James White, which premiered Friday (Jan. 23) on the second day of the Sundance film festival, is a hard-hitting drama that takes an unflinchingly close-up look at a twenty-something New Yorker enduring his father’s death, his mother’s cancer and deep personal demons.
Alongside heart-wrenching performances by leads Christopher Abbott (Girls), who plays the title character, and Cynthia Nixon, his mother, there’s a strong, supporting turn from a surprising place: rapper Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, who plays the gay best friend of the movie’s heterosexual lead. It’s definitely an interesting career turn for a straight rapper who first made a mark in Hollywood as a lead on HBO’s How to Make It in America.
“This was way different than anything else I’ve ever done,” Cudi, who also scored the film, told Billboard on the red carpet minutes before the premiere. “It was dope to do that. I felt like I had a responsibility to present a different walk in life from that world.”
In the Josh Mond-directed film, it’s hard to tell that Cudi’s character is gay — his sexuality isn’t discussed or focused on at all. However, as the actor would explain before seeing the film for the first time at the premiere, he shot scenes in which his character comes out of the closet and even kisses a male friend, played by David Call.
“When he comes out of the closet it’s not really a thing,” Cudi told Billboard. “I think that’s something the world needs to see. ‘Cause it’s not a thing. We’re all equal.”
Surprisingly, Cudi didn’t find out the scenes had been cut until the premiere — but he seemed to take it in good stride.
“I’m mad [Mond] cut out my kissing scenes with David,” Cudi said with a wry smile during an audience Q&A session after the film. “We made out so many times — and it was so good! That’s my only gripe.”
But did he have any hesitations playing a gay character, and kissing a male actor?
“No. My thing is what story are we trying to tell here,” Cudi told Billboard. “I didn’t flinch. I’m secure with mine. I’m an artist — it’s all about playing characters that are intriguing and stimulating.”
Cudi was recruited to act in and score the film by Mond, who said he was a huge fan of the rapper.
“I write a lot to music, and Scott’s albums I listened to while I was writing,” Mond told Billboard. “It was an inspiration and motivation for me. He really understands me. For the score, we asked him to write something that really paralleled the characters and New York. He found something that’s really beautiful, anxious and aggressive.”
It helped that Cudi had a personal link to the film’s tragedies: “I had lost my father to cancer when I was 11, so this is something that totally connected with me,” he said. “This experience has been a lot — I learned a lot about myself.”
But the raves that Cudi and James White are receiving aren’t going to make him forget his first love: music. Cudi recently announced that he was going to reunite the dream-team of collaborators who helped put together his 2008 debut album, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, including producers Plain Pat, Emile Haynie, Dot Da Genius and A-Trak.
“I had the revelation that there was a specific magic that we all had when we were in a room that was key for us to be able to execute a project like that,” he told Billboard at Sundance. “We haven’t had an official session but we’ve been tinkering around with some songs and samples. There’s no time frame on it and I don’t feel like I need to rush to make Man on the Moon III. The fans are excited about it, and I’m excited to see what we come up with. It’s a beautiful thing.”