A few days after André Benjamin--known musically as Andre 3000, the wig-wearing, Hey Ya!--singing half of the multiplatinum duo OutKast--moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, he ran into the film director John Singleton at a health-food restaurant. OutKast had contributed a song to the sound track of Singleton's Higher Learning, and the two talked amiably until Benjamin mentioned that he was trying to break into movies. "When he said, 'I really want to get into this acting thing,' I just smiled politely," says Singleton of the 2002 conversation. "I didn't take him seriously at all because frankly, every rapper in the world says that." As Benjamin recalls, "The conversation kind of stopped right there. John blew me off."
The dozens of rappers who have come to Hollywood over the past two decades have achieved undeniable commercial success, but only a few--Will Smith, Queen Latifah, Mos Def--are regularly called on to play something other than big-screen versions of themselves. Undoubtedly there are studio heads with limited conceptions of what those (mostly African-American) selves can be, yet there's also plenty of evidence to suggest that some rappers treat acting as an entitlement rather than a calling. "I've heard crazy stories about rappers who get big money to be in films who just don't show up for work," says Benjamin. "Then the studio spends $200,000 a day to keep the production afloat, so it's like paying double for them to come to work. That may be why rappers mostly get cast as rappers and crazy guys."
In order to separate himself from the pack, Benjamin, 30, has spent the past three years taking acting lessons and navigating through Hollywood's stereotypes about rappers. One measure of his success arrives this Friday. In Four Brothers, a revenge movie about a family of gun-toting, black and white, adopted brothers (based loosely on the 1965 John Wayne western The Sons of Katie Elder), Benjamin plays Jeremiah Mercer, the least trigger-happy character. The movie was directed by Singleton. "Dre came out here, worked hard and ate the whole humble pie," says Singleton. "Now things are heating up for him. I'm lucky to have him in this movie."
Benjamin acknowledges that his slice of humble pie might not have been that large. Unlike most other aspiring actors, he arrived in Los Angeles already famous--and rich enough to refuse roles that didn't interest him. On top of that, he says, "when I first moved, I didn't know I loved acting. I didn't even really know I liked it." His life change was motivated less by a passion for movies than by a frustration with music: he and partner Antwan (Big Boi) Patton were feuding over their future direction, and Benjamin felt enormous pressure to make hits. (The band has not announced its retirement nor any plans for a new album.) Like others before him, he took advantage of his celebrity to try something new. "I was already with the William Morris Agency for booking tours, and they have this whole music-movie transition team because, you know, everybody's doing movies now," he says wryly. "They assigned me to a transition person and were very casual, like, 'Yeah, maybe just talk to so-and-so while you're in the office.'"