'Just Wright' star Common is stepping up his cinematic game

Staff artist Patterson Clark created the sketch of Common at Busboys and Poets using the Brushes app on the iPad. Click to watch its development.
By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010

He might be transitioning from full-time rapper to full-time actor, but Common is still living on rap time.

Which is to say, he's 20 minutes late for a lunch interview at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant-slash-bookstore on 14th Street NW. But once he arrives, he's serving up apologies with a sandpapery voice made for microphones, and sparkling brown eyes made for movie screens. All is forgiven.

We slump into the restaurant's most sequestered corner booth in hopes of avoiding the camera-clutching fans who normally swarm him with their star-struck questions: "Am I dating this girl? Is Kanye cool?" he says. (Answers: tennis pro Serena Williams and yes.)

The 38-year-old Chicago native is on a promotional tour for the new film "Just Wright." In it, he plays a pro basketballer who loses his fiancee (Paula Patton) after injuring his knee, only to fall for his personal trainer, Leslie Wright (Queen Latifah). It's a rom-com -- heavy on the rom, light on the com -- and it's his first leading role.

This lunch is a quieter moment in a whirlwind promo tour -- one that Common has tackled with a rapper's hustle. "My team approached this film kind of like it was an album," he says, sipping ice water. "We've been doing 'Just Wright' parties where I'd do walk-throughs in nightclubs and get on the mike. And we've done a mix tape of music promoting the movie."

"Just Wright" may be a love story set in the NBA, but there's plenty of music tucked into the script. Soul crooner John Legend and jazzman Terence Blanchard make cameos, and the plot takes a crucial turn behind the keys of a piano. Not to mention, Common's co-star is one of the most successful rapper-turned-actors in Hollywood.

"She's just a fun person to be around," Common says of Latifah. "She taught me to let it flow. Just be natural."

That's surprising to hear. Since his 1992 debut album, "Can I Borrow a Dollar?," Common has always sounded like a natural. His warm, inviting delivery made him a key player in the glory days of neo-soul, and his later work with Kanye West earned Common a Grammy. Since then, he's gone from appearing in Gap ads to roles in "American Gangster," "Terminator Salvation," "Smokin' Aces" and "Date Night."

Nearly two decades in the rap game prepared him for life on set -- but not fully. "As a hip-hop artist, you're telling your story," he says. "As an actor, you've got to tell the story that's written. You're really executing someone else's vision."

Lunch is served -- a vegan pizza that his publicist ordered as they rushed into the restaurant. "We can share this," he says with a smile, before folding his hands for a silent prayer. When he's finished, he starts divvying up slices covered in soy cheese and fake pepperoni.

"I think the way we choose to eat is definitely important," he says. "I was vegan for a minute and I really commend those who can eat vegan. Then I was vegetarian. Now I eat fish, but I try not to eat too much dairy. I'm excited about this pizza."

He's dining with the one journalist on Earth who might be more excited about vegan pizza than he -- one who remembers an ad campaign Common once did for PETA, clutching a veggie burger, flashing that proto-Hollywood smile. "They put those ads up on this billboard in Brooklyn and my friends would ride past it and just laugh," he remembers. "It did look kind of funny."

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