Rapper Common has spent the last five years gracefully transitioning into a full-time acting career, partially helped by his ongoing role on the AMC Western series “Hell on Wheels,” but with Sheldon Candis’ Luv, he takes center stage playing Vincent, a former prison inmate put in charge of taking his young nephew Woody (newcomer Michael Rainey Jr.) to school. Instead, Vincent decides the boy needs to learn more about the real world so he takes him around Baltimore on a number of his daily errands. The first stop is a bank where Vincent is trying to get a loan for a club he wants to open. When that doesn’t work out, he turns to his former crime boss, Mr. Fish, played by Dennis Haysbert, to get the money, but dubious of Vincent’s loyalty, Mr. Fish tests it by sending Vincent out to take care of some business, essentially dragging Vincent back into the world of crime he’s been trying to avoid, along with his impressionable young nephew.
It’s an impressive debut if only for the caliber of the cast that Candis was able to assemble for such a small budget film, a cast that includes Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Lonette McKee and Michael Kenneth Williams. Shot entirely in Candis’ hometown of Baltimore, the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year and was finally picked up by Indomina Releasing. Before the holidays, ComingSoon.net attended the New York junket for the movie where we got to catch up with Common (who we’ve spoken to a number of times before) and talk briefly to Haysbert and Charles Dutton about their roles in the film.
ComingSoon.net: This is a really great role for you so how did you find out about it and hook up with Sheldon?
Common: My agent at the time told me that he thought it was a script that would be a great character for me to play ’cause he knew that it was a lead role and we’d been looking to doing some independent films and a role that would be meaty and have some depth, a role where for me, as an actor, I could show the journey of a person and show their struggles and their conflicts and you know, just a life. When I got the script, I was like, “Man, this is a great role for me and I would love to play it.” I just wanted to meet with Sheldon and I was doing a speaking engagement in Pennsylvania and he drove up from Baltimore and we had a great talk. He was talking about “The Bicycle Thief” and how he wanted it to be such a simple story. He kept using the word “cinema.” “I want to make cinema, man,” so I was really motivated to be a part of the project.
CS: Did you wonder who he was going to get to play the kid? It’s pretty much you and Michael the whole movie.
Common: Oh, yeah. I definitely wondered and I played a part in it by making sure that we had the right kid. ‘Cause Sheldon had really liked another kid, too, and I thought the kid was very talented that he liked but I really felt in my gut that there was another kid out there that we needed that would be this kid, that would take the film to the next level. We found Michael through a friend who knew a friend who knew somebody and Sheldon met him and was overwhelmed and mesmerized when he met him. Soon as I met him, I knew that Sheldon had found something special. I knew that he didn’t want to get my hopes up too high but when he brought him through the door I was just like, “Yes!” You could just feel that this little kid was something that was like a gift.
CS: Was he wearing the suit when you met him? That suit is so much a part of his character.
Common: (laughs) No, it’s funny, but I just heard Michael say that “I don’t like wearing suits,” but he looked good in it. It’s funny because I’ve been doing some of the interviews with Michael and you realize that he’s just a kid, but he’s so talented.
CS: Vincent has an interesting story and I feel it’s fighting against obstaclesthe bank won’t give him a loanbut he’s trying but he ends up having to go back to get his money. It’s a shame but it happens.
Common: Yeah, it happens, and the way the system in our society is set up-especially if a release it’s a difficult role to try to get something that’s just on the straight and narrow, just to get a job. In the South, it’s difficult for people who have been in prison to get jobs, so to be a former inmate and come out looking for the right legal job is a difficult thing. We have to support those who don’t have those opportunities and not judge. That’s really one thing I hope that the film and what I want to do with characters and what I was hoping to do with Vincent was to have this character where you don’t judge him and you’re not looking down upon him, but you see that he wants to do well. He wants to do right and unfortunately he resorts back to what he once did and that’s the street way, but it is a means of survival and I really want to bring an understanding to people that come from that background.
CS: Working with Michael, did you have to sugarcoat things or protect him from the material or did you want to really be like Vincent and really show him what the world is like?
Common: Yeah, I was honestly in it like Vincent. I had become Vincent and subjecting Michael to whatever he was around, whether it was cursing or when we had to deal with the guns. I was just immersed into the character. I did my best and I obviously didn’t try and hurt the young man, but I wasn’t sugar-coatin’ things.
CS: The cast he assembled around you was great and you have great scenes with Dennis Haysbert and Danny Glover, Michael Kenneth Williams.
Common: It was great. You got people that are legendary, people that you’ve grown up I grew up watching Mr. Glover, Danny Glover, in films and Dennis Haysbert has been in so many great films from “Heat” to “Love and Basketball.” “Roc,” I used to watch his television show, Lonette McKee was in “Sparkle.” We were working with a lot of really classic actors, like legendary in their right. I was amazed when I would see Danny Glover. He was so natural and so good at it, I dunno, there was just something special about what he does.
CS: I remember when we spoke for “American Gangster,” which was almost exactly five years ago, at that point, you’d done “Smokin’ Aces” but not a lot else as far as acting, but now you have a TV series. How has it been switching over from doing music to being a full-time actor?
Common: It’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of fun. I love acting so much and I’ve been able to grow. I feel more confident from the time I spoke with you during “American Gangster” to now. I feel more acclimated to it. I know I have a long way to go and grow and it’s a long path. I’ll always be learning and working to get better, but I definitely feel like I can try new things and do different things. My eyes are looking at a new prize. I mean, I always wanted to be a leading man so now I feel like, “Yo, this is an opportunity and a blessing to be a leading man.” And also this other film I did “Just Wright.” I’m looking to do more where I can be a leading man in drama, in action, love stories.
CS: “Hell on Wheels” is a great gig for you and I have to say that the only reason I watched the show was because Rod Lurie was posting pictures from the set when he was directing his episode so I decided to check it out. It’s a really good show and I’m surprised it hasn’t gotten more attention.
Common: Yeah, man, we pray and believe and hope that we can get some more critical acclaim and any Emmy nominations at some point. I think the show got better this season and it’s growing. It’s going to grow. We have a new showrunner now and the writers are growing and building.
CS: There are a lot of shows that take a couple seasons before they are good, but your show is really strong and I feel it’s been forced to live in the shadow of “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” and “Walking Dead.”
Common: But I slowly feel us building an audience. I’m glad we worked with Rod Lurie and this director named Adam Davis and also Catherine Hardwicke. They directed some really good episodes. “Hell on Wheels” is a lot of fun, jiving on horses and shooting the guns and just having really good material. One of the most fulfilling things as an actor is to have good writing, so it’s a blessing that “Hell on Wheels” is bringing that to the table for us.
CS: Are you going to be able to do any more movie stuff or music in between seasons?
Common: Oh, yeah, yeah. I’m actually releasing an EP that will accompany the movie “Luv” that will be coming out around the same time and then I’m working on a mix tape and an album that will come out in September. I’m looking at some projects. I’ll be doing some new movies before we go to film “Hell on Wheels” which will likely take place in late April. Nothing to announce, but I’m solidifying some things but I definitely feel good about some of the things I’m looking to do.
CS: I went to the set of “Now You See Me” at 3 Points, but you weren’t there that day.
Common: “Now You See Me” was fun. I’m looking forward to seeing that film.
CS: Same here. I haven’t seen much of anything other than what we saw on set which was just one scene.
Common: Did you see the trailer yet? It’s pretty cool. Louis’ cool, man. What about “Django” did you see that?
CS: Yeah, I saw it twice, it’s really good.
Common: You saw it twice? Man, I gotta see it if you’ve seen it twice.
CS: Yeah, and I just came from the junket. It’s interesting to have “Hell on Wheels” which is a real Western and “Django” which isn’t even trying to be authentic. It’s more like Quentin Tarantino’s take on a Western. Do you enjoy doing the TV show where you stay on one project for a long time to develop the character?
Common: Yeah, I really love that because you get to develop and live with the character and you get to know him. You know, you’re going through what a person goes through, a person changes and grows and lives. Plus that character and playing from that time period is such a great thing for me to be able to do as an actor. I feel so fulfilled because I feel like the character has a presence that needs to be spoken, it needs to be heard. Many people are stereotyped about what a black person was at that time and it’s learning the depth of a person. You feel the human being more than “You’re a slave or a former slave.” You’re a person that wants to love and have a family. You get angry, you smile, the sense of humor. You forget that we laugh, too, so it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of that and be that character.
CS: The writers obviously love your character because they really give you great stuff to do.
Common: Yeah, yeah, they’ve been doin’ some great stuff for me.
And here are a few quotes from our interviews with Dennis Haysbert and Charles S. Dutton conducted the same day.
Dutton’s involvement with the film is particularly compelling, first of all because he’s one of the few locals living in Baltimore and he also directed the HBO series “The Corner” there which ultimately led to “The Wire.” Dutton’s own story mirrors that of Vincent in some ways since he spent time in prison before finding a love for acting which ultimately led to him developing the popular TV show “Roc.” It turns out that Dutton’s connections to Baltimore and prison life played a part in him taking on the role of Cofield, one of Vincent’s colleagues who has come on hard times after going against Mr. Fish.
“Sheldon’s uncle was one of my good friends,” he told us early in the interview. “He’s in prison but he’s one of my old running buddies from way back in the 1960s so when I heard this young USG filmmaker was trying to get a hold of me through my agency. I was like, ‘Aw, another young kid with a script. I can’t be bothered. I ain’t doin’ nothing for free no more,’ but then I learned the kid was from Baltimore and I thought, ‘I’ll give him ten minutes.’ Met him in L.A. and a couple things happened. He told me who his uncle was and I’m lookin’ at the kid sayin’, ‘Wait a minute, Vernon was your uncle? Me and your uncle started in reform school together when we were kids.’ Then I saw his short film, his reel. I was so impressed with that. His reel blew me away. I saw a young filmmaker who had a cinematic eye and an eye for detail, then I got his script. I read the script and said, ‘I don’t know what part I can play. It will have to depend on how much time I can give you with my schedule,’ ’cause I was already shooting a film. ‘I might be able to get away for four days, I might not be able to get away for one or two days.’ It was wonderful to help a young filmmaker out who was obviously talented, so it was a labor of love and passion but at the same time, we believed in him.”
Best known for his role as President David Palmer on the series “24,” Dennis Haysbert got the script through more conventional means before meeting with Sheldon to talk about playing the film’s primary bad guy, Mr. Fish. “I think he always had me in mind for Mr. Fish,” he told us. “I figured it would be a good departure from what I normally do.”
He was also compelled to join when he heard Dutton was already attached even though Luv is the second movie in which they both appear without having any scenes together. Oddly, this is only Haysbert’s second film shooting in Baltimore after “Major League II” way back in 1994.
“I’ve known people sort of like Mr. Fish, not really kingpins but people that were maybe at the top of their particular pod, if you will.” Haysbert told us when asked whether he felt his character was taking advantage of Vincent for his own means. “Mr. Fish’s story is a little more complex in that it’s not just Common’s character coming out of jail but his character coming out of jail early, which begs the question, ‘What did he do or say to get out early?’ That’s where any boss’ paranoia comes from because he was one of my closest and best lieutenants and I raised him like a son, so I’m a little curious how he got out so early. ‘What did you say and to whom did you say it?'”
“Common is a hard, hard worker,” Dutton said about the film’s lead. “Having just started getting into the acting side of things, but he’s a really really hard worker and works at the craft. I was really proud of his performance and I really believed every moment that they were uncle and nephew. They even started to look alike in the movie.”
“Working with the cast that he had assembled was very generous,” Haysbert said about working with the first time director. “I think 80% of directing is the casting and I think he cast the film very well with strong actors and actors that are going to be compelling to see together. It was really wonderful to be working with Danny (Glover) as a Michel Corleone (with him as) Fredo with a dash of Sonny in it. That was the challenging to be the boss of your brother and to have that brother be Danny Glover. I’ve known Danny for a while, but this is the first time we’ve ever worked together and then to work together in this capacity was very challenging and entertaining.”
Luv opens in select cities on Friday, January 18.