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

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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.

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After a few crunchy bites, he raises his hand: "I want to order another pizza to go, too. Thank you."

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Common finds himself in Washington three or four times a year, including a December visit to perform at the Christmas tree lighting on the Ellipse. But when he first crossed paths with Barack Obama, he may have been more famous than the president-to-be. "The first place I met Obama was at a hip-hop summit in 2002 with Russell Simmons," Common says. "He was just a cool dude, great energy, being himself. He just had that charisma and that swagger."

Since Obama's election, Common says he's noticed a change in the hip-hop community and the black community at large. "It's definitely more accepted to be distinguished and to conduct yourself with a certain amount of class," he says. "I notice more young men shake my hand firmly. The hip-hop community, we can look at his image and the way he conducts himself, and we can relate to it. . . . I think hip-hop is built upon leaders setting good examples."

His hand shoots up again. "I know I ordered one pizza but could you get me two? Two pizzas to go?"

So back to the whole rapper-to-actor transition. "Freestyling is one component that's helped me as an actor," he says. "Every film I've been in, there's been a change in script or some improvisation. When you're dealing with ["Date Night" stars] Steve Carell and Tina Fey, they're gonna come with something different every time."

He's also tried to glean as much as he could from other actors on set -- namely when it comes to getting into character. "I knew the experience of working with Denzel [Washington in "American Gangster"], I'd learn a lot of more than I'd learn in any classes. The experience of being on the set with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman [in "Wanted"], I learned more about acting than ever before."

Before that, he was trying to learn from Lauryn Hill. "Some of my performances in my videos were horrible," Common says, citing his 1997 clip for the song "Retrospect for Life." The video featured Hill, the legendary Fugees singer and former child actor, who coached Common through the motions.

It didn't help much. A few years later, he says, he botched a nonspeaking role in a small film starring Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter of hip-hop group the Roots. "My acting was so terrible, and I ain't even have any lines," he says. "It was this movie called 'Brooklyn Babylon.' I hope it's not on . . . what's that list called?"

IMDB?

"Yeah, I don't even have a computer," Common says. "I have an iPhone, but I only have that because my band members bought me that for my birthday."

He has no interest in becoming computer-savvy, and his interest in rap is waning. "I'm going to continue to make music, but my hip-hop career is not going to be as prevalent as it was," he says. " I really want to put my time and energy into my acting."

Plenty of energy went into "Just Wright" -- especially on the court. Common shot all of his own scenes on the hardwood, balling for the camera against NBA superstars Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard -- some of it pretty convincing. As a teenager, Common had hoop dreams of his own, but like his character, suffered a life-changing injury.

"I played in high school, but sophomore year, somebody scratched my eye. I had to wear sunglasses for weeks," he says. "The next year I wasn't getting much playing time. . . . I had already started rapping and I thought, man, I'ma start making demo tapes. . . . It's funny how basketball drove me into rapping, rapping drove me into acting, and acting drove me back to basketball."

A tidy little conclusion. But there's still one slice of pizza left.

"C'mon," he says, nudging the plate across the table. "I have two more on the way."


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