Method in rapper's ambition as he trades music for movies

Hip-hop star Method Man has put his music career on hold in favour of Hollywood

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:51pm
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Asock-clad Method Man pads into the hallway of his Staten Island home. On the stove in the kitchen, an inviting dish sits cooling. Floral arrangements fill the dining room table. The news plays unobtrusively in the background.

"Welcome to suburbia," says the hardcore rhymer, with just a hint of irony. He opens the front door to reveal a sleepy, snowy street, where so few cars pass that a neighbour has put a basketball hoop in the middle of the road.

Method Man - born Clifford Smith - is leading the kind of domestic life that might surprise those familiar with his work as a solo artist and member of the groundbreaking rap collective the Wu-Tang Clan. He once dropped verses such as "Shame on a n***** who try to run game on a n*****, Wu buck wild with the trigger", but the greatest danger in his life these days is announced by a handwritten sign on the inside of his front door. "There's a killer on the loose!" says the endearing scrawl next to a stick figure, apparently some inside joke by or for one of his three children.

But then there are many things unexpected about Smith's world circa 2015 - not least that unlike many of the rapper-actors who toggle between the realms, he has set music almost completely aside in favour of the thespian life.

Smith has just returned from Los Angeles, where he auditioned for parts including one in the upcoming Cinemax dramatic thriller Quarry. It's been nearly 15 years since Smith began his acting career. But what had seemed like promising turns via early parts in Oz and The Wire - not to mention a starring nod to his own smoking ways in the 2001 stoner comedy How High - have dissipated into less memorable bit parts of late.

So he is, he says, making a renewed push. Recently Smith was on the big screen in The Cobbler, the new body-switching dramedy from director Thomas McCarthy. And this summer will offer Smith as an uptight medical orderly in the Judd Apatow comedy Trainwreck.

Smith says he has mishandled aspects of his Hollywood career - particularly Method & Red, his ill-fated 2004 Fox sitcom (a riff on rappers in the suburbs) that was cancelled amid messy clashes with the network.

"Now I have this chance to show people that I'm serious about what I'm doing. I'm much more mature now and I know how these things work. And I'm ready. So ready," he says, then adds: "Music isn't my first thing. Getting these acting parts is."

The Cobbler is a good place to start. Smith plays Ludlow, a gangster with a taste for fine watches. Through a plot device, Ludlow is at times inhabited by the spirit of Adam Sandler's nebbishy shoe repairman. Which means that Smith must, for good chunks of the movie, essentially play Sandler.

Although the film has drawn largely negative reviews, body-switching comedies can pay dividends, requiring the nuanced gestures that casting directors love. Matters grew complicated enough on The Cobbler that Smith and McCarthy had to devise a system of percentages in determining how much "Sandler" Smith should put into any scene.

"Sometimes, Tom had to come over to tell me to dial it down," Smith says, laughing. "So you had a white guy basically telling me I was too white."

Smith sits at the breakfast bar while he talks, a laptop and smartphone in front of him. Assorted pictures are scattered on the counter, and Smith pauses to show off photos from his extended family. Next to one album is a smoking apparatus.

Smith, who recently turned 44, has a daughter about to start university. He is as apt to get worked up about the education system as he is about hip hop. One lament is about his youngest son, 14-year-old Ray, whom he feels is being unfairly singled out by a teacher.

Smith can still display the professional hunger that helped make him and the rest of Wu-Tang some of the most successful independent hip-hop artists of all time. He is frustrated, for instance, that he couldn't get an audition for the new season of True Detective.

"See, the rock'n'roll guys came before us [in Hollywood], and a lot of them were horrible," he says.

"There were some exceptions. David Bowie was pretty good. Rick Springfield was good. But there was a stigma, because most of them showed up late or had an entourage or were coked up."

That said, he's had his own on-set drug lessons. On How High, Smith says, he frequently smoked during lunch breaks - you don't get the nickname Johnny Blaze for nothing - and that had a deleterious effect on parts of the shoot, a producer noted. "Stacey Sher pulled me over and said, 'How come your takes in the morning are so much better than the afternoon?'" Smith recalls, laughing. "That was the last time that I smoked anywhere near the set."

Instead, he says, he has tried to focus on acting choices. On Trainwreck, he plays opposite writer and star Amy Schumer, making for one of the odder pop-cultural pairings when the comedy hits this year. He has tried to invent a back story for his character, the African-born orderly to Schumer's character's father.

Smith says that when it comes to acting role models, he loves the versatility of Don Cheadle, the terse potency of Clint Eastwood and maybe most of all, the squirm comedy of Larry David. Curb Your Enthusiasm is one of Smith's favourite shows and the kind of television he'd most like to do.

Now I have this chance to show people that I’m serious about what I’m doing
METHOD MAN, AKA CLIFFORD SMITH (ABOVE)

Smith says that outside of the Meth Lab incubator for younger rappers he has set up in Staten Island, he has put aside music for now. Contrary to blog reports, he says he has not begun work on Crystal Meth, his long-rumoured new solo album.

And he had little to do with Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the much-awaited new Wu-Tang record, whose title refers to the group's slang name for Staten Island. It was heard for the first time at a museum event in New York last month.

The record has drawn publicity for RZA, its lead creative figure, who announced that only a single copy had been preserved and that it would be auctioned to the highest bidder, who for 88 years would not be able to exploit it commercially.

His involvement in the music was minimal, Smith says. He was summoned back to record vocals by Cilvaringz, a producer who had worked with Wu-Tang. "He called on certain individuals to get on certain songs, and somewhere along the line that turned into Once Upon a Time in Shaolin," Smith says, adding that the lyrics on the record weren't "hard" enough.

The artist also has strong words for the release plan, calling it "corny". "At the end of the day, people want to hear the music," he says. (A few days later, he took a different tack after hip-hop publication XXL published similar comments. Smith slammed the site in a social media post and said he had believed the album would be prohibited entirely from a release; instead, the buyer was simply being prevented from profiting from its distribution.) But music in general remains only a small part of his mind share. When he's not doing crossword puzzles, he is thinking of acting roles or generally revelling in his public persona. He shares on his Instagram account a photo of himself at age eight, and amuses himself by periodically scrolling through the comments to see what kind of guff he's getting for it.

"People say, 'How come you still live in Staten Island? How come you don't leave?'" he says as he looks around the house; he and his family moved here about nine months ago from another home nearby.

"You get comfortable. Because people know where you come from and know where you are. They had one of those questionnaires: 'You know you're Staten Island if …' and I was one of the ifs. It was 'You know you're Staten Island if you run into Method Man at the Staten Island mall.' I've always wanted this."

Los Angeles Times