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L.A. CLIPPER ICE CUBE ISN'T PLAYING HIMSELF, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, IN 'BARBERSHOP'.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

THREE YEARS AGO, I went to lunch at a very crowded Woodland Hills restaurant, and there was Ice Cube, waiting patiently behind several other parties for a table.

It was a Friday afternoon and ``Three Kings,'' a very smart, politically charged movie about the Persian Gulf War, had opened that day. I'd never met the rapper-turned-actor before, so I went over and congratulated him on his work in the film. He smiled warmly, thanked me, introduced me to his wife. Then it was back to waiting in line, no sense of movie star entitlement to be seen - nor, for that matter, of the egotism or belligerence one might expect from the man who all but invented the gangsta rap genre.

Now, catching up with Cube (real name: O'Shea Jackson) to discuss his latest movie, the neighborhood slice-of-life comedy ``Barbershop,'' first impressions certainly held up. Easygoing, accessible, not lacking in pride but well short of vain, the 33-year-old father of four seems the picture of gracious contentment.

But don't let that image fool you, either.

``I always saw my parents being grateful for what they had, but not satisfied,'' notes Cube, who grew up in South Central L.A. and now lives in Encino. ``They were always trying to improve on what was there, whether it was just fixing the porch or painting or keeping the garden up. There was always room for improvement, and I guess that mentality has stuck with me. I'm never all-the-way, totally satisfied. It's always like, 'What can I do better?' ''

No brag, just fact, according to ``Barbershop'' director Tim Story.

``I don't know if we could have picked a better Calvin than Cube,'' the filmmaker says. ``He represents the street, but at the same time he's a family man and, also, he's a good actor. We knew from looking at his projects, especially 'Three Kings,' that this guy's got depths that he hasn't explored (on-screen). And when we got to him, he was really open, and he kind of just got into it.''

Calvin runs his late father's barbershop on the South Side of Chicago. He'd rather be doing something more glamorous, or at least something that could earn more money for the wife that he loves and the child they're expecting.

However, over the course of one eventful day when Calvin almost loses the raucous neighborhood gathering spot, he reassesses his goals while learning to appreciate what he has.

Restraint and respect

Though very much a comedy, ``Barbershop'' has a much more serious core than the ``Friday'' farces Cube writes, produces and stars in. And while such cutups as Cedric the Entertainer, rap star Eve and Anthony Anderson (``Me, Myself & Irene'') let loose throughout the proceedings, Cube must keep a tight rein on Calvin in order to maintain the film's dramatic core.

Was it hard to refrain from joining in the high jinks?

``Not really,'' Cube says. ``I know the way to make these movies really work is for everybody to play their position, for everybody to stick to what they do and what the character calls for. Of course, hearing all of those jokes go across, you want to get some laughs, too. But I think the reason why I've been successful is because I don't get in the way of the characters. I don't try to steal the show.''

That same kind of tempered ambition has been Cube's strategy for his movie career since he made his acclaimed screen debut in John Singleton's 1991 urban tragedy, ``Boyz N the Hood.''

``I'm taking it more project by project than trying to expand my range as an actor,'' he explains. ``If the project is right and the director is right and I can show a little more range, of course I'm gonna jump on it and try to do my best at it. I want to be considered one of the great actors, like the Pacinos and De Niros and the Denzels and the Samuel Jacksons of the world, not just a 'rapper/actor.' So, there's always gonna be room for improvement, but each job is gonna dictate that, I'm not gonna force it.''

This is an especially humble statement in the wake of provocative comments the highly accomplished stage and screen actor Jackson made earlier this summer.

``To take people from the music world and give them the same kind of credibility and weight that you give me, Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker - that's like an aberration to me,'' Jackson told the Sacramento Bee. ``I know there's some young actor sitting in New York or in L.A. who's spent half of his life learning how to act and sacrificing to learn his craft but isn't going to get his opportunity ... because of some actor who's been created - and you can use the word 'actor' loosely.''

Cube has a strong but measured riposte.

``We've got a saying in hip hop: It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at,'' he says. ``Everybody comes from somewhere. Just because I started off rapping, that doesn't mean I have to be a 65-year-old rapper, that that's all I can do and never pursue nothing else. That's not fair. Just because rappers didn't go to schools for acting, that doesn't mean they can't act.

``Take (former NWA cohort and widely respected music producer) Dr. Dre. He's never been to a music school, but can you imagine if he never did music? I wouldn't be here. Things like that show you that you can come from anywhere and excel in any field. I would love to do a movie with Samuel, he's one of the best that we have out there. How I see it, the best man usually gets the job. I don't feel the studios do nobody no favors; it's all about who's best.''

Fading anger

What's become, you might well ask at this point, of the confrontational anger that made N.W.A.'s ``Straight Outta Compton'' the key recording of the gangsta rap movement and which has cropped up regularly on Cube's hit solo albums since he left the group at its 1989 height?

``I've got more understanding about things now, so I'm not so angry about why things are the way things are,'' he says. ``I've got more perspective, and that gives me more of a try-to-change-the-status-quo thing than just be mad at the world. You do things that you can do to help change the plight of people behind you so they can have it a little easier in a way. I feel like the best thing I can do to combat the condition that black people find ourselves in is just to be an example of what can be done with a little bit of determination and ambition.''

Such leadership can be heard on various Cube cuts, such as ``It's a Man's World,'' one of the first rap songs to question the genre's virulent degradation of women, and ``It Was a Good Day,'' in which a gangsta offers thanks for a respite from violence.

That said, Cube is not about to repudiate his incendiary, expletive-laden early work.

``I think the true legacy of N.W.A. is that, for some reason, that record 'Straight Outta Compton' just gave freedom to artists all over the world to be whatever they are - and not have to conform or be something they're not or not really say what's on their minds,'' he figures. ``We opened floodgates of freedom - and there's a lot of good in that and a lot bad in that too. Y'know what I'm saying - without N.W.A., would you have a Marilyn Manson? I dunno, but to have people still doing that form of hip- hop to this day, it just kind of shows you how powerful that one record was.'' Yeah, but does he let his children, who range in ages from 2 to 15, listen to that stuff?

``I think that your kids are always going to be exposed to things that you don't like or that you aren't necessarily gonna be down with,'' Cube says. ``It's just all about teaching them how to handle those situations. I always make myself an example. I may be making this music, but I come home every day to my family like a responsible man's supposed to do. This is entertainment for people, and they can understand the difference by being able to see the difference between who I really am and who the world thinks I am.''

Making movies, Cube says, is one way he might show a little more of his true self to the world - and also to himself, when his own celebrity can get in the way.

``What's so good about doing films is the fact that you can bring somebody into your world, like a fly on the wall,'' he says. ``Me myself, I can't get a pure barbershop experience no more because it turns into a 'Cube is here!' type of deal. So, to even see it on the screen is good for me.''

Which is why, wherever he can still get away with it, you might see Ice Cube patiently and happily lining up with everybody else.

``I don't mind,'' he says. ``I kinda dig it, to be honest. You can create a frenzy. You can create a feeling that it's some big deal to see you. And if you're real standoffish with people, then for some reason it causes more of a frenzy than if you're just cool and, y'know, normal. Like you are or we are, we all normal. We just make music or films, but everybody's normal.''

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) A CUT ABOVE

ICE CUBE'S style buzzes throughout `Barbershop'

(2) Ice Cube

(3) ``Barbershop'' director, right, on Ice cub, center, with cinematographer Tom Priestly
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 10, 2002
Words:1644
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