Before this month, Jamal Woolard was an obscure rapper going by the stage name of Gravy. And Gravy was best known for a 2006 shooting outside of a New York rap radio station.
But that changes now. Woolard, 33, was personally selected by the mother of the late Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace to play her late son in the new musical biography, “Notorious. “He has his swagger,” Voletta Wallace has said. “That’s my son up there.” America’s critics agree. The film has earned almost unanimous praise.
Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, Dennis White, Julia Pace Mitchell
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 16 Jan 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 13 Feb 2009 (General release); 2009)
We reached Woolard in New York.
Question: What did Biggie mean to you, as a young rapper just coming up when he was king of the rap world?
Answer: Big was our Shakespeare, man, the Shakespeare of the rap game. In the community, he was our generation’s Martin Luther King. Tupac was more our Malcolm X. But we wouldn’t be where we are, as a people, today, without Big.
He spoke the truth in all those great songs he did. My favorites are still “Warning,” “Hypnotize,” “Story to Tell,” “One More Chance, “Juicy.” I could go on. Great songs, great lyrics.
Q: What was it like, having to duplicate those raps for the movie?
A: Really hard work, because I had to copy his breathing pattern. I had to figure out, on my own, how he found time to breathe on the track, the cadence and the flow of the delivery. Twelve to 14 hour sessions with D-Dot (Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, Biggie’s studio collaborator), trying to match his sound. Biggie, he kept telling me, would do it in one take. It took me 10 to 12 takes to get his breath patterns down so it would start to sound like him.
Q: How did you capture his character, his swagger?
A: I’d come to set already in character. I carried him home with me at night, too. I hadn’t acted before, never. And the movie was shot out of sequence. So I had to be him as Christopher Wallace one day, Biggie in the morning and Notorious B.I.G. the next minute.
Q: You were most famous, before this movie, for having been shot outside a radio station. How did this movie’s message about a rapper with a violent rep seeing the error of his ways connect to you?
A: When the movie was cast, I was living in Charlotte, N.C., just trying to clear my head. The movie shows how a boy turns into a man, and at that time, I was trying to find my own manhood in The Promised Land, you know? Just like Big.
That’s the message of his life, this film. He was coming to The Promised Land when he died. Money doesn’t make the man. He learns what his mother taught him at the end, that you live for your kids, teaching them right. He was getting that. That’s a positive message for the ‘hood or for white suburbia. Do right by your kids and everything else will work out.
Q: You were already a fan, but what surprised you about the man, stuff you learned while making the film?
A: I didn’t really know the angry side of Big, the strange, violent things he did. I got a lot from the blueprint of how to get through the violence and become the man we think he was becoming when he was killed. I knew only the lovable side. Wow. I didn’t know Big was that hard on women or that cold.
Q: What was the toughest scene to play?
A: That scene where he calls my mom (Angela Bassett) from jail. Admitting I was wrong, that I’m a failure, knowing the road she wanted me to follow and how I’d stepped over that boundary, playing to just a phone, having all those deep emotions.
Q: What were the fun scenes to play, the concerts?
A: Ha ha! I think you know!
Q: I think I do, but I want to hear you say it!
A: Those Lil Kim and Faith (Evans) love scenes, they were great. People get carried away with the energy.