Some people diversify their stock portfolios. Andre Benjamin, best known as Andre 3000 of hip-hop super-duo OutKast, diversified his career.
Now, learning to play in different artistic mediums, even branching out into brand marketing, ain't exactly a rare feat amongst the megastars (and, sadly, even shooting stars) of rap and hip-hop — just look at everyone from Russell Simmons to Jay-Z. Hell, even 50 Cent has convinced himself he can act, and is willing to let movie studios exploit him and his fan base in order to sell more albums and probably vitamin water. They all have their motivations and, yeah, they're not all financial, but let's be cynical for a moment. A lot of these cats will do anything for a buck. It's the nature of the beast, so let's take a moment to respect someone like Benjamin who has, from the start, put his artistic integrity ahead of any payday.
That's why he took a starring part in Semi-Pro, Will Ferrell's latest screwball sports comedy, opening in theaters nationwide on February 29.
Okay, that was an easy punch line, and not exactly a fair one, but we're getting ahead of ourselves here anyway. Just take a look at how Benjamin has spent the five years since Speakerboxxx/The Love Below was released in 2004 and won the Grammy for Album of the Year. In 2005, he starred in Four Brothers with Mark Wahlberg. In 2006, he starred in and composed the soundtrack to the musical flop Idlewild with OutKast partner, Big Boi, and, in the same year, he created the Emmy Award-winning Cartoon Network series, Class of 3000, for which he also voiced a character. This isn't even counting his bit big- and small-screen parts, the paintings, his clothing designs, and, of course, Semi-Pro. Now ask yourself, what do all these ventures have in common? It may not be obvious at first, but the answer is, none of them had much potential to make Benjamin rich. Well, richer, that is. Sure, sure, the Idlewild soundtrack could've hit big, but look at the bigger picture here: The guy could be cashing in, selling, you know, vitamin water or something equally mundane, but instead, he's spent his time letting his instincts carry him wherever they will.
"It's really whatever's going on at the time, whichever way the wind's blowing," Benjamin explains after a press conference for Semi-Pro at the W Hotel in Westwood, California. That, of course, is a nebulous answer at best, so some specificity is solicited. "I guess what drives it is creativity. It's kind of like whatever I can feel something from, I do it. I just like to make stuff.
"At the end of the day, if I have something in my head and can actually see it produced, come to an end point, that's the joy of it," he continues. "As long as I can be creative and do something that seems cool, I'm good. It's not like I'm trying to make this kind of money, this kind of money, this kind of money. It's never the point."
So back to the low blow about taking a part in a Will Ferrell movie. You're not exactly going to get Benjamin to admit he took the part of Clarence "Coffee" Black, flamboyant star of the doomed ABA's worst basketball team, the Flint Tropics, just to increase his commercial viability, but the truth is, playing opposite Ferrell and Woody Harrelson in a brainless, oft-improvised broad comedy actually ended up challenging the musician turned actor in unexpected ways, even if he insists he didn't sweat it.
"I really wasn't too intimidated because, for the audition, I had to audition with Will and that actually wasn't too bad," he says during the press conference while still sitting next to Ferrell, who keeps him laughing for 45 minutes straight. "In music, you freestyle a lot and you just kind of throw ideas out there. When you read a script, to make your character as real as possible, you have to sometimes go off on tangents, too, and keep going as long as possible. You've got film, so why not? Keep recording it."
Interestingly enough, one of the greatest obstacles in the production was the tiny basketball shorts — as small and tight as anything Fergie has shaken her ass in — that he and Ferrell had to wear. Ferrell jokes he needed an extra pair of underwear to keep his junk from falling out when he dropped into a defensive position.
After Benjamin finishes laughing again at his co-star, he adds, "Actually, we had to do two weeks of basketball training, so I just got that over with there. I wore my shorts through the two weeks of practice so I wouldn't feel self-conscious on the first day of shooting, because [my character], Clarence, didn't care about the short shorts, so why should I?"
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Given all this junk-containment and artistic diversification, one has to wonder if like, say, musician Rob Zombie, Benjamin has allowed each of the various mediums he dwells in to inform the others. Zombie, for example, created music based on his filmic inspirations, then made videos based on both, then moved on to writing and directing movies generated by all of these experiences. The Wu-Tang Clan's RZA has a similar story, and these two certainly aren't alone. But Benjamin won't go that far, especially when asked if his experience making movies has ever impacted his time in the studio.
"Not really," he says after the press conference, trying to stay out of the way of hands thrusting DVDs at Ferrell to sign and even a bowling pin from Kingpin at Harrelson. "They all relate in some way, because they're all ideas. But I wouldn't say one helps me out in another field."
So they're just ideas, but is the satisfaction he takes from each experience similar? "With music, it's kind of like I'm the writer, director, actor — everything," Benjamin answers. "I have control of the outcome. In film, I don't have that control of what it becomes. You're pretty much under somebody else's control."
And that lack of control appeals to him; in fact, it's the reason he loves making movies so much. "For 13 or 14 years, I've kind of been the puppet master, I guess," he says. "It's kind of cool, especially when you're going through a period, trying to find inspiration in the music. When a great script comes along with a character I think I can play, it's great."