Rapper Wraps Up Role in Film About Rapping

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A dispatch from a first-time filmmaker chronicling his experience for The Atlantic

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Rapper Jean Grae on the set of Big Words (Richard Louissaint)

Yesterday we shot our final scene with the rapper Jean Grae, and it is difficult to explain exactly how fulfilling that experience was for me. Understand that when I wrote Big Words, a film about three guys who used to be in a rap group, I had absolutely no intention of stacking my cast with rappers—former or current. No offense to convincing-enough crosser-overs like Mos Def and Method Man, but I felt like the story and the characters would only be safe in the hands of well-trained, experienced actors.

All that said, when I gave a draft of the script to Jean last year for her opinion, I secretly hoped that she would want to sign on. Partly, that was because of her music. Her lyrics demonstrated the same unabashed commitment to storytelling, language, and occasionally brutal, emotional honesty that I was striving for in this screenplay. (If you're not familiar with Jean's music, start at her website and work your way slowly back into a coma.) Also, I knew that Jean understood character. Like all rappers, there is something of a persona to Jean Grae—in case you were wondering, no, her parents did not actually name her after a Marvel superhero. But Jean is not stuck in the box she built for herself. She willingly switches roles and voices for songs and shows—not to mention in everyday conversation. If you don't know "Taco Day," you're missing out:

Also, I wanted Jean on board because, put quite simply, I love having her as a part of my life. I cannot remember exactly when Jean and I first met; certainly, it was many, many years ago and I was interviewing her for some magazine or another. I remember sitting across from her at the photo shoot—this was before most of the tattoos—and, though she was gracious and funny, I was intimidated by her toughness and sharp tongue. I remained so even as we began to cross paths more often in years to come. (Jean's longtime DJ and friend Mr. Len is a good pal of mine and will be scoring Big Words. But more on that later...)

Nowadays, Jean feels like a sister to me. (Like my actual sisters, Jean will probably tease me a bit for waxing all sentimental here; she'll just do it on Twitter.) We hang out, go drinking, see art, talk shit about strangers, and talk each other into trying to do great things. Her support and encouragement—sincere even when issued slurred over shots of hard liquor in bars and backstage at overlong hip-hop shows—have really helped to buoy me during this scary process. And I especially appreciate her joining in. I know Jean well enough to understand that when she enthusiastically agreed to do the movie, it was with hidden trepidation. Even superheroes can be unnerved by new challenges.

It was also clear that in agreeing to play "Bree," the long-suffering girlfriend of a past-his-prime performer, Jean was tapping into various, uncomfortable personal experiences of which I was only dimly aware. In between takes, she scowled and groused that the dialogue I had written was dredging up unwanted "feelings." Mostly, she was joking. But even if the process was a little bit difficult for her, I know she won't regret it in the long run. Jean Grae's performance was shockingly poignant, and I can't wait for the rest of the world to see it.

drumming grae 2 615.jpg

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Neil Drumming is a filmmaker, screenwriter, and journalist. He is a former staff writer and editor at Entertainment Weekly, and his work has appeared in Wired, The Washington Post, Vibe, Rolling Stone, Essence, and Vanity Fair.

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