In the music world, rapper and hip-hop artist Common has already proven himself. He's released eight albums, earned five Grammy award nominations and has worked alongside the likes of Kanye West. But as an actor, Common (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.) is still fighting to be taken seriously.
"No matter what you accomplish in the music world, that is still not going to secure you a role in a quality movie. Some casting agents and directors and producers will say, 'We don't want a rapper in the role,' " said Common by telephone from New York this week, where he was promoting his latest film, "Just Wright."
In the romantic comedy, out Friday, he stars opposite Queen Latifah as Scott McKnight, a hot-shot NBA star who initially passes over the full-figured Leslie Wright (Latifah) for her conniving, supermodel-esque best friend (Paula Patton). When Scott injures his knee, Leslie, a physical therapist, nurses him back to health. It's only after months of one-on-one time that Scott begins to realize that he may be more attracted to Leslie and her inner beauty than the dime-a-dozen gold diggers clamoring for him from the sidelines.
The role marks a significantly lighter turn for Common, 38, who has taken on smaller, muscular action roles in such films as "American Gangster," "Wanted" and "Terminator Salvation." It's also the first time he's been a leading man.
Initially, Latifah and the other producers on the film had intended to cast an actual NBA player for the role of Scott — but the athletes' schedules were becoming tricky to work around.
"And then Common got a hold of the script and called me and he was like, 'I can do this, give me a shot at this, I will put everything into this,' " Latifah said. "I said I'd consider it because we're good friends, and I asked Sanaa [Hamri, the director], 'Do you think you can get the performance you need from him?' And she said yes."
Hamri had previously directed Common's 2001 music video "Come Close," where she first saw an acting spark.
"I noticed in Common that he had a presence and a genuine feeling to his demeanor," Hamri said. "There was something in the close-ups — it was coming through his eyes. I worked with him on each line and he took direction well. Ever since then, he's always told me he really wanted to act and has had that vision for himself."
His desire to act first unearthed itself around the time he met Hamri, when he felt he had "hit a ceiling as a musician."
"I tried to play the piano and that didn't work, and I tried to sing and I wasn't hitting all my notes, so I began taking acting classes and they just opened me up. It was like the birth of a new creative life for me," he said.
In class, he tackled the work of such playwrights as Sam Shepard and Neil LaBute. The education gave him the confidence to feel he could be a talented actor — but that was something he still had to prove to Hollywood insiders.
Beyond prepping his acting chops for "Just Wright," Common also had to get into prime physical shape. He first trailed his friend and Clippers player Baron Davis to "pick his brain" about what it was like to be a professional basketball player. Then he worked out with celebrity trainer Harley Pasternak and the coaches of the New Jersey Nets to trim down, losing 15 pounds.
"I enjoy changing my body up for a role to prepare to become another person," Common said. "It was definitely more responsibility. When you're the lead in a movie, you're working almost every day — you're a starter, if you're going to equate it to basketball."
The actor worked so hard, Latifah says she even felt sorry for him.
"He brought his A game to set every day, and I even felt bad for him sometimes because we were all working really hard, obviously, but he would have to go from rehearsal to basketball practice," she said. "He'd shoot, go to the gym, eat properly — he really worked his butt off."
His dedication to acting, Common said, even surprised his girlfriend — tennis star Serena Williams.
"She really liked the movie, and she was surprised," he said. "She was like, 'Man, I didn't know you were actually going to be this good.' "
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