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It has been oh-so-long since LL Cool J first popped up on the silver screen and uttered the memorable line: "Box!"
That one word was from the 1985 hip-hop favorite Krush Groove. In that flick, LL Cool J played just LL Cool J (a.k.a. James Todd Smith), getting ready to drop an arsenal of rhymes on an unsuspecting audience. But to become a film actor, he knew he had to play more than himself, however smooth and charismatic he may be.
In 1991 LL Cool J, the critically acclaimed, platinum-selling rapper, the man of a thousand Cangols, the man who once played Sean Penn's obsessive prison lover in a Fatal Attraction parody on Saturday Night Live, was finally ready for his close-up. He made the best of a small role as a cop in the Michael J. Fox-James Woods cop-buddy flick The Hard Way. Cool J's supposed breakthrough performance came in the 1992 Barry Levinson-Robin Williams flop Toys. Cool J played Patrick Zevo, the soldier-boy son of a manipulative white general. The movie fizzled, and LL went on concentrating on his musical work, taking bit parts in big-screen and TV movies along the way. It wasn't until 1995, when he starred in his own sitcom, In the House, that he began to get back in the acting game full-tilt.
In last year's Halloween: H20, he made the most of a supporting role, a prep-school security guard who longs to be a romance novelist. Folks took notice, and since then he has been getting a lot of work. In Renny Harlin's action thriller Deep Blue Sea, he played Sherman "Preacher" Dudley, a God-fearing, hard-drinking, wisecracking cook who ends up becoming, in his character's words, "the baddest muthafucka in the valley." It's among the season's most surprisingly enjoyable movie performances (topped only by Verne "Mini-Me" Troyer in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me).
Cool J moves from sharks in the sea to a shark on the streets in a new film, Michael Rymer's ghetto drama In Too Deep. He plays a brutal, tyrannical drug lord, referred to as God, who unwittingly takes an undercover cop (Omar Epps) under his wing. In December, expect to see Cool J again in the football saga Any Given Sunday, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Dennis Quaid, Charlton Heston and just about every retired football player who doesn't have a TV color commentator gig.
In a phone interview from his home turf of New York, the 30-year-old entertainer, husband and father of three, the same man who once proclaimed that he's so bad he could "suck his own dick," talks about becoming a sought-after hip-hop thespian.
Houston Press: Take me back to when you were young. You're LL Cool J. You are one of the biggest rap stars out there. You've toured with the likes of Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys. The ladies are all over you. When did you say to yourself, "What I really wanna do is act"?
LL Cool J: Acting has always been something that I've done. I mean, I've done movies since 1985. There was a point when I decided I want to, you know, take acting more serious and get really focused. That was probably when I started doing my TV show. Right around that time, when I had done a film with [In the House co-star] Debbie Allen called Out of Sync, Quincy Jones had offered me the TV show. That's when I started getting really, really serious about acting.
HP: You have to talk about your performance in Toys. Did fans ever roll up and ask you what the hell was up with that movie?
Cool J: Well, not really. I mean, I don't think that many people really saw the movie to ask me those questions. But, I mean, for the most part, at that point, my picking the reasons and the way I pick movies was a lot different from how I do it now. At that point, I picked it because of the director and the star. It was Barry Levinson and Robin Williams, and that's what I based my choice on. Now, I don't base it on the director or the star. I base it on what I see in this movie. How does the script look? How is the role? Is the role good? So, you know, it was the criteria that were different. But hey, it could've been Mrs. Doubtfire.
HP: Let's talk about your recent film, Deep Blue Sea. I'm beginning to sense a trend with this film and Halloween: H20. Is there a clause in your contract that states you refuse to die in the movies you appear in or something?
Cool J: [Laughs.] No, not at all. As a matter of fact, in both of those films, the roles didn't start out like that. Like in Deep Blue Sea, I worked every day and they just gave me a break and they did what they did, you know. And I'm real thankful. I mean, they really changed my acting career with that.