Common doesn’t have any theories as to why Selma, the praised Martin Luther King Jr. biopic he stars in, earned only two Oscar noms: best picture and best original song, for “Glory,” his Golden Globe-winning duet with John Legend. (They’ll perform it at the Academy Awards on Feb. 22.) “All I know is that we made something that impacted the world,” says the Chicago-born rapper-actor. Selma would seem like a natural fit for Common, 42, known for thoughtfully tackling race and injustice throughout his 20-year-plus music catalog, including 2014’s Grammy-nominated Nobody‘s Smiling. But since taking on acting a decade ago, Lonnie Rashid Lynn has landed in bang-’em-up action flicks (Run All Night, out March 13), frothy romcoms (Just Wright) and even TV westerns (AMC’s Hell on Wheels). In the wake of Selma, however, expect him to take on more roles that have something to say: “It gave me a taste of what I can do in a film that impacts the culture,” he says. “I always want my art to inspire.”
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“Acting has helped me be a freer person. I’ve brought that over to the music — being adventurous, not being self-conscious. There’s a certain cool, an air, in hip-hop that you have to have that as an actor you can’t keep. You have to be yourself, and that’s not always cool. I always joke with people like, ‘Man, that will destroy my rap career.’ “
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“Acting, especially when the days are heavy. There were scenes on Hell on Wheels when my character was being hung. That’s not a good feeling, and you’ve got to shoot it over and over. You still feel that energy off the set.”
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“I would love to play Gil Scott-Heron or some other conflicted preacher type.”
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“Hip-hop has had such an effect upon the world. The figures we’re doing films about are monumental people who will always be remembered. The Notorious B.I.G., N.W.A., 2Pac — they’re iconic.”
– He has won two Grammys and a Golden Globe for “Glory.”
– In 2014, Hell on Wheels averaged 3.4 million total viewers in its Saturday time slot.
– His first acting gig: a guest spot on Girlfriends in 2003.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of Billboard.