Common Finds a Happy Place in Hollywood Supporting Strong Women (Exclusive)

Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

The rapper has been acting in Hollywood for nearly a decade, but only recently has come into his own onscreen.

While it’s familiar to see rappers make the transition from music to Hollywood -- everyone from Queen Latifah to Will Smith and Eminem to Ludacris has done it with varying success -- Common, the rapper born Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn Jr., has proven to be one of the rare few to prove himself worthy of the screen.

After brief cameos in films like Brown Sugar, the rapper landed his first major acting gig as a bodyguard in Smokin’ Aces -- a role he told Complex he almost didn’t get because of his rap persona. The film’s writer-director, Joe Carnahan, was not interested in seeing the MC on screen. Instead, Carnahan wanted an original character that fit into the mold of his film. (Coincidentally, Common made his big-screen debut in the film alongside Alicia Keys -- and both impressed, earning positive reviews from Rolling Stone and others at the time.)

What Common did was enough to keep him working in Hollywood, with decidedly diverse film choices like the action-packed sci-fi Terminator Salvation, Tina Fey and Steve Carell’s comedy Date Night, and the heist Now You See Me. In 2014, he portrayed James Bevel in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, earning an Oscar for Best Original Song for “Glory” alongside John Legend. He soon followed it with roles in buzzy ensembles like Barbershop: The Next Cut, Suicide Squad and John Wick: Chapter 2.

“What I look for are characters where I can do something different and where I can learn,” Common tells ET, citing Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle as the bar he’s set for himself. “Iron sharpens iron, so basically I know that I can learn and grow from working with visionaries.”

In this time, Common has come into his own as actor, moving beyond being “that rapper cast in a film.” “I really love acting as an art form, and I’m striving for greatness in this craft and expression,” he says. “I definitely feel like I’ve been growing.” That growth has continued, particularly with three recent back-to-back releases -- All About Nina, Blue Night and The Tale -- that see him supporting strong female leads as well as producing and appearing on the acclaimed Showtime series, The Chi, with Lena Waithe. 

Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, All About Nina cast him opposite Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a story about a female stand-up comedian who struggles to find success while also struggling with putting trust in new relationships -- here with Rafe (played by Common) -- after surviving an abusive relationship.

“When I read the script, I really thought it was very fresh,” Common says of the project, adding that he was attracted to Rafe as a character he doesn’t usually see onscreen. “He wasn’t too cool. He was a very honest and open guy. It’s something I strive for as a human being.”

In Blue Night, which also premiered at the festival, Common plays manager to jazz singer Vivienne Carala (Sarah Jessica Parker), who receives a grim diagnosis on the eve of a major showcase. The film, in particular, resonated with the actor, whose father, basketball player Lonnie Lynn, was diagnosed with cancer and died in 2014 at age 71. “That was something that was really like, OK, looking at my life and my relationship with him, it made me feel my own vulnerability and knowing I’m not invincible,” he recalls. “It was something that made me look at my life.”

His latest film, The Tale, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and now is making its debut on HBO on Saturday, May 26, is another grim story about a woman who realizes her memories about her first sexual experience were just stories she told herself in order to survive. Common plays the boyfriend to Laura Dern, who keeps extending her recent acting renaissance.

While all three films see Common playing a supporting player to these strong female leads, it doesn’t diminish his presence or performance. In fact, it’s a noticeable flip on the roles many women have played for years. To his credit, Winstead says she’s thankful for actors like Common, “for stepping into these kinds of roles and movies with female filmmakers and really supporting those voices. We need people like him that are both talented and strong and choosing to work with female filmmakers.” (All About Nina and The Tale are directed by Eva Vives and Jennifer Fox, respectively.)

For his part, Common recognizes “the leadership” in Dern, Parker and Winstead. “I always appreciate a woman being able to express who she is,” he says, adding: “I just want to bring my best to the story and to the character and to the partnership that we have as actors and actresses in creating projects -- because we’re all in it together.”

With the recent success of films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther, which both have put women and people of color at the forefront and broken records at the box office, Common sees an opportunity for Hollywood to be more diverse and inclusive. “It actually makes me enjoy film and television more because all sorts of people are showing up and it’s not so stereotypical now,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”