Martin Shkreli may be the only person to ever hear RZA‘s work on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the one-of-a-kind, $2 million Wu-Tang Clan LP. The MC-producer is guaranteed a bigger audience soon, however — just not for his music. RZA, 46, stars as a hitman with a heart of gold in Mr. Right (out April 8 from Focus World) with Anna Kendrick and is directing Coco (Lionsgate), starring Azealia Banks as a poet turned rapper. The Wu-Tang legend spoke with Billboard about his Hollywood-heavy 2016, the prospect of a Wu-Tang biopic and his controversial comments about police brutality.
Mr. Right is a new look for you: It’s half action, half rom-com, and you play a good guy. What attracted you to it?
Every time I choose characters it’s therapy, and this one seemed like a different release for me. He’s a quirky, awkward guy. The director [Paco Cabezas] told me, “You look too menacing.” They changed all the makeup and cut off my sideburns, but I still had my goatee. He said, “No, you still look too menacing.” I’m like, “Alright, whatever you want, baby, let’s just do it.” So they shaved my whole face! I haven’t had a full shave in forever. It was funny how soft I felt. (Laughs.)
What’s up with a musical collaboration with Anna?
“Pitch Perfect 3: Tone Deaf!” (Laughs.) She’s a sweetheart.
Have any updates on Coco?
It’s in postproduction; we’ll get it out this year. It’s a really cool film; it’s a very different approach. I like the question we ask in it: Is hip-hop poetry? Should we study it in school? Should we study the lyrics of Nas and Wu-Tang in school? I like the debate it sparks.
After the success of Straight Outta Compton, will there be a Wu-Tang film?
Yes, but it’s not easy. I’ve been having conversations with some people, so we’ll see if that’s something we can tie together. I think it would be a blessing for American culture. It is really an against the odds story. You’re talking about guys with felonies on their records, you know what I mean? Not that that’s something to brag about, but that’s something to understand: When I was growing up they said that a black man in America would be dead or in jail by 25, especially if he doesn’t have a high school diploma. But we didn’t become the statistic. I think it’s important to understand that there is a way out; determination and focus can beat the odds.
Between Straight Outta Compton, Empire, VH1’s The Breaks and the upcoming Tupac biopic, there’s been a surge of hip-hop-related film and TV projects. Do you think that will continue to grow, or is it a bubble that’s about to burst?
Hopefully yes, it will continue. Hip-hop has been a big part of our culture. You got to think about how far we are from the ’90s now, from the ’80s — hip-hop has been a dominant force in music for over 20 years. And you have stories of pioneers that the public may not know. It’s just like if you watch [the 2008 film] Cadillac Records. I wasn’t 100 percent knowledgeable about some of the early pioneers of rock’n’roll, and to find out what Etta James was like was amazing. So I think there should be more, I think there will be more. Straight Outta Compton was a great film to prove the marketability of it, the value of it. It wasn’t just a film that was just for hip-hop, it also got an Oscar nomination, the box-office success was tremendous, and it actually made some noise internationally, where they thought hip-hop, or black films, weren’t able to do so. Hip-hop is prime now.
Last year you were criticized for comments you made about police brutality, which seemed to place some blame on the victims. Do you want to clarify them more? You’ve had a long history of speaking out against racism and police brutality. Do you think you were misunderstood?
Yeah, I would say so. First and foremost, I was a father talking about what he tells his son. I’m saying it out of my experience: You know, don’t wear your hat backwards, even though when I was young I wore my hat backwards. But what I experienced, I want my son to escape. I’m not going to let my son touch a hot stove — you may burn yourself! Why repeat bad history? I was talking about my son preparing himself for the world and understanding the difficulties he got to face. But I would never say that this is going to stop [police brutality]. To stop it, the perpetrator has to stop his evil. But still, the victim has got to understand what he attracts, you know what I mean? I want my son to understand: Don’t fit no description. Whether it’s people watching on TV, or a judge in the courtroom, they don’t know you — all they know is the image in front of them. So, I was taken out of context, but I understand it’s a sensitive situation because people are dying and their families are being broken and our community is suffering. I’m not justifying none of that — I’m just talking about my son.
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 16 issue of Billboard.