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.
HP: How does it feel knowing that your co-stars, like Saffron Burrows and Michael Rapaport, have publicly held you in high regard, actually calling you their hero?
Cool J: It feels great, man. I feel very blessed and very thankful and very humble about everything that's happening in my life, and I'm glad. I'm getting to work with some heroes, too, you know.
HP: You've been a smooth charmer both on-screen and off. What made you take the New Jack City-Nino Brown route and take on this role?
Cool J: For me, when I look at actors like Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Wesley Snipes, Morgan Freeman, to be a great actor, you have to do a lot of different roles. You have to play a lot of different characters. And I thought that this would be a great stretch for me to show people that I was capable of doing other things. So I took this In Too Deep role. I had to work hard to get it. I did two screen tests. I did numerous auditions. I did everything I had to do to get this film, and when I got it, I'm really glad I got it. Because it gives me an opportunity to stretch and show that I'm capable of doing different roles, whether it's a priest, a district attorney or this guy God.
HP: Your next film is Any Given Sunday, a football epic with Oliver Stone directing and Al Pacino starring. Just give me an inkling of how you felt when you found out you were gonna work with both those men.
Cool J: It felt amazing. But see, I wanted to work with Al Pacino and I wanted to work with Oliver Stone and I went for it, but the script was really good, you know what I'm saying? And I felt incredible, man. I feel like I'm coming into my own as an actor. I feel like I'm capable of giving a performance. I feel like I still have a lot to learn, but I'm really I can act in a scene with big boys, and that's a great feeling.
HP: What role do you play?
Cool J: I play a character named Julian Washington. He's a really cocky running back that's all about the money and the fame and the champagne and the women than he is interested in like, you know, the little kids, the autographs and the training. He's more about contracts.
HP: I'm not the kind of brotha that gets in another brotha's business, but I heard a couple of stories
Cool J: What? Me and [Any Given Sunday co-star] Jamie Foxx got in a fight?
HP: Yeah, that one.
Cool J: We did.
Cool J: We were on the set, you know. We both had football gear on. You know, we're in a heated argument. Things got out of hand and we had a fight. I guess we were both in that zone. It was real out there, you know. We were playing football. I was out there hitting people for real. It was real. It wasn't a game, you know. I separated my shoulder playing ball. My knees were killing me out there. We were really doing it. It was no joke.
HP: But everything's cool now, right?
Cool J: Oh, very cool.
HP: So when the hell are you gonna put this acting thing on hold and go back in the studio to make another album?
Cool J: I'm working on an album right now, called The Greatest of All Time.
HP: What can we expect from it?
Cool J: I'm gonna make some LL Cool J records. Some street hip-hop, cool hip-hop. I'm gonna do what I've always done. I'm not gonna try to sound like somebody new because they're out there or somebody that's popular. I'm gonna make what I make, and it's gonna be brand-new. It'll be LL for the new millennium, you know what I'm saying? Straight up.
HP: Let's end this on the Barbara Walters question. What do you want audiences to take with them after seeing you, LL Cool J, perform on the big screen?
Cool J: That the guy is talented, he's incredibly skilled, and he brings the character to life. And every time he's on-screen, I learn from him.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.