PARK CITY, Utah — All hail the newest king of Sundance.
For the second straight year, Nick Cannon has arrived at Robert Redford’s festival carrying a fierce, category-defying flick with a performance that changes any preconceived notions about him. The difference is that when he walked into our interview this year, he wasn’t coming straight from the previous night’s partying.
The 27-year-old is growing up fast. During our conversation, we talked about what it’s like to be one of the hottest talents at Sundance, whether he’s the next Paul Giamatti and the “dream project” that Nick is determined to get right.
MTV: You’re up here with “American Son,” a film about a war vet who’s home for a 96-hour leave, and the forbidden romance he starts with a beautiful young Mexican girl. We’ve never seen you in anything like this before.
Nick Cannon: Yeah, but it wasn’t that this was something totally different for me. It was more or less a phenomenal script I wanted to be a part of, and I have to give credit to my director, Neil Abramson. I was initially going in for the best-friend role — a wisecracking, drug-dealer homeboy. But when we sat down and had a conversation, he said, “I think you could be our lead.” It wasn’t written black or anything like that, and he was color-blind, and he thought I could pull it off.
MTV: Is it the weightiest part you’ve had, so far?
Cannon: It’s definitely a departure from things people might be familiar with me for, but I’ve done things in this vein; you’ve only seen glimpses. “Drumline, “Bobby” and stuff like that, but this is the first time I’ve been able to use my whole arsenal of skills. [Laughs.] I use all my acting muscles on this one.
MTV: There are a lot of young soldiers in Iraq, and more heading there soon. Many are fans of yours. Did you want to make this film for them?
Cannon: Absolutely. This film definitely has the backdrop of the war, and the troops going over to Iraq. But more than anything, it humanizes the young men and women who are serving in the armed services, and it makes it personal. Everyone has somebody they know over there, maybe family members. It takes that inner struggle they have that they might not express to everybody, or that we tend to forget because we see the bigger picture and the economy, terror and politics. But these are human beings that are struggling. They’re making sacrifices, and I commend them.
MTV: It’s great coming up here every year and seeing you working in independent films, because you could just as easily be making huge blockbusters, playing some guy’s sidekick in a dumbass movie and making tons of money. What keeps you coming back to the indies?
Cannon: It’s the alternative. I’ve got MTV [with “Wild ’N Out”], so I can be silly and all those things, and I can be in a big blockbuster movie, or be the funny guy in a romantic comedy. But this gives me the opportunity to perfect my craft, and really take acting seriously. I want to show people it’s not all about the money for me, that it’s about getting in and doing good work. That’s why I love Sundance so much.
MTV: And what do these kinds of film have in common?
Cannon: [Independent film] is a platform for people who want to do something good, who want to do film for the right reasons and not just for the check.
MTV: There are certain people we call the “Kings of Sundance,” the Steve Buscemis and the Paul Giamattis who’ve launched so many great movies here. Now you’re shaping up to be the new, younger king. How have you changed since you were here last year with “Weapons”?
Cannon: I’ve grown a lot. Last year was one of my first [film festival] experiences, and it was mind-blowing. So I was going hard with the partying and the entire experience. This time, I’ve settled in a little bit, and it’s all about the work. Just coming here to do something really good, and I’m so proud of this film. It gives me the opportunity to speak and do something more than just say, “I’m here having a good time.” I am truly passionate about this, and that’s the direction I want to take in my acting career.
MTV: But at the same time, we know you kept up your annual tradition of DJing last night.
Cannon: You gotta keep the party going! [Laughs.] I DJed twice, actually, last night. I DJed at Marquis, and 50 Cent was next door, so our parties were connected. Then I also DJed at [New York’s] Club Butter. … They have a spot out here that 5W PR put together, so I DJed there after-hours. That was cool.
MTV: Are you going to meet up with 50 Cent, or anybody else, while you’re up here?
Cannon: Yeah, I’ve seen Fif, all my fellow DJ homeboys. DJ AM, Steve Aoki, all them cats. I’ve been running into everybody.
MTV: I’ve seen you out on Main Street, and you’re a rock star. Everybody crowds around you, wanting to take photos.
Cannon: Yeah, it’s a good time. [Laughs.] You take the good with the bad, and that’s the best part of it: to see the people and connect with the people. The fact that it’s below five degrees? I’ll still take photos and shake hands with everybody, but I might have frostbite before I leave.
MTV: What’s next for you?
Cannon: So many things. … Film-wise, I just finished a film called “The Killing Room,” with Chloë Sevigny and Timothy Hutton. That’s a project I wanted to sink my teeth into.
MTV: I heard about that. It sounds like “Saw” but with a government conspiracy.
Cannon: Yeah! It has a “Saw” feel, but I’d say it’s a little more complex than that. It has a secret government background. But realistically, it’s four actors in one room just bouncing off each other, and it’s amazing. It’s method-style [acting], one room, theatrical, and it’s something you haven’t seen in a very long time.
MTV: And what’s going on with the Arthur Ashe biopic that you broke news about here last year?
Cannon: We’re still waiting! We’re still looking for a director, and we’re still looking for the right writer. It’s such a big project. It’s my dream project, and it has to come together properly.
MTV: And in the meantime, you can continue to perfect your backhand.
Cannon: [Laughs.] Absolutely.
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