Being hip hop heads, JUICE identifies Common as an MC first more than anything else. But the Soulquarians alumnus has built quite a rep as an actor ever since his role in Smokin’ Aces opposite fellow musician-turned-thespian Alicia Keys, yet he has never lost his sight as a hip hop artist. Recently appearing on AMC’s seminal deconstruction of the Western genre, TV series Hell on Wheels, as a regular cast member, he dispelled any doubts detractors had of Common the actor. We took the opportunity to speak to him on what is thus far his most substantial role and the challenges of being taken seriously as an actor when you’re primarily known as a rapper.
Were you a big fan of westerns before going into Hell on Wheels?
Nah. I wasn’t into [Westerns] that much, you know. Growing up I wasn’t really interested in the genre. The first Western that I loved was 3:10 to Yuma, and that was the new version. I didn’t really watch a lot of those classic Westerns, you know.
What drew you to the show then?
The incredible story about the relationships of people who came from different places trying to re-identify themselves in a new world and pursue their dreams. The show’s more about the relationships of these people and how they work than it is a Western. The fact that it is a Western is cool, but it’s the story of these people that is the most important
You play Elam, a freed slave. Was it challenging to play a character from a dark period of African-American history?
It’s difficult because of the experience the character goes through, but it’s a real honour more than anything else. The difficulties that come with it are emotional, you do feel the pains of what a person at that time goes through in doing [what they had to do] back then. Which you carry with you and stays with you. It is difficult, but again it’s more of an honour. I was adamant about playing the role in a real pure way.
You’ve acted a lot before, but they were smaller roles. Would you say this is the first time you get to really show off your acting chops?
I just wanna say that even when I first role in Smokin’ Aces, it was still definitely a chance for me to show some acting chops. But [Hell on Wheels] stretches it, this takes it where people can really see me as an actor because it’s a period piece. The emotional arc of the character, the scenes I was called upon to do, and everything I did for the show were a great opportunity for me to express myself as an actor.
A lot of rappers are actors too, why is that? Have you always been interested in acting?
I love movies, I love plays. I never thought I’d do it really, but at a certain point I found myself wanting to do it. It’s a desire – a sincere desire – to be a great actor and really express myself in a way acting allows and do the characters justice. I develop my [interest in acting] in the middle of my music career. I did act real quick when I was a kid in a play but it never grew until much later… now.
Being a rapper first, do you feel like you have to prove yourself more than other actors?
Yes. It has been a challenge for people to see me as an actor and not just as some guy who was a rapper and now wants to act. I come to the show, Hell on Wheels, to prove I’m a true actor. And the show has been a great vehicle for that.
Enough of your acting, what are you currently up to as a musician?
I’m gonna appear on the new G.O.O.D Music album Cruel Summer, I’m part of the fam. I’m also going to start recording my new album, look out for that. But the immediate thing that’s coming out is Cruel Summer, which is out in late August.
Are you focusing on either one right now or are you balancing both equally?
Being a rapper and actor… I love both. But I’m pursuing acting more now because it’s so much fun and I get to do so many different things. I’ll always continue to make music and being an artist and develop in that way too. It’s fun to write songs, like when I rhyme with the G.O.O.D fam, I’m rhyming on different types of beats. Every time I get musically challenged and get to do different things, it’s fun. And as an actor it’s so much fun to play different characters and be engulfed in their world.
Beyond Hell on Wheels, what’s in the offing for Common the actor?
I’m also on an independent film called L.U.V., which I’m also a producer of. It stars Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Dennis Haysbert and Michael K. Williams. A lot of great actors in it. It’s the story of a young boy whose uncle is trying to teach him about life in one day, but it starts going back and it becomes more like a Training Day-type situation where the kid is put into all kinds of difficult situations. I’m also in a film called The Odd Life of Timothy Green, which is a Disney movie. Then there’s Now You See Me coming out later this year. I’m looking forward to working on many, many film projects, you know.
With that amount of movies coming out, you’ve definitely established yourself as a thespian.