Queen Latifah and Common’s “Just Wright” appears to be the romantic dish we’ve been craving in the years since movies like “Love Jones” and “The Best Man” captured our hearts. Common, who was hand-picked to play basketball heartthrob Scott McKnight, has taken on his first leading role in the Sanaa Hamri-directed flick. The gritty, conscious rapper has truly evolved into an actor with an ever-growing box office worth. We caught up with the always easy-going Chicago native to get the scoop on what it means to make the transition from the bench to the starting five.
How did you get the role of Scott McKnight?
Common: They actually brought the role to me and it was Queen Latifah who believed in me, and some of the producers thought, ‘Yeah, this guy would be perfect.’ I’ve heard her say in different interviews that I was a guy that could not only do it as an actor, but I could pull off the basketball part too. I don’t know how she knew that I had game, because people don’t estimate me as being a basketball player. They look at me as artsy and conscious.
Black romantic comedies have taken a serious slump over the last decade. How does it feel to be a part of what could possibly be the rebirth of the genre? What does this story mean to you?
Common: Man, it feels good. This is a classic love story. It’s a universal love story, but it’s told through Black characters. I believe that us being able to have this type of movie that’s lighthearted, that has a good feeling to it….you walk away like, ‘Man, I’m beautiful.’ This movie has a lot of substance and a lot of layers to it as far as saying, ‘No matter who you are, you’re beautiful.’ The beauty that you have inside is what exudes. It’s what’s going to allow you to attract what you want in your life. You have to love yourself to be able to get love from others. For us to have that as an African-American community, and for other nationalities to see us in that story, I feel geeked, you know?
We’re used to seeing you play dark characters in films like “American Gangster,” “Wanted” and “Street Kings.”
Common: I love that. When I first started acting I told my acting coach that I wanted to do some dark stuff. Point blank, I try to put out the most positive things in the atmosphere as I can. That’s who I am as a person. But in a movie, you get to do things you can’t do in real life. One of the guys that I was filming “Street Kings” with, Bones, was a former Blood. We were shooting this dude all day and it really felt heavy to me. I went home and I had to watch a lighthearted movie because we were killing this dude all day! He was like, ‘This is the only time you get to do this and go home and be safe.’ Playing the bad guy allows me to explore different things and it gives me a chance to explore a different side as an actor. If I had the first opportunity to act and I was a poet, people would be like, ‘Aww, he ain’t doing nothing. He’s not doing anything different.’
In your other films, you’ve mainly played supporting characters, and “Just Wright” is your first leading role. How does it feel to be Queen Latifah’s leading man?
Common: I feel very grateful to be able to do my first leading role with somebody as incredible as Latifah. Her spirit and her talent and beauty – everything. My goal and vision has always been to be a leading man in film. Ever since I started acting, I believed that I could be a leading man. I want it to be like ‘Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Common.’ I want to be in with those names. Blockbusters. I was very grateful to be on set with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman in “Wanted,” but I didn’t get to say much. It’s time to elevate.
Many critics contend that as a musician’s acting career prevails, their music tends to get worse. What’s your take on that?
Common: I don’t think that I would allow my art to go down because I have a passion for rap. I do love the fact that I am acting because it makes me more free to write songs. I don’t have as much pressure. Rap is not my only way of making a living. It’s not the future of my career, as far as making a living, so I can just write more for fun. I don’t just try to throw something out there to just put it out and catch the same wave as when the movie comes out. I have to write an album when I’m feeling it. I used to get complaints from my team – shoot, from my mother like, ‘Boy, what’s taking you so long to write an album?’ I’m like…man, I gotta have something to write about. With that love in it for me, I don’t think that the quality of my music would go down. I always tell artists, if you live life and just stay open to life, you’re constantly growing. When you’re growing as a human being, you should be able to grow as an artist too, and give something new.
Speaking of family, how have those familial relationships with your mother and daughter influenced your career?
Common: I was raised with my mother, and she was the first person to teach me what life is about. She still just embraces me and holds me down in a lot of great ways. That’s my best friend, so I speak about her a lot. I didn’t grow up around my father, but he became an important part of my life. As a kid, just being able to talk to him and being able to visit him sometimes – just his words and his presence were really important in my life. I know my mom was there doing as much as she could to give me the best way of life possible. My stepfather, too. With me being a father, I get to learn so much from my daughter. Although I don’t live with her, we just have such a really good bond. We just connect and I learn about life from her. My father told me things like, ‘When you were young, you taught me things.’ I feel like that about her now. I want to continue to grow as a father too.
“Just Wright” hits theaters May 14.
Red Carpet Photos: "Just Wright" New York Premiere