He’s a hip hop superstar and an actor trying to shake off his gregarious persona starring opposite the vivacious Queen Latifah in Last Holiday. As a popular rapper, LL Cool J (born James Todd Smith) was famous for his cool moves, muscular physique and collection of hats.
He made a smooth transition to acting both in films and on his own sitcom, “In the House” (NBC, 1995-96; UPN, 1996-98). The latter featured LL Cool J as a pro-football player living in the guest house and renting his house to Debbie Allen, a newly-divorced woman with two kids who is adapting to a world without the affluence she had previously known. Produced by Quincy Jones’ company, the show was slotted after the long-running “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” by NBC, but struggled somewhat to hold onto an audience.
The handsome African-American performer left high school midway through, and joined the burgeoning New York City rap scene. By 1987, he was a successful musician and during the next few years offered such rap and pop hits as “I Need Love” and “Mama Said Knock You Out”, which earned him a Grammy. He also recorded several albums, selling more than 20 million units in all.
LL Cool J’s early TV appearances were as a singer or a participant on public affairs-oriented programs in which he ostensibly gave voice to those of his generation and social background. He was a guest star on the 1987 ABC special “Diana Ross…Red Hot Rhythm & Blues” and joined Dr. Ruth Westheimer on “What’s Up, Dr. Ruth?” (Lifetime, 1989) to discuss the sexual attitudes of teens. On the 1992 Disney special “Simply Mad About the Movies”, LL Cool J sang a send-up of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and he hosted “Breakthroughs: Amazing Things to Come” (NBC, 1995), a reality-based show projecting future inventions.
In addition to his sitcom, he also had a small acting role in “Right to Remain Silent” (Showtime, 1996). His feature film work has also won LL Cool J some notice, particularly his co-starring effort with Robin Williams in “Toys” (1992). He had made his film debut playing a cop in the Michael J. Fox-James Woods “buddy” crime thriller “The Hard Way” (1991) and provided a song for “Strictly Business” (also 1991). In 1995, he starred as a down-and-out disc jockey in Debbie Allen’s feature directorial debut “Out of Sync” (1995). That same year, LL Cool J was also seen as one of the performing rap stars in music documentary “The Show”. 1998 saw the performer take on the newly popular teen horror genre, with a featured acting role in “Halloween: H20”.
Moving from horror to thriller, the actor gave a charming performance as the cook on a doomed scientific vessel who attempts to escape a band of super-intelligent sharks in director Renny Harlin’s wildly absurd but always enjoyable “Deep Blue Sea” (1999). LL Cool J next tackled a series of dramatic roles, including playing an NFL pro for director Oliver Stone in 1999’s “Any Given Sunday” and playing a nefarious drug dealer who fancies himself as God in the 1999 crime drama “In Too Deep.” Lighter roles came with a small part in the goofball action flick “Charlie’s Angels” (2000); a leading part in the dark comedy “Kingdom Come” (2001) as part of a dysfunctional family squabbling as they lay their patriarch to rest; and, unfortunately, as one of the athletic leads in the disastrous remake of the deadly sports thriller “Rollerball” (2002).
Now occasionally billed as James Todd Smith, LL Cool J took the lead in the witty romantic comedy “Deliver Us From Eva” (2003), playing a cash-strapped lothario who’s hired by three men to romance their controlling, tough, trust-fund managing sister-in-law Eva (Gabrielle Union) and thus free up their lives and finances. He also had a supporting role in the big-budget, action-oriented film adaptation of the 70s crime drama “S.W.A.T.” (2003), playing David ‘Deke’ Kay, part of LAPD’s elite special tactics unit. In “Mindhunters” (2005), he played a Philadelphia cop given special permission to observe a team of FBI agents-to-be on a remote island during an intensive training exercise that suddenly turns much too real.
In Last Holiday, the singer/actor plays a shy store clerk in love with a woman who thinks she’s dying. He spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: Was the attraction to the role partly because you were able to play such an inward character instead of your usual flamboyant roles? This was more of a nerdy guy.
LL Cool J: I guess the fun is always to do things that people don’t expect. It’s always fun to surprise people artistically and to be able to do what people aren’t expecting you to do. Just because the nature of my music career and with hip hop and all of that part of my life and what it represents, people automatically assume that a character like this is the furthest thing away from what I would be capable of doing as an actor. So, for me that was definitely part of the appeal of doing something that would be interesting and a stretch and kind of a make down as opposed to a make up or make over.
Question: Are you suggesting that this character is possibly closer to you than people realise?
LL Cool J: I think it was a stretch but I think it’s a part of me. Like, I am shy. You know, a person wouldn’t think that because I’m an entertainer and everything I do but I am shy and no one would know that I’m not the guy that would ever approach girls and ask them for their phone numbers, that’s not me but it’s always beautiful to be able to do it on the screen. I’m saying it’s different for me. I’m not as quiet as he is but at the same time there are a lot of inter-dynamics that exist in me that are in the character.
Question: What are your insecurities?
LL Cool J: You know, I guess I don’t know that I have any really big insecurities. I guess other than just the fact that really wanting people to be able to judge my work for itself and not my whole rap career always following everything I do as an actor and make everyone just automatically assume that they think they know what it is based on, the fact that I make music and that gives me the ability to be a multi dimensional artist and allows me to take one hat off and put one on and gives me the freedom and the flexibility to be able to do that and know that I’m serious about what I’m doing. That’s probably my biggest….if not insecurity, that’s probably the thing that is most important to me in this situation.
Question: Do you feel you have to keep up the image because of other people’s expectations?
LL Cool J: In what way?
Question: When you go out?
LL Cool J: Image…I don’t really have an image. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but it’s the truth. What you see is really what you get. Like I don’t really have an image that I’m trying to portray, I really don’t. I don’t even know what that would be. I have a wife and four kids – it is what it is. If I have a video and there’s a Rolls Royce in it and a big chain it’s because that’s what I like.
Question: Is your music career almost like acting? 50 Cent isn’t like his image – he’s very different when you meet him in person.
LL Cool J: Yeah but I’m not. That’s Fifty.
Question: You’re the same guy 24/7?
LL Cool J: I can’t be the same guy, you can’t either. None of us are the same guy all the time. We’re always different, right? So I just think that what I’m saying is that I don’t have a character that I turn on for music. That’s what I’m saying. I don’t have a character that I get into. Like, what I’m wearing right now I could do a video in and it would be just that simple. I don’t have a character per se, some sort of persona. If you look at what I do and if you listen to my music carefully it reflects my life and whatever I’m going through at that time.
Question: What are you doing next in your music career?
LL Cool J: I just finished a new record. I just shot the first video – me and JLO did it. Jermaine Dupree produced it and it’s called Control Myself.
Question: How did your collaboration with JLO come about?
LL Cool J: I made the song and I thought she’d be great for it and called her up and she was into it.
Question: Why did you think of her specifically?
LL Cool J: I think she’s hot. Because I think it would be cool because we’ve done a song before that I thought was cool and it made sense.
Question: Does your music reflect personal growth when you’re doing a new album or song? Is it representative of who you are now?
LL Cool J: Yes. Some of it is kinda like a lot of things. It’s kinda like – sometimes it can be fantasy, right. Sometimes it can be me reflecting on things I’ve already been though in life, right. Sometimes it can be what’s going on exactly at the moment in my life, sometimes it can be something that I may have seen you go through. Various things. Writing is like painting – who knows? Sometimes the woman that you paint isn’t real, sometimes she is. I don’t know. When Picasso would paint those paintings those people wouldn’t have really looked like his muses – they change. They took on their own shapes, their own forms.
Question: Is the new album going to be different from what you’ve done before?
LL Cool J: Yeah, it’s different because I did a lot more collaborating. I have a lot more – I put a lot of other artists on it, it’s very different. I JLO on it, I have Genuwine, Mary J. Blige, 112, Tiara Maree on it, I have Freeway, Jules Santana, the gospel group Mary Mary, I have Ryan Toby from City High on it, I have Pharell Williams on it, I have a lot of different people on the record that make it….and I was more collaborative with the writing too so it’s a different project for me from normal. It comes out in March.
Question: And the name?
LL Cool J: Todd Smith
Question: Did anything come out of the work you did with Justin Timberlake when you were shooting Edison? Are you guys planning anything?
LL Cool J: No. We just did a film.
Question: How was that?
LL Cool J: It was cool. I don’t know when the movie’s coming out and I don’t know what’s going on or what the hold up is, quite frankly, but it was a nice interesting role. I’m starting to see that I think I enjoy some of the softer characters more than the harder characters.
Question: Why is that?
LL Cool J: Because I think that they break more stereotypes, they break more ground and I think they’re more interesting to people. It’s just a little more interesting, a little more unexpected.
Question: Are you disappointed this movie didn’t come out at Xmas? It seems like a perfect Xmas holiday movie.
LL Cool J: You know what, part of it is art and part of it is business. They put it out when they thought it could the best business, I guess. Right?
Question: yeah, well. What kind of roles do you usually get offered?
LL Cool J: I get a lot of different role offers. They vary. But I do get a lot of offers.
Question: Do they see more of the tough guy in you?
LL Cool J: Probably leans more tough guy, probably leans more stereotypical. Probably leans more towards what you would assume it would be.
Question: Is that what you like? Is it fun to play the tough guy?
LL Cool J: No, like I said a few minutes ago, this was probably more the direction I’d like to go in character-wise because I think it’s more surprising and a little more interesting. I think that the tough guy thing is more expected. Not that I wouldn’t do it don’t get me wrong and I still enjoy it but doing stuff like but this is a little more interesting.
Question: And less stereotypical?
LL Cool J: Yeah, it breaks down the barriers. If I didn’t have a musical history the tough guy stuff would probably come off better but if I did Training Day everybody would assume that’s closer to who I am because of my music so you wouldn’t win an Academy Award even with the exact same performance just because it’s not about the performance per se but it’s about the journey, that usually has a lot to do with it from what I can see. The journey from what people think you are to what you put on screen.
Question: So which of your characters would your wife say is closest to you?
LL Cool J: The one you see right now (laughs)
Question: But out of the movies you’ve done before – maybe there isn’t one?
LL Cool J: I don’t know, maybe SWAT, maybe.
Question: Has Hollywood become more or less color blind? Is it still an issue?
LL Cool J: Yes it’s still an issue. It’s not color blind, no Hollywood isn’t color blind but I’ll tell you one thing – a mainstream film like Last Holliday with a black romance is unusual. It’s not normal.
Question: Is the movie industry more color blind than the music industry or are there elements that takes place in both industries to some degree?
LL Cool J: I think that there are elements that play in both industries but I think that there’s slightly less resistance in music than movies. I think movies there’s a slightly more resistance in that area but that’s the point of making films and doing great work. You get passed it and you don’t want to get so focused on what is the perceived problem that you forget about the blessing that you have in front of you and the opportunities that you have in front of you. I’m grateful for these opportunities so I don’t want to spill out some bitterness that’s not there because that wouldn’t be truthful. Do I think that I would be further ahead if I was white? Yeah I would be and I know it. If there was an equal counterpart in every way from looks to fame to everything I would be further ahead, we know that, if God blessed it, but at the same time it is because I am who I am that I was able to make it this far. So, it’s kinda of like you have to look at it from both ways and just do good work and not worry about that because ultimately I’ll succeed, I’ll get where I’m trying to get even if it takes a little longer.
Question: How was it working with Queen Latifah?
LL Cool J: It was great. First of all she embraced me for this role because there were concerns initially about me being able to do this role because he’s plain because he’s an every day guy and they didn’t think I could be plain. They didn’t think I could be regular, certain people didn’t think I would be able to pull off being a normal, blue collar guy, they felt it would be too….fancy or whatever words you want to use but no, she embraced me. She treated me great, it was beautiful to work with her. It was a great opportunity, it was hot.
Question: What about the dream sequence?
LL Cool J: (laughs). The dream sequence was very funny. Very funny, very funny.
Question: How many different things went in there and didn’t make it?
LL Cool J: I haven’t seen the final version but a lot went in, I’ll you that much. It was great.
Question: There wasn’t a lot of music or singing on set between the two for you?
LL Cool J: No.
Question: Until Smokey Robinson turned up.
LL Cool J: Oh, Smokey was funny. Being in a resort in Karlovy Vary, and he was singing on the karaoke machine – it was hilarious. Hilarious. One of the funniest moments of my life. I’m sitting there eating this steak in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic and Smokey Robinson is singing at the karaoke machine with four people in the restaurant. I’m like, this is crazy (laughs). It was cool.
Question: Did you sing too?
LL Cool J: No, I didn’t take the big step.
Question: What kind of movies are you going to see with your kids lately?
LL Cool J: I went to see The Chronicles of Narnia recently. I go see all kinds of movies – we watch everything.
Question: In terms of upbringing and raising your kids, what is really important to you?
LL Cool J: It’s important to me that they believe in God, it’s important to me that they believe in themselves, it’s important to me that they understand they can do anything they put their minds too. It’s important to me that no one else sets the bar for them. In other words, no one tells them that because their father is LL Cool J you have to do this. No, you have to be the best you can be at whatever it is you want to do. It’s important to me that I teach them to maximize their potential.
Question: Would you encourage your kids to follow you in your profession?
LL Cool J: I would encourage them to follow or go in the path that they feel lead to go in that’s going to be really right for them. There’s no need trying to fail being the second me, I’ve already succeeded at that – be the first you.
Question: Do you see any talent in them yet?
LL Cool J: A little bit. A little bit. Kicking, screaming, eating, very talented in going to the refrigerator.
Question: Any creative talents?
LL Cool J: Creating a raucous. I see some things in them but I’m going to give them time to develop. I’m not going to try to live through them like a soccer dad. You know, ‘That’s my boy!’ I’m going to let them be who they are.
Question: Do you have another movie you’re going to shoot?
LL Cool J: No. I have a few offers and I have a couple of deals on the table but I’m just enjoying this moment and I’ll take it as it comes. Relax, kick back.
Question: You’ve been with Def Jam for over twenty years – do you teach your kids about dedication and loyalty?
LL Cool J: Sometimes it’s just better to lead by example instead of beating….trying to drill into your kids heads that they should read – you should pick up a book. Sometimes instead of talking about the importance of exercise, you should just jump on the treadmill, instead of talking about eating healthy you should just eat healthy.
Question: How do you get kids to read?
LL Cool J: By reading yourself and letting them see you read.
Question: What if it still doesn’t happen?
LL Cool J: But you gotta let things happen in its own time. If you plant a seed….. potatoes take a long time to grow. Just because you don’t see it immediately doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. How long did it take you to repeat the things your parents taught you? It may not have happened right away. We all want instant results but sometimes it takes a little longer. But it will happen.
Question: Do you have any plans for another children’s book?
LL Cool J: Not right now but how knows?