PHILADELPHIA — RZA is a sporadic superstar.
He can sit in the lounge of this luxe hotel near Independence Hall in complete anonymity. Let him try to stroll down nearby Market Street, though, and he’d make it about 10 yards before being mobbed by fans elated to see the leader of one of hip-hop’s most seminal posses, the Wu-Tang Clan.
The rap legend is in no hurry to test his street pop.
“I appreciate the normal part of life more than the celebrity part of life,” says RZA, 44. “I like to enjoy my surroundings. I’ve been to France multiple times, but it wasn’t until last summer that I’ve been to France. You know what I mean?”
A little zen koan from the Shaolin master.
He may find that low profile harder to maintain after Thursday, when he makes his network TV debut in Fox’s “Gang Related” (9 p.m. EDT) as cop Cassius Green.
The executive producer of “Gang Related,” Scott Rosenbaum, found out about the volatile nature of RZA’s notoriety firsthand.
Rosenbaum kept spurning the Tyson Beckford types the studio was sending over to audition for Cassius. He had in mind a lanky actor with a soulful face he had seen in a recurring role on Showtime’s “Californication.”
“I had no idea how famous he was until we got out on the set,” Rosenbaum says. “People were coming out of the woodwork and they all wanted to talk to him.”
Hold that thought. We need to back up a little. You quickly discover with RZA, born Robert Diggs (Bobby to his friends) in Brooklyn, that his resumé is so deep and varied that almost every statement has to be qualified.
So, yes, “Gang Related” with Ramon Rodriguez and Terry O’Quinn is technically his network debut. But he was in the 2010 pilot of “Outlaw,” the short-lived Jimmy Smits series that was shot in Philadelphia.
The previous week RZA was flying around the country promoting “Brick Mansions,” the action film he starred in with the late Paul Walker. Now he’s barnstorming for “Gang Related.”
“I respect the fact that a major network like Fox hired me at a very reasonable salary to come and play and be this cop,” he says. “So when it’s time to promote the show, I know it’s part of the job and I’m happy to do it.”
It’s a responsibility he internalized while working on the 2007 film “American Gangster” with Denzel Washington.
“They spent over $100 million on that movie and even though he’s a drug dealer, it’s on a black man’s story and they shot it in New York — in Harlem and Brooklyn,” RZA says.
“Unbeknownst to the directors and producers, when I’m on the set, a lot of the crew — the gaffers, the caterers — are people who knew me. Either as fans or from high school. I saw this $100 million was feeding my community and I appreciated that and when it came time to promote that movie, I actually lost money merchandising it.”
RZA sees “Gang Related” providing the same kind of economic boost to the poorer Los Angeles neighborhoods in which it shoots.
“I go to the set in East L.A. and guess who I see?” he says. “Latin gang members. Guys with tattoos on their faces. And at lunch I see how they eat. They appreciate that meal.
“Then we go to Long Beach where they have the black gangsters,” he continues. “Guys who just came out of jail, muscles and all that. ... If I’m seeing all these kids and gangbangers working that day and feeling happy, sitting and shooting the (breeze) at lunch, when it’s time to fly out and promote it, I do this with integrity.”
Another bonus: RZA has found the rigors of working on a weekly series to be vastly overstated. It’s more like a health spa.
“It keeps me on a schedule and away from vices,” he says. “I’m usually nocturnal and go to bed at 4 in the morning. Now I’m waking up at 4 in the morning. Not engaging in smoking or drinking because of my schedule. Some of my friends say I look a lot younger.” He laughs deeply.
“Hip-hop is a wear-and-tear business,” he says. “When I do a Wu tour, sometimes I get on a stage with a bottle of vodka in my hand and I’m jumping up and down and yelling at the top of my lungs.
“That bottle is gone by the time I get off stage,” he adds. “I get back to the dressing room and pour some more and people are coming in and chicks and weed is everywhere and we do that ... every night.
“It’s just part of it. I tell my wife, ‘Sadly, drugs and music go together.’ But they don’t go with acting.”
The greatest danger RZA faces on “Gang Related” is disappearing too deeply into the Cassius role. In one episode, for instance, he’s supposed to bust the owner of a Russian nightclub. Only RZA went a little off-script, dropping the guy with a flying kick to the chest, then standing over his supine body and ad-libbing, “Checkmate, Kasparov!”
“They all start screaming, ‘Cut! Cut! Cut! Bobby, that’s an actor. He’s not a stunt man. You can’t hit him!’”
RZA shrugs. “You can lose yourself at times,” he says.
9 p.m. EDT Thursday
// Channel Surfing
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