Method Man has a great IMDB page. Cliff Smith, not so much.
“I actually hate when they say that the next read is Method Man,” Cliff Smith, the actor and member of the 90s rap collective Wu-Tang Clan, says. “It’s like I wanna strip layers of that side of me away, and enter as Cliff Smith, do my best read and walk out.”
For some rising actors, this would seem like a good problem to have given that it’s the 48-year-old’s reputation as one of the most influential musicians in the history of hip-hop that’s getting him into Hollywood rooms. After all, he’s worked in the music industry—with a big subcultural impact—since 1992. But with 27 years worth of musical fame, his 17-year acting career is still in the act of playing catch up.
Résumé wise, Smith the actor has taken on the parts of a stoner in How High, a gangster from The Wire, a pimp in The Deuce, and even a reality show hot with TNT’s Drop the Mic, among others. He’s also worked alongside legendary directors such as David Simon, and famed actors like Maggie Gyllenhaal, Wendell Pierce, and Terrence Howard.
His latest project is Shaft, which debuted last weekend—a sequel to John Singleton’s Shaft (2000) which itself rebooted the 1971 classic. In the latest Shaft, Jackson L. Jackson refits in the leather and turtleneck as he teams up with his estranged son and the original OG himself, Richard Roundtree, to solve a mysterious death. Smith plays Freddy, an old friend from John Shaft’s (Samuel L. Jackson) neighbourhood who acts as a part-time club owner, part-time tipster who can provide the PI with information.
I got the chance to chat with Smith not just about this latest role, but about his struggles with being taken seriously at this stage of his career. He wants you to know that he’s much more than just Method Man.
VICE: Considering your roots, how does it feel to be able to call yourself an actor without hesitation?
Clifford Smith: It feels good. I just wish everyone else would be as comfortable with it as I am. It’s all still a work in progress. I get it. I’ve been in this music game for so long and I’m synonymous with the Wu-Tang Clan. Even my name sounds hip-hop. So I get it. I just wish these people would actually see me for who I am though, and see that I can handle some of this work they’re giving me.
Do you face typecasting a lot?
I don’t face typecasting a lot. I actually seek most of these parts, and sometimes it works against me too, because as soon as I walk into the room, the first person they see is Method Man. So I have to tear all these layers down. Sometimes I feel like I have to walk in there butt ass naked, metaphorically speaking. Like I gotta be stripped of everything down to my original state just so they could take me seriously before I even start reading for them.
You’re obviously willing to try anything as an actor, from Tug Daniels in Oz to Rodney from The Deuce , and now it’s Shaft . What are your thoughts on being a part of that legacy?
As far as Shaft, Richard Roundtree is a GOAT. Obviously he did an amazing job and that was the first time we had seen a Black—for a lack of a better word—superhero on a stage of that magnitude. Samuel L. Jackson was a man who I felt was an excellent person to carry the torch, and he did a great job. But when you have Jeffrey Wright on the cast too, things happen. Magic happens. By the time I got to the set, these guys were already jiving. Jessie Usher [the actor who plays the son in Shaft (2019)] was the only wild card so to speak, but I watched them work. Seeing them do their thing, I knew the series was in good hands.
It was a comfortable experience, and that’s all I ask for on any set. Just to be placed in a position to be comfortable enough to be myself without being too self aware.
You play a character with a certain swagger, but then you’ve got Samuel L. Jackson and Richard Roundtree in the same space. What’s it like sharing energies with guys like that?
You’re always a student once you end up in these positions. I just wish I was relaxed enough when I did my scenes. I could have picked up better on the energy Samuel L. Jackson was giving, but they had already been shooting for weeks once I got there. As far as improv, they had the comfort levels to trust each other to pick up on the subtle cues. With me, I came in that day, shot that day, and then I came back the next. Afterwards, I was able to play off of Sam, but I just didn’t want to fuck it up and be the weak link.
So you get nervous?
I wouldn't call it nervous, but butterflies always play a major role for me. In my eyes, butterflies are a sign of growth.
Given who Richard Roundtree is, I’d be nervous. What’s your relationship with the series, and blaxploitation in general anyway?
Well back in the day it was great to see someone that looked like us on screen. Blaxploitation movies really hurt Shaft in the long run because they were saturated with a lot of trash. A lot of them were horrible and when you get thrown in a box like that, it’s hard to get out of it even though Shaft was miles beyond any of those productions. It kind of tainted the market and also gave this false sense that Black movies in general weren’t marketable. The genre signaled that there was a cheapness to it in society, so I’d prefer to separate the two. Blaxploitation is great for a little history or whatever and it’s great to look at but not to live in.
How do think things look to you now, more specifically in the Black spaces that movies like Shaft tried to satisfy?
This new wave of diversity that everyone’s going for is working for everyone if you ask me. It’s showing Hollywood that diverse movies do put asses in seats because the majority of America is diverse. The numbers would tell you that with more people represented, films will do fairly well if not better. I love the fact that Black Panther showed that there’s a Black box office because no one was saying anything when Straight Outta Compton was displaying phenomenal numbers. But 10 years from now and I’ll bet they’ll go back to saying the same thing. Black movies don’t make money, and Black Panther? That was just a fluke. You already know how they talk and how it all goes. They’ll throw out every excuse in the book to not give us the proper credit we deserve.
As long as we have these creative minds like a Kenya Barris, Tim Story and a Jordan Peele, we're good. They’re always going to bring ideas that are fresh to our minds and they’re going to maintain an authenticity and organic feel when it comes to diversity. It won’t be shoehorned in there, it’ll feel authentic.
It’s interesting that you were a hip-hop OG with a legendary status and then you become an actor and you were suddenly a novice again. What did that transition feel like?
I was game and excited about it every day. Learning new shit and all that. But then I figured it out. You can’t just jump into this arena. Everyone is talented and there’s a ton of them out there in this world, but you still have to do the work to be taken seriously. I wondered why I wasn’t getting all these parts and why I wasn’t being included in certain shit. But it was because I didn’t do the work. From there I took classes in order to understand the nuances, language, and to understand what a beat meant in a scene and how to assert myself, know when to fall back and take leads. You have to learn this shit. It has to be taught to you. But one I did that, the next step was getting people to take me seriously as I walked into the room.
You’ve obviously learned lessons, but what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned an actor that perhaps you didn’t know as Method Man the hip-hop artist?
That I have to show up on time. Not just on time, you need to actually show up and be ready to work. Facts.
The best lesson for me happened when I was on Oz and tried that rapper shit when I overslept one day. I could have got up and took my ass to work but I decided that I wanted to rest a little longer. The producer calls me and says, 'don’t bother showing up to work tomorrow, we don’t need you.' So now I’m on the phone with assistants and all these people in an attempt to get my job back because they don’t play that shit. So I get it back and they tell me that if I show up right then and there, they’d see what they could do. I take my ass to the set, and I get chewed out a bit by production. The next day I show up, I get the script and they kill off my character. They don’t have to put up with the bullshit. It’s like look, there’s a ton of people who would die to be in the position you’re in and you’re gonna take that for granted? We don’t need you, period. You have to respect that right?
These people put millions of dollars on the line every day. How would you feel if you had a business that was making a certain amount of revenue, and you hire someone and that’s all cut in half due to their lack of seriousness? You’ve got people showing up with lighting, hair, makeup and a wardrobe to make sure the production goes smoothly for you, and you got some nerve to show up late? You’re a piece of shit.
Since you’re taking acting so seriously, is there a role you wouldn’t do?
There’s a few I wouldn’t do. I like to take on roles that I’m familiar with and sometimes I like challenges. But if I turn down a role it’s because I didn’t like the person, so I guess the answer is yes. I definitely turned down roles because I didn’t like who the person was. They were assholes. I turned down Girls Trip actually. Yup I did it. I’m not even gonna lie. My people were mad as shit. Mad as shit.
His publicist (also on the line): I'm still mad!
This goes back to something you said earlier about being taken seriously. What’s the biggest thing that people misunderstand about you as the man who is separate from Method Man?
That I’m a big fucking pothead. I hate that shit. It’s also down to the perception of what a pothead is because people think I’m an idiot and shit. I was born sarcastic, so when I give them a little taste of that sarcasm with some intelligence they’re offended, when in all actuality I should be offended for being underestimated.
You have no idea how much I hate that shit. They’ll come up to me saying, ‘yo man, can you do this for me? I’ll smoke a blunt with you if you do.’ I’m 48 fucking years old man. What am I, like 12 years old? And you’re offering me a blunt in order to give you a hand? Get the fuck outta here.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.