— by Larry Carroll, with additional reporting by Yasmine Richard
Since he broke through with 2001's I'm Serious, Southern rapper Clifford "T.I." Harris has put a spotlight on his difficult upbringing on the streets of Atlanta.
Rapping since age 9, he broke onto the national stage with Trap Muzik, and the self-professed King of the South was here to stay.
Now, as his fourth album, King, hits the streets, Hollywood has also come calling — and, once again, Tip's roots are helping him keep it all in perspective.
"I'm basically a young man in a lot of grown-man situations, and finding a way to deal with them and just making decisions for myself," T.I. said of Rashad, the "ATL" character who mirrors his turbulent upbringing in the film. "[He is] just really trying to create opportunities for his loved ones as well, and put them in the best position possible."
The rapper portrays Rashad with a decidedly more straight-laced personality than his own when he was growing up in the same 'hood the flick portrays. After the death of his parents, Rashad tries to keep his brother Ant (Evan Ross) in line, make some moves on the sexy New-New (Lauren London) and navigate decisions that will determine his life's course.
All of that might be pure fiction — but to T.I. it rings true.
"When I made my first film, I said, 'I'm not gonna hire any rappers,' " first-time filmmaker Chris Robinson said. "I was gonna hire real actors, and we went through hundreds of people in L.A., New York, Atlanta and Chicago. When T.I. came in and sat down, he automatically won the part.
"He was Rashad," the director continued. "He dedicated himself to this film. I really respect him for that because he's already a platinum artist, he already has his own record label, he's already the King of the South, and he comes in and does something. It's not like a music video, where we shoot for three days and we have a big nice trailer and all the luxuries of life. Shooting a movie may be the closest thing to working construction as you can get to. It's long, arduous days, but he really put in the time and the effort, his heart and soul into it. I was thoroughly impressed."
London, making her movie debut after starring alongside Jay-Z and Pharrell in the "Frontin' " video, was equally impressed when T.I. strapped on a pair of skates for some scenes set in a roller rink. "Aww, man!" she said, glancing over at her co-star. "He was actually real smooth on roller skates. He kept himself real disciplined on his skates."
"Yeah," T.I. said. "Yeah, I was cool."
It's that smooth attitude that has established T.I. as one of the more desirable males in hip-hop, but London insisted she focused on their friendship when it came time to film the flick's sweetly sexy make-out moments. "I didn't think about it like that," she said, shooting down T.I.'s sexiness. "Maybe I see him outside of that element, so he's just a real cool, genuine dude who's just real professional. We were working, that's how I saw it. If I went in feeling that way, I probably wouldn't have been able to do my job."
T.I., however, is all too ready to admit that he was thinking no such thing. "She definitely made it as easy as possible to get involved and as in character as I could be," he said. "You know, for the betterment of the scene. Whatever was best for the film. If they need us to kiss, then I guess we just gotta do it."
Also getting his first bit of loving from Hollywood is Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, best known as one-half of Outkast. Much like T.I., the Southern rapper found a similar level of comfort in "ATL" locales. "Back in the day, me and Andre [Benjamin] were not quite old enough to get in there on the nights when it was jumping," Big Boi remembered of the area's roller-skating hotspots. "To see Chris Robinson depict this in the film, and nail it, I think is great."
Like his co-star, Big Boi realizes that it's your roots that need to hold you down. "I've been knowing [T.I.] since he came up, and for years, even before he came out," Big Boi beamed like a proud papa. "Just to see him come out and do his thing, and jump into the whole realm of acting, was good. He's really serious about it, and [he] came out and nailed it. And then he's from Atlanta too, so it's all like a brotherhood."
"I'm living proof," T.I. said. "You can come from nothing and turn it into something."