June 2010

10 Common Lessons

Being a famous musician isn’t a shortcut to Hollywood stardom

common Hilary Walsh

When I came to Hollywood, it was with a music career already under my belt. I was a Grammy Award–winning artist, and I knew how to handle fame. But I wanted to act.

Initially I thought my success in music might give me a slight advantage in making the transition, but it ended up being more of an obstacle. I soon found out Hollywood was just like the music business—you need plenty of dedication, hard work, passion and a continuing commitment to the schooling of your technique. What you don’t get are shortcuts. I would have to work my way up knowing it’s a no-holds-barred, knock-down, drag-out type of business, and nothing is guaranteed.

Turns out I was pigeonholed: I wasn’t being seen for roles because directors and casting agents would always say things like, “We don’t want a rapper” or “Isn’t that the rapper—why is he acting?” And there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it. I had a lot to learn...

Lesson One: You have to put your trust and career into someone else’s hands. There’s a big difference between being a recording artist and an actor, as far as creative control goes. As an MC, especially being solo, you are the director of your project. Most ideas begin and end with you. You have the veto power, if you will. As an actor, you are a piece in a puzzle, and the construction of that puzzle is usually done by the director, with lots of input from studio execs and producers. Letting go of that creative control is tough.

Lesson Two: The process of auditioning is a very humbling experience. You walk in, you see other actors (often ones you know and admire), you sign your name and realize you are just one of hundreds. I once saw Malcolm-Jamal Warner at an audition. To me, he was an established actor, someone I grew up watching and had respect for. He was really fighting for that role, and I thought, Man, if Theo Huxtable has to fight, what chance do I have? He was an actor on one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and he still has to get up there and show what he is made of for every single job.

Lesson Three: No holding back! Casting directors constantly told my agents I was too “green.” I decided to embrace it—to go into every audition and perform at my highest level.

Lesson Four: A six-pack of Heineken to calm nerves isn’t a great career move. The first day I met my acting coach, Greta Seacat, I was on the set of the TV show Lyricist Lounge. It was a show that involved acting and rapping, so I was semi-comfortable. To calm myself, I drank a six-pack of Heineken. I was preparing for my skit when my A&R rep, Wendy Goldstein, walked in to introduce me to Greta—and it was obvious I was intoxicated. Greta later told me she didn’t think I would be focused enough to take acting seriously.

Lesson Five: Watch what you wear to an audition. When I got the script for Smokin’ Aces, I was in awe. I read it over and over and wished I had written something that fresh. The meeting with director Joe Carnahan went well, and when I finally got my shot to try for the role, I prepared between shows, on tour buses and in hotels. Then I went dressed in character—but every other actor in the room had on the exact same outfit. Damn.

Lesson Six: You don’t always remember an audition. It’s funny—when you are waiting to go into the room, you see other actors practicing their lines. Some look nervous, and others look confident. You do your best to stay in your zone—but I don’t remember if it really happened or not. When I went into the Smokin’ Aces audition, I actually can’t recall what occurred, but I knew I felt good about it, so maybe I was totally immersed in my zone?! Whatever happened, it worked. Two days later, they wanted to see me for a second audition. This time, Carnahan would be there.

Lesson Seven: Take the time to freshen up if you are auditioning after a transatlantic flight. It would be three weeks before that second audition for Smokin’ Aces. In the meantime, I was touring in France and China. I’d rehearse all night after the show. Then when we landed, I went straight there. Okay, I did stop by my house to take a shower—my mom taught me that one.

Repeat Lesson One: Alicia Keys had already been cast in the film, and I found out the producers were not too keen on the idea of including another musical artist. I just had to believe.

Lesson Eight: Be prepared to pay the cost to get what you want. Here we go: It’s September 4, 2005, and I am in the Bahamas, about to perform with Kanye West for a DJ music conference. I get a call in my hotel room from my manager, Derek Dudley. He tells me Joe is going to call in a few minutes about Smokin’ Aces. When he does, the first thing he asks is if I do the role, what about the tour I had going with Kanye? I told him I was willing to give up that tour for this movie—I wanted this! And then he told me the role of Sir Ivy was mine! All I could say was, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” as tears came to my eyes. I hung up, jumped on the bed and yelled. Once I gathered my composure, I called my mother and said, “Ma, I got the role! Your son is an actor!”

Lesson Nine: Winking on command isn’t as easy as you think. I discovered I’m a mono-winker. My character had a playing card thrown in his eye, and it was supposed to leave his eye severely injured. Unfortunately, I was not able to keep my left eye closed while my right eye was open. I know, it seems easy, but not everyone has that ability! After a few busted takes, it was quickly established that my left eye needed to be taped down and covered in more blood to disguise the tape.

Lesson Ten: It’s tough being on a movie set with two of the best comedians in the world and you are the butt of their jokes. I was humbled once again recently on the set of Date Night, when my character approached Steve Carell and Tina Fey at a fancy restaurant. Delivering my lines very seriously, I had to tell Steve to get up from the table and come outside. But then he began to go off script and started repeating every word that came out of my mouth. I thought, Steve Carell is mocking me?! I did my best not to break character—I had to remain serious and threatening. That’s basically how the filming went...I was constantly trying not to laugh.

I don’t have it all figured out yet, and the lessons are endless, but I continue to work on my craft, my career—and my winking capabilities.

COMMON is a musician, actor and activist. He can currently be seen on the big screen in Date Night and as the romantic lead opposite Queen Latifah in Just Wright.