CHICAGO—Chris “Ludacris” Bridges can’t stop laughing.
A rapper with a powerful vocal delivery, he keeps envisioning his big head on a little person’s body, going toe-to-toe with Vince Vaughn in his new film “Fred Claus,” which opened Friday. The image recalls one of his first music videos, featuring his head on a tiny body that danced and gyrated in front of a camera, rapping and cracking up just about anybody who watched the clip.
Vince Vaughn, Paul Giamatti, Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kevin Spacey, Ludacris
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 9 Nov 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 30 Nov 2007 (General release); 2007)
“The movie company and the director came to me about the role as the DJ in the North Pole,” he says, chuckling. “And it was funny because I had the video `Roll Out,’ where my head was a lot bigger than the body, so that’s exactly what they did in this movie. Technology these days, man. It was a little person’s body and a big head. I was in front of a green screen with my role trying to coordinate the neck and head movements.”
This is the first time the rapper—largely known for delivering vocally powerful tongue-in-cheek, almost cartoonish rap lyrics—was able to do a comedy. Before, he’s been able to play up this trumped up caricature of what a rapper is, a stereotypical take on a guy who may have had a criminal past.
“Fred Claus” was his chance to create an all-ages comedy and throw his critics—especially those who have cast his work off largely as flash-in-the-pan, offensive rap—a curveball.
It also was a chance, he says, to drive home a point that’s close to his heart.
“You walk away from this film,” he says of the film that taps the Christmas spirit, “with a sense of giving back.”
He doesn’t exactly broadcast it, but his mother, Roberta Shields, says that since he was a kid he’s been quite the little philanthropist, a role that plays out on a much bigger stage today.
“It’s not like we started one day. This is something that we’ve always done. The fact that he’s able to do it on a larger scale than most is great. In (Emerson) Middle School right here in Oak Park (Ill.), he was in a program with the older generation where he did the shopping and the banking for the older people,” Shields says. “So this is not something that’s new to him. It’s true to who we are. But as he’s grown in celebrity, his ability to give more broadly has grown. This is second nature. For him, this is what he’s supposed to do.”
In 2001—a year after he signed with major label Def Jam—he started the Ludacris Foundation, an organization that teaches children how to help themselves. The kids learn how to eat healthier, to be leaders. There’s a back-to-school program in Atlanta and a similar program is in the works for Chicago next year.
The foundation also has donated more than $500,000 to various grass-roots organizations, including The Little Black Pearl, a non-profit group on Chicago’s South Side that teaches young people and adults about the business of the arts.
The non-profit Ludacris Foundation, based in Atlanta, has scored a number of accolades, most recently the 2007 Spirit of Youth Award from the Chicago-based National Runaway Switchboard, which he accepted the week before last at the Drake Hotel.
Professionally, Ludacris, 30, veered off from what was selling commercially—and at a time that predated the recent flare-up over language used by Don Imus and in the lyrics of hip-hop songs—and released a sobering single about three runaway female adolescents. “Runaway Love,” a duet with singer Mary J. Blige, earned him a Grammy earlier this year, became a No. 1 hit and shed light on an ongoing issue. It’s estimated that up to 2.8 million young people run away annually.
“The funny thing is that the guy who produced it ... the hook was already laid out. The beat and the hook were there. And once I heard it, I understood how powerful of a message we could put on there,” he says. “I wrote my lyrics to it, and that’s where it started from. I don’t know if he knew where I would take it, but I just completed it. It reached No. 1, and I definitely had high expectations for it. But since it was so different and so apart from the norm of what was going on the radio at that time, I didn’t know if it would do it. It was me taking a chance and luckily it panned out.”
The song was more than a song, it was a movement. At the end of the first verse, he raps: “Lisa is stuck up in the world on her own/forced to think that hell is a place called home/nothing to do but get some clothes and pack/She says she’s `bout to run away and never come back.”
“Ludacris really wanted to connect with an organization that helps to serve this population, the runaways and those at risk of running away. He contacted us, and as a result we created this partnership,” says Maureen Blaha, executive director of the National Runaway Switchboard, based in Chicago.
“He included our phone numbers and posters in his music video ... and he’s spoken about the switchboard in several media outlets—on `The Tyra Banks Show,’ when he received the BET award for his song and in many other different media outlets,” she says.
“Since his involvement, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of calls that we have handled in our call center and a 60 percent increase in (visits to) our Web site. So youth are really hearing that message.”
The Grammy-winning rapper’s success in music is mirrored by his film career.
So far, he’s received the Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice awards for his performance in “Crash,” which went on to win the best-picture Oscar for 2005. He also acted in “Hustle & Flow” that year.
Unlike some of his hip-hop contemporaries, he skipped starring in poorly made direct-to-DVD films and instead has been able to work with some of the most revered actors in Tinseltown.
This new film is a comedy about Santa Claus’ older brother (Paul Giamatti is Santa; Vaughn is Fred), who is tired of never being able to measure up. Ludacris has a small role in the film, playing a DJ who is stuck on one song, leading to a showdown between his character and Vaughn’s.
“He’s a great actor; I mean look at what he did in `Crash,’” says Vaughn. “And I was really impressed with what he did in this film. We green-screened (a technique allowing for background visuals to be inserted) it, and I loved seeing his stuff and what he was able to do with it.”
Up next is a Guy Ritchie film, “RocknRolla,” which also stars Jeremy Piven, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba and Gerald Butler, scheduled to open next fall. There are other film projects on the way, and he’ll release a new album, “Theater of the Mind,” next year.
“I think I have great intuition when reading scripts and knowing what parts I would like to take, even when they’re challenging, even if people will be caught off guard,” Bridges says. “So far, I’ve struck gold.”