It’s hard to imagine Common suffering from nerves. The Academy Award-, Golden Globe- and Grammy-winning actor and musician is the epitome of calm as he—in his low, rhythmic voice—describes how he transitioned from being an established rapper to the new guy on set at the height of his music career. Only his own words indicate anything otherwise: “You know how you get so nervous that you break out? On my first day of shooting, I broke out,” he says with a laugh.
Much has changed since Lonnie Rashid Lynn—the artist from the South Side of Chicago best known as Common—made his film debut in the 2007 crime flick Smokin’ Aces, but 10 years and almost 30 acting projects later, the thrill he feels when landing a new role remains the same. “I get excited when I get a movie,” he says. “I love the challenge.”
In his new film, Megan Leavey, a true story about a young female Marine, played by Kate Mara, who forms a bond with her military combat dog, Rex, the test for the 45-year-old was not just to inhabit the role of a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps, but also to do justice to a war hero. “I feel you owe it to the people that lived that life... if I’m playing an individual, even if I don’t meet him, I must depict him as a full-fledged human being, and give him the honor and respect he deserves,” he says. It’s not the first time Common will depict a real-life person on screen. He felt similar pressure only a few years ago when portraying minister James Bevel in the civil rights chronicle Selma, the film that won both him and John Legend an Academy Award for best original song. “For me, the civil rights movement and Dr. King are two of the reasons I feel like I’m able to do what I’m doing,” he says. “I felt a true responsibility.”
For Megan Leavey, the actor consulted real military members to ensure his portrayal of his character was on point. “I was able to learn more about what it would be like to be in the service and to serve as a Marine,” he explains. “One of the things that I enjoy about acting is developing a character—you get into the psychology and root of what can drive a person. It creates a true form of understanding.”
It’s the ability to put himself in the shoes of another person that now appeals to Common about his second craft, but in the early days of his acting career, the goal was simply to find a creative excitement that rivaled the one he felt for his music. “I hit a point in my career where I was doing all different types of music. My album Electric Circus was heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin,” says Common. “The hip-hop audience was like, ‘Nah. We don’t like this.’ But I was yearning for something to keep growing artistically,” he explains. “When I went to acting class, I thought, ‘Man, this is it.’ I’m not great at it yet, but I feel that fire and the passion I feel about music.”
Common admits it’s been a tough road convincing directors to give him a shot. And when he finally landed the role that would propel his acting career, he found himself at a crossroads. The album Be, which he co-produced with friend Kanye West, had just become the top-selling album of his career, and the two were already set to go on tour when he received word that Smokin’ Aces was a go. “I called my mother and was jumping up and down on the bed. Five minutes later, I had to go tell Kanye that I couldn’t go on the tour,” he recalls. Thankfully, West was supportive of his decision. “It showed who he was as a friend. It was an amazing moment.”
But these are the people with whom Common—or Rashid, as he is known to his inner circle—surrounds himself. “I pick people for my team that I feel have integrity and intentions of good hearts,” he says.