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— by Larry Carroll

When movie stars, rappers, football players, professional wrestlers and comedians joined forces for the convicts-playing-football movie "The Longest Yard," it was all about bridging the gaps. Actors enjoy the adulation of millions of devoted fans; so do musicians. Rappers rely on perfect timing for their craft; the same goes for comedians. Football players need to prepare themselves to take a pounding; men in prison ... um ... let's just say there are some parallels.

See "The Longest Yard" on Overdrive: Doing Time With Sandler, Chris Rock & Nelly

"Singing or rapping or entertaining, music, you've got to make the album, promote the album, go on tour. By the end of the year it's over with, and you're starting the process all over again," chart-topping hip-hop star Nelly says of his music career. So when it came time to film "Yard," the artist behind such hit songs as "Shake Ya Tailfeather" and "Hot in Herre" just couldn't resist the allure of a movie career. "Actors get breaks," he says. "You go film for about four months and it's a wrap, take the rest of the year off."

That pretty much sums up the idyllic existence that "Longest Yard" headliners Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds have been enjoying for most of their adult lives. Sure, each of their careers has slowed down for the occasional speed bump, but to this film's eclectic supporting cast, a bad review would still make for a good day at the office. Bill Goldberg, Kevin Nash and Steve Austin have been taking steel chairs and ringside bells off the head while they've risen through the ranks of professional wrestling. Bill Romanowski, Brian Bosworth and Bob Sapp spent half of their NFL careers grabbing for the football, and the other half reaching for bandages and crutches.

In a cinematic landscape cluttered with remakes, such a cast separates this retelling of the 1974 drama from the rest of the heap. It was also the perfect environment for Nelly to immerse himself in the hard-hitting world of his character, fleet-footed penitentiary resident Earl Megget.

"What [could be a] better role?" he asks. "It was perfect, it actually was, and I think it was an easy transition for me to get my feet wet. Being in the pool with such big fish ... just really being in there and having those guys really coach me along, it was hot."

"The thing about acting is it's more about reacting than it is acting," director Peter Segal says of his 30-year-old aspiring thespian. "I just told Nelly, who has a real natural ability as an actor, just to be himself, relax, and let it come naturally.

"The nice thing about Nelly," Segal says of the reason he handpicked him for the role, "is he's a natural athlete and very gifted. He tried out with the Braves. I've seen him on MTV halftime flag football and I said, 'OK, this guy is really good' and somehow or another, my football coordinator knew that besides being a nice guy, he really was the real deal as an athlete. And so when we brought him in, we knew that was probably a given that he would be able to do a lot of his own plays.

"On the field, I really didn't have a chance to put in his [stunt] doubles," continues Segal, who says that even the football players were impressed with the rapper's natural abilities on the field. "We had some great guys from arena football who were ready to get in there and knock heads with Romanowski and so forth, but he insisted on doing it himself 90 percent of the time. So those guys got a little ticked — they were benched for most of the shoot."

 Nelly, T.I., Adam Sandler, Molly Simms, more at the premiere of "The Longest Yard"

 Photos from "The Longest Yard"

 Nelly, Sandler, Chris Rock on the set of the movie

Nelly insists the supporting cast didn't cut him any slack on the football field, but when it came time to deliver lines, they worked together like the real team they were portraying. "Anything I needed, any questions I had, they answered. Any suggestions that I asked them for, they came with quick lines. 'Just play it like this' or 'Try it like this' or 'Don't worry about it, do it your way.' They made it real easy, because the last thing you want to do on a big film like this is be the one who stinks up the movie."

The non-actors in the supporting cast transformed that anti-stinking mentality into the competitive desire that drove their performances. "You don't want to be the one that everybody says, 'The movie was great, except for ...," Nelly laughs. "You don't want to be the name after the 'for,' definitely."

And so the "Longest Yard" set came to resemble, in many ways, one giant extension class. On one side of the set, on any given day, was Adam Sandler, learning how to throw a football like a quarterback, and on the other, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, working on his comedic timing. If the movie is a success, who knows how far this eclectic cast could take its talents? As Nelly says, there's one benefit to being a hip-hop artist that even movie stars don't get. "Your song played in the club," he smiles mischievously.

Relive everything big, bad, hairy and awesome from the last 365 days in film when the 2005 MTV Movie Awards air Thursday, June 9 at 8:30 p.m. The action kicks off a half-hour earlier with MTV News' pre-show when the red carpet action, celebrity interviews and surprises begin at 8 p.m.

Check out everything we've got on "The Longest Yard."

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Photo: Paramount Pictures/ MTV News

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