Toronto — To make himself a movie star and his life story a movie, the rapper 50 Cent had to revisit the day he was shot nine times by lying on freezing asphalt for three hours with a chest full of fake blood and bullet holes. For other scenes, he had to conjure up the walk and talk of his youth, when he was an orphaned kid living on a desperate boulevard in Queens, N.Y., where a beating or arrest could be around the corner. He even had to narrate the murder of his mother and the torching of her corpse.
None of that, though, was as hard as the day that the film's acclaimed director, Jim Sheridan, told his young star that it was time to cry for the camera.
"I spend a majority of my time conditioning myself not to cry," said 50 Cent, who is the modern archetype of hard-core rap. He paused and made the facial expression of a man doing sit-ups. "Don't cry. In my neighborhood, things happened and you would feel it coming up. You couldn't. If you're strong and don't cry, you're all right. If you do? One person might see it and misinterpret it."
The rapper shook his head ruefully. "And that can start a whole other scenario."
He sat back and looked out the window of his trailer at a dusty parking lot in a run-down district of Toronto. He is in the midst of filming "Get Rich or Die Tryin,' " a film that uses the rapper's life as its core story frame. He is following in the footsteps of Ice Cube, 2Pac and Eminem, all of whom segued from rap-world stardom into film with intense debuts in dramatic films. And this film is gritty, gritty, gritty -- dental-torture-and-scorched-corpses sort of gritty. It is not easily dismissed as a low-ambition strip mining of its star's pop culture status; for one thing, it has in Sheridan a five-time Oscar-nominated filmmaker known for films that are both harrowing ("In the Name of the Father") and heartfelt ("My Left Foot"). The screenplay is by Emmy-winning writer Terence Winter, whose stint on "The Sopranos" qualifies him as an expert on the profane poetry and death rattles of East Coast thuggery.
Last year, Winter traveled with 50 Cent while the rapper was on tour, to gain his trust and insight. The 56-year-old Sheridan, meanwhile, has bonded with his 29-year-old lead actor by impressing him with his knowledge of rap ("He knows his KRS-One, big-time," 50 Cent said approvingly) and by hinting to his own hardscrabble youth in the tougher districts of Dublin and, later, New York. The trust was needed to get the rapper to claw his way through the script pages that call for the main character, a young hood named Marcus, to weep.
"It's hard to let go like that," 50 Cent said. He idly tapped at his trailer's bulletproof window with his left hand. The hand is missing the top of one knuckle. "That's from when I got shot."
It was in May 2000, when a street rival rolled up and gunned 50 Cent down in front of his grandmother's house. The motive remains hazy, but a few months earlier 50 Cent had begun his climb to fame with a vicious recording that insulted and threatened the top stars of rap. The shots should have killed him but later helped him make a living; as much or more than any of his songs, the pop culture back story of 50 Cent was shaped by that gunfire. As Madonna was to sex, 50 Cent is now to violence; she performed concerts in lacy lingerie -- he prowls the stage with ribs wrapped in Kevlar. And like the Material Girl in her heyday, much of America will pay to see what happens next.
What happens next is filming in Canada and is scheduled to arrive in theaters in November while the rapper is on tour with Eminem and others. On stage expect 50 Cent to be the glowering, lewd and brawny rapper known from his videos on MTV. For a surprisingly funny, animated and introspective view of the performer, you have to get a closer seat than they sell in arenas.
"When I was [on the street] I never went to funerals when someone got killed. We would go to the wake, see the body, sign the book, pay respects, and then we were gone ... nowadays, emotionally, I am probably 5 years old. Everybody cries, right? When I do, it's out of nowhere and I'm alone."
He is rarely alone these days; the film crew logs 15-hour days and then he's in a mobile studio working with a close circle of his crew on the soundtrack. Then of course there are the bodyguards who are never far off from their employer, who at any given time is the target of rap rivals he has publicly mocked, tough guys who fantasize about a quick shot to notoriety or whoever else is "hating, hating, hating," as he puts it. The bodyguards were even there when their boss was splayed in the street with fake gunshot wounds that were not too far off from his real scars.
"Laying there," he said, "I wasn't so much thinking what happened last time, I kept thinking about, you know, how it might happen again."