Rapper Common Acts in American Gangster

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15 years after the release of his first album, rapper Common may be having one of the best years of his career with the huge success of his latest album “Finding Forever,” which debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts just a few years after his last album garnered four Grammy nominations.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Common has secretly been making moves into a new career as an actor, and earlier this year, he made his impressive acting debut in Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces. Although his role in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is a smaller one, he has also been cast in a prominent role in next year’s Wanted and is quickly becoming one of the few rappers that might actually be taken just as seriously for his acting chops as he is for his prowess as a lyricist and performer.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to Common for the Ridley Scott movie, albeit far too briefly to really get into all aspects of what’s proving to be a very rich career for the rapper.

ComingSoon.net: I’m a recent fan after seeing you in the Dave Chapelle movie and Joe Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces.” That scene you did with Jeremy Piven in that movie was great.
Common: Thanks, man. I’m always glad to have new fans.

CS: This has been a good year for you in that you’ve really been getting into the acting.
Common: Yeah, I’m definitely into it. Man, I just love it. It’s so much fun, and it’s new, and it seems like such a long journey, like you can do it for a long time and just so many new things you can do as an actor, you know?

CS: You’ve been doing the music for a long time, so when did you decide to get into acting? Did someone like Joe Carnahan contact you and say “Hey, you should be in my movie” or how did that come about?
Common: Nah, it was more or less me sayin’ “How do I want to expand as an artist? How can I keep growing as a artist?” I tried playing the piano and that wasn’t as natural, so then I just took acting classes. I went to a class, and I really loved the art of it, and I was like, “Man.” I took the classes as consistently as I could. I couldn’t take it often ’cause I was working a lot, so I would go sporadically and it was just like, “Man I want to do this.” I just started auditioning and one audition that clicked was “Smokin’ Aces.”

CS: That’s amazing that you went through the same process any other actor might.
Common: Yeah, I auditioned. Every role I got up to this day, I’ve auditioned for.

CS: That’s cool to hear, but it would be pretty wild if your fans showed up at your concert and you came up on a hydraulic lift playing a grand piano.
Common: (laughs) That’d blow ’em away. Then I’d be like a renaissance man! (laughs)

CS: Well, you’re sort of going that way anyway between everything you’re doing… music, acting, writing children books. How did you find out about “American Gangster”? I assume you were a movie fan and knew Ridley Scott’s other movies.
Common: Yeah, I must tell you the first thing that attracted me to this movie was “American Gangster,” the title, and Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. I was like, “Man!” I’m learning my film stuff, but I didn’t know Ridley Scott until they said “Ridley Scott, who did ‘Alien’ and ‘Gladiator’,” then it all just clicked in, but man, then I was really honored, but it was Denzel and Russell Crowe that was more like, “Man, I’d love to be in a movie with them two dudes.”

CS: What was the audition like? What did they have you do?
Common: Well, actually, I auditioned for a different character. I auditioned for this character named Tango, who ended up being played by Idris Elba, who is the guy that Denzel… you seen the movie? You remember that? That was the first, and then I tried for another character and they said I was too young for that one, so I was like, “Man, I hope they’re going to put me in the movie.” And they say, “Yo, you’re going to be one of the Lucas brothers.” I was grateful for that.

CS: Am I wrong or are you actually playing T.I.’s father in the movie?
Common: Yeah, yeah…

CS: Aren’t you like five years older than him though?
Common: Yeah, exactly. (laughs)

CS: And you two just shared a BET Hip Hop Award, too.
Common: Yeah, we shared an award, I mean it was like (laughs)… it was funny, man, to be like his dad, to have him call me, “Pop.” (laughs) It was funny, man. When I seen it in the movie, it was funny, too, to me, but I got past it and the rest of it was cool.

CS: I think most people would still think of you as being fairly young so I guess playing that character allows you to show a bit of range, which is good.
Common: It’s definitely… I mean, if my character got to develop, I’d really have shown range, but you know, it’s a small part.

CS: In some of the interviews you’ve done, you’ve spoken out about the “gangster mentality” in rap and have the music be about good things, but with that in mind, how do you feel about movies like this that glorify real gansters like Frank Lucas?
Common: Yeah, I mean, but at the same time, what I think is important about this movie is that it shows the dynamics of the people, like Frank Lucas wasn’t a bad person. He did some things that was wrong—buying and selling drugs ain’t good for the community, it ain’t good for anybody—but he still was like a church goin’ tryin’ to take care of his family, that was his goal, and unfortunately, he chose a profession that was illegal and it wasn’t beneficial for people. If you look at the core of who he is, he was a good guy. I think that shows in the film, and I think that’s why people can connect with him, and I think Denzel really embodied and carried that as an actor where you know, you’re just watching this drug dealer that’s killed dudes, but you still feel for him.

CS: Did you meet Frank Lucas Jr. and did you hear any of his music?
Common: Nah, nah, but I know about it, yeah.

CS: I was just doing some research for this and I found that he even had a MySpace page, and he’s totally playing off the “American Gangster” thing hoping that people will find it.
Common: Oh, does he? That’s cool that he’s doing his thing, but it’s funny. For me, taking on roles, I get into becoming somebody else and when you do a movie, you know that it’s not being portrayed as “this is reality” even though this story was real. It was like, “Okay, this is a story that’s being told.” It’s a story when you do a movie. When I did “Smokin’ Aces” it was a story bein’ told when usually in music USUALLY what you portray, especially in hip-hop, is usually a reflection of you and your experiences. Though I tend to agree that hip-hop also needs imagination, too. I disagree that hip hop should only be reality. It should be some imagination. I mean, you should be able to do stories about all types of things where you use your imagination, because it did originally, people like Slick Rick or Ice Cube would tell stories about stuff, but they’d use their imagination. I think hip-hop would be good to do that because that’s part of art. Art is imagination and experiences.

CS: You’re a storyteller really, because that’s really where rap started.
Common: Yeah, exactly.

CS: I talked to a lot of musicians who’ve become actors and they’ve said that being on stage is a performance and is kind of like acting, so it’s a natural progression to get into movies and TV acting.
Common: Yeah, that definitely helps you to build a certain confidence and to be able to deal with people watching you, but it’s different when you get in front of the camera and you gotta say somebody else’s lines or some lines that somebody else wrote, and evoke a certain emotion each time. I will say that performing has helped me to build as an actor, but it won’t get you over the acting hump, know what I mean? You gotta really have the skills as an actor.

At this point, Common’s personal publicist said we only had two more minutes, killing the flow of the interview, and we had to cancel our follow-up questions in this area of discussion and cut right to talking about Common’s upcoming movie Wanted and his recent audition for George Miller’s Justice League, which you can read on Superhero Hype!. We were hoping to talk about his recent hit record and upcoming musical project with Q-Tip of Tribe Called Quest, but sadly, Common wasn’t able to make the press conferences the next day either, so this ended up being a far shorter interview than we hoped.

American Gangster opens on Friday, November 2 and maybe we’ll have another chance to talk to Common before Wanted opens on March 28, 2008, though the trailer is supposed to debut in front of “Gangster.”