I make no secret of what a colossal fan I am of the hip-hop artist turned actor Common. I've been a fan of his music since I first heard his 1997 outing "One Day It'll All Make Sense." I immediately backtracked to his two previous albums, "Can I Borrow A Dollar?" and "Resurrection," and have been a faithful listener ever since.
There's no getting around the fact that the South Side of Chicago-born Common has movie star good looks, so it was only a matter of time before he made the move to acting. But he took a very different path than many other rappers turned actor. Rather than go right for above-the-title starring roles, Common eased into films with a succession of smaller parts and slowly ramped up his presence. He has a smoldering quality that makes it easy for him to slip into more menacing characters, but he's always managed to add a little something to his work.
His SMOKIN' ACES romance subplot with Alicia Keys was one of the sexiest things I saw the year it came out, and it was one of the best elements of that film. From there, he had other critical supporting roles in AMERICAN GANGSTER, STREET KINGS, WANTED, TERMINATOR SALVATION, and DATE NIGHT. Hell, he even took on the role of romantic leading man in JUST WRIGHT, opposite Queen Latifah. More recently, he's occupied his time with new music and is just about to start up the third season of the AMC series "Hell on Wheels."
But his latest film, LUV, his first as star and producer, is a heart-shattering tale of a man (Common) recently released from prison who is trying to get his life back on track and teach his young nephew how to be a man. At first, the life lessons begin with going to the bank to seal the deal on a small-business loan, but when that doesn't go as plan, it isn't long before Common's character, Vincent, turns back to his old life of guns, drug dealing, and other criminal activities. The film, which premiered to solid reviews as Sundance 2012, in no way glorifies this behavior, instead painting a realistic portrait of how easily and quickly impressionable children can be corrupted in the wrong hands. It's a great little movie with a stellar supporting cast that includes Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, and Lonette McKee.
Common has officially started up his own film production company, Think Common, and is scheduled to released the documentary MAGIC MEN in June. It's the story of two Queens teenagers who use magic to avoid and overcome their issues with gangs, drugs and even mental illness. It comes out at around the same time as Common's next acting role (after a small part in this week's MOVIE 43), NOW YOU SEE ME, with a great ensemble cast playing magicians being tracked down by the FBI (Common plays an agent) after they incorporate robbing a bank in Paris as part of their act.
I think that's enough with the preliminaries. I will add that the reason this interviewed happened is because I went after it. When I watched LUV, there was no interview attached to it; I was just so moved by it, I really wanted to talk to Common about his involvement and some of the issues that the film raises about children and violence. Please enjoy my talk with Common…
Capone: Hey, how are you?
Common: I’m great. I’m great. How are you doing?
Capone: Good, good. We actually met a couple of years ago. You were in Chicago doing press for, I think it was JUST WRIGHT.
Common: Oh yeah?
Capone: Yeah, I had a great time talking to you. I started watching LUV last week not knowing a single thing about it other than that you were in it, and it really threw me. It’s so good, and I want people to know about it, so thanks for doing this.
Common: Yeah, of course. Thank you.
Capone: I know this film premiered at Sundance a year ago, right? That’s where it started?
Capone: It seems almost more relevant today than it did even just a year ago, especially just in terms of the situation in this country, with people talking about guns and in Chicago having 500 homicides last year. Could you have possibly anticipated how relevant this film was going to be when you made it, or was that sort of the idea?
Common: I must say I didn’t think this film would resonate and have the relevance that it does have. I mean as we were making it, as the filmmaker’s vision, I knew what the story was about, the relationship between an uncle that wants to give love to his nephew and just doesn’t have all of the proper tools to give that love. But as I watched the film the first time at Sundance and then got to see it again, I was like, “Man, this really is dealing with the cycle that young inner-city kids go through.” They get passed down traditions that deal with guns and violence. “This is how you should be a man. Never show fear.” This is why the cycle is being perpetuated now. It is very relevant, because we need to get to the root of why young people feel like they can go out and kill each other and are put in a situation like that. I think the root is being shown in this movie.
Capone: What makes it even more tragic with this story is that Vincent is so hopeful and so prepared to take on this new life when he gets out of prison, and it all just falls apart so quickly. Was his spiral something that drew you to wanting to play this character?
Common: Yeah, that definitely drew me to it, because you get to see the struggle of a human being. You get to see a character that you see wants to do something good in his life, and because of circumstances and resorting back to what he knows that’s comfortable to him, he goes back to the street life quickly. I mean something somebody pointed out, even in the maneuver of wanting to open up his own business he still had to do something illegal. He had to take on somebody else’s identity just to get that. But the intentions were right, and what you get to see is life is not just one color. It’s not like everybody is bad or everybody is just good, you know? It's not as easy as, "This hustler is a bad person."
Our society is one of the societies that doesn’t allow for a person to make mistakes. We persecute them and then eventually if they come back, we do support them, but it’s just like you make a mistake and, man, you are being ridiculed to the point where you probably want to kill yourself, especially somebody in the public eye. But when you think about the way the system is set up, people that come out of prison, they don’t have as many opportunities to go back into society as a regular person, even if they rehabilitated themselves. It’s still more difficult to get a job.
Capone: Then there’s this whole coming-of-age story with the nephew. Again your character has the best of intentions in taking this kid with him. He wants to take him to the bank to watch him succeed. I’ve got to ask, because it has to have come up at some point that this idea that this kid is being exposed to all of these things--the uncle teaching him to shoot, that incredible drug deal scene--have you gotten and blowback from that?
Common: Originally when we first screened it in Chicago, I talked with Tamara Brown, who runs my foundation [the Common Ground Foundation], and she was saying, “Man, we have to discuss what this movie is about, because you don’t want people to watch it and have the message being misunderstood.” It was important to me to relate the message that I felt the movie was really trying to get across. Of course, I didn’t write the movie. I didn’t direct it, but I still saw what it made me think and feel and what I believe to be a seed of dialog being started about how we can resolve what’s going on in our inner-city of Chicago, what’s going on with the youth in Chicago. “How can we resolve these things?” I hope this movie brings out that emotion and that sense of wanting to change things.
Capone: To a point you made earlier, you were talking about how one of the things that Vincent is trying to do is is teach this kid to be a man. Is society’s definition of being a man just completely screwed up at this point? It starts with lesson on how to talk to girls, and goes to something much darker. Is our definition of what being a man is a little warped at this point?
Common: It’s definitely warped in many ways and it’s not anything that has a solid foundation and basis to it, like just values. Like, “Do you believe in God or a higher power? What are your views on respect and love for self? What are your views on women and how to treat a woman? What are your views on a man’s responsibility?” Those are things we're usually not taught, and I’m going to be honest, I grew up with a stepfather, and my father was not in Chicago growing up with me, but he was in Denver, and they did the best they could, but it was never like those sit-down talks, and that’s having males around.
Picture the kids that don’t have male influence, and then they do get a male figure, and it might be an uncle who’s going through something like drugs or not having a job and the influence that that uncle can have. Quickly, a story that [former NBA player] Michael Finley told me--he's one of the producers on this film--we did a screening of the movie in Dallas. He said one of the reasons he wanted to do the movie is because he knew the impact that his uncle had on him. He knew that this was a real story, because he saw how impactful his uncle was in his life. His uncle loved basketball and his uncle was supporting him in playing basketball, and that’s one of the reason why he’s one of the great players that he is now or was in the NBA. For Michael Finley to say that is like, “These father figures do have a huge influence on the thought process of young people.”
Capone: Speaking of having an influence on young people, Michal Rainey Jr. [as Vincent's nephew Woody] is doing some incredible work here. How did you find him, and tell me about working with him.
Common: We found him basically through… we knew a person who knew a person who knew somebody [laughs] and this photographer, Johnny Nunez, brought him to one of the producers of the film, Sean Banks, because we had been searching for kids. When we came across Michael, the director took the train up to New York and talked with him and was like, “Man, we got our kid.” I was like, “Man, I’m so happy.” I was like, “We got him?” “Yes.” As soon as I met him, I knew that this was the kid. There was just something really special about him. He’s blessed with gifts, and it’s amazing. Just to shout out another kid who is doing something, I don’t know how to pronounce her name, but the young lady that is in BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. It’s amazing to see these young children be just incredible and powerful.
Capone: Her name is Quvenzhané Wallis, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her; she's a dynamic person for sure. How did this material come to you originally? Did it come through Sheldon [Candis, director and co-writer]?
Common: Actually, it was because my agent at the time said, “Man, this is a powerful script. It’s a really good character for you to play. You would be great.” We had been looking to do some independent films and something where I could play the lead, something dramatic. We thought this could be a great platform and vehicle for that. I knew it was something that I could do with the character and I liked Sheldon’s point of view and his desire and passion. He’s got a good heart, and I wanted to be a part of that.
Capone: In looking at some of the actors that are in this, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Lonette McKee--these folks are like acting royalty. What do you learn from working with people of that caliber in terms of just acting?
Common: I learned to be confident, I learned to be free, meaning like let the natural skills come out. Be prepared and try different things, be open, and stay professional.
Capone: Do you feel like you had to up your game a little bit when you are working with people like this?
Common: I feel like first of all I have to bring my A game no matter what. If I’m in a scene by myself, everything I do I want it to be stellar and I strive for greatness.
Capone: Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you about NOW YOU SEE ME, which has this great cast. I've seen the trailer now a few times, and I haven't seen you in it, so who do you play exactly?
Common: [laughs] That's never a good sign when you aren't in the trailer, is it?
Capone: Crap, sorry.
Common: No, no, it's cool. I'm pretty sure I'm still in it. It's about this group of magicians that robs this bank during one of their performances, and these FBI agents who are trying to figure out how they did it. I'm one of the FBI agents. It's a really great story.
Capone: Who are most of your scenes with?
Common: I've got some cool moments with Mark Ruffalo mostly.
Capone: Nothing wrong with that. Common, that you so much for agreeing to do this on such short notice. You've got a great little movie on your hands. I know it's part of the AMC Independent program, which spotlights indie films in many of its theaters, correct? I've seen your commercials for it at the theaters.
Common: Oh really. I haven't seen it yet, but when we sold the film to AMC Independent, they asked if I'd film that, and I thought it was a great idea. But I hadn't heard if it was playing yet or not.
Capone: I've seen it about a dozen times in the last month or so.
Common: That's great news. Thanks for showing interest in the film. I'm really proud of it. Peace.