STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A sock-clad Method Man padded into the hallway of his Staten Island home. On the stove in the kitchen, an inviting dish sat cooling. Floral arrangements filled the dining room table. The local news played unobtrusively in the background.
“Welcome to suburbia,” said the hard-core rhymer, his proud tone tinged with just a hint of irony. He opened the front door to reveal a sleepy, snowy street, where so few cars passed that a neighbor had put a basketball hoop in the middle of the road.
Method Man (given and credited name, Cliff Smith) is leading the kind of domestic life that might surprise those familiar with his work as a solo artist and member of the groundbreaking rap collective the Wu-Tang Clan. Meth once dropped verses like “Shame on a n---- who try to run game on a n----, Wu buck wild with the trigger,” but the greatest danger in his life these days is announced by a handwritten sign on the inside of his front door. “There’s a killer on the loose!” says the endearing scrawl next to a stick figure, apparently some inside joke by or for one of his three children.
But then there are many things unexpected about Smith’s world circa 2015 — not least that unlike many of the rapper-actors who toggle between the realms, he has set music almost completely aside in favor of the thespian life.
Smith had just returned from Los Angeles, where he had auditioned for parts including one in the upcoming Cinemax dramatic thriller “Quarry.” It’s been nearly 15 years since Smith began his acting career. But what had seemed like promising turns via early parts in “Oz” and “The Wire” — not to mention a starring nod to his own smoking ways in the 2001 stoner comedy “How High” — have dissipated into less memorable bit parts of late.
So he is, he said, making a renewed push. Recently Smith was on the big screen in “The Cobbler,” the new body-switching dramedy from the humanist director Tom McCarthy. And this summer will offer Smith as an uptight medical orderly in the Judd Apatow comedy “Trainwreck.”
Smith said he had mishandled aspects of his Hollywood career — particularly “Method & Red,” his ill-fated 2004 Fox sitcom (a riff on rappers in the suburbs) that was canceled amid messy clashes with the network.
“Now I have this chance to show people that I’m serious about what I’m doing,” he said. “I’m much more mature now, and I know how these things work. And I’m ready, I’m ... ready. So ready.”
He added, “Music isn’t my first thing. Getting these acting parts is.”
“The Cobbler” is a good place to start. Smith plays Ludlow, a gangster with a taste for fine watches. Through a plot device, Ludlow is at times inhabited by the spirit of Adam Sandler’s nebbishy shoe repairman. Which means that Smith must, for good chunks of the movie, essentially play Sandler.
Although the film has drawn largely negative reviews, body-switching comedies can pay dividends, requiring the nuanced gestures that casting directors love. Matters grew complicated enough on “Cobbler” that Smith and McCarthy had to devise a system of percentages in determining how much “Sandler” Smith should put into any scene.
“Sometimes, Tom had to come over to tell me to dial it down,” Smith said, laughing. “So you had a white guy basically telling me I was too white.”
Smith sat at the breakfast bar while he talked, a laptop and smartphone in front of him. His wife, with whom he has been for two decades, materializes and then disappears. Assorted pictures are scattered on the counter, and Smith pauses to show off photos from his extended family. Next to one album is a smoking apparatus.
Smith, who had turned 44 earlier in the week, has a daughter about to go to college. He is as apt to get as worked up about the education system as he is about hip-hop. One extended lament was about his youngest, 14-year-old Ray, whom he felt was being unfairly singled out by a teacher.
Smith can still display the professional hunger that helped make him and the rest of Wu-Tang some of the most successful independent hip-hop artists of all time. He was frustrated, for instance, that he couldn’t get an audition for the new season of “True Detective.”
“See, the rock ‘n’ roll guys came before us (in Hollywood), and a lot of them were horrible,” he said. “There was some exceptions. David Bowie was pretty good. Rick Springfield was good. But there was a stigma, because most of them showed up late or had an entourage or were coked up.”
That said, he’s had his own on-set drug lessons. On “How High,” Smith said, he frequently smoked during lunch breaks — you don’t get the nickname Johnny Blaze for nothing — and that had a deleterious effect on parts of the shoot, a producer noted. “Stacey Sher pulled me over and said, ‘How come your takes in the morning are so much better than the afternoon?’” Smith recalled, laughing. “That was the last time I smoked anywhere near the set.”
Instead, he said, he has tried to focus on acting choices. On “Trainwreck,” he plays opposite writer and star Amy Schumer, making for one of the more odd pop-cultural pairings when the comedy hits in July. He has tried to invent a back story for his character, the African-born orderly to Schumer’s character’s father.
Smith said that when it comes to acting role models, he loves the versatility of Don Cheadle, the terse potency of Clint Eastwood and maybe most of all, the squirm comedy of Larry David. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is one of Smith’s favorite shows and the kind of television he’d most like to do.
Whether that will fly remains to be seen. Rappers get typecast as musicians or gangstas. McCarthy said Smith is well situated.
“Rap is storytelling, and I think that’s helped Cliff develop into a really fine actor,” McCarthy said, calling him a “super-grounded dude” with “a great work ethic.”
Smith said that outside of the Meth Lab incubator for younger rappers he has set up in Staten Island, he has put aside music for now. Contrary to blog reports, he said he had not begun work on “Crystal Meth,” his long-rumored new solo album.
And he said he had had little to do with “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” the much-awaited new Wu-Tang record, whose title refers to the group’s slang name for Staten Island. It was heard for the first time at a museum event in New York last month.
The record has drawn publicity for RZA, its lead creative figure, who announced that only a single copy had been preserved and that it would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, who for 88 years would not be able to exploit it commercially.
Smith said his involvement in the music was minimal. He had been summoned a while back to record vocals by Cilvaringz, a producer who had worked with Wu-Tang.
“He called on certain individuals to get on certain songs, and somewhere along the line that turned into ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,’” Smith said, adding that the lyrics on the record weren’t “hard” enough.
The artist also had some strong words for the release plan, calling it “corny.” “At the end of the day, people want to hear the music,” he said.
But a few days later, he took a different tack after hip-hop publication XXL published similar comments. Smith slammed the site in a social-media post and said he had believed that the album would be prohibited entirely from a release; instead, the buyer was simply being prevented from profiting from its distribution.
But music in general remains only a small part of his mind share. When he’s not doing crossword puzzles, he is thinking up acting roles or generally reveling in his public persona. He shared on his Instagram account a photo of himself at age 8, and then amused himself by periodically scrolling through the comments to see what kind of guff he’s gotten for it.
He set the phone back down and leaned on the breakfast bar.
“People say, ‘How come you still live in Staten Island? How come you don’t leave?’” he said as he looked around the house, which he and his family had moved into about nine months ago from another home nearby. “You get comfortable. Because people know where you come from and know where you are. They had one of those questionnaires: ‘You know you’re Staten Island if ...’ and I was one of the ifs. It was ‘You know you’re Staten Island if you run into Method Man at the Staten Island mall.’ I’ve always wanted this.”
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