As Andre 3000, he is pure starchild -- the more bodacious half of the hip-hop duo OutKast, and a natural ham. This is the guy who cast himself as the entire band in his video for the 2003 smash "Hey Ya!," like a clotheshorse version of a funky Sybil.
But as Andre Benjamin, the actor, he is pensive and soft-spoken. He wears denim pants and a plain white shirt. Only his familiar straw hat, sitting on the coffee table before him, gives him away.
Fans could get used to seeing this side of Benjamin. The 30-year-old Atlanta native is the latest pop star to cross over to the movies, joining such serious talents as Mos Def and natural comics such as Snoop Dogg.
Benjamin is playing it cool. Cast as the least demonstrative of Four Brothers in John Singleton's urban action film opening tomorrow, Benjamin works against type: He is the "quiet" brother, a role that is not showy, yet is challenging for its complex shadings.
His choice of role dovetailed nicely with professional advice he received years ago from Denzel Washington, he says. "I said, 'Tell me one thing about acting that I can keep with me for the rest of my life.' And he said, 'Acting is not big. It's not performing. It's this small. The camera is small. It magnifies. Everything has to come from inside.' "
Benjamin took that to heart.
Though he won early acclaim with OutKast, the innovative group he started in 1993 with childhood friend Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, Benjamin has found that success in one field does not instantly translate to another. "There's a trend of entertainers jumping into film, and I understand that," Benjamin says. "A lot of people jump into it, and they fly through it. I wanted to try to make a credible transition."
He says Four Brothers co-star Mark Wahlberg is an example of what he calls "a true actor." (Wahlberg had a brief career as rapper "Marky Mark.") Benjamin also mentions the late Tupac Shakur, who starred in Singleton's Poetic Justice. And Mos Def, who has earned accolades on Broadway, as well.
When friends heard Benjamin was courting Hollywood, they told him it would be a snap. "It's totally different," he says. "Videos don't compare at all. You hide behind the music. It's pretty much lip-synching. With film, they yell action, and it's as quiet as it is now, and you have to go for it."
That philosophical approach is exactly how he got to this point. During 2002, he left his home in Atlanta and took a small apartment in Los Angeles. Between studio sessions to record The Love Below, Benjamin met with producers and casting agents, read scripts, took acting lessons. It was like starting from scratch. "I've known 'Dre for, like, 10 years," says Singleton, who cast the rapper Ice Cube in the director's breakthrough debut, Boyz N the Hood. "He'd say, 'I want to get into this acting thing.' And I'd pretty much blow him off. Everybody says that."
It took Benjamin's initiative to move things along. He collaborated with his creative partner Bryan Barber, who shoots many of OutKast's videos, to write and produce a feature called My Life in Idlewild. Conceived as an homage to 1930s musicals, through the kaleidoscopic Southern funk of OutKast's music, the HBO project got previewed a lot around Hollywood. Benjamin co-starred with Patton, and Benjamin made an impression.
"I thought, whoa! He really has something here," Singleton says. "'Dre is like a cool breeze." Since then, Benjamin signed a production deal with MTV/Nickelodeon and was cast in British director Guy Ritchie's new film Revolver -- shot before Four Brothers -- scheduled for release next month.
His role in Four Brothers, a revenge flick with a hefty dose of male bonding, required a fair bit of psychological nuance. It may be premature to expect Benjamin to morph from a hip-hop vaudevillian into the new Clint Eastwood, exactly. But he is absolutely game.
"It's up to the audience if people will take me as anything other than Andre 3000," he says, "and that's funny. Because Andre 3000 is a character that's made up."
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