Common lives a double life. For the past 10 years in the recording studio, the conscious Chicago MC has gushed about black love and an inner-city resurgence on superb albums like One Day It’ll All Make Sense, Be and Finding Forever. For the past few years on the big screen, however, the artisan has walked in the shoes of hitmen (Smokin’ Aces) and hustlers-in-training (American Gangster). Keeping the theme of uplifting musician by day and down low parasite at night, Common is back in theatres this month as a crocked cop in the violent L.A.P.D. drama Street Kings. But rest easy, hip hop fans. Rashied “Common” Lynn hasn’t altogether abandoned the cause. As he’ll detail in just a bit, a new album is on the way and it promises to be a fun, uplifting summer number— perfect to balance out things for when he starts shooting up the projector again in the June blockbuster Wanted.
How’d you get attached to this bloody picture?
My agent told me about the script. I read the script and then he said I could go ahead and audition. I went to audition at [director] David Ayers’ office. I remember the lights had went out that day. It was some type of blackout. I went in there and just gave it my all. We got a good call back that said, “Hey, you got the part.” It was a great experience. I love the process of auditioning because it’s such a humbling experience.
What’s your motivation for wanting to get into acting?
I wanted to express myself in a new way artistically, and it had to be something that I was passionate about, too. I took some acting courses, some classes, and I was so enthused about it. I feel like, “Man, I can’t wait to go to the next acting class.” I was discovering a lot of things about myself. I mean, I am discovering a lot of things through the process of acting. I’ve since come to find out you discover a lot of things about other people as you take on these characters. You learn more about people. Also you just learn more information. If you’re taking on a character of being a pastor, you’re going to have to learn about being in the pulpit and learn more about the Bible. You take on these things while you’re researching. I love to learn, so I think that helps me as far as being passionate.
You played a hitman in your last movie, so what are you learning?
That it’s fun. Nah, I guess I’m learning that the things that you do do not denote you as being all bad. Just because in Smokin’ Aces I played Sir Ivy, who was this right-hand man to a hustler –he was a hustler himself- he wasn’t just a bad person. I guess what I’m discovering is that everybody has good and bad in them. I could play a pastor and within that character there still might be some lust going on. He still may be doing dirty things within the church. It’s good and bad in all people. Some people’s background and what they’ve been exposed to is why they end up being in those [unfortunate] situations. As Coates in Street Kings, I went to Compton and I went to Watts. I discovered a new part of L.A. that I felt was necessary for me to know because when I come here, I’m around Beverly Hills and West Hollywood area. I need to see the grit and I needed to feel the ghetto and another soul of this city. It was important for me to see that. That research helps me in understanding people. Like I said, it allows you not to judge when you see somebody. You try to come to more of an understanding.
What was that first Compton and Watts experience like?
One of the times I drove through it was a police assignment ‘cuz I was learning more about being a police officer and deputy sheriff. I was driving through and a lot of the cats [in the neighborhood] were like, “Hey, that look like Common right there!” I was hoping they didn’t think I was like a police informant or something. Anyway, you go to observe and try not to make specimens out of the people. It’s people that are living this life. I try to look at each aspect of the ghetto because the ghetto has beauty to it, too. It’s a certain village atmosphere. It’s tribal and it’s community still. You try to look at those things and acknowledge the positives and negatives. That’s pretty much what I did. I didn’t actually go get an apartment. But I did what I call “touch down” with the people.
Common, what’s interesting is how on the screen you’re primarily these bad asses, but on your CDs you’re one of the most likeable cats in the worlds. You like walking both sides?
When I first began acting, I would tell my teacher that I wanted to do some dark roles. I’m always viewed as the poet, conscious, loving guy. That’s who I am. That’s the core of me. But there are some darker things that I felt could be expressed. It also gave me the opportunity to be an actor, to take on a role that was different from me. When you’re playing yourself, you don’t get acknowledged. For me, as an artist, I feel it’s more challenging to be an actor that takes on roles that really become a character who does things different from who I am. I’ve done some of these dark characters. I’m looking forward to doing something like playing a priest or a banker. I have had guns in most of my films. This is total opposite of Common.
What are you playing in Wanted as the Gunsmith?
The Gunsmith, as much as “gun” is in his name, is more of a peaceful, calm spirit. He’s more of a Buddha-like person in a certain way. He’s a part of a fraternity that are assassins. These assassins issue out fate. They tell us who we’re supposed to go take out. It’s the will of fate. It’s not like a bad thing that these assassins are doing. The Gunsmith is the calm spirit of that team that actually trains everybody with their weapons.
The movie looks wild.
Man, I’m really excited about that movie. It looks like something I’ve never seen before—from the storyline to the way it looks and the effects that it has. Also, just the diversity of the cast [is amazing]. You hit every facet. There’s Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, James McAvoy, Common. All of these different genres. And if I could say humbly, I think they chose some good people to be a part of it. I’ve only seen the first 20 minutes of the film and I’m like, “Man, I can’t believe I’m a part of this.” I’m excited about it. We just did some re-shoots the other day. Even James was talking to me like, “Man, I think this is a good movie.” I could tell he’s critical about things.
You’ve been around some serious Oscar power: Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and here with Forest Whitaker. What has that been like?
All I can do is smile. Like you said, working with Oscar winners is kinda like a dream in a way. To sit across the table and do a scene with Denzel Washington and to go and do a re-shoot with Morgan Freeman [is amazing]. It’s funny ‘cuz in one of the scenes I was driving and he was in the backseat. So, it was a reverse of Driving Miss Daisy. I was “Driving Mr. Freeman.” I didn’t get to tell him that. I forgot. But I’ll tell him sooner than later. I’m just enthused. I want to surround myself with that type of talent ‘cuz that will help me to grow. That’s the pedigree of artists that I wanna work with. I feel like, me as a musician, I set a certain tone and certain integrity of the way I wanna put art out. I wanna do the same thing as an actor.
You working on the next album after Finding Forever?
Yeah, the new album is called Invincible Summer. It will be out in the later part of June. The music sounds new. It’s really developing. I’m really happy about it. It feels good. It’s not really heavy. The Neptunes are producing a lot of it. Also a producer named Mr. DJ [is on the project]. He did a lot of work with Outkast. He did “Bombs Over Bahgdad” and “Ms. Jackson.” These cats are really giving me some new, fresh sounds. I’m taking it somewhere vocally that I haven’t been before. I’m enthused. I’m really excited. I think it’ll be a great summer album. I wanna make people smile and enjoy life. As much as I wanna make them think, it’s important that they smile, too.
So, there will be a couple of club tracks in there?
When I went on the Kanye West “Glow in the Dark” tour in Europe, I was overseas and just saw people partying overseas. Seeing the music that they were partying to was just a good feeling. I was like, “Wait, none of my sons are being played over here!” What am I missing in my music repertoire? You never stray away from [positive] music. You always need music that’s uplifting and conscious, but you also sometimes wanna relax and party. At a party, you might not wanna hear those things at that time.
Common, why didn’t you mention Kanye’s name as a producer for this new CD?
With Kanye, point blank, I’m on G.O.O.D. Music [Records]. We’re always going to collaborate. If he’s not producing it, he’s gonna executive produce it and say, “Yo, Rash, we need to do these things with it.” He’ll always be a part of it, but right now he’s focusing on getting his tour together, this “Glow in the Dark” tour. I always go with the flow of things. This is what I’m doing for this album. On the next album, Kanye and I will be working on it with some other new artists. But I think this will give it something fresh and it’ll give it more spice when Kanye and I get back together. Who knows? He may do something for this album, too, because I’m not finished.
How do you even have time to make music?
Right now, I’m just focusing on the movies. I love music. God willing, I feel like I could do that for the rest of my life. I would be in a jazz club-like setting but it would be hip hop. Movies are something I focus on. I just look for the right next project. I audition and focus on that. The music comes so naturally after that. When I’m working on something else, the music becomes freer. When I’m expressing myself artistically over here, it allows me to not put as much pressure on the music. It’s not my only source of income. It’s not my only creative outlet.
What are your thoughts about artists who strictly record for the purpose of selling ringtones?
For me, a lot of rappers have come from places where they didn’t get to appreciate the artform. They didn’t feel hip hop when it was just so pure and it was like a thing of just fun. It wasn’t about business. Now they approach hip hop from a business perspective. It’s much more than that. You gotta let the art be the art and let the business take care of that afterward. Of course, I’m not one who approaches music and goes into the studio saying, “I’m going to make this so it can be a corporate song. This is going to make this person’s ringtone.” I’m not really a supporter of that, but if a person chooses to do it and that’s what they want their career to be, that’s for them. I’m thinking more from a longer term and just being an artist and an actor.
Do people know that you write children’s books?
Nah, they don’t.
Where did that come from?
I have a daughter that’s 10 years old. Also, I love the effect that music and art has on the children. I love the results of seeing children singing songs, knowing that it really influences them and impacts their lives. I was like, “Man, let me do these children’s books that I feel could be in a language and be something they would be interested in.” I also felt like children’s books would be lessons that adults could get. I was taking stories that could be adult stories, but putting them in children’s form. [I did] love lessons, lessons about not losing yourself in love. But I put it in a children’s story. That’s something that I gotta be reminded of sometimes.
Are you actually doing the long-rumored Justice League of America movie?
I can’t really talk about that situation, to be honest. I wish I could but I can’t.
That sounds like a possibility if you can’t talk about it…
[Common raises his brow] You’re intelligent.
You can talk about the Common Ground Foundation, right?
Hip hop is definitely a great communicator of art. Kids respond to hip hop. I respond to hip hop. Nationalities just respond to hip hop all over the world. When you say hip hop, it’s not only music; it’s a culture. We use all these attractive things about hip hop to educate the youth. Our premise is to empower them, to teach them about health, self-love, educate them academically and just [teach] them about community and entrepreneurship. Some of the ways we do that is through hip hop. They create their own videos, expressive ways for them to do it. My children’s books, I think, can teach them, too. Actually, some music that hip hop artists do are ways of teaching. I’ve learned a lot through artists like KRS-One and Rakim.