"I listened to every single line of her songs over and over and over," the leading lady says

By Michelle Tauber
Updated November 14, 2014 07:00 PM
Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty

For Alexandra Shipp, tackling the role of the late R&B star Aaliyah was “very scary,” the actress tells PEOPLE.

Shipp, 23, signed on to star in the new Lifetime biopic after Zendaya Coleman publicly pulled out of the production.

“I just wanted to portray this woman in the best way possible,” says Shipp, who was just 10 years old when Aaliyah died in a plane crash at age 22 in 2001.

Watch an exclusive clip from the movie above. Here’s what made it so daunting:

1. The Controversy

Family members were reportedly against the new biopic about the Detroit-raised singer. Shipp, who recently starred in MTV’s Drumline: A New Beat, shrugs off the controversy.

“This world focuses so much on negativity, and this movie has none of it,” she says.

Along with her rise to stardom, the film also explores Aaliyah’s relationship with singer R. Kelly, whom she secretly wed when she was 15 and he was 27. (The two always denied the marriage, which was reportedly annulled.)

“Any teenage girl, when she has her first crush, or her first reciprocated love, it’s out of this world, it’s head over heels, it’s forever,” says Shipp of her take on the relationship. “It’s a lot of things.”

2. The Crop Tops

With just one week to prepare for Aaliyah after wrapping Drumline, Shipp had to cram in workouts – especially given Aaliyah’s body-baring style.

“She was known for being so toned and svelte and she wore a lot of crop tops,” Shipp says. “I was like, ‘Give a girl a day or two!’ It was a lot of salads, a lot of fruit and more salads.”

As for her fitness regimen, “I was like, ‘Gotta run to my trailer to do sit-ups!’ People must have thought I was doing back flips in the trailer,” she jokes. “It was always shaking.”

3. The Singing

The performances in the film are “100 percent my voice,” says Shipp, who is a singer-songwriter herself. “I don’t think anyone could sound like her, but I definitely worked really hard. I listened to every single line of her songs over and over and over again. She had a huge range, and her voice really matured over the years. It went from a 14-year-old girl trying to find her voice to this powerhouse singing at the Oscars [in 1998]. How she was able to get it down to a chest voice and bring it all the way up to a head voice without stopping … that’s hard.”

“For me being 23, I’m not even a third of the way where Aaliyah was at 22,” Shipp adds. “She was about to kill it. All kinds of beautiful things were about to happen for her.”

Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B premieres on Lifetime on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET.

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