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Speaking with my hands partially covering my mouth, I apologized to Common for whispering as I interviewed him by phone in a crowded airport lounge at the San Francisco International Airport. I was headed to New York to interview his costars in the Universal Pictures, Nov. 2 release, AMERICAN GANGSTER, he had just left the movie’s premiere and was headed to make an appearance in an Alicia Keys music video. Taking it in stride, he joked I should talk louder, we both laughed.
Short on time and in demand due to his growing popularity, the Chicago native agreed to a telephone conversation to discuss his upcoming role as Turner Lucas, one of the many younger brothers of Harlem heyday-era drug king, Frank Lucas. Two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington stars in the lead role.
Jovial in his mood, Common was accommodating to the extent he could be, given the bevy of commitments he was obligated to keep. Maximizing the opportunity to speak with him, out of the gate, I began, “This is only your second film role, how does one prepare to work alongside three Academy Award winners (Washington, Russell Crowe and Cuba Gooding, JR), not to mention acclaimed director Ridley Scott and industry icon Ruby Dee?
Without hesitation he said, “Lots of prayer and I made sure I read the script and knew all of my lines.” He further explained, “I got to meet Frank Lucas. Denzel introduced us and from there, you know, I got to talk to Frank a little and I also talked to another one of the Lucas brothers named Dickie, who told us a lot of stories about their lives.
“I was blessed enough to get some information I’d seen lying around and they made copies of it for me about these Lucas family stories. That was really good for me. It was very intriguing too, you know. So, along with me just becoming that character, I was learning a lot and just very interested in the story.
“And talking to Frank too is cool you know. Frank is a cool, a cool guy. As much as you know about what he went through and did, he’s a good guy and I got to talk with him so that helped. More than anything, I just went and dug into the ‘60s and ‘70s time period.”
Sounding reminiscent, Common waxed on his interpretations of that era saying, “You know, when you look at that time period, you look at things across the board. Everything just seemed better for whatever reason. It was pure --I think-- because you know, people were coming from oppressed times that was right in your face.
“So with that oppression, it was a time when people were like, ‘Man, we gotta unite and do something,’ you know? You knew black people were going through a lot and --white people that were poor-- were going through a lot. It’s still the same, but now it ain’t as much in our face.
“Back then, we were doing things like boycotting or coming together and establishing programs to feed the poor. We had agendas and leaders that were speaking out for the people. Because of that struggle, in that period, the music was more soulful. The music was more pure. Something about the art was coming out because it represented that struggle that was just pure. That’s why we always go back to the ‘70s music and we go back and look at ‘70s films.
“We also had great leaders at the time during the struggle…with the struggle; you also had a lot of progress. You had a lot of unity and togetherness and I think that was one of the greatest things about the late ‘60s and the ‘70s, from what I can see.”
To add more texture to his portrayal, Common traveled south. “I took a trip to North Carolina to get the flavor of the South. I thought that would help me with my character. People from the South have genuine warmth and innocence and I wanted to bring those aspects to my character as well.”
Speaking of wholesome attributes, the 35-year-old single father has accumulated an eclectic fan base who celebrates his music and positive echoes on life although his film roles to date have reflected the underbelly of criminal life for which he explains, “My views on life are not just black and white, they’re different. I try not to be judgmental because everything in life has layers. There is depth to all aspects of life.”
Indeed, Washington’s portrayal of Frank Lucas illuminated the depth of a man who was haunted by a distinct duality of personality traits that Washington exuded seamlessly. On working with Denzel, the one-name matinee idol, Common states, “Yeah, I mean, you know, that’s the king right there. Denzel is like the master of masters. For me, it was awesome, you know, just growing up watching him and even going back. You know, the more I’m studying acting, going back and looking at what he does, it’s like man, this dude is the best, you know?
“He is the Michael Jordan of it to me, you know? And just being able to be around it and see some of his process and see just how he works. Man, to see a king work is like…you just sit and listen. And you know, you also try to bring what you should bring to the scene and not be in awe of him.
“You just gotta just be present and still know that that’s your brother. You’ve seen him do so much, so many great things and he brings that ‘king’ presence to what he does. So, it was really good to work with him and it’s good to learn from him. I listened to a lot of things that he was saying. He would pull us aside and spread the love. He said a lot of important things to us. He shows by example, you know? It’s like he’s a good dude, a really focused brother and I’m very grateful to be a part of this film with Denzel.”
Fortunate to have Washington as a role model, Common is doubly blessed for he has also been compared to one of his mentors, iconoclast Harry Belafonte, who he got a chance to meet and share world views. Of that encounter he states, “I was honored to be next to him. If I could, I would be foolish not to walk in his footsteps as an artist, an activist and an actor.”
And the acting continues. Up next for the rapper/actor are two feature films: THE NIGHT WATCHMAN with Forest Whitaker and Keanu Reeves and WANTED with Angelina and Morgan Freeman.