'Just Wright' takes rapper to starring screen role

Actor/rapper Common stars opposite Queen Latifah in "Just Wright" and says his goal as an actor "is to become one of the greatest."
Actor/rapper Common stars opposite Queen Latifah in "Just Wright" and says his goal as an actor "is to become one of the greatest."
Posted: May 13, 2010

Typically, when you ask a musician what he's working on, you get some information, some passion, some hype.

When Common, the Chicago hip-hop artist born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., was presented that question the other day, he practically shrugged: his new album is The Believer; he's aiming for a fall release.

"But I'm really looking forward to doing some more films," he hastened to add. "I'm hungry to do great work and work with great actors and directors."

Seriously hungry.

In Philadelphia to promote Just Wright - the Cinderella rom-com that he stars in opposite Queen Latifah - Common was visibly excited as he rattled off the names of movies and actors and directors he admires. The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Geoffrey Wright, Don Cheadle, Sean Penn, Matt Damon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Robert Downey Jr. Quentin Tarantino, Ron Howard, Lee Daniels.

It's not, um, uncommon for rappers to appear on film, and Common has been showing up as a gun-toting dude in action and crime pics since 2006: Smokin' Aces (his screen debut), American Gangster, Street Kings, Wanted, Terminator Salvation.

But in Just Wright, which opens Friday, Common, 38, is the romantic lead, Scott McKnight, a star basketball player on the New Jersey Nets who sustains a career-threatening injury, and whose comeback is aided by an agreeable, independent-minded physical therapist, Latifah's Leslie Wright. The relationship between patient and therapist is complicated when she falls for him, and he - despite serious competition from a gold-digging beauty played by Paula Patton - ultimately falls for her.

"It's a good feel-good movie," said Common, who adds that he approached his first starring role with a bit of trepidation, but also with confidence. Like the NBA star he plays in Just Wright, Common has been training for this moment - studying acting with top-tier coach Greta Seacat, watching directors and actors at work, learning how to imbue characters with truth.

"Put it this way: Everything is not going to be the groundbreaking story, everything is not going to be The Usual Suspects or Seven," he acknowledged. "But I actually really feel blessed to be a part of this movie. It has a relevance to life - I've heard young girls who've seen the movie say, 'Man, this makes me feel like I can be in love, or I can be loved, and I'm beautiful.'

"And when I can be a part of art that has that impact on life, then I feel that's bigger than any reviews we can get, any big box-office weekend, because this can really inspire people."

Michael Elliot, the Philadelphia native who wrote Just Wright as a vehicle for Latifah - and who was on set for most of the shoot - says that Common's earnestness, and eagerness, and his sense of responsibility in carrying the movie, were palpable.

"I felt like what he did in Just Wright was extraordinary," said the screenwriter, reached in Los Angeles. "Considering that he's never ever done anything acting-wise that required so much - to co-lead a movie and to be vulnerable on screen in a way that rappers don't have to be. And he certainly wasn't vulnerable in Terminator and Smokin' Aces and Wanted."

Elliot says that Common wowed the cast and crew when he nailed his character's emotional third-act revelation - a confession of love as he's being interviewed by ESPN anchor Stuart Scott - on the first take.

"If he focuses on this - on acting - and puts in the same type of focus that he puts in as a lyricist, as a performer, as a rapper, he could be one of the great ones," Elliot said. "I was really, really impressed. And the more we shot, the better he got."

Common, who divides his time between homes in Los Angeles and Brooklyn and who has been in a relationship with tennis titan Serena Williams, calls acting "a liberating, invigorating experience." It is, he insists, his new creative outlet.

"My hip-hop background really can't catapult me to where I want to be as an actor," he said last week, interviewed at the Four Seasons, overlooking Logan Circle.

"I do acknowledge that hip-hop has built a foundation for me in the way that it allows me different experiences as a performer and taught me how to endure when you're dealing with difficult situations. But acting is a different medium. I know I have to go through the process of training and the things that it takes to become a great actor. And my goal is to become one of the greatest."

In Just Wright, Common not only has to be credible as his Scott McKnight grapples with conflicting romantic urges. Audiences have to buy him as an NBA superstar, too.

"I love basketball. I played ball from 7 years old to high school. I played on teams," he said. "My dream was to be in the NBA as a kid."

But Common had a scratched cornea that took him off the team.

"That injury led me to do rap more, because that was what I was putting my time into, and from there rap took me to acting. And now" - he said, laughing - "acting has taken me back to being a basketball player."

Common trained with coaches from the Nets and with the production's basketball stunt coordinator, Mark Ellis. Common ran defensive drills, ball-handling drills, cardio, and core exercises. He took about 500 shots a day.

And he talked to his friends Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, of the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, respectively. Both make cameos in the film.

"I picked their brains. I wanted to find the nuances of the character and understand what an NBA player experiences, what's the core of an NBA player. . . . Obviously, each person is an individual, but what's the core?"

And what did he discover?

"In some ways, it's similar to being a musician," he said. "You have this desire to be important in your own neighborhood. Meaning, when you start playing basketball, some of it is for the love of the game, and some of it is like, 'Hey, I can become somebody out of this nowhere that I'm coming from, out of this tough neighborhood . . . .' Basketball is a way to become popular, famous, make money - these are core things that athletes think of when they think, man, I want to make it. . . .

"You have that drive to be great at something, and that greatness is inspired by what you may be able to bring, the happiness you can bring to others and to your own family."

And now Common is turning that drive to another medium. No rhymes required.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.

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