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— by Larry Carroll

John Travolta's Chili Palmer is a fearless character whose humor stems from having worn more hats than LL Cool J. A debt collector trying to rustle up the dough for a Hollywood blockbuster? A film veteran commenting on the ruthlessness of the music industry? The jokes would seem to write themselves for "Get Shorty" and its new sequel, "Be Cool"; it's only appropriate, then, that Travolta would want to be surrounded by as many real-life Chilis as possible.

Although none of them have ever spent time in the mafia (that they'll admit to, anyway), the cast of "Be Cool" knows what it's like to take the leap toward a different career. Grammy-winning Outkast member Andre 3000, cast in the film as gun-happy gangster Dabu, is even using different names to presumably keep track of which day he's doing what. "Andre 3000 is the 'Hey Ya!' guy," the star said. "He's the entertainer type of music man or whatever. And Andre Benjamin is that guy. He's the film guy."

 MTV Exclusive Clip: Christina Milian shakes her stuff in "Be Cool."

 More clips from "Be Cool."

Passing Andre in the opposite lane is the Rock, going from actor to singer after successfully engineering the seemingly impossible wrestling-to-screen transition that reduced names like Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan to Trivial Pursuit answers. While portraying Elliot, a proud, gay bodyguard with a fondness for cowboy songs, the beefy leading man sang Loretta Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough (To Take My Man)" for the film's soundtrack. "I made it," he said, smiling. "That's my dream, being a singer now." The Rock claims that acting is his primary focus, but those who remember him belting out "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" on "Saturday Night Live" a few years back know that the star boasts some formidable pipes to go along with those biceps.

It wasn't long ago that such an attempted crossover risked backlash from a public that usually perceived the move as greedy, egomaniacal or just plain stupid. Superstars like Eddie Murphy, Madonna and Bruce Willis tried to persuade the world to look at them through new eyes, only to have many of their fans turn away in disgust.

Then, brazenly stepping over the smoldering remains of Jennifer Love Hewitt Let's Go Bang CDs and Mick Jagger "Freejack" DVDs, Jennifer Lopez made history by simultaneously capturing the nation's #1 movie ("The Wedding Planner") and album (J. Lo) in 2001.

For a young, aspiring hyphenate like singer-actress Christina Milian (who co-wrote the song "Play" for that historic Lopez album), the timing has never been better. "I feel very fortunate," she said of her role in "Be Cool" as Linda Moon, an aspiring vocalist. "Now I get to sing and act in one film, and I hope my career keeps going this way."

Milian, now with four featured movie roles and two LPs on her résumé, didn't have to search very hard to find inspiration for her character. "Linda Moon and I are so much alike," she said. "I think a lot of people get to know me in a very special way through this movie and get to see my talent."

She plans to continue blurring the lines, displaying synergy skills that would impress Rupert Murdoch as she promotes "Cool" and the Tommy Lee Jones comedy "Man of the House" while simultaneously talking up her next album. "Movies, music, both," she laughed. "I'm going into the studio in March to work on my next album. I get to work with L.A. Reid and Jay-Z on the album, so I think we're going to have a great outcome on this next one."

 Photos: Red Carpet arrivals at the "Be Cool" premiere.

 More photos from "Be Cool."

Christina, along with names including Mandy Moore, Lindsay Lohan and Beyoncé, have stampeded through the door that J. Lo kicked in a few years ago; if you think it's only twentysomething females blurring the lines, however, think again. "I needed to be cool," smiled Steven Tyler, who plays a pivotal role in the film. "We took a year off, and it's been a little too long without me."

The Aerosmith singer decided that the time was right to take on his highest-profile acting gig yet, because the camera is the closest thing to a microphone that can give Tyler the adrenaline rush he craves. "[Both get] energy going on for me. Somebody called me up and told me about this whole format, and I get to play myself, and it's actually the music industry. And I was just there."

With Tyler acting, the Rock singing and Andre 3000 and Christina Milian ready to go either way, the stars say that "Be Cool" always seemed as if it were on the verge of turning into a musical. Director (and music video veteran) F. Gary Gray instead chose to indulge the urge by filming an erotic dance number between Travolta and leading lady Uma Thurman, with the Black Eyed Peas onstage to provide the groove behind them.

"Aerosmith ... Andre ... Black Eyed Peas ..." Thurman marveled. "It was like being hit over the head repeatedly with a golden baseball bat."

The leggy star, hoping to harness her newfound inspiration, made plans to keep her dancing shoes strapped on while getting her vocal cords into shape. "I just love to sing and dance, and if I can do that I would be so happy," she said of her newest starring role, opposite Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in the big-screen incarnation of "The Producers" musical.

" 'The Producers' is pretty much the most fun I've had in my life," Thurman said. "And I'm only rehearsing." Could the Rock be the next Andre 3000? Could Christina Milian be the next Uma Thurman? Answering the question of who they think they are, these talents choose to quote Chili Palmer from "Get Shorty": "I'm the guy who's telling you the way it is."






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