Be Cool: An Interview with Andre Benjamin
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By Wilson Morales
What about this character appealed to you and what trepidations, if any, did you have about playing a gangster rapper given the fact that your own music doesn't have any of those elements at all?
Andre Benjamin: Honestly I guess I can go back to the back-story. I've known Gary, (Director F Gary Gray) since our first album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik if you know the history of OUTKAST, we've gone through a lot of changes earlier. I was knucklehead just like everybody else, fresh out of High School doing the dastardly deeds and the next timeand Gary Gray directed Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik that video and the next time we worked with him was the Mrs. Jackson video. And I was doing the close up scenes and he was looking at the play back monitor and he said 'I think you're going to have a great career in film if you ever go in that direction, so if something comes up you know I'll look out for you.' He calls me with the BE COOL script and I read and I thought the story was great. I didn't like my character so I told him I really had to turn it down, I really don't want to play it, because I knew I wanted to get into films but I didn't want to play a rapper, that's the obvious thing to do. So he said 'Let's have a meeting man, lets talk about it,' I was like alright cool. So I went to a hotel we sat down we talked about it and he said, 'You got to think about. Its not really you playing a rapperwell you're playing a rapper but you're playing against type. People don't see you as that and you're really playing a parody of what people think rap is.' So its way over the top, it's baggy pants like down to your knees, its four or five pagers, and two-ways and all these platinum chains and stuff and he was like 'Try it out.' And on top of that how in the hell can you turn down being in a movie with these people. And he said "Now that will be great for you career' and I said 'You're right so let me try it.'
What can we expect on Four Brothers?
Andre Benjamin: Four Brothers, John Singleton is directing. It's a story about four brothers that grew upwell we were adopted as kids. Its myself, Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, and Garrett Hedlund and we grew up together, my three brothers left townit takes place in Detroitleft town, I'm the only brother that stayed and made something of myself. I have a family I have a wife and two kids. And someone kills our mother that adopted us and my brothers come back into town for the funeral but not only the funeral they do a little investigation to see if the cop story is true. To see if it was a random shooting in a convenient store and it wasn't, it was a hit. So we have to find out who did it and there's a lot of twist and turns and that's all I can really tell you right now. But its fun, were in Toronto right now shooting on the frozen lake. (Laughs) So look out for it.
Gary said that this character started off with no name and one line. So how did you build and embellish the character and how comfortable are you with guns?
Andre Benjamin: I'm not really comfortable with guns but I mean you've got to protect yourself, you got to do what you got to do. It wasn't one line, it was maybe three or four but Gary said, 'I'll embellish the character make it better.' And we sat down and had a conversation after I read the script he just asked me questions he said, 'So where is Dabu from? Why is he like this? Why does he act like this?' We made up a back-story, I said I was from the south I sell records out of my trunk. Sin's character, Cedric the Entertainer's character, he came down and saw us perform, and he saw us making it, saw a little talent in the hood selling my tapes and he said, 'Well I'll be your producer, I'll make you national.' And so when that happens, which it does happen in music that's your man for life and you know you'll do anything for that person cause they got you out of the gutter. So our whole thing is to protect Sin and if you never had anything and once you get it you want everybody to know. So you get all the chains, and all the beepers, and all the pagers and so that's how the character was created. And the name, we knew we wanted a real soul getto name but we didn't know what it was. Gary said, 'Well I'll give two hundred dollars to the first person in the cast who can come up with the most getto name.' And Cedric the Entertainer came up with DABU. (Laughs)
Did he get the two hundred?
Andre Benjamin: I don't know, I don't remember.
Can you talk about the opportunity to be in a movie with all these great people? Who did you look forward to most, who was the biggest surprise working with and what was it like to meet these people you wanted to work with so much?
Andre Benjamin: I think I was excited to see Harvey Keitel. I've been a fan of John Travolta since I was little way back till Welcome Back Carter. Uma (Thurman) for sure, Vince Vaughn, you know he was always funny to me. But you got to imagine I'm a beginner and new to it and you show up to work and all these people. And so I was really timid and tiptoed, you know just trying not to make mistakes, trying to be real perfect. An acting it out will kill you if you think about it too much. So I had to ease into it and just sit down and talk to John (Travolta) and just know that he's a normal person, talk about flying airplanes and houses and all this type of stuff. And then Cedric, man we tripped the whole movie, we had a good time. And so get around these people and they become like a little familyyou just get into it and just go into your scenes and don't think about. And that's the best way to do just don't think about it.
With all these musical talent in the movie, this was like the backstage of the Grammy on the set, why didn't we see something from you?
Andre Benjamin: I don't know I have no idea it wasn't in the script I'm sorry.
What can we expect from the OUTKAST movie?
Andre Benjamin: The OUTKAST movie we finished. I haven't seen it. Like when I'm shooting the film I don't look at the playback. I don't go and do a scene and then hurry up and watch what I just did, I never look at it so I haven' seen any of it. I talked to Bryan (Barber) the other day, Bryan Barber directed and he told me it looks phenomenal. It's a musical, it takes place in the 1930's, it's a love story mixed with a gangster story. My characterI play a mortician, the son of a mortician, generations of morticians. Big Boi's character is this hustler guy whohe has to end up taking over this club, like a little juke joint type of thing and he gets mixed up in smuggling liquor. I fall in love with this girl who comes to town blah blah blahI'm not going to tell you the whole story, but its done and they're trying to decide right now if they are going to release it in theaters or not. HBO, they want to release it in theaters, everybody wants to release it in theaters but we'll see once the final (cut) is done. They've only seen one cut of it and it got a standing ovation for one cut, the music wasn't even in it. It was kind of like rough pieces, so we pray that it works.
How many songs are in it though?
Andre Benjamin: How many songs? I don't know of count but we performedlike it's a musical, I may be seating in a room and start going off into a song. So its maybe 4,5,6 performing numbers maybe, but don't write it. Cause I don't know.
Bryan Barber directed it?
Andre Benjamin: Yes Bryan Barber, he's a long time friend that's been around OUTKAST for a long time. We actually write together. Me and Bryan wrote the story of this movie, and Bryan scripted it, I made it into a screenplay and we've been working together, writing treatments for HEY YA and ROSES. And so we always have this cool kinship, and he went to film school in Atlanta. This would be his first feature.
What is the musical style that you sing?
Andre Benjamin: Hmm, I can't tell you that, you got to see it. I'm sorry.
But it serves the period?
Andre Benjamin: It may. It may have touches of the period it may be new. Well I'm going to tell you this, its not straight 30's music, cause we're not from thatwe're not trying to play true to true. Its still OUTKAST music but it's a perfect fit though, it's a prefect match, it's not like out of place at all.
This is the beginning of your acting career. How did it feel? Were you at all uncomfortable? Did you feel so much pressure? F. Gary Gray said that you have a lot of comedy in you. Where did you get that and did you get any acting tips from John, Uma, Cedric, or any of the actors?
Andre Benjamin: Okay first question Yes (outburst of laughter). Nah that's good that's how you do it you all get one shot so handle it (laughs)
Yes it was like it was natural for me to get into films but the acting process was unnatural for me because like I'm good on the screen but I'm terrible in auditions because I hate having to prove myself. To sit in a small room with five people producers and they say GO! That's so strange to me but when I'm film and just acting, just doing it, just being you know that's cool. So it was hard for me to not want to be so perfect, and the more I do it, I feel the more comfortable I get with being on screen.
Jesus I forgot your second question
Do you think you are funny?
Andre Benjamin: I really don't think I'm funny but if other people think I'm funny I guess it works you know? Timing, I don't know anything about comedic timing but I've heard it a lot in the interviews, so I guess its working.
Did you learn anything about acting?
Andre Benjamin: Yes I did, so you show up to work and you have all these vets around so I'm watching them, I'm new to the game, I'm real quite, I'm watching everybody and I watched Vince Vaughn. And it's the scene where we take him into the office and he's beat up and he has to be beat up and out of breathe. So before we do the scene, two minutes before we do the scene he's in the corner actually beating himself up, he's getting into it, I mean not punching himself and I'm looking at him and I'm like 'okay, that's how you do it.' I mean you shouldn't have to wait till action to get into it because then you have to put it on, and if you're in it you're in it and so I learned to get into characterto have your thoughts before its time to go.
Have you seen the final project yet?
Andre Benjamin: No I have not seen the movie.
How do you prepare yourself for it?
Andre Benjamin: I don't know how to prepare for it, I haven't seen an inch of footage, well only from the trailers I've seen on television. Like I've always wanted to do movies and then go see them as a moviegoer. I don't want to look at it and critique myself before its done, because I'm suppose to living in the moment I don't want to start to edit before the editor gets to it.
Did you have to audition for Four Brothers? And has anybody approached the movie version of Dreamgirls that is supposedly happening now.
Andre Benjamin: I haven't heard about Dreamgirls. As for as auditioning for Four Brothers, John Singleton knew he wanted me to play the part, but for studio executives a lot of times they may not know, so you have to prove to them that you knowAnd there was a lot of great actors up for the part so I had to compete almost. I just finished the Guy Ritchie movie called REVOLVER and I was shooting it and I didn't have time to go for an audition. So what they did they set up a screening where Gary showed them footage of this movie (Be Cool). Bryan showed them footage of My Life in Idlewild movie and I did an episode of the Shield. So they kind of just put something together were they can see something and that was pretty much my audition.
Andre, who are some actors that you admire or pattern yourself after? What advice would you give to other hip-hop artists who want to make the transition into acting?
Andre Benjamin: I admired a lot of actors. It's hard to pattern yourself after an actor because they are doing their thing and they are bringing their thing into it. Everybody has their own method, but actors I admire, Jeffrey Wright is one of the best out there. Jeffrey Wright and De Niro; he's one of my favorites. I can't remember his name but he was in "The Apostle" and in "The Godfather". Duvall
What I would tell entertainers?
Andre Benjamin: I think the reason it's hard for a lot of entertainers to get into film and be believable is because as entertainers, you spend your whole life, your whole existence, coming to interviews and being on television, and I think people make it where you have to be perfect and you have to never make mistakes. Some people go to class to learn how to do interviews and how to sit up straight and how not to say um, um, and all that type of stuff so you spend your whole time trying to be perfect and in film, it's the total opposite. Vanity is gone. You cant' think about if you are looking good. You can't be conscious of yourself. For a lot of entertainers, it's hard to make that switch to not think about themselves when they have thinking about themselves for so long; so it's hard for them to be believable. So what I would say is that if you are going to do it, you have to make the full step. You can't just tip toe and think that you want to do it. You will either spit when you talk, cry, trip up and make a fool of yourself and it took me a while because growing up, I was never really a talkative person and being an entertainer and even though I performed on stage, I'd still get stupid nervous and it's hard for me to do it sometimes so in film I had to learn sometimes to say, "'Fuck it".
It's not a departure from doing music. I think I will always do music in some kind of way. I can't juggle them though so when I'm doing film, I'm doing film, and when I'm doing music, I'm concentrating on music cause it's hard to give a 100% to each one. After I finish Four Brothers, I'm back in the studio recording. I'm always thinking of concepts when I come home from the set. In conversations sometimes, you get song ideas. I may be around the set talking to people and think of a song. So I will always do music.
Andre, like John Travolta, you define cool. What is cool to you?
Andre Benjamin: It's not one type of cool. Cool is confidence and knowing what you are and being fine with it. Some people can be what some people call nerds and they are cool with it cause they know what they are. They are so confident in knowing what they are and that makes them cool cause someone aspires to be like them cause they are fine with it. So it's confidence.
Did you base this role on someone that you knew and also how much ad-libbing did you do on this? Gary said that you said, "Don't give me a gun!" and I wondered how much of this was you?
Andre Benjamin: I have homeboys just like that. I know people in the rap game just like that. I have friends just like that. We joke and talk about each other. Just playing and talking about how many change you got on and I kinda channeled a certain type of rapper and kinda pumped it up. I do know people like that and when they see the movie they will be like, "Yeah. I know you got that from me."
On libbing, because I'm new to it and was kinda tip-toeing and didn't want to do too much or try a lot, I didn't do too much ad-libbing. There's one scene in the movie, "Don't give me a gun". That part was a mistake because the gun actually went off on the set when it wasn't supposed to go off and everybody was looking at me, and then I said " Well, do don't give me a gun". I tried to stay in character and do it and they kept it. So that was like an adlibbing thing. The tea and the gun, Gary said, 'I want you to sit there and sip tea and use your gun as a s.' I was like okay. (Laughs) I was like yeah that's tough. So I'm sitting there and I tried to do it as dandy as I could, put your little pinky out, so you try little stuff and you play. I guess the more comfortable you get with it the more playing you do the morelike you get the best out of anything is like when you play.
You have a great sense of style, did you choose your own clothes
Andre Benjamin: Yes I chose my own clothes, I don't have a stylist. I like going out shopping and picking up my own stuff not that having a stylist is bad because some people just don't have time or they really don't know what they want to do with themselves. So a lot of entertainers you see there put together by people they have a team. But I love going shopping and finding little stuff, this and that. Inspiration from movies, old people I usually see walking down the street. Everybody who I meet, I had interviews yesterday and it was like 1-1 interviews, people will come in and they be having some cool stuff and I'll tell them, you see things that may work on you, so you get a collections of ideas.
Can you talk about the OUTKAST clothing line? And will you do individual lines since your personal look has kind of varied from the old hip-hop sensibility of fashion
Andre Benjamin: The OUTKAST clothing line, it was a dream that was started by myself and Big Boi and because of the costumes and stuff that I wear on stage, fans would say, 'Where could we buy this type of stuff.' So we got into a deal with a couple of investors and they told us certain things, you have full control of what you want you wanna do, it was a licensing deal pretty much where they used our name but they say you have to approve of everything. But it was kinda of set up in a funny way where they would send the approvals the day before they had to be approved so the changes wouldn't matter. So if you noticed I don't wear OUTKAST clothing, its because I didn't like it. I thought it was a great start. But the actually logo, we are going to do something with it to get control so that we be the taste makers that we are to make it right. I am starting my own clothing label, should be launching by the end of this year or early next year. I have great people on my team that's been in the business for a long time and I just want to do it right this time, so I look forward to it and hope that you all go in the stores. There's going to be something for everybody.
What's it called?
Andre Benjamin: BENJI
Like the dog?
Andre Benjamin: Yes
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