Yes, Common has played a criminal before. But “Luv,” which offers the South Side native his largest big-screen leading role to date, isn’t exactly “Smokin’ Aces” or “Street Kings.”
In the Baltimore-set drama opening Friday, the rapper/actor plays Vincent, an ex-con hoping to open a crab restaurant who spends a day running errands and teaching lessons to his 11-year-old nephew Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.).
By phone from the W Hotel in L.A. where he announced the Independent Spirit Award nominations with Zoe Saldana and Anna Kendrick, Common, 40, chatted about his troubles talking to women, ridiculous childhood behavior and the ongoing discussion of the intersection between Chicago violence and hip-hop.
In “Luv” Vincent tries to motivate Woody to talk to women. Were you always confident in that department, even at 11 years old?
No. One of my good friends and producers that I work with, No I.D., can tell you a story of a time he told me this girl liked me, and when he told me I just ran. I ran away. I was scared because—she wasn’t there when I ran I don’t think, but that’s how scared I was. It wasn’t like I always knew how to talk to women. It was more for me that fear came from ‘cause I didn’t know how. I knew she was faster than me, so I had to be able to be at that level. [Laughs.]
So she told him, he told you and you ran?
Yeah, I ran. ‘Cause I didn’t know what I was going to do with it right then and there. She was coming down the block and it was like, “Oh, no.” So I just ran and it was just funny and he still laughs at me about it.
Did she chase you?
No, she ain’t chase me. They was laughing. They all was laughing.
You’ve played a few other characters that have criminal backgrounds. What felt different to you about this part?
I think this part you get to explore and see the person that has come from being in a world of doing some crime. You get to see that’s not what he wanted to do. That’s not who he was. That’s not what defined him, but it was just one of those things where sometimes your results are not only what you know but the access you have, the things that you’ve been used to. You fall back into certain patterns. You don’t know any other way to go but that way. So to play this character allowed me a chance to show—because you have done some crime—doesn’t mean that’s what you want to do and also shows you’re a human being and a lot of people want to change ... and sometimes just make bad choices within that process. Or hit so many walls and it feels like it’s almost impossible.
It’s a big role for you, being a leading man. What’s something that’s still challenging for you as an actor?
When I have to do something like a Jamaican accent or maybe play a character that’s a French person. That would be challenging. But I would love it—to do an English accent. The challenges are the things that I love about acting and about art. I look forward to those things. It’s challenging to make sure that I show the new dimension to who I am as an actor but … to show that I do the character justice and show the depth of the character.
Why don’t you think you would sound like a convincing French person?
I will! I will. But I would have to work at it. I come with a Chicago accent and I can speak in different things. In “Hell on Wheels” I’m doing a Southern accent. In “Luv” I did my best to have more of a Baltimore—they say Baltmore—accent. I love doing that, and I would do it. I’m just saying it would be a challenge, but I’d be up for it.
Vincent apparently tried to eat the whole crab shell as a kid. What’s something you did as a kid that seems ridiculous now?
Trying to smoke weed when I was rolling up grass and dried leaves. [Laughs.]
Just picking up grass from the yard and rolling it?
It was dried leaves more than grass. That’s what we thought weed was or something, I don’t know. I was really young.
How old were you?
Probably 11 or 12.
Did you smoke it and have that moment where you don’t know how you’re supposed to feel so you pretend you feel something?
Oh, yeah. We definitely—we knew we weren’t feeling nothing too life-changing or nothing, but we still thought we were feeling something.