After creating some of our favorite hip hop love songs, like “The Light,” and “Love of My Life (Ode to Hip-Hop)” with former boo Erykah Badu, Common recently matured into a Hollywood leading man. From “American Gangster” to “Terminator: Salvation” to “Date Night,” and now “Just Wright,” Common is taking the film industry by storm with his genuine smile. The Chicago native chatted with ESSENCE.com about basketball, transitioning from musician to a leading man on the big screen, and the not-so-public lady in his life, Serena Williams… ESSENCE.com: How much did you know about being a point guard before the film? COMMON: I grew up playing basketball, at seven years old I played Biddy Ball and my uncle was the coach. Once, I played a couple of weeks and I wasn’t doing well or getting much playing time, so I’d sit on the bench and pretend that my stomach hurt. After two weeks, my uncle noticed what was going on, cursed me out and told me to practice my game. From that point on, I was driven and I was a point guard from grammar school through high school. Then I got injured and that drove me into my rap career. ESSENCE.com: How was your chemistry with Queen Latifah? COMMON: Our chemistry comes from a stonger place that’s not just hip-hop. If I’d worked with someone else, that chemistry might not have been there, but Latifah is such a beautiful woman and person that you can’t help but love her. ESSENCE.com: Did you record any music for the film? COMMON: We recorded a song called “The Next Time” that will be on my upcoming greatest hits album. It’s also the second song playing during the end credits. It’s a good hip-hop joint and Latifah is singing on it, but the director, Sanaa Hamri, didn’t want me to do music for the film because she wanted people to separate Scott McKnight from Common. ESSENCE.com: Do you think that Scott lets all the women in his life, from Phylicia Rashad, who plays his mother, to Paula Patton, who plays his fiancee, boss him around? COMMON: Women control the world. But, because of the relationship with his mother, women have a prominent place in Scott’s life. He’s a sensitive guy that needs to be loved. Although NBA players are super-human on the court, that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be loved. A lot of the players that I’ve met are married or dealing with a girl, not hanging with a bunch of women. In the film, Leslie Wright helps Scott remember who he was and what love felt like, and that helped him be a stronger man. ESSENCE.com: Any hesitation in tackling your first leading role? COMMON: I loved the challenge. My vision was to be a leading man since I believed in myself as an actor. I definitely had my fears and nervousness, but more because of the excitement. My mother called me, like ‘This is it for you right here, this is a big one.’ I replied, ‘Oh my God, ma, you don’t have to put any more pressure on me.’ But I liked the pressure and the challenges because it made me want to develop my game and work on this character. I was following Baron Davis of the Los Angeles Clippers and Rajon Rondo from the Boston Celtics, just picking their brains to learn as much as I could about the character. I enjoyed that. In the future, I want to play Marvin Gaye or a priest, things where I get to stretch. ESSENCE.com: Who was your acting coach for this film? COMMON: I worked with Greta Seacat consistently, and sometimes her mom, Sandra Seacat. Then, at one point, I consulted with Ivanna Chubbuck. I love going to acting class, it’s fun. ESSENCE.com: What was your inspiration for the sad or sexy scenes in “Just Wright”? COMMON: I just tried to be there and not think about what should be done, because if you’re really feeling something, it’s going to come out. ESSENCE.com: What’s your diet like? We kinda wanted to feed you while watching the film… COMMON: I looked like I was starving? I only eat fish and vegetables, and Sanaa wanted me to look like a basketball player: thin. I don’t eat perfectly though, because Lord knows I love some french fries, and when we stopped filming I went hard on the pizza. ESSENCE.com: Do you think you have an advantage as a rapper-turned-actor? COMMON: There are advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that you’re used to being in front of a crowd. In hip hop, you’ve probably had some bad experiences, whether it’s the microphone going out or a fight breaking out during the show, but you can adjust and be able to improv. But being an artist also has its drawbacks. In the beginning, people don’t take you seriously as an actor. I don’t think all rappers that make the transition are the same, just like every teacher is not the same. One thing I liked about “Just Wright” is it’s showing that every NBA player isn’t the same. Scott McKnight loves his mother, is a good-hearted guy, listens to Jazz, and even though he was popular, he wanted to be in love. ESSENCE.com: How’s the transition been from hip hop’s heartthrob to Hollywood’s leading man? Is Serena on guard? COMMON: She might come chasing in…(laughs) I’m grateful that women even look at me like that. I’m a man, I love that women give me that attention, but it doesn’t last forever. As you get older, women will be on to the next one. When I was younger, I wasn’t that guy. I’ve learned not to let anything in this industry go to my head. ESSENCE.com: How have you maintained your longevity, since beginning as an MC in the 1990s? COMMON: I began as a young guy with a dream. I love hip hop and I wanted to be known as a hip hop artist. As you grow and experience life, you want more. At a certain point, I said, ‘There has to be something more than hip hop that I want to do,’ and that was acting. I was very passionate about it and that was the next frontier. For me, the vision has always been to grow, believe in what I’m doing, and remember my purpose. I think, through acting, music and activism, God put me here to inspire people. ESSENCE.com: Why do you think you’ve been classified as a “socially conscious” rapper? COMMON: I give a view of a human being that is evolving, believes in God, and comes from the south side of Chicago. People can relate to that. My social consciousness is more spiritual than political. People approach me with political questions and I really don’t know a lot about politics. But I can tell you that I believe in God, or how I feel about relationships, or how close I am to my mother. I just try to offer those things. ESSENCE.com: Do you think we’ll get more socially relevant hip-hop any time soon? COMMON: It’s tough because the music industry these days is not the same. I’ve had discussions about how hip hop doesn’t have the impact it once had on society. It impacted my life, but I don’t know if my daughter, who is 12 years old, feels the same way I do about it. Even though Louis Farrakhan was three blocks from my house, I didn’t find out about him until Public Enemy’s Chuck D said something. The soul of hip hop went when the corporations said ‘we’re about to maximize this music’ and the artists started to follow what the corporations wanted, and began catering to the audience instead of being leaders. Hip hop came from a pure place. Now, I find myself listening to old Brand Nubian, A Tribe Called Quest or John Coltrane, it has to feel good to my soul. ESSENCE.com: Finally, do you think real girls ever get the NBA star, or is “Just Wright” just a fantasy? COMMON: I think it’s a reality. In society, people are becoming more conscious of who they are and what they want. I do believe a man can feel a woman, feel her heart, and realize she’s the one, beyond physicality. With that connection, she becomes even more beautiful. Read ESSENCE.com’s interview with Queen Latifah on “Just Wright” here.
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