When Grammy Award-winning Chicago MC Che “Rhymefest” Smith released a documentary about reuniting with his father, In My Father’s House, he didn’t think that it would lead to anything more than closure. But the moving 2015 film about Brian Tillman’s battle with homelessness and substance abuse earned Rhymefest more than an NAACP Image Award nomination.
“Emilio Estevez’s mother [Janet Sheen] saw the documentary and called her son and said, ‘You need this guy in your film. You need this type of authenticity in your film,’” Rhymefest tells BET.com.
The film in question is The Public, based on a true story of a group of homeless people who occupy a public library during a polar vortex.
“He Facebooked me and I accepted it. It taught me a big lesson. I wasn’t auditioning trying to get roles. I was just trying to do what was right by my family and my personal spirit and it leads to other things that are good. Do right by the community and it will always return. He’s been writing the script for 12 years, and that’s when the financial bust happened in ’07 or ’08 and he had to shut down making the film. Then he [finished it] when he got some more funding. And I’m glad that he waited, because now I’m in it.”
In The Public, Che plays a homeless man named Big George, who is short on words but believes that he is imbued with special gifts.
“You don’t want him to look at you too long, put it that way,” Che says with a smile. “I channeled not only my father’s experience as a homeless person, I had a grandfather named Big George. So this was the completion of a lot of circles. This was me seeing what my father had to see through his eyes. This was me connecting with a whole different character in Big George, and this is also an homage to my grandfather. When I put on the stuff and looked in the mirror I see my ancestors.”
Rhymefest is joined by an impressive cast that includes Jeffrey Wright, Michael K. Williams, Alec Baldewin, Gabrielle Union and more. His is the first voice you hear at the start because he recorded several songs for The Public, including the lead track, “Weaponize.”
“The first song that comes on is ‘Weaponized,’ with my guy Masego. He’s a dope sax player. A young guy, up and coming, and it’s incumbent upon me, as a veteran in the rap game, to give other people opportunities to be placed. If you not out here replacing yourself in this world, you not doing your job.”
Watch more of Rhymefest’s interview where he talks about what he learned alongside his veteran cast mates, why he doesn’t want to be called an activist and why being an actor is so dangerous.