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— by Larry Carroll

You recognize the cornrows, the animated brown eyes and the mischievous smile. The rapid-fire line delivery is familiar, as is the charismatic persona that comes with it. The words you're hearing from the man onscreen, however, are anything but expected: theories on hip-hop music being a tool of the man, invented to make its artists look stupid; an insistence that every self-respecting African-American should have a country-music CD in their sound system.

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"Yeah well, I'm playing a character here," laughs rapper/actor Ludacris of his role in the upcoming film "Crash." "I don't 100 percent agree with some of the things he's saying."

With his "Crash" performance, the superstar sometimes known as Chris Bridges has officially become an actor. Moving beyond the thinly veiled, "2 Fast 2 Furious"-type self-portrayals that moved him onto the big screen in the first place, the Dirty South rapper quite literally steals the film as Anthony, a carjacking thug who has never met a topic on which he couldn't form an opinion.

"[Anthony] makes a good point on really understanding where you come from to know where you're going," Luda says, finding common ground with his character. "It's just about the history of music, so it's important that people know where all this stuff comes from and where it starts."

His career started a long way from Hollywood lights and chart-topping singles. As an Atlanta-based radio DJ, he spent years honing his microphone skills before joining forces with Timbaland in the late '90s. Without major-label distribution, he had to sell copies of his "Incognegro" album out of the trunk of his car — but word spread quickly. National attention soon followed, and the movie industry came knocking on his door a few years later despite an absence of formal acting training.

"Crash," a modern-day cautionary tale of race relations in Los Angeles, drops Luda in the middle of a cast that includes Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon and Brendan Fraser. With such heavy hitters all around him, he made it his mission to take in every bit of advice they had to offer.

"Of course, man, because with a movie like this, [with] so many seasoned actors and actresses, I can only soak up and learn as much as I possibly can," he says respectfully. "I went in there just wanting to know tips, or just trying to understand as much as I possibly could, to educate myself."

"He was not Ludacris, the rap artist," co-star Larenz Tate says like a proud papa. "He came in as Chris Bridges and he did his thing."

Tate, a veteran with nearly 20 films on his resume, had some advice for Luda on day one; it wasn't exactly something you'd learn on "Inside the Actors Studio."

"Larenz just told me that the director can tell you how he wants things," Luda smiles, "[but] they wouldn't have picked me for the part if they didn't want what I could bring to the table. So basically, 'Do what the hell I wanna do.' Take into consideration what the director says, but at the same time, do you."

The two actors used their own experiences to sculpt their characters, a pair of thieves trying to make ends meet pulling off what they consider to be non-violent crimes. When they try to steal the car of a Hollywood director, played by Terrence Howard (Gossie McKee in last year's Oscar-winning "Ray"), the duo find themselves being transformed from the powerful into the powerless.

 Photos: "Crash"

"[Ludacris] came in there as a star, but he wanted to be treated as a pupil; you've got to love that in these people," remembers Howard. "He asked for advice on every part of this thing. He let me beat him in the street for three, four hours because [writer/director Paul Haggis] is such a perfectionist. We could have done it in 10 minutes but he withstood that. I have the utmost respect for Chris Bridges the actor."

Howard is referring to a tense sequence that has his despondent character striking back against Ludacris' thug. The two actors shared some laughs when they realized that Howard gets to throw some pain down on Luda in "Crash," as well as in an upcoming summer film that had them working together again.

"He never cried, never gave out a single word," Howard smiles. "Even in 'Hustle & Flow,' I beat him up. I think he's put it in his contract that if he ever does a film with me again, this time he beats me up."

Ludacris might get slapped around a bit sometimes on film, but when it comes to his music career, he's usually the man in charge. He had a huge hit with the single "Number One Spot," and his next single is on the way.

"We just shot the 'Pimpin' All Over the World' video in Africa," he reports. "We just made history being the first rap artist from the United States to ever shoot a video in South Africa. The video is just basically trying to show a side of Africa that a lot of people have never seen: how beautiful a country it is. You'll have to really wait and see. I can't tell you all about it, but it's definitely worth waiting for."

With the May 6 opening of "Crash," he hopes to begin a transformation that will have Ludacris maintaining his hit-making music career, as Chris works on becoming a respected thespian.

"They're making me put 'Ludacris' in there," he says of his billing on the film's poster. "That's why we meet each other halfway; we put Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges as of right now."

The man can call himself whatever he wants; his fans will still know to look for him in that number one spot.

Check out everything we've got on "Crash."

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Photo: Lorey Sebastian

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