Common on Sundance Pic LUV, Drake Beef, and Acting Pursuits: I Want to Be ‘One of the Great Actors’

He’s certainly no stranger to the world of entertainment, but Grammy-winning musician Common only recently began channeling his energies into acting. (His first film: Joe Carnahan’s Smokin’ Aces). And yet, relative newbie status be damned! The hip-hop veteran, currently seen on AMC's Hell on Wheels, sat down last week with Movieline to discuss his Sundance pic LUV, a Baltimore-set family/gangster tale from director Sheldon Candis, and his goals for future greatness: “God willing, I’ll become one of the great actors of our day.”

It was the first visit to Park City with a film for the self-professed “Sundance virgin,” marking a maturity in his developing acting career: Not only does Common lead the cast of LUV as Vincent, an ex-con shepherding his young nephew (standout newcomer Michael Rainey, Jr.) on a tour along the underbelly of Baltimore, he also earned his first producing credit on the indie production.

Movieline queried Common on his filmmaking interests, how his acting career might affect his music, why the media fuss over Maya Angelou and his new record The Dreamer, The Believer was “disappointing,” and how he came to beef with rap upstart (and fellow Sundancer) Drake.

How did you become involved with LUV in the first place?
It came to me through my agent at the time, and he said it was a cool script, story was great, and he thought this character would be great for me. I read it and was like, I like the story and I know I could really do some things with this character – he’s a human being who’s just trying to do something in life, be somebody in life. I feel like that was a good thing for me to chase after as an actor, because so many people no matter what nationality or age group you are wants to be somebody and to achieve something in life. A friend of mine told me he thought it was like a street version of Pursuit of Happyness. [Laughs] I said ‘Ok, I’ll take that! I like that.’

Why was it important to also come onboard as producer?
Once I was asked on as an actor I felt that I could bring some things as a producer, helping to bring cast members and give my creative input and just be in support of Sheldon, the director. It was one of those things where I could network to help bring in more cast members.

That can be key to helping many small scale movies get made.
Yes – get made, get seen, get attention… and to get a great cast, to make it quality.

Who were some of the cast members you helped bring onboard?
For me, Michael K. Williams…

And he brings an interesting Baltimore connection to the film!
Yeah, exactly! We thought it was so great to get him to play a cop instead of a street guy.

And a sensitive cop at that – he has a great moment with [eleven-year-old] Michael Rainey Jr. in the film.
Yeah! Michael Rainey Jr. is great. This guy is special. We were seeking him out. He’s a special human being, and we searched in a lot of places. It was one of those things where a friend suggested somebody and Sheldon drove up to New York, was waiting in the lobby and met this kid and was like, ‘Man, we got the guy.’ I was really keen on having a little boy who could do everything.

You two make quite the dapper pair together.
Thanks! You know, even when we weren’t filming we were bonding. He’s a natural. This little guy can sing old rap songs, like Wu-Tang! Everything is probably so new and overwhelming, and he’s just grateful.

Some scenes were shot under the gun, with really limited time to capture the best take. What was the experience like for you as an actor under those circumstances and having to find the magic in a moment like that?
As much as I always want to do a take over, knowing you only have one or two takes – I like that pressure, too. The last scene, Michael and I were literally in the van at five in the morning and he was asleep, but you’re put in that position and you have to deliver. This is why, if you want greatness and want to be a great actor, you have to deliver when called upon. In those situations you’ve just got to get to the art of things, you’re there as an actor to bring these people to life so you can’t really worry about things. The sun is coming up and we’ve only got two takes and we won’t be able to do this again – you just go for it. It was fun, in a way, the adrenaline, and you have to use your creative minds and ideas. It’s similar to doing an art project, where you’re working with creative people and it’s not somebody who’s not a creative person trying to tell you what to do. So even if you make your mistakes, it’s okay – that’s a part of what art is.

There’s something to be said of creativity borne of constraints.
There is – literally our crew was doing things that, I mean, there would be scenes where we didn’t have the right amount of extras and one person from the neighborhood would just step in and be in the scene. So there were a lot of natural elements there that I think serve for making good movies. Sheldon wanted you to feel the world of Baltimore; you get real people from Baltimore and you don’t have to try to get them to have a Baltimore accent, they have the Baltimore energy. It’s just there. To me it’s like when you see The Departed or The Fighter, you’re in the world no matter what.

Looking at your career overall, you have so many interests and pursuits these days. How do you feel your perspective on your music may be changing the more you immerse yourself in Hollywood and acting?
I think my perspective on music becomes a lot more confident and free because the more I grow as an actor the more confident I become in my career. I believe in my career as an actor and it allows me to free up the pressure of doing an album that’s going to be the biggest selling album, or doing an album that has to fit into the format of what’s going on in music. And though I always would go into my own world to create albums, there’s even more of a liberty to create music because acting has shown me more freedom as an artist. Acting has helped me learn more about myself and to be not as inward, to have fun and not be so self-conscious.

There’s also the dichotomy of the personal nature of your music vs. acting, in which you become somebody else…
Yeah, you do. And when I first began acting I was like, ‘I love getting to be this other person because I get to express things that Rashid – Common – can’t express.’ That was one of the greatest joys about being able to become this other person, but again the way I do things is sometimes within the acting process you’re dealing with your own things. So that’s what I mean in saying you learn more about yourself, even just from acting classes. Acting classes for me were the incubation, the beginning, the seed that made me say ‘I want to act.’ I want to go to acting classes – I mean, obviously I’d rather do films or plays – but I enjoy acting classes, too.

Many actors say that the validation is all in the act of doing the work.
Yes, and for me obviously you learn certain things in classes and different techniques and you get better, but when you get on a movie set there are new things to learn, too. Like even just learning, ‘Okay, you’re waiting around for 8 hours and they call you do a scene – you’d better be ready.’ ‘Okay, the light broke right when you were in the middle and fired up – you’ve got to chill and get back to the scene.’ I’m looking forward to doing plays and television, too; I mean, I’m doing television with Hell on Wheels! That’s a role that I’m really enthused about because that character gives me a lot to do. I can develop and evolve with it and I like the responsibility that I possess with that character, because to play an African American in that time is a responsibility. So many times we’ve seen black people from that time as being depicted as downtrodden and oppressed and beat down, and the character I play is strong, a leader, intelligent.

In a random Sundance coincidence, both you and Drake are in town during this year’s festival. Can you explain your well-publicized beef with him?
I mean, to be honest I feel I said everything I needed to say on the song. I looked at this whole thing as a part of hip-hop [culture], MCs battle sometimes. One person says this, another person says that. That’s what it’s been for me.

So it was more of a fun thing for you?
It was fun for me, and I’m not personally invested in it. It’s not like I feel anything toward him as a human being. It’s more like, ‘You said something about me? I’m in the boxing ring too, so I’m gonna let you know…’ He felt offended by a song I did, so then he did it. On that record that I did a verse about him, he said some things about me that were more subliminal but I knew they were about me. [Laughs] I just decided to be outward with it and to be direct, and to say, hey – if you’re going to throw some blows at me, I’m about to throw them back. I mean, it’s hip-hop.

It’s interesting to see you, at this moment in your career of going forward in a relatively new direction into acting and at the same time reach back to your roots and to hip-hop battle culture.
Yeah, it is a dichotomy but it’s also who I feel like I am as a human being. I’m also a warrior, too – I’m a peaceful person, but I’m an MC. I love MCing. God willing, I’ll become one of the great actors of our day. I want to grow to be that type of actor, but I still think I’ll be writing songs even if it’s for a jazz club crowd.

You say that one day you hope to be one of the greatest actors, which tells me you’re constantly seeking improvement. How do you see yourself at this point in your acting evolution?
Oh yes, definitely. I recognize that I’m a baby in terms of acting. It’s only been a few years; 2007 is when Smokin’ Aces came out. I know that I have a long way to go, but I want to go that way. I’m learning at each time I get a chance I get to do it, and I’m going to keep working to improve and keep working to grow.

Do you feel that LUV was an important film in your growth as a performer?
I feel like I learned a lot, and we had to shoot in such a short amount of time and in difficult situations. Every day getting new lines, coming up with stuff there. It’s hard to see it just one time to see if it was my best performance, but it may be because it was the performance where I had to do the most, and it had the most emotional depth to it. I played the lead in a romantic comedy, Just Wright, but I didn’t have as much to do. This time I had a lot to do, and I’m a lead. I actually think my character in Smokin’ Aces was a great character, I really loved that character and he had depth too, but he wasn’t a lead so you didn’t see him as much.

What films are coming up next for you?
I did this film called Pawn, an independent starring Michael Chiklis, Forest Whitaker, and Ray Liotta. It’s a cool suspense thriller about these people who hijack a diner, and I play a negotiator. I’m about to film this movie called Now You See Me, which stars Jesse Eisenberg and Isla Fisher and Michael Caine and Mark Ruffalo – I’d say it’s an action movie, about these magicians. It’s dope. I’m going down to film that soon. And I’m looking to do more great, quality films – independent, studio, action, drama, comedy, animated… and I’m promoting The Dreamer, The Believer, which is my new album.

What was your reaction to the fuss made over Maya Angelou’s comments about that album?
That was that journalist really twisting things, because basically she doesn’t condone the use of the n-word. She is aware that I use that word; she told me, ‘I would like for you not to use it,’ but she understands. She knows I’m going through a process, people go through a process. She participated in my album with her heart and soul, and the writer wrote something to try to cause dissension but [Angelou] came out publicly and said look, Common is like my son. I love him and I don’t condone the use of the word but you can’t separate or divide us. She was acknowledging that she was happy to be on the album. I really was disappointed, especially because in hip-hop that’s a really profound thing to have Maya Angelou performing on a hip-hop song. So it was kind of like, yo – let us have this. This is something that is great. This is someone who is living history on a hip-hop album. Let’s just enjoy the fact that we have an elder that wanted to participate in hip-hop, reaching out for us.

Follow Jen Yamato on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.

Get more of Movieline's Sundance coverage here.