Not many people can say they've banked screen time with Oscar winner Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union and Beyoncé Knowles, but Columbus Short has done just that in the much-buzzed-about “Cadillac Records.” As the legendary harmonica player Little Walter, Short is a bonafide scene-stealer. The southern-twanged, gold-toothed bad boy is a far cry from the gyrating dancer Short played in “Stomp the Yard” and “You Got Served,” but he's confident this role will force audiences to take him more seriously as an actor. The competitive Short talks to ESSENCE.com about what his on-screen character Walter and Tupac Shakur have in common, how fatherhood changed him, and why dating within the industry is a bad idea.
ESSENCE.COM: Congrats on the film. Your portrayal of Little Walter was amazing. What was your first impression of him after reading the script?
COLUMBUS SHORT: It was Tupac! I always wanted to play Tupac and this was the closest thing I got. He was hard, yet so much deeper than that. It’s definitely a role that will change Hollywood’s perception of me. I hadn’t played a harmonica before and my mentor Laurence Fishburne brought me one and I never put it down. There are a lot of things about Little Walter that aren’t in the film. Like, he was a pimp with girls. He ran his operation right in front of Chess Records. He was that dude. The one thing we have in common is I can be hot-tempered. It was great to be able to shake those demons out through Little Walter.
ESSENCE.COM: The film has a great ensemble cast, and there were Cadillacs everywhere. What was your favorite part of filming ?
SHORT: Well, when you have a cast of this caliber, you have egos. Challenges and power struggles happen and it was interesting to see that little dynamic go down between seasoned actors and others trying to make decisions. It was all in the classic stress of filmmaking. My favorite part was getting to perform as Little Walter with Muddy Waters [Jeffrey Wright] right there. It felt real with Jeffrey and we developed a close bond. It was like life imitating art. In the movie, Muddy took Walter in and Jeffrey really took me in. If you had asked me five years ago the one actor I wanted to work with, I would've said Jeffrey Wright. How close we became is a testament to what we can manifest if we believe.
ESSENCE.COM: In the film, relationships develop as the Chess Records family grows. Have you ever dated someone you’ve worked with in the industry?
SHORT: (Laughs.) Have I? Yes. I would definitely not advise it. It’s tough because you have two people who have the same goal. You would think it would be camaraderie but there’s a lot of distractions. Both people are self-consumed. When you come home from a rough day, you don’t want to hear about another actor’s problems or auditions. You want to hear a lawyer's problems or some banker's problems.
ESSENCE.COM: That makes sense. You also have a son. How has fatherhood changed you?
SHORT: My son is great and will be five in January. You have this child who is looking at you to mold his self, his beliefs and his daily walk after you. I mentioned my temper and I don’t want him to ever see me wildin’ out bad. So it’s calmed me and given me stillness.
ESSENCE.COM: Now that you've escaped being typecast in dance films such as “Stomp the Yard” and “You Got Served,” were you ever worried you wouldn't be?
Short: I wasn’t nervous. I just won’t work. I would rather not work than do that. All these dance movies came in after those films, but it wasn’t long before I had the chance to do a role with substance. The hardest part starting out was the continual up and down of disappointments. Constantly auditioning and being told you were this close. I don’t miss that. I’m a very competitive actor. I want to one up you in the scene and I want you to try and one up me. That competition creates the energy for good work. I got into acting at a young age and I said I’m not going to let this business ever dictate my joy.