“I love being able to dance in both worlds,” says the spirited actor Anthony Anderson. “I love the versatility and fun I have making huge mainstream successes and the smaller boutique movies.” Anderson’s blockbuster credits have been far from miniscule. This month, the 31-year-old Anderson plays Tony, part rabble-rouser and part sage philosopher, to his love-sick crony, Keith (Morris Chestnut), by guiding him through the tortures of love in the romantic comedy, Two Can Play That Game (Screen Gems/Sony). “The movie is great because it’s a universal theme that everyone can identify with, the battle of the sexes — us versus them,” explains the Compton, Calif. native.

Since his big screen premiere in last year’s Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence prison dramedy, Life, Anderson’s career has propelled up a momentous incline. He’s cavorted with Jim Carrey in Me, Myself and Irene; dogded a serial killer in Urban Legends: Final Cut; reunited with Martin Lawrence in the gender-bending Big Momma’s House; and butted heads with Chinese marital-arts actor Jet Li and the much mourned singer/actress Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die. “Entertainment aside, Aaliyah was a beautiful person — inside and out — so for those whose lives she touched, it’s a grave loss, just like everybody else on that plane,” says the former Howard University student. “Working with her was a great experience and I thought there would be many more for us together. It’s just sad, the tragedy that happened.”

Anderson never seems to have an idle moment. This year, he’s banked four flicks including Kingdom Come, See Spot Run, Exit Wounds and his current project. He just wrapped the buddy-comedy flick, Down and Under (Disney), in Australia due on the silver screen next summer. ESSENCE.com chatted with the acting chameleon about giving relationship advice to his homies, cross-dressing and that dreaded Hollywood label — “urban”.

In Two Can Play That Game you play Tony, a relationship expert by default. Have you ever given any of your boys advice that saved them from relationship drama?

I really try not to get involved, but it’s hard not to when it’s your boy. I just tell them to be true to self — be honest. That’s the problem with relationships — people aren’t as honest as they should be. If you can be honest with your mate, you’ll be surprised at what you can get through together.

This flick is not only hilarious, but it boasts a stellar cast (Vivica A. Fox, Gabrielle Union, Morris Chestnut). As a Black actor does it bother you that all our projects get labeled as urban?

Mainstream movies and “Black movies” are the same thing. Unfortunately, when you’re working with an all Black cast, Hollywood labels it an urban movie and so our budgets are cut drastically. Other than the money they pump into your project, you have the same talented people, the stories you’re gonna tell, a camera and a director. That’s why I want to have, and I will have, power in this business. It’s cool to be the hired hand, but I will be the guy who hires the hired hands in a few years. I will be the guy sitting on the other side of the desk.

You’ve played an array of characters — everything from the smart guy to the gangsta to a transvestite. How did you prepare for your cross-dressing debut on Ally McBeal?

I’m secure with my masculinity to share this with you ESSENCE.com readers [laugh]. I had some practice early in life. My mother (not that she’s a transvestite) would have to special order her shoes when we were younger. They would come and need to be stretched. At the time, I was 13 and my mother would pay me twenty dollars to walk around the house in her pumps and heels and stretch them out. So, I’m comfortable in a pump. I’m comfortable in some stilettos. I can handle myself!

So is there anything you’d refused to do in a flick?

What would I not do in a movie? Show my [behin’] ’cause I have a pimple or a boil or something! [laugh] No, seriously nothing comes to mind right now. If it’s challenging and daring enough and it lends itself to the character and the situation then I’m down to try it. I can’t be afraid because I’m in the business of risks. If I set up boundaries, then I confine myself and I want to be free.

Although your roles are diverse, each of your characters seem to display humor. Do you worry about being pigeonholed as Hollywood’s “funny Black guy”?

Some people may still feel threatened by the strong leading [Black] man. [Hollywood] accepts the funny guy a lot easier because he’s telling jokes or sometimes is the butt of the jokes. But he can also be the spook who sits by the door, so technically, they should be just as afraid of him as they are of [the brother] who they fear by his appearance alone. There’s no need to fear anything because we’re just doing our jobs — entertaining people.

Credit: © 2001 Screen Gems, Inc.

Anthony Anderson & Morris Chestnut in Two Can Play That Game.