(left) Singer Usher Raymond as legendary boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard (right) in the highly anticipated film, “Hands Of Stone
It takes a special project for multi-platinum recording artist Usher Raymond to return to the big screen. In the midst of being a husband, father and coach on “The Voice”, the eight-time Grammy Award-winning artist has been mentally and physically training for the fight of his life in his latest acting role as legendary boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard. In the highly anticipated film, “Hands Of Stone” actor Edgar Ramirez gives an astounding, Oscar worthy performance through his portrayal of the most successful Panamanian boxer, Roberto Duran. While the film, which also stars Robert DeNiro as boxing trainer, Ray Arcel, focuses on the rags-to-riches story of Duran; two pivotal fights between he and Leonard change the trajectory of both boxers’ careers.
During a press conference in promotion of “Hands Of Stone” which hits theaters August 26, Raymond gets candid about the personal and professional sacrifices he’s made over the past three years to see the film come to fruition.
How did you go about getting Sugar Ray Leonard on board with you being cast to play him?
Usher Raymond: Normally you don’t have the benefit of preparing someone to pay homage to you and what you’ve done in your life. Usually, you pass away and someone does a tribute to your character and who you were during a specific period of your life. I was very fortunate to be able to represent an icon to many African Americans.
I hoped to only represent the greatest aspects of who Sugar was because his first loss against Roberto Duran was a difficult moment for him. While it’s Duran’s movie, Sugar Ray had a big part in what Duran’s legacy represents through the “No Mas” fight.I didn’t want to ask for his blessing until I read his book and knew his story. Then I approached him and said ‘Sugar, they asked me to play you and I just want to get it right, are you okay with that? Because if you don’t want me to do it, I won’t’ and he said, ‘My wife is a huge fan of yours!’ Then he made himself available, he invited me to his house, he came to visit me in Atlanta and he offered to watch me box.
What sacrifices were made in order to bring the film to fruition:
UR: It took two years to shoot this film because we originally started with a different cast and with an independent project, it can be hard to acquire the funds. We were going to shoot the entire story of Panama in Puerto Rico for budgetary reasons. [Robert] DeNiro, the director and I suggested reaching out to the administration in Panama to see if we could get them to help finance the film because it would help to promote tourism and they put a substantial amount of money on the table to support this Venezuelan’s directors effort to tell the story of Panama. It took a year to get to that point. I made so many sacrifices; I went on a small tour domestically but I turned down the international tour to finish up my work on “The Voice” then shoot the film.
I loved every aspect of prepping for the film and standing toe-to-toe with amateur boxers. I wanted to know what type of pressures athletes go through when facing their opponent. I would do six or seven three minute sparring rounds and I loved it, I was in the best physical shape of my life.
You seem very particular when it comes to acting, following this film, are you actively seeking more roles?
UR: I recently begun to understand why one of my favorite actors, Larenz Tate, is so selective and specific about what he chooses to do because you only have so many chances to tell the right story of who you are as a creative person. So yes, I am holding out for the right role and I hope it’s clear that I’m willing to make the necessary sacrifices to play the right role. When I reflect on the issues that black Hollywood has had with the lack of representation at the Oscars, I realized that we have a responsibility to tell stories that are meaningful for our history. There are so many other great projects that I’m hoping to be apart of as either an actor or producer. As you go down the rabbit hole of reading into our history, you realize that there are so many things that history books didn’t teach us about ourselves. Our identity was taken from us and we didn’t know that because there hasn’t been a reference of things that have allowed us to celebrate who we once were. Now we get an opportunity to do it by turning our stories into a reality.
Having acted since you were in your teens, do you think you’ve gotten better based on life experiences? Would you advise new artists bypass acting opportunities until later in their career?
UR: You don’t have to go through it the way I did to be successful, the key is to be non-complacent. If [after one role] you believe that you’ve mastered acting and you don’t have to study the craft or get a deeper perspective, then you’re not going to succeed. I’ve played in sitcoms, horror one-offs in ‘Twilight Zone’; I’ve played Usher the artist and an interpretation of an artist that was like “Usher”. I’ve acted in soap operas—I’ve done everything and this has been my particular path. I decided that if I really wanted to do this, then I needed to have a 360 view of how everyone looks at acting and maybe when I’m older, I’ll have an opportunity to use all of these things. There’s no wrong or right way to do it, except not being complacent.
Why are films like “Hands Of Stone” so hard to get made?
UR: If everyone didn’t look at this film as a labor of love, it wouldn’t have happened. There were many opportunities to walk away from it but as a financial investor and an actor, I knew the cast and crew was dedicated and committed. I felt this was a great story and I’m all about making sure we preserve the essence of our icons. Just because we have success in the moment, it doesn’t mean anything. Artists who are relevant today won’t be tomorrow unless someone does the right thing by their character and preserves it in the dialogue of a movie. There are so many incredible books but the interpretation of how someone looks becomes etched into your mind. I’ll never forget Denzel [Washington] as Malcolm X, or Don Cheadle as Miles Davis so I approached playing Sugar Ray Leonard with that in mind. I really wanted to get this right for the sake of our icons. This is one of the only ways we’ll get to preserve the legacy of the hard work that’s gone into our culture.