Pretending to be an out-of-work actor from New York, rapper Pras Michel of the Fugees spent nine days last year on L.A.'s skid row panhandling for change, sleeping on sidewalks and befriending people who had ended up on the street because of joblessness, mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction.
The 34-year-old's experiences are captured in the gritty documentary "Skid Row," opening today in limited release at the Culver Plaza Theater in Culver City as well as in New York and Washington, D.C.
There was Gilbert, who placed a needle in his arm and shot up on camera as Pras watched inside a tent. And Mike, a heroin addict for 15 years and clean for three, who pulled off the unexpected by winning $100,000 on a California Lottery "scratcher" -- only to die recently of an overdose. And the young prostitute who came from an upscale family in Virginia, sitting crumpled on the sidewalk in her flowing, off-the-shoulder red evening gown. And there was "Philly," addicted to alcohol but brilliant enough, Pras said, to take a computer apart and put it back together.
For Pras, who uses just his first name as a hip-hop artist, the post-Fugees years -- the group officially split in 1997 -- saw him still doing music. He has a new album coming out, he noted, "but I'm leaning toward film direction." He just had a role in a sci-fi action-adventure film, "The Mutant Chronicles," with John Malkovich and Ron Perlman, due out next year.
But it was a game of Scrabble with friends three years ago that led the rapper, who lives in Beverly Hills, to skid row.
"I play at competition level," he said in an interview this week. "It's like chess mixed with poker. There's a lot of strategy involved. So, I'm about to make this big move, my 'bingo' move -- 'bingo' is when you use all seven of your letters -- and one of my friends says, 'You know what would be interesting, Pras? If you did a documentary on skid row, because I live a couple blocks away from it.' "
Pras said he thought his friend, Rob Wisdom, was trying to distract him from the game. But a few months later, the subject came up again, and by January 2006, they decided to take the plunge. The film shoot came right after a reunion concert of the Fugees for which they shut down a street in Hollywood. Footage from the concert is included in the opening shots of the documentary.
Pras helped finance the film with his money and has a producing credit, along with Wisdom and Teryn Fogel.
Before venturing onto skid row, Pras was fitted with a tiny camera lens masquerading as a button on his shirt. The lens was attached to a camera in his fanny pack. During filming, he was followed during daylight hours by a director on foot using a "bag" camera to secretly record the rapper's encounters from a different angle. A camera crew was also parked nearby in a van with tinted windows. A Nation of Islam bodyguard stood at a distance. Their home base was the underground parking garage of the Midnight Mission at 6th and San Pedro. Pras had a pager to stay in touch with the crew.
"We had about three or four weeks of prep, and we just went in," Pras said. "See, I went in with the ignorance of life: 'This is going to be easy. I went to college. I went to Ivy League schools. I was kind of successful. I'm pretty smart. How hard can it be, right?'
"And the first day, it was so easy, because I get on skid row, it's about 6 in the morning, I only have $9 on me -- a dollar a day -- and I'm going to panhandle." He walked up to the financial district, where people arriving for work in the bank towers were pulling off the freeway. In no time, he made about $30, he said. "So, I run back to the camera crew and say, 'This is so . . . amazing, it's going to be a breeze!' "
He blew the money on lunch at the Standard, a downtown hotel, figuring he could make the same amount the next day. "I'm going, 'Why is it so hard to be homeless?' "
But then it rained. "In six hours, I make $7," Pras recalled. "That's when the reality hit and that was my first night sleeping on the cement" as the clouds opened up and rats scurried out of the sewers.
Pras quickly learned that skid row is a society with its own rules and customs.
"The section I lived on was called the 'transitional section,' " he said. "We put our tents up in front of storefronts. That was at 6th street near San Julian. Six in the morning, you have to be up because the storefronts open up. There are parts of skid row where [tents are left up] 24/7. Those are for families. To get into the family section, it's kind of like moving up into the suburbs. There are permanent tents you live in and you can't get on there. It's like the union!"
Niva Dorell, one of three directors on the film, along with Marshall Tyler and Ross Clarke, said she noticed a real change come over Pras as the days passed.