By Kam Williams
Nick Cannon is a multi-faceted entertainer who wears many hats: comedian, executive producer and host for television, film star, director, entrepreneur, philanthropist and author of children’s books. Cited by People magazine as one of the “Top 10 Most Successful Young People in Hollywood,” Cannon is proof positive that focus and hard work can pay off. Nick made his first appearance on the big screen alongside Will Smith in Men in Black II, and was later seen in Drumline and Bobby.
More recently, he wrote, directed and produced his first studio film, School Dance, and produced the sequel, Drumline: A New Beat. And he is currently in production on the reboot of the TV-series, Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous.
The San Diego native began performing at the age of 8 after his grandfather left him several instruments as a gift. Shortly thereafter, he took to the stage to perform his music along with stand-up comedy.
Nick headed for Hollywood at the age of 15 and landed gigs at world-renowned comedy venues including The Improv, The Laugh Factory and The Comedy Store before landing his first television gig as a series regular and writer on Nickelodeon’s long-running hit series All That. This trajectory culminated in the creation of “The Nick Cannon Show,” which he starred in, directed and executive-produced.
Nick currently hosts NBC’s America’s Got Talent, which kicked off its 10th season last May. While his professional endeavors keep him extremely busy, Cannon has always made the time to use his resources and his voice as a philanthropist to giveback to the community and those in need, working with such charitable organizations as Feeding America, Boys and Girls Clubs, Do Something, Toys for Tots, Stomp Out Bullying, the Lupus Foundation of America and the National Kidney Foundation, to name a few. He is also an active member on the Board of Directors of New York’s St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital and he runs the Nicholas Scott Cannon Foundation.
Here, Nick talks about playing the title character in Spike Lee’s new film, Chi-Raq, a modernized adaptation of Aristophanes’ classic Greek comedy, Lysistrata.
Kam Williams: Hi Nick. I’m honored to have another opportunity to speak with you.
Nick Cannon: Oh, likewise, Kam. How’re you doing?
KW: Great, thanks. I told my readers I’d be interviewing you, so I’ll be mixing their questions in with mine. Children’s book author Irene smalls asks: What interested you in Chi-Raq?
NC: Even before I read a script, Spike Lee came to me and said, “I want to save lives in Chicago, on the South Side.” And I was like, “I’m in! I don’t know what that is, but I’m in.” Then, when I saw how he made the brave artistic choice to take Aristophanes’ 2,500 year-old play, Lysistrata, and set it in modern times, I thought that was brilliant and I felt honored to be able to be a a part of the project.
KW: Were you aware of Lysistrata before making this movie?
NC: Yeah, I was definitely familiar with Lysistrata and other works of Aristophanes, and had heard the play’s plot referenced in various ways over the years.
KW: What did you think about all the rhyme in the dialogue?
NC: I thought it was outstanding that this film was in verse. I love how Spike remained faithful to that original format while mixing in spoken word and hip-hop and conveying an emotional message.
KW: Irene also asks: To what extent do you think we blacks are responsible for the violence in our communities?
NC: I say we’re responsible for everything in our community. We have to take responsibility for us, and for our own. Right now, I feel like it’s about reconditioning the community. We let this generation down, so we have to step back in and do whatever we can be the real pillars and the real leaders. Ultimately, these young people are hurt. They’re in pain. And instead of pointing a finger at them, we need to get involved and do something about the situation.
KW: Editor/Lergist Patricia Turnier asks: How did you prepare to play Chi-Raq?
NC: I really got to be a part of the community through Spike and [longtime Chicago political activist] Father Michael Pfleger who introduced me to some young peacekeepers, some reformed gang members turned leaders in the South side of Chicago. I lived with them. They came to my hotel and said, “Yo, let’s go!. Let’s rock! We going! We have to show you every aspect of who we are and what we do.” I was able to jump in in a big way, and that’s what it was all about.
KW: I assume that John Cusack’s character, Father Mike Corridan, was a thinly-veiled version of Father Pfleger. He really looked and sounded just like him.
NC: I haven’t yet seen the film, but I’m well aware of Father Pfleger, and I watched John study him. And when you have such a phenomenal artist like John, I’m confident he embodied him in every way possible.
KW: That’s quite a cast Spike assembled for Chi-Raq.
NC: Yeah, that just shows the power of Spike. People love him, and will come out for him to be a part of one of his projects. He always puts together a phenomenal cast, especially when the film is designed to deliver such an important, positive message. That made everybody jump in wholeheartedly.
KW: How would you describe that message?
NC: We want people to appreciate the value of life. A life is a life, and, like Spike says, “If we save one life with this film, then we’ve done our job.”
KW: Patricia also says: You are involved in the music industry as an entertainer, host and producer shows. I really think there is a need for another TV show like Soul Train. Are you interested in developing, producing and hosting a program like that which would give aspiring musical artists a chance to be showcased?
NC: Yes. In fact, for the last couple of years, I’ve been developing with the Soul Train brand a show that could be very powerful for our culture. We’re putting something together that’s been in the works for quite a while. So, Patricia’s right on the money with that suggestion.
KW: Patricia’s last question is: What was the biggest professional challenge you faced in your career and how did you overcome it?
NC: You know what? There are challenges every day, when it comes to this industry. But I never like it when someone tries to put me in a box. As soon as they think they have me figured out, I turn left. In that sense, it’s all about blazing your own trail and doing something no one’s ever done before. You have to give them something new, just when they think they know what to expect from you. Part of that comes from my not being able to sit still, but mostly it comes from a need to push boundaries as an artist. If someone says, “You can’t do that,” that just ignites me. I have to show them that I can do it, and that I can do it well.
KW: Yeah, you’ve come so far that I’d totally forgotten that you started out as a child star on All That on Nickelodeon, which was one my son’s favorite show as a child.
NC: Thanks, Kam. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about growth and being able to build a career that can sustain. I’ve been doing this for two decades now. So, it has been a blessing, to say the least, to be able to express myself creatively on so many levels.
KW: Marilyn Marshall says: America’s Got Talent is enjoying great ratings, while American Idol continues to decline and is preparing for its final season. How do you explain the success of your show?
NC: It’s a family show you can watch with your children and your grandparents. At it’s core, it’s just true to what entertainment’s all about. It’s simply watching people display their talents in front of an audience.
KW: Did you feel any heavy burden playing the title character in a Spike Lee film?
NC: I didn’t see it as a burden. I welcomed it as a challenge. I also saw it as an honor for Spike to choose me for the role and to afford me a opportunity not only to display my skills as an actor but to be a part of a movement which really cares about people.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
NC: [Chuckles] I don’t know. Maybe that question. Obviously, there are so many questions one could be asked, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
NC: Singing and dancing at about age 4.
KW: Sherry Gillam would like to know what’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far?
NC: Just the value of life itself, knowing how to respect each other, and that you have to learn to love yourself before you can do anything else in life. That’s revealed to me each day on so many different levels.
KW: The Viola Davis question: What’s the biggest difference between who you are at home as opposed to the person we see on the red carpet?
NC: I’m probably a little more chill and a little more reserved in my everyday movements. But at the same time, I am that guy on the red carpet, too. But I’d have to say I’m probably a little more introspective and kind of focused than most would probably believe.
KW: The Kerry Washington question: If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
NC: Probably a lion, the king of the jungle. [Chuckles]
KW: The Anthony Mackie question: Is there anything that you promised yourself you’d do if you became famous, that you still haven’t done yet?
NC: Not really. It was never about become famous. It was more about becoming the best artist I could possible be. I see it as a great blessing to have attained the level that I’ve reached.
KW: Larry Greenberg asks: Do you have a favorite movie monster?
NC: Freddy Krueger. [from A Nightmare on Elm Street]
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
NC: Don’t follow in mine. Blaze your own trail and go further than I could ever go.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
NC: As someone who made people smile and entertained them with his art.
KW: Finally, what’s in your wallet?
NC: Just my phone, because my phone and my wallet are the same thing.
KW: Thanks so much for the time, Nick, and best of luck with Chi-Raq and all your many endeavors.
NC: Thank you very much, Kam. I appreciate it.