'Notorious': Inside The Movie And Soundtrack

Billboard.com provides an inside look at the movie "Notorious," its leading actor and its soundtrack. Below, read a Q&A with Jamal "Gravy" Woolard, who plays Notorious B.I.G. in the film.

Read Billboard's review of the movie "Notorious."
Read Billboard's review of the soundtrack to "Notorious."
Watch Billboard's video synopsis of the movie.

The Billboard Q&A: 'Notorious' Star Jamal 'Gravy' Woolard

Like Denzel Washington's turn as "Malcolm X" or Marc Anthony's as Hector Lavoe in "El Cantante," it's not easy playing an icon.

However, Jamal "Gravy" Woolard worked hard at playing the Notorious B.I.G. in "Notorious" without making himself seem bigger than B.I.G. himself. Woolard researched what made the famed, late MC tick and how he got crowds to accept his music.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., much like B.I.G. himself, Woolard began as an MC, rhyming on mixshow radio and mixtapes. In 2006, his rise was cut short after he was shot outside of New York's Hot 97 radio station and ended up banned from the station, along with his music.

But now, he doesn't have to worry about that anymore. Debuting in theaters on Jan. 16, "Notorious" is Woolard's first film role, and he's confident that it is the beginning of a new career path.

What research did you do to prepare for "Notorious" and what was the most difficult aspect?

The hardest part was nobody knows Christopher [B.I.G.'s given name was Christopher Wallace] the man, and that was really inventing from my own swagger, and my own take on how to do it. We all knew Biggie the artist. Everything about B.I.G. is online, but he never gave you all of him. He just gave you the shield, so to get to the man behind the shield, I had to talk to his former wife Faith Evans, his mother, Ms. Wallace, and his friend, Lil Cease and really get to know Christopher.

And I did my own little B.I.G. boot camp. I was at 270 pounds and I went up to 340 pounds. I memorized his mannerisms, the choreography, the behavior, the movements and how to keep your head up high. I used cotton balls in my mouth, Marlon Brando-style, to give me the chins. I got the walk like Penguin from "Batman" with the dead arm. I watched "The Godfather," I watched Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" and just little things that would help and give me enough motivation to really pull off my portrayal of B.I.G.

It was a lot of work, developing B.I.G.'s cadence and flow. I spent 10-12 hours in the studio to get the delivery and breathing structure right -- B.I.G. had asthma. I had to focus on knowing when to be Christopher, when to be B.I.G. and when to be Notorious. Knowing his weight fluctuation, and knowing that Notorious was at his most 340 and that B.I.G. could move faster at 280. There was a lot.

What were you eating to go from 240 pounds to 340?

Everything, mostly pasta. Naw, I wasn't exercising at all, and since I'm a diabetic I was playing with my life. Guess you could say that I was ready to die.

Any B.I.G. bootcamp surprises?

Everything is covered in the movie. I'm from Brooklyn, so that's a hard question, because we knew everything about B.I.G. I guess finding out the family side of Christopher, and how much time he didn't spend with his daughter, I never knew that. I thought he was always seeing his kids.

As a Brooklyn native, what was your favorite Biggie song?

"Party & Bullsh*t." I was in the projects in Brooklyn and everyone was like, "This new joint is hard."

What has been your friends' reaction to your portrayal of B.I.G. in "Notorious?"

They're very proud of me. No one tried to give me any pointers, except, you do have the uncles that try to give little pointers.

What made you go for the part?

It was hard work -- there were no political ties that got me this role. And when I went in, I didn't even know that Ms. Wallace was there. I didn't find out until months later that she said then, "That was my son."

Since you began as a rapper, are you going to continue acting or go back to recording?

I'm definitely going to do more acting, whatever, to support my family. I have a daughter that's four months old. B.I.G. had his daughter when he got his first big break with Bad Boy Records, and I had my daughter when I had my first big break playing B.I.G. It's very spiritual.

Are labels courting you with recording contracts?

You know how the game goes, but I'm focusing on acting right now. The game is so messed up right now, so I don't know what I would even need from them at this point.

Do you think you'll be able to sidestep being typecast as a rapper, or being seen as 'the guy who played B.I.G.?'

Absolutely, I can't be B.I.G. I'm nothing like B.I.G.

Are you nervous about people's reaction to your work?

Not really nervous, but I have to make the best of it. You have to perfect the craft. If you're going to go out and do something, do it right.

Read Billboard's review of the movie "Notorious."
Read Billboard's review of the soundtrack to "Notorious."
Watch Billboard's video synopsis of the movie.Movie Review: 'Notorious'

Honestly, I was both excited and terrified to see Fox Searchlight's "Notorious," which hit theaters on Jan. 16. If the film was horribly bad, it could be disrespectful to Notorious B.I.G.'s legacy and make the road harder for future urban music-based films. I'm happy to say that the film was worth the decade it took for Bad Boy to produce it -- it's really good.

Jamal "Gravy" Woolard plays a charming B.I.G., who simultaneously loved his family and sold crack to pregnant women. While that may sound like two different people, remember that no person is one-dimensional. The film did a good job juxtaposing B.I.G.'s tender relationship with his mother, Ms. Wallace, his wife, Faith Evans, and his two children, in addition to his fickle relationship with his girlfriend/artist, Lil Kim and his determination in his music career.

Seeing B.I.G.'s transition from selling drugs in Brooklyn to drinking Cristal champagne on the cusp of releasing his second album, "Life After Death," wasn't anything new, but the authenticity was endearing. The consistency of scenes that were shot on Brooklyn's Fulton Avenue and St. James Avenues, where B.I.G. grew up, was a nod to the borough and to B.I.G.'s rabid fans.

Naturi Naughton, formerly of 3LW, played Lil Kim as a girl-next-door with questionable self-esteem and no problem taking off her clothes. It's no secret that the real Lil Kim isn't happy with the portrayal, but Naughton had the rapper's rhyme cadence and attitude down pat. In addition, Antonique Smith did a good turn as Evans, though Evans isn't nearly as small a woman as Smith. If Woolard gained almost 50 pounds for his role as Biggie, perhaps Smith could've eaten a little pasta and stopped exercising too?

Derek Luke as Puffy was both comical and convincing. Luke adapted Puffy's curly hair, signature shoulder dance and voracious tenacity for whatever he is doing. At one point in the film, Luke loudly proclaims that even if he was stranded in the jungle, he'd emerge with money.

Finally, Angela Bassett's portrayal of B.I.G.'s mother Voletta Wallace was the glue that kept the film together. Her involvement no doubt lent legitimacy, and Bassett did a lot to convey how much the real Ms. Wallace cared for her son and how close their relationship was. My only issue was Bassett's on-again-off-again Jamaican accent: Ms. Wallace is a woman born and raised in Jamaica and Bassett's depiction didn't reflect that.

Overall, "Notorious" is a good movie even if you've never heard of B.I.G. or ever danced to "Juicy." But, like any music-related film, if you're familiar with the songs that inspired it, you're going to love it, especially for the opportunity to rap along.
Soundtrack: "Notorious: Music From and Inspired By the Original Motion Picture"

The "Notorious" film soundtrack not only assembles the best of Notorious B.I.G.'s work, it also includes gems like the rapper's first demo tape, two new tracks from Jay-Z and a "One More Chance" remix featuring B.I.G.'s son, CJ Wallace. On the demo cut "Microphone Murderer," B.I.G. gruffly performs his first lyrics over the rhythm of Big Daddy Kane's "Ain't No Half Steppin'". Jay-Z and Santogold contribute the hipster-friendly "Brooklyn Go Hard," while Jadakiss delivers the heartfelt "Letter to B.I.G.," featuring Biggie's widow Faith Evans. It's a bit awkward to hear the young Wallace, who plays his father as a youth in the film, rapping about how "Navajos creep me in their tee-pees." But it's not enough to lessen the impact of the album, nor its reminder of B.I.G.'s legendary prowess on the mic. -- Hillary Crosley


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