLEMAN: That teen dating violence is not OK. And if you're in an abusive relationship, you need to speak up and get out.

MARTIN: You know, ironically, you started making this film two years ago...

COLEMAN: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...when this incident between Chris Brown and Rihanna first hit the news. They're back in the news now for issuing these two remixes. He's on one of her songs, and she's on one of his.

COLEMAN: Right.

MARTIN: What thoughts is that spark for you?

COLEMAN: It's not a good message that they're sending out to their fans. And even though they might not think that they're role models, they really are. So with Rihanna and Chris Brown getting back together for the remixes, it's making it OK that girls and guys who are being abused, it's OK to go back to their partner.

MARTIN: If you could speak to them, I'm just wondering, as a peer...

COLEMAN: Right.

MARTIN: ...you know, you're 16 now. They're both still young. What would you say to them?

COLEMAN: I would just tell them to be careful, really, that teen dating violence is a very serious topic and it's dangerous. Statistics and common sense show if somebody hits you one time, they'll hit you again.

MARTIN: Jordan Coleman is the writer and director of the film "Payin' the Price." He's on a multicity tour for the film. It's part of his effort to address teen dating violence, and he was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios on this multicity tour.

Jordan Coleman, thank you so much for joining us, and best wishes to you. And thanks, mom, for supporting this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You have a good mom.

COLEMAN: Yes. I do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that is our program for today.

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