When it comes to music, T.I. is so confident that he calls himself the King of the South. When it comes to making films, he realizes it’s a whole different ballgame. He still has to prove himself and admits he doesn’t know how good he is just yet.
In a few weeks Tip makes his feature-film debut in the Chris Robinson-directed “ATL,” which is poised to be a sleeper hit for the spring. The cast alone — which includes Hotlanta hip-hop luminaries like Big Boi, Killer Mike, Bone Crusher, Jazze Pha, DJ Drama and T Mo Goodie — should put plenty of people in seats, and the engaging story revolves around a group of friends struggling to break out of the ghetto.
The film hits theaters on March 31, three days after T.I.’s new LP, King, lands in stores.
The coming-of-age flick revolves around five friends who frequent a roller rink called Cascades. That place is based on Atlanta’s legendary Jellybeans rink, where Outkast, Goodie Mob, TLC’s T-Boz, hitmakers Dallas Austin and Jermaine Dupri and others hung out back in the ’80s. The film was produced by Austin, T-Boz and Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment.
On Tuesday night in New York, T.I. previewed “ATL” for a small crowd. Suffice it to say the film is much more than another variation on Bow Wow’s “Roll Bounce.” The picture, which is based in part on Austin’s life, captures the essence of Atlanta’s culture, from the authenticity of the language to the clothes.
One aspect of the city’s culture, anyway. “My coming-of-age would have been a whole ‘nother movie,” T.I. said last summer on the set of the film (during a day that found him and fellow cast members like singer/actor Jason Weaver learning how to maneuver gracefully on skates). “My coming-of-age would have been on some ‘Boyz N the Hood’ sh–. I went to the skating rink just to pick up girls and kick it — it was an early club scene to me. It wasn’t as symbolic for me as it was for some other people.”
In the movie, T.I. plays a Mechanicsville, Georgia, high school senior named Rashad, who is so focused on trying to raise his younger brother, Jellybean (played by Evan Ross Naess, son of singer Diana Ross), that he pushes his own dreams of becoming a cartoonist to the back burner in the hope of getting his sibling out of the ‘hood. He finds escape in going to Cascades every Sunday and stunting on the skates with his crew, the Ones.
“It’s got a lot of grown-man situations,” T.I. said of his role. “We get to watch how he handles them and how he finds sense in all the madness.”
T.I. has a natural onscreen presence, delivering the same kind of ruminating-yet-cool swagger that he does in song, and his unpolished, genuine delivery recalls Ice Cube in “Boyz N the Hood.” And being a native of ATL definitely didn’t hurt. “There’s a world of difference” between making records and films, he said. “You make the record when you feel like it: Whenever the inspiration hits you, you go into the studio and record. Making a movie is on their time, when they say it’s time to do this or that.”
“He’s so cool,” Tip’s love interest in the movie, Lauren London (probably best known for Pharrell’s “Frontin’ ” video), said of her co-star. “He’s so genuine and real. It’s been such a pleasure working with him.”
“ATL” also deals with social class in the black community, and takes a decidedly dark turn when Big Boi’s character, drug dealer Marcus, is introduced into the mix. Big, whose real name — Antwan Andre Patton — appears in the credits (T.I. is credited as Tip Harris), is a visually gravitating scene-stealer who can be hilarious one minute, dauntingly callous the next. And during one scene in particular, he had some members of Tuesday night’s audience covering their eyes.
“I can’t really judge [my performance],” Tip said in January during a photo shoot for his forthcoming album. “It’s my first time acting so I don’t have nothing to judge it on. I’m just waiting for the response.”