Big Sean Breaks Into Acting: Rapper Explains Why He Joined Lena Waithe's 'Twenties' at BET

Sean “Big Sean” Anderson
Mike Carson/Courtesy of Roc Nation

Sean “Big Sean” Anderson

"He was a natural on set," says Waithe of Big Sean's acting debut.

After recently ending a musical hiatus with the enlightened rap offerings “Overtime” and “Single Again,” Big Sean is making moves in Hollywood, joining the cast of BET’s forthcoming series, Twenties.

Slated to air in 2020, the dramedy centers on an aspiring screenwriter and queer woman named Hattie (played by Jonica “JoJo” T. Gibbs) moving to L.A. and navigating the hardships of hustling alongside her best friends, up-and-coming film executive Marie (Christina Elmore) and yoga instructor Nia (Gabrielle Graham). Lena Waithe (Master of None, The Chi) is among the show’s executive producers.

Waithe tells Billboard over email that she personally sought out the 31-year-old rapper for the role of Tristan — a yogi with anti-social media habits — after having a heart-to-heart with him in his home, where he also previewed his upcoming album for her. “The idea came to me while he and I were talking a few weeks prior, when we got together at his crib and just talked about life, love and the pursuit of true happiness,” says Waithe, who calls Sean the “Black Brad Pitt,” referencing an inside joke between the two. “He was so evolved in his thinking. We talked about misconceptions people had about us and how too much social media can be toxic. He sounded a lot like the character we’d created.

“But make no mistake — Sean and Tristan are very different,” continues Waithe, who also penned the screenplay for the upcoming Melina Matsoukas-directed drama Queen & Slim, which hits theaters in November. “Sean had to really step into the character’s shoes. He was a natural on set and I think this role is going to remind us why he’ll always be one of hip-hop’s most laid-back heartthrobs.” (It remains to be seen if Sean’s new music will make the show’s soundtrack — or if Waithe will contribute a few bars to his next project.)

Ask Sean’s cast mates and the energy he brings to the set has already had a positive impact. “It can be a little intimidating when you have somebody on set that has been in the business for so long and has the fame and the reputation he has, but he's very humble, very down-to-earth, very chill,” says leading lady Gibbs, who considers Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise album a personal favorite. His scene partner, Graham, adds, “I think because he's never acted before, he just naturally has such a vulnerability and he's so open to trying things.”

While on the set of Twenties in North Hollywood on Tuesday night (July 30), Billboard sat down with Sean to discuss his return to music, his first on-screen role and the importance of taking care of yourself.

Billboard: Have you always envisioned yourself becoming an actor?

Big Sean: Music is definitely my first passion. It was just something that I've always done on the side. I was doing Shakespeare plays before I was rapping. My mom was an actress at heart, so she always kept me into that [when I was younger]. It is something that I feel I have a natural talent for, so it's cool — Lena gave me my first chance at an acting debut.

How did you two meet?

I'm just a fan of hers for just being who she is, knocking down so many doors and putting so many people on in this industry. I did this Nipsey Hussle tribute at the Dreamville Festival and I shouted her, and a whole bunch of people that I thought were trailblazers, out. Then we linked up on the Internet, following each other and showing each other love.

Then she came by the studio when I was out here in L.A. and I played her [what I had of] my album so far. I was just letting her hear it in advance and getting her input. She told me she really loved the Dark Sky Paradise album. I'm a real fan [of hers] too, so it was just cool to know we had that mutual respect for each other. Then after, I just like explained to her where I was at in my life. She was just really interested in that story. And then she was like, “I think you could play this character that I'm doing on this show called Twenties.” She's such a classy person ‘cause she had a chef come over to my house and she made dinner for me and my mom. I'm pretty sure my mom said yes [to the role] before I did.

You've been keeping a low profile until recently. Meanwhile, your character, Tristan, doesn't like social media.

I just connected with him in a lot of ways. I have social media, but I also did take time away from it just to work on myself. I feel like being on there all the time was affecting my productivity as a person. I found myself being way more judgmental of myself. I felt like the men who grew up around me, like my dad or my uncle, never had the luxury or the opportunity to deal with themselves and their feelings. I just took that time off because the music industry is an industry where you gotta stay on [people’s] necks. But I had to step back and put myself first because I just wasn't feeling right anymore. Then once I did get myself together, everything else started clicking. It was a true example of, you gotta take care of yourself.

Describe your twenties, and how you got to this point of spiritual maturity.

I'm definitely an introvert. I’m somebody who can talk, I'm very social, but I don't like going out unnecessarily. I don't like going to the clubs. I don't even like getting drunk or fucked up anymore. Ain't nothing wrong with that though. In my twenties, I feel like I was definitely more on that vibe, but then it just kind of started getting old. That's me on 31 now.

I feel like I'm just now starting to explore my 30s. I'm still at the beginning of it, but I just feel the difference. I'm more focused on myself, how I can progress and what I’m gonna leave behind because our time here is limited. You never know how long you got, not just in this industry but in life. Losing Nipsey, Mac [Miller] and people like that, it just showed me that you can never really put stuff off or think you have all the time in the world for something. They really inspired me to just really take myself seriously and to not put anything off to the side. Just do it now.

Musically, what kind of growth are you hoping to convey with the new album?

I just want to convey where I'm at. I don't want to talk over people's heads. I want to communicate the things I learned along the way. For instance, “Single Again.” I haven't really heard a rap song about being single that wasn't like, “I don't fuck with you” or, “Baby, I want you back.” I never heard a rap song that was kind of embracing like, “I’m fucked up. Maybe I realized that it's on me and I need to work on myself a little bit.”

Do you have a timetable for your album?

Nah. It’s soon. That’s all I’ll say. I do have a lot more to say than those two songs, “Overtime” and “Single Again.” it's like the very tippy top of the iceberg. I got a lot of layers to the album. I got a lot of things I touch on.

I’m sure therapy helped, too.

Yeah, absolutely. Therapy, time and family. I was always working so hard for my family but never really taking the time out to be with them. One of the things I want to say that I might not get across in the music is to everybody who is a dreamer out there. People are always like, you can't blow your chance — you have to stay on it. But you have to take that time off for the things that matter. That is just as important, and it will help you in your craft even more. They'll help you be a better ball player, have a better relationship with your family. It's not just all about work. I just want people to know that because I was really confused. That was something I had to learn on my own the hard way. I found myself like feeling the worst I've ever felt in my life because I was just back to back working and not taking care of my home.

Are you and Jhené Aiko ever going to drop another TWENTY88 album?

That was one of the first times I got experimental with R&B. I wrote a lot of that album, so I wrote a lot of Jhené's parts too. She doesn't let people write for her like that, ‘cause she's a writer, so she really trusted me with some of those songs. So… that’s a whole other interview. [Laughs]

Do you hope that this role on Twenties leads to an even fuller career in Hollywood?

Yeah, for sure. I hope I get to act more. I think it's just fun, just like I think playing basketball is fun. I ain't trying to go to the NBA, but I be hooping.

Lena called you the Black Brad Pitt. What's your reaction to that?

Maybe you could ask her what she really meant by that. I’ll tell you what, though: Lena’s got good taste.