This Renaissance man won an Oscar, Golden Globe, and a Grammy for his song “Glory” from the historical drama, “Selma,” in which he also starred as civil rights leader James Bevel
Now, he is playing the ultimate bad guy — a super villain — opposite Liam Neeson and Ed Harris in the riveting action thriller, “Run All Night,” which opens on Friday, March 13.
The Warner Bros. movie centers around Neeson’s character, Jimmy Conlon, a mobster and hit man, who has one night to figure out where his loyalties lie: with his estranged son, Mike, whose life, and the lives of his wife and two young daughters, are in danger, or his longtime best friend, mob boss Shawn Maguire, played by Ed Harris, who wants Mike to pay for the death of his own son.
The action, car chases and fast-paced camera work makes “Run All Night” exhausting and well worth the wild ride. Neeson and Harris are mesmerizing, and give thrilling and highly emotional performances. The film was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (“Non-Stop” and “Unknown”).
Common, who received a standing ovation at the Oscars, and is still basking in the glory of his musical triumph, is looking forward to a stellar acting and musical career. He said there is room in his life for both creative endeavors, in addition to writing books.
“This movie is about working with the greats,” Common explained, during a recent Manhattan press event for “Run All Night.” “When you tell your friends that you are in a film with Liam Neeson and you are going man-to-man with him, you know you are going to get your ass kicked.”
Q: It must be fun to have a character, an inspiring leader, like the one you play [in Selma] and then hear about playing his opposite in “Run All Night.”
Common: It’s a lot of fun for me as an actor to do different roles so that I get to expand. I get to show different things as an actor and explore too. I like being bad, too. As soon as I took the role of Andrew Price I knew it was going to be a journey to get there.
Q: What drives your character of Price? Is it the job? Just getting it done? Or is it revenge?
Common: It’s a drive of getting it done. He’s a goal oriented individual and his goal is to kill. He does have some joy in that and inflicting pain on people, but ultimately it was people like the police officers that were coming and he was like ‘I’m taking you out, I’m taking you out,’ without thinking twice because he has a goal, he’s determined, he’s relentless about taking out Jimmy and his son.
Q: It really showed that there appeared to be a great chemistry among all of you in the movie – Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman and Common.
Common: One thing I enjoyed when I watched the film was that I felt the relationships between the people, I believe that the stories, felt authentic.
Q: What else was going on?
Common: Jimmy and his son really have this friction and have to repair things. Seeing Liam Neeson being hunted, and not at the top of his game and dealing with alcohol, he’s almost rock bottom. He was this hit man that was really great at his job, but he’s not happy about what he did and it was great seeing that transition when he calls Sean, Ed Harris’ character, and he’s like ‘you sure you wanna go through this?’ That’s when you see him rise up and he’s the unstoppable Liam Neeson that we see sometimes. I love how this movie allows for characters to go through things. It’s like a French Connection-type movie but with some new things. It gave me a ‘70s feel.
Q: We talked about the physicality and the stunts. Was there any kind of special training you had to do? The movie was intense to watch and looked extremely intense to make.
Common: The training we did was intense. It was like real fight training. You’re dealing with some of the best because Liam’s team and the stunt coordinator we had are the best. I had to be super sharp.
Q: Did you enjoy it?
Common: Yes, I was looking forward to it because I was like ‘I get to be in a movie with Liam Neeson. I wanna go toe-to-toe with him.’ It was a lot of fun; it was a lot of work, but it was definitely fun. Once we got into that room with the fire we had to get it done because there was only so many takes we could do.
Q: What was your favorite scene to shoot?
Common: The fight scene with the fire turned out well because we worked on the fight coordination a lot. When we were shooting it we had this certain energy and I was like “This is good!”
Q: You have such a way with words, what’s it like building a character with very little language?
Common: It’s funny. Until I watched the movie, and it was mentioned to me, I didn’t realize he didn’t have a lot of dialogue, but his presence is still felt. As an actor, I’ve starred in movies where I only have a couple of lines.
Q: So how do you convey who this person is without the words?
Common: You just got to be alive and present in those scenes so you create the character and he’s alive and breathing so people know him regardless. We know who Price is, even if he didn’t have one word of dialogue we knew who he was. You just have to create those characters. I don’t mind characters without a lot of dialogue because so much can be said with actions and through the eyes. Sometimes you just feel things coming off of people in a scene.
Q: Please talk about your recent Oscar experience for “Selma.”
Common: Being a part of Selma was a life changing, life enhancing experience. Getting to meet Ambassador Andrew Young, one of the first things he said to us was ‘what are you willing to die for? Live for that.’
Q: Wow, that’s pretty powerful to hear.
Common: Yes, that made me go home that night and think about what am I really living for? What would I die for? Those are some of the messages and inspiration we were getting for doing Selma.
Q: What do you recall from the “Selma” experience?
Common: The whole experience was inspiring. Working on the project itself, knowing we were extensions of what the people of that time did, and now seeing the impact the movie had, and [that] the song had [such] an impact. Now younger people know about “Selma” because of the movie and they’re going back and doing research. I feel like that movie is an extension of that movement. It was definitely a great experience for me.
Q: It was very timely, indeed since the anniversary of the Selma March was just this past weekend.
Common: I didn’t get to see everything, but I heard the President had an incredible speech. Just to see the people there celebrating, but at the same token saying ‘we got a way to go. We’re here to commemorate and honor the people who were here 50 years ago, but we have a way to go.’
Q: Was it inevitable that you’d combine your singing and acting? It feels like your acting has improved your music and made certain things possible.
Common: I would say it improved the music, to be honest. I didn’t know I was going to be an actor. I loved acting when I was a kid. Like I did a play and I didn’t get the best reviews so I left it at home. But music was something that felt very natural for me. I loved going to the theater and going to movies. It was one of my favorite things to do and still is. I just started taking acting classes and I felt like this is it.
Q: But you kept them separate, right?
Common: Yes, initially I didn’t want to combine the two. For most movies that I have done, I didn’t also [perform] that soundtrack, because I didn’t want to be viewed as a rapper-actor. This guy is an actor and also a hip hop artist. I represent hip hop culture, obviously, but the point is I’m also an actor and didn’t want to get bunched in with the rest of the people that pursued it from a rap career. Now I’m like it’s great to do music for movies.
Q: Especially for things like “Selma.”
Common: For “Selma,” it’s very inspiring. And it’s great to be able to do films like “Run All Night.” Maybe my music isn’t in it, but you get to see me as an actor. I didn’t come to Run All Night wanting to do music for it; I wanted to be an actor. So when the two combine organically, it works like in Selma. But sometimes I separate them and they just do what they do.
Q: So overall do you see yourself as a storyteller – as an actor or musician?
Common: That’s a good way to say it, a storyteller, that’s great. I eventually want to write scripts. Some of the songs that I write are… they have a visual component to them, a story to them. As an actor you write certain things, you write the person’s story as you tell it. I’m working on a new book, too.
Q: Do you work as an actor as seamlessly as you do with [fellow musician] John Legend, your collaborator on “Glory”?
Common: Acting has opened me up… when I write songs I get into the back-stories and themes and I feel freer as an artist. When you’re an actor you can’t keep cool, you just got to let go. That transferred into some of what I do as a musician. Why you say it’s seamless is because John Legend and I have worked together before, he’s a friend of mine, and we have the same intensity. We want to put out great music and help improve the world in any way we can.
Q: Tell me about the educational aspect?
Common: John has been doing it through educational programs and he’s been very adamant about it. I’ve been doing it through my foundation, Common Ground, and helping the youth and get them to reach their dreams. It was the perfect voice, I couldn’t choose someone better to do that song, it’s like God’s blessing us. At one moment I just said “let me call John about this song.” [Selma director] Ava [DuVernay] mentioned to me late in the film process, while she was editing, ‘Why don’t you do a song? Let’s just call John and see what happens.’ And we just went from there.
Q: How is it now that people are recognizing your talent, your ability, your poetry and durability…?
Common: That’s a good word; and perseverance. They key is if you really love what you do and believe in what you’re doing; and you continue to do it. Sometimes the spotlight will be on you, and sometimes it won’t. Obviously, this has been the most recognition we have ever gotten.
Q: How does that feel?
Common: I wanted my music and art to touch people like it was 10,000 people or 10 billion people paying attention. I just honestly want to keep growing and remembering what that purpose is and growing within that purpose, as a human being, as an actor, and as an artist. The message of “Glory” is similar to things I’ve done before, but everything happens at the right time. If we had the opportunity to do these things before, I don’t think we would have been able to deliver this at such a [high] level.
Q: There’s a maturity involved with all of this.
Common: Maturity and evolution.
Q: And timing…
Common: Definitely timing. Who would have known when we were making “Selma” that unfortunately you have situations like Mike Brown and Eric Garner and protests. We were doing press [events] for “Selma” with protests happening outside. You couldn’t put that together. And because those things happened together it’s moving the meter, bringing up discussion. Younger people who already want to be part of the protest are seeing Dr. King and saying ‘We wanna do that. We can do that in our own way.’ Everything happens when it’s supposed to happen.
Q: So when all is said and done how will you balance your music career with your acting?
Common: I love both; I guess I will be spending less time at the bar.