It’s hard to imagine Common suffering from nerves. The Academy Award-, Golden Globe- and Grammy-winning actor and musician is the epitome of calm as he—in his low, rhythmic voice—describes how he transitioned from being an established rapper to the new guy on set at the height of his music career. Only his own words indicate anything otherwise: “You know how you get so nervous that you break out? On my first day of shooting, I broke out,” he says with a laugh.
Much has changed since Lonnie Rashid Lynn—the artist from the South Side of Chicago best known as Common—made his film debut in the 2007 crime flick Smokin’ Aces, but 10 years and almost 30 acting projects later, the thrill he feels when landing a new role remains the same. “I get excited when I get a movie,” he says. “I love the challenge.”
In his new film, Megan Leavey, a true story about a young female Marine, played by Kate Mara, who forms a bond with her military combat dog, Rex, the test for the 45-year-old was not just to inhabit the role of a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps, but also to do justice to a war hero. “I feel you owe it to the people that lived that life... if I’m playing an individual, even if I don’t meet him, I must depict him as a full-fledged human being, and give him the honor and respect he deserves,” he says. It’s not the first time Common will depict a real-life person on screen. He felt similar pressure only a few years ago when portraying minister James Bevel in the civil rights chronicle Selma, the film that won both him and John Legend an Academy Award for best original song. “For me, the civil rights movement and Dr. King are two of the reasons I feel like I’m able to do what I’m doing,” he says. “I felt a true responsibility.”
For Megan Leavey, the actor consulted real military members to ensure his portrayal of his character was on point. “I was able to learn more about what it would be like to be in the service and to serve as a Marine,” he explains. “One of the things that I enjoy about acting is developing a character—you get into the psychology and root of what can drive a person. It creates a true form of understanding.”
It’s the ability to put himself in the shoes of another person that now appeals to Common about his second craft, but in the early days of his acting career, the goal was simply to find a creative excitement that rivaled the one he felt for his music. “I hit a point in my career where I was doing all different types of music. My album Electric Circus was heavily influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin,” says Common. “The hip-hop audience was like, ‘Nah. We don’t like this.’ But I was yearning for something to keep growing artistically,” he explains. “When I went to acting class, I thought, ‘Man, this is it.’ I’m not great at it yet, but I feel that fire and the passion I feel about music.”
Common admits it’s been a tough road convincing directors to give him a shot. And when he finally landed the role that would propel his acting career, he found himself at a crossroads. The album Be, which he co-produced with friend Kanye West, had just become the top-selling album of his career, and the two were already set to go on tour when he received word that Smokin’ Aces was a go. “I called my mother and was jumping up and down on the bed. Five minutes later, I had to go tell Kanye that I couldn’t go on the tour,” he recalls. Thankfully, West was supportive of his decision. “It showed who he was as a friend. It was an amazing moment.”
But these are the people with whom Common—or Rashid, as he is known to his inner circle—surrounds himself. “I pick people for my team that I feel have integrity and intentions of good hearts,” he says.
Equally important in his life are his mother and grandmother, and friends he grew up with in Chicago. “That’s one of the most important things for me because ultimately, when I strip down from my music, acting and activism, and am dealing with a situation, I have to know who my support is,” explains Common. “That person that will give you their ears and have the heart to listen. They allow you the space to be different and grow, but can also speak the truth. You have to have that.”
Speaking his truth is what has made Common one of the most influential artists in hip-hop, but he admits that when he first discovered he had a knack for writing music, the themes he addressed were hardly deep. “At 16, it was more about how fresh I was, what we did in Chicago, being cool or talking to girls,” he says with a laugh. “It was nothing substantial because I hadn’t lived.” In his early 20s, he discovered how a song about his personal struggles struck a chord in others. “I saw how people who were going through their own struggles—no matter what age—related to it,” he says. “It meant something to them.”
Though he received critical acclaim as a rapper before his 1997 album, One Day It’ll Make Sense, his song “Retrospect for Life”—which spoke to having to decide with his then-girlfriend Kim Jones whether or not to terminate a pregnancy—is a standout moment in his career. “People came to me and told me, ‘Man, I had my baby because you wrote this song,’” recalls the father of 19-year-old daughter Omoye Assata Lynn. “At that point, I was writing from my own experiences, heart and soul, and learning that could actually affect people.” He also remembers being approached by two gay men after a concert, who told him that they loved his music but not the vernacular he was using to describe them. “It was one of those things where I didn’t think how it affected people,” he says. “Those moments made me realize these words mean something. These words can help direct somebody. They can help reinforce and inspire somebody or make somebody feel bad. Which way do you want to go? So I decided to talk more about the light that’s within us than to talk about the darker things. I want people to leave feeling like they can change the world and are worth something.”
He uses that same ability to connect with people through his philanthropy and activism. For more than 10 years, he has run the Common Ground Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to empower underprivileged urban youth. Currently, his efforts are being funneled into improving the criminal justice system and achieving prison reform. “It’s a new level of excitement when I’m talking about policy change or programs and they really are happening,” he says. “That brings a certain joy.”
Asked if he is eager to shepherd kids of his own, he says he doesn’t feel rushed. “Obviously, part of the reason is because I have a daughter, but even beyond that, I’m a believer in [the idea that] when that is supposed to happen for me, then I’ll know, and I’ll want that. And I will attract that person, and that family will come,” he explains.
In the meantime, it’s not as if he lacks projects. With his eye set on another Academy Award—this time for acting—he continues to pursue great roles in impactful films. He is still making music and his production company, Freedom Road, is producing two new TV shows, one in which he will star. “I would love to just continue my life and grow in happiness,” he says. “I want to become a great actor; I want to produce some great-quality TV and film projects. I want to help better the lives of young people with programs and improving education. And I want to watch basketball.” Something tells us this man can have it all.
First Photo: Jacket, $890, and trouser, $320, both at carloscampos.com; white cotton shirt, $600, by Dior Homme at Dior, Beverly Hills; Slider sneakers, $575, at pierrehardy.com.
Photography by Brian Bowen Smith // Styling by Micaela Erlanger // Art direction by James Aguiar//Assistant stylist: Laura Sophie Cox | Photo Assistants: Kevin McHugh and Byron Nickleberry | Digital Tech: Brandon Smith//Grooming by Tasha Brown for Exclusive Artists using Burt’s Bees and Ahava | Barber: Daronn Carr