The voice was soft, soothing and familiar.
"Hello," it came in so quietly that you had to lean in. "How are you?"
On the other end of the phone was Usher Raymond, who has used that very voice to lure millions of fans to music stores, downloading sites and television sets all over the world. On Friday morning, he was on the phone to help ensure that those same fans will turn out to movie theaters for "In the Mix," his music-powered romantic comedy that hits the big screen November 23.
"What the plot of the story is, well, a young city DJ named Darrell Williams, aged 26, has one of the hottest clubs in New York City," the singer began. "He gets himself invited to a party for a mafia princess ... and ends up taking the bullet for a mafia boss played by Chazz Palminteri. After that, my character is asked to be [bodyguard to] Dolly Pacelli, who happens to be played by Emmanuelle Chriqui. After that, basically the plot unfolds, you know — life is what happens when you're making other plans."
With "Mix," Usher is altering his own plans for movie stardom, taking on his first starring role after supporting performances in flicks like "The Faculty," "She's All That" and "Texas Rangers."
"Films of the past," he sighed. "Not to say that they weren't great films, but you have to have a portfolio, a healthy portfolio. I'd rather know that the scripts I'm taking on are things that I really feel are going in the direction of the acting that I want to do."
At the time, he admits, he was an up-and-comer who didn't have much say in such productions. Now, nearly five years have passed since the man with the washboard abs last lit up the silver screen, and his stock has risen considerably.
"I'm not looking to just throw that power around," he said of his skyrocketing album sales and recent Grammy success. "I want to have relationships with the right directors out there. I want to come with projects that are well-written, well-respected and have great names, as well as great actors, attached."
Although "In the Mix" may be step one in Usher's plans for cinematic reinvention, he insists that the film will keep one of his feet firmly planted in the aphrodisiac-like qualities that make his music so popular. "There's a heavy amount of romance," he said. "On a scale of one to 10, things get pretty hot — I'd say at least a seven or eight. Not 10, 'cause it's not a Billy Bob and Halle Berry [in 'Monster's Ball'], but it certainly is very passionate.
"For the guys, the romance in it is gonna definitely satisfy their ladies. Every man looks cool if he can bring his girl to a romantic film that he can enjoy," Usher chuckled before describing one particularly steamy scene. "We're in the pool, I take all my clothes off — well, actually, I leave my pants on — but I jump in the pool with [Chriqui] and she's ... we kind of ... well, it's a turning point, let's put it that way."
Usher made it clear that "Mix" is not going to be some Elvis-type movie that casts the star as a singing busboy. "I'm not performing in the movie at all," the Atlanta native said proudly. "Darrell Williams happens to be a DJ; he doesn't sing. He's just grateful to have a record label."
Which works out perfectly for Usher Raymond, music producer. "I am in charge of the soundtrack," he boasted. "Let me give you an idea of the soundtrack, which is on my [US Records] label. You have Christina Milian, as well as my first artist, Rico Love. I'm doing a dual release of my group One Chance, which is a five-guy group out of Chicago — they have two songs on the soundtrack. Bobby Valentino [and] Anthony Hamilton are a part of the soundtrack. All the music on the soundtrack are all newly recorded songs. And there's a duet I did [called 'Sweat'] with Rico Love."
Ultimately, Usher reveals, he'd like to establish the kind of mainstream music/movie career currently being trailblazed by one of Hollywood's biggest stars. "There's probably only one ... Will Smith," he said, beaming with admiration. "You look at the overall build of his career ... I'd love to have something similar to that, man."
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