Chicago actor/rapper Common talks movies, music and romance in anticipation of his new indie film.
As the saying goes, love has many faces. In the independent film “LUV” — which premieres nationwide Jan. 18 — Chicago-reared actor/rapper Common plays an ex-con whose love for his 11-year-old nephew turns dysfunctional. “My character is really seeking to be on the right path,” he says. “He wants to be a father figure to his nephew, and he wants to teach him how to be a man. But he starts finding himself being dragged back into the life he wanted to leave behind.”
That path turns violent as the movie unfolds. The film, which was produced by Common’s Freedom Road Films and screened at Sundance last year, has an unexpected message, he says.
“Love can be misguided — my character loves his nephew, but he doesn’t know how to show it,” he says. “It’s a cycle. Sometimes in the community you get people who are like, ‘I’m going to teach you some things,’ and some of the things we teach the young people are not healthy.”
Common, 40, is a product of Chicago’s South Side Chatham/Avalon Park neighborhood, and hopes that the film starts a discussion among families.
“There’s a reason right now why we have so much violence in Chicago,” he says. “It doesn’t start with the young people doing it. It starts with what’s been going on in the homes and how the parents and the actual community are nurturing the children. What type of love are they really giving?”
Growing up, Common says he received just the love he needed. A rock-solid foundation provided by his family — especially his mother, Dr. Mahalia Hines, a former Chicago Public Schools principal — is what pushed him toward fulfilling his ambition to be a hip-hop star, he says. “My mother is the person that gave me that platform: helping discipline me, reinforcing her values and consistently staying on me to go to church, do well in school, treat people with respect. Not only was she enforcing those things with me, but she was living them, too.”
Common hopes to provide the same kind of emotional support to inner-city kids through his Chicago-based nonprofit, the Common Ground Foundation. “We basically use the creative arts, and also information and education, to help young people fulfill their dreams,” he says. Programs include a summer youth camp, which in its first year took 30 children from Chicago Public Schools to Wisconsin, and year-round mentoring.
“I know that if a child has a dream and they pursue it with their whole heart, it’ll create less of an environment for a kid to get in trouble,” he says. “When you know you want to be something, if there’s something you see that’s going to be detrimental, you stay away from that. It may be being a chef, some might want to be attorneys, some might want to be politicians, some might want to be athletes — whatever they choose we have to allow that. I think one of the most fulfilling things in life is to be able to do something you love to do.”
Though he spends a lot of his time in Los Angeles, and a chunk of time each year in Calgary, Alberta, filming AMC’s “Hell on Wheels” (the third season will air this fall), Chicago is still home.
“This is where I come from, and you always have to pay homage, honor and respect to where you come from because it provided for you and shaped you, so it’s only natural that you should be able to give back,” he says. “I also recognize that in Chicago is a lot of struggling people just dealing with life. I really feel like I want to do anything I can to give our children the opportunity to be the best they can be.”
He’s loyal to more than just the city of Chicago. His manager and right-hand man, Derek Dudley, has been his friend since the fourth grade. And he and Dudley, who come here about once a month, often stay with family in their old neighborhood and spend time with the friends they’ve known since childhood.
His feelings for his hometown are at the heart of a song Common is working on right now called “Chicago Forever,” which will be included on a promotional mixtape he’s releasing this spring that features collaborations with other artists. The song “is talking about how no matter where I’ve been and go, Chicago is always with me,” he says.
The mixtape, which will be released in April, is just the beginning. This year will mark the total return to his first love — music — which was supplanted by acting in 2012. He’ll also release an EP to coincide with the “Luv” movie release later this month and a full album in September.
Straddling two worlds — and dominating them both — is something Common set his sights on long ago. “I can’t really pick between music and movies,” he says. “It’s like saying pick between my mother and my brother. I just feel blessed and grateful that I’m doing both and can continue to grow in both.”
He’s also working on finding that other type of love in 2013: romantic love. “I do have a desire to settle down and be married and just build a family,” he says. Though he’s currently single, his past relationships have included singer Erykah Badu and tennis star Serena Williams.
At this stage in his life, he’s looking for “a woman that’s God-loving, fun, has a strength about her but at the same token can still be soft,” he says. “And I like a woman who is honest and transparent, open and supportive.”
Most of all, “I want somebody I can be totally myself around,” he says. “That’s unconditional true love.”
• After attending Florida A&M University for two years, Common moved back to Chicago and attended Columbia College Chicago for a year. “This is when I had albums out, and I just wanted to learn more about music. I was taking drums; I was taking music theory. I really had a great experience there.”
• He continues teaching himself about love and relationships through books. “I read a book called The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz — he also wrote The Four Agreements. This book I was reading called The Path to Love [by Deepak Chopra] is great. I do believe that I’ve been growing.”
Tickets for the Common Ground Gala, which will be held March 23 at the Four Seasons Hotel, 120 E. Delaware, are available at Commongroundfoundation.org.
Story by Susanna Negovan | Photos by Maria Ponce at the Hotel Sax Chicago | Grooming by Jen Bean