Asock-clad Method Man padded into the hallway of his Staten Island home. On the stove in the kitchen an inviting dish sat cooling. Floral arrangements filled the dining room table. The local news played unobtrusively in the background.
“Welcome to suburbia,” said the hard-core rhymer, his proud tone tinged with just a hint of irony. He opened the front door to reveal a sleepy, snowy street, where so few cars passed that a neighbor had put a basketball hoop in the middle of the road.
But then, there are many things unexpected about Smith’s world circa 2015. Not least of them is that, unlike many other toggling rapper-actors, a Grammy-winning musician who is one of the most prolific and influential in the history of hip-hop has set music almost completely aside in favor of the thespian life, a move that suggests that just because you become an icon in one realm doesn’t mean you have to stay there.
Smith, in fact, had just returned from Los Angeles, where he had auditioned for parts in shows such as the upcoming Cinemax dramatic thriller “Quarry.”
It’s been nearly 15 years since Smith began his acting career. But what had seemed like promising turns with early parts in “Oz” and “The Wire” — not to mention a starring nod to his own smoking ways in the 2001 stoner comedy “How High” — have recently dissipated into less memorable bit parts.
So he is, he said, making a renewed push. This last weekend Smith was on the big screen in “The Cobbler,” the new body-switching dramedy from the humanist director Tom McCarthy. And this summer will offer Smith as an uptight medical orderly in the Judd Apatow comedy “Trainwreck,” which has a work-in-progress screening Sunday night at SXSW.
“Now I have this chance to show people that I’m serious about what I’m doing,” he said, acknowledging he had previously mishandled aspects of his Hollywood career — particularly “Method & Red,” his ill-fated 2004 Fox sitcom (a riff on rappers in the suburbs) that was canceled amid messy clashes with the network.
“I’m much more mature now, and I know how these things work. And I’m ready, I’m … ready. So ready.”
He added, “Music isn’t my first thing. Getting these acting parts is.”
“The Cobbler” is a good place to start. Smith plays Ludlow, a gangster with a taste for fine watches. Through a plot device, Ludlow is at times inhabited by the spirit of Adam Sandler’s nebbishy shoe repairman. Which means that Smith must, for good chunks of the movie, essentially play Sandler.
Although the film has drawn largely negative reviews, body-switching comedies can pay dividends, requiring the nuanced gestures that casting directors love. Matters even grew complicated enough on “Cobbler” that Smith and McCarthy had to devise a system of percentages in determining how much “Sandler” Smith should put into any scene.
“Sometimes Tom had to come over to tell me to dial it down,” Smith laughed. “So you had a white guy basically telling me I was too white.”
Smith sat at the breakfast bar while he talked, a laptop and smartphone in front of him in a quintessentially suburban manner. His wife, with whom he has been for two decades, materialized and then disappears. Assorted pictures are scattered on the counter, and Smith pauses to show off photos from his extended family. (Next to one album is a smoking apparatus—suburban makeovers only go so far.)
Smith, who had turned 44 earlier in the week, has a daughter about to go to college, and is as apt to get as worked up about the education system as he is about hip-hop. One extended lament was about his youngest, 14, whom he felt was being unfairly singled out by a teacher.
Smith can, of course, still display the professional hunger that helped make him and the rest of Wu-Tang some of the most successful independent hip-hop artists of all time. He is frustrated, for instance, that he couldn’t get an audition for the new season of “True Detective.”
“See, the rock ‘n’ roll guys came before us [in Hollywood], and a lot of them were horrible,” he said. “There was some exceptions. David Bowie was pretty good. Rick Springfield was good. But there was a stigma, because most of them showed up late or had an entourage or were coked up.”
That said, he’s learned his own on-set drug lessons. On “How High,” Smith said, he frequently smoked during lunch breaks (you don’t get the nickname Johnny Blaze for nothing) and that had a deleterious effect on parts of the shoot; it led to him, as he puts it, “taking off the veil and realize we’re all playing pretend,” causing a drop in the quality of his acting.
“Stacey Sher pulled me over and said, ‘How come your takes in the morning are so much better than the afternoon?'” Smith recalled, referring to the veteran producer. “That was the last time I smoked anywhere near the set.” (The irony of a movie called “How High” prompting Smith to stop smoking on sets is not lost on him.)
Instead, he said, he has tried to focus on acting choices. On “Trainwreck,” he plays opposite writer and star Amy Schumer, making for one of the more odd pop-cultural pairings when the comedy hits in July. He has tried to invent a back story for his character, the African-born orderly to Schumer’s character’s father. (Of Schumer, he adds, “she is cute as a button but some of the nastiest….coming out of her mouth,” a comment that says something given some of Method Man’s not-quite-church-friendly verses.)
Smith said that when it comes to acting role models, he admires the versatility of Don Cheadle, the terse potency of Clint Eastwood and maybe most of all, the squirm comedy of Larry David. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is one of Smith’s favorite shows and the kind of television he’d most like to do. He says he has little regard for or interest in broader comedies, punctuating the thought with “real talk,” a frequent bit of Meth-speak to emphasize a comment that he believes strongly but knows others won’t necessarily want to hear.
Whether his acting ambitions will fly remains to be seen. Rappers still tend to get typecast as musicians or gangstas; few have broken beyond it on a regular basis.
McCarthy, at least, said Smith is well situated. “Rap is storytelling, and I think that’s helped Cliff develop into a really fine actor,” McCarthy said.
Smith said that outside of the Meth Lab incubator for younger rappers he has set up in Staten Island, he has put aside music for now. Contrary to blog reports, he said he had not begun work on “Crystal Meth,” his long-rumored new solo album.
And he said he had had little to do with “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” the much-awaited new Wu-Tang record (the title refers to the group’s slang name for Staten Island) that was heard for the first time at a museum event in New York last month.
The record has drawn publicity for RZA, its lead creative figure, who announced that only a single copy had been preserved and that it would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, who for 88 years would not be able to exploit it commercially.
Smith said his involvement in the music was minimal. He had been summoned a while back to record vocals by Cilvaringz, a producer who had worked with Wu-Tang.
“He called on certain individuals to get on certain songs, and somewhere along the line that turned into ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,'” Smith said, adding that he believed the lyrics on the record weren’t “hard” enough.
The artist also had some strong words for the release plan, calling it “corny.” “At the end of the day, people want to hear the music,” he said.
But a few days later, he took a different tack after hip-hop publication XXL published similar comments. Smith slammed the site in a social-media post and said he had believed at the time he made the remarks that the album would be prohibited entirely from a release instead of the buyer simply being prevented from profiting from its distribution.
But music remains only a small part of his mind share. He’s more likely to do a crossword puzzle–Smith is an avid puzzle-doer, one more unexpected touch–or revel in his public persona. That day, he had shared on his Instagram account a photo of himself at age 8, and then amused himself by periodically scrolling through the comments to see what kind of guff he’s gotten for it.
He set the phone back down and leaned on the breakfast bar.
“People say, ‘How come you still live in Staten Island? How come you don’t leave?'” he said as he gestured to the house, which he and his family had moved into about nine months ago from another home nearby. “You get comfortable. Because people know where you come from and know where you are. They had one of those questionnaires: ‘You know you’re Staten Island if.‘ And I was one of the ifs. It was ‘You know you’re Staten Island if you run into Method Man at the Staten Island mall.’ I’ve always wanted this.”