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Wu-Tang's the RZA on acting, performing and Fox's new show 'Gang Related'

May 16, 2014|By Ernest Wilkins, @ernestwilkins | RedEye Sound Board

Legendary rapper/producer The RZA (real name: Robert Diggs) is no stranger to the acting game. After turns in films like “Coffee and Cigarettes” and on shows like “Californication,” he now plays veteran cop Cassius Green in the new Fox series “Gang Related.” RedEye talked to him about the new series and how his rapping and acting worlds collide.

On “Gang Related” your character, Cassius Green, is a veteran cop. In the Wu-Tang Clan, you’ve always acted as an elder statesman and leader. What is it about the mentor role that appeals to you so much?

I’ve been very studious in my life. I can speak on several topics. Through that knowledge, I have become a person that can be a voice of reason, of advice. I’ve been doing that role for a long time. It feels right. Look at the show: My character sees potential in Ryan Lopez [played by Ramon Rodriguez] He sees that even though he’s younger, he’s capable. Even though we have Sam Chapel [played by Terry O’Quinn] telling us we have to go hit the crooks hard, Cassius is like, “Wait! We’re going to get pressure on us.” His role is to be the voice of reason. That’s a part of me.

How is acting different from performing? Do you get to use different creative muscles?

To use your example, performing is muscle memory. I’m performing my material. In that, I’m so confident in it. You can watch a tape of me and (the late Wu-Tang Clan member) ODB from when I was 18 or watch me now. We tore up the stage. I felt like a champion and nobody could tell me anything.

Now when it comes to acting, that’s someone else’s words. This is something I have to engulf and find the empathy to express these rhythms, the beats and to drop the phobia of not wanting to give myself to the character. In rap, we rap to the camera. It’s flagrant. We want you to see what we’re doing. In acting, that fourth wall is there. When you become a good actor—I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there—you lose yourself. I was watching a movie and this actor was crying and he had a snot bubble come out of his nose. When you can have that kind of expression and remove the phobia that comes with caring what you look like, you become a great actor.

[Wu-Tang affiliate member/RZA’s solo DJ] DJ Skane was a cop for 18 years in Red Hook [Brooklyn]. What kind of advice did he give you to play this role?

We grew up together and when I went to go be a gangster, he went to be a cop. When I got known for my music, he was still a cop. When I first got the role, I had him come out to California to talk cop. Now, I can’t tell you specifically some of the things on the record, but he’s from cop family. They all put me on game. At the same time, FOX hired SWAT team guys to teach us the ropes.

I’ve gained a new respect for cops. I know people in the hood aren’t feeling that, but listen: At the end of the day, the cop is that same dude whose trying to do his job and worry about his check and go home. If you shoot somebody as a cop, it ain’t like the movies when you just get back in the car and ride off. You have to go through a lot of stuff. Psychiatrist stuff, legal stuff, all of that.

“Gang Related” comes from the writers of “Fast & Furious” and “The Shield.” Was their success in the cop genre part of the reason you signed up?

Not really. I have good buddies who are actors and other types of folks in Hollywood and they give me advice. They actually told me not to do TV.

Why was that?

My personality. I’m a free thinker; I write and direct myself. TV is a tight schedule and it demands a lot from you. You’re locked into it for years depending on the success of the show. So even if you do one season, you might as well cut that year out of your life. Also, TV isn’t the kind of medium for a free thinker. You read your lines, you hit your mark and my friends thought I couldn’t conform to that. However, I read the script and it felt like a movie. Then I met Allen Hughes and went to dinner with him. He made some adjustments to the character like making him from New York and that helped a lot. This turned out to be the healthiest job for me. It keeps me sharp and focused. It turned me from a nocturnal person to a daytime person. I did a morning show earlier and the producers were like, “Oh, he’s on time!”

Hold on a second. We need to address that. It’s a commonly accepted idea that rappers are never expected to be on time for anything. I think that's BS.

Exactly! Here’s a story: On [2007 Denzel Washington movie] “American Gangster” I was coming in late, doing the wrong thing. I didn’t take it seriously. One day, I was sitting with Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe working on a scene. We were waiting on Ruby Dee, who hadn’t arrived yet. Scott goes, “Ruby’s late! What, did she come in RZA’s car?” I was like, “Oh [bleep].” From that day on, I’ve been on time. Crowe told me, “You’ve got to master your time.” So a word to rappers: Even if no one ever says anything, everyone notices.

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