To LL and Back

It’s a battle of Good Vs. Eva for LL Cool J

James Todd Smith aka LL Cool J struts into a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, his sleek, diamond-stud earrings capturing the light, reflecting it back to the occupants of the room. By no means does it blind us, but it does make an impact, which is symbolic because ever since the one-time “legend in leather” became the über stud of Def Jam Records back in the ’80s he’s been evolving as an “artist,” often throwing a brick into the glass house where stale perceptions live.

Get ready. Here comes another brick.

LL Cool J as a leading man in a romantic comedy? It’s true. Start sweeping up the glass.

“First of all, I don’t have an image,” Smith says. “I am an artist first. It’s a fine line for me because I’m an entertainer. I’m in the public eye. But I don’t have an image. I am more about the art and the truth of the art. That’s why I can do a ‘love’ movie and then a ‘hard’ movie because it’s about the art and it’s all  about ‘did I respond to the material. And that’s what moves me; that’s what motivates me.”

At the moment Smith is revved up about Deliver Us From Eva, the new romantic comedy being launched by Focus Features and which costars Gabrielle Union, who made a dent in Brothers and was last seen dodging murder alongside Katie Holmes in the thriller Abandon. In Eva, Smith embodies the smooth skin of a loner named Ray who gets coaxed into playing the romantic fall guy when a troika of embittered brothers-in-laws decide their wives manipulating single sister (Union as Eva) needs to be booted out of their collective lives. The plan is for Ray to make Eva, desperately in need of softening, to fall for him thereby becoming the perfect distraction so everybody else can move forward with their own lives. The glitch in this plan? Somehow Ray and Eva fall for each other, which gets emotionally messy in the film’s last act. Eva was directed by Gary Hardwick, who proved his metal by directing Brothers. (His own history is interesting to note: he did stand-up while going to law school and moonlighted as a comedian while working as a criminal defense attorney in Detroit.) The film also boasts an all-black cast—Duane Martin, Essence Atkins, Robinne Lee, Meagan Good, Mel Jackson, Dartanyan Edmonds— but Smith doesn’t consider it a “black” film.

“Quite honestly, as a black man growing up in American, I’ve been watching movies with white faces all my life, so I never really looked at a movie as a ‘white’ movie,” he says. “I know hat some white people  feel differently about that. I don’t know why that is … because they are used to seeing white movies as well, so when they see movies with black people, they see the difference.  For black people, we grow up we go to the movies, we see Arnold Schwarzenegger and we don’t think about it being a white movie. I don’t think about Tom Cruise being in a white movie. But if you think about it, if you’re saying, ‘We’re seeing black movies come out every two weeks,’ then when do white movies come out? You know what I mean. Maybe in Jamaica, they’re going, ‘Oh yeah, another white movie came out, but I just want to do good work and do good movies. The world is changing. Quite frankly, a lot of people don’t like the fact that it is changing, but it is. Things are different now.  You know, black people play go; white people rap. And that’s just the way it is. It’s different.”

He also defends the squawking some critics make about rappers jumping into film.

“I think the work speaks for itself. Whether you are an ‘actor’ or a ‘rappor,’—if you suck, people are going to say it. It’s about the work. At the end of the day you get rewarded for good work. Nobody bats a thousand. You are going to have performances that aren’t as good as others. That’s just a part of being an entertainer and being an artist … I mean, acting is about a body of work on a consistent basis. People may say you had a good performance, they may even say you are  pretty good actor, but it takes a certain body of work before people respect you as an actor. Al Pacino … if he only did Serpico, people wouldn’t look at him the way they do. It’s his body of work that makes people recognize his greatness. Not one part performance but a series of great performances that make people say, ‘Hey, this person is capable of doing something great.”

Which may be what Smith would like people to say about him. But what’s up with the name change?

“I wanted to give people the opportunity to understand how serious I am as an actor and how serious I am about what I do,” he says. “I don’t anybody to feel alienated by the name LL Cool Jay because for those who know my music, obviously the name will attract them. For those who don’t, like some 50-year-old white guy in Oklahoma, I don’t him to hear that name and immediately associate it with something that makes him feel like it won’t be able for him to relate to in my movie simply because [of the name] LL Cool Jay. But I am very proud of what I have done in music and proud of what I have done as a rap artist up until this point. I just want to expand and allow other people to get into what I am doing.”

To really “get” what Smith is doing is understand his perception of himself as a true artist. In addition to his smashing success with Def Jam Records—he was the first rap artist to soak up six consecutive platinum-plus selling albums and his 10th,  dubbed 10, got him back on the tour bus for the first time in years—Smith’s starring roles in Renny Harlin’s Deep Blue Sea and Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday stand out. He also penned a children’s book, “And the Winner Is,” released last fall, and which focuses on the importance of winning and losing gracefully.

Up next for the father of four? S.W.A.T.  The up-and-coming testosterone-charged redux is currently being shot and co-stars Colin Farrell and Samuel L. Jackson.

In the meantime, with Eva set to hit theaters on Friday, the world’s about to see the romantic side of the guy who’s alter ego, LL Cool J, bitch-slapped the record industry and reinvented rap. But since Smith is in Beverly Hills’ finest to talk about romance, maybe the more appropriate question is: What does he find romantic?

After a pregnant pause, Smith looks up. His eyes smile and he says, “Hey … you know … just the tender touch of a woman—you know what I am saying? Just being close—that’s romantic. A girl could just sit in your lap and you could just have a conversation and it could be the most romantic moment in the world. You could just hug somebody for 15 seconds and that could be romantic. It’s all according to the mood you are in and how far you are going to take that vibe.”

No doubt Smith will take that “vibe” to the limit, as far as his film career goes. Wait. What’s that? Do I hear glass shattering somewhere?

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