Rapper Bow Wow bounded into a conference room in Dallas for interviews about his new movie, “Roll Bounce,” looking every inch the contemporary music star, sporting long braids and wearing baggy jeans. It was a far cry from how he appears on the screen: in the good-natured picture, a comedy with lots of music and jokes but also some highly dramatic moments, he plays Xavier, a middle-class kid in 1978 Chicago whose passion for roller skating takes him and his South Side buddies to the affluent North Side, where they come up against a local skating team in an exhilarating final contest. With his hair cut short and his clothes typical of the period, he seems to have stepped off the set of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”
“Wearing those tight clothes every day,” he said, “I didn’t want to look at any more tight outfits [after filming was over]. I had to wear those tight, skin tight jeans” typical of the seventies through the entire shoot, he explained.
But the quest for authenticity went far beyond mere appearances. “I did a lot of research,” he added. “I watched a lot of movies, I watched a lot of television shows. I watched things like ‘Good Times.’ I watched movies like ‘Cooley High’–just trying to get the swagger and understand exactly what the time period was really about. I’ve heard a lot about the seventies–it’s supposed to be one of the coolest, funkiest times ever–so I really wanted to relive it. I had to become it, I had to live in this time frame. I was watching the posture, the words, how they would say some things, the accents. We really had to try to make it real. That was the main concern–how real can we possibly make this? If so, we’ll reach out and really grab the audience and take them back in time with us.”
The concern for authenticity also extended to the skating, but for Bow Wow that wasn’t an enormous problem. “The skating was kind of easy,” he said, “because I knew how to skate prior to this film. Being I’m from the Midwest, we always used to skate every Saturday and Sunday in Ohio. So, you know, I just really had to bring my skills back to life. Ever since I started traveling [on tour] and everything, I didn’t have time to go to the skating rinks anymore, so I kind of lost my step. But when I got back in the mix with the whole skating [thing] and put my skates on and was rolling around the rink a couple of times for a couple of hours, I got my swagger back. I was ready to go ahead and do my thing.” Like the other youngsters in the picture, though, he had to hone his skill–and learn the routines–in a demanding skating camp. “Oh, man!” he recalled, “that skating rink was so hot, [and] it was a dirty skating rink. For two weeks we had to learn routines, and the days were long. I remember one time, man, I said I’m not doing this today. And I just sat down. And they called the director [Malcolm D. Lee] on me–‘Bow Wow, he just sat out for the day.’ And he said, ‘You can’t just take off, man, because you’re the leader. Then everybody else is going to want to take the day off.’ So when that happened, I said, man, two and a half weeks of this, and the choreography and dance! I said, ‘I ain’t no dancer, I’m a rapper! I don’t want to do this!’ But that was the whole point of doing the movie. I felt it was different, me stepping out of my range once again–choreography is not my thing, so for me to go out and to kill it the way I kill it in this movie, I had fun doing that. I said, it ain’t that hard, after all! I probably did about eighty, ninety percent of the skating [eventually]. The majority of the skating is me. I felt that if it was going to be authentic, I wanted to do it myself.”
Bow Wow’s approach to the skating reflected his intense attitude toward the movie as a whole, which includes some strong dramatic moments between X and his father, a recent widower played by Chi McBride. “The thing that really drew me into this film [was] that it was something different, something I haven’t done yet, something that the fans and the people haven’t seen me do–really act,” he said. “When I did this movie, I said, now I can’t wait to see how it will turn out, because I know when people see it, they’re going to say, ‘Man, that boy’s stepped it up. I don’t know what he was drinking, but he definitely stepped it up.’ This is the first time that I’ve actually done something like this. It was crazy for me–it was awkward, it was weird for me, being that it was my first time actually doing a [strongly dramatic] scene–I’d never really done a touchy scene like this before. I really had to take it there. I gave this movie all I had, and I lived this character. I took my soul out of myself and I actually put my soul inside of this kid. I wanted to live this kid, I wanted to understand his pain, I wanted to understand how it felt not to have a mother around, but to have a father…and to have my father not really love me the way I wanted–really to love and support me as a son. And I had to really understand that. And once I understood that, I knew once it got down for me to do those scenes, I’d know [how]. And I did it.” He credited Lee and McBride for much of his success in capturing X’s character. “Without Malcolm and Chi at my side, I really don’t think I could have pulled this off,” he said. “I’ve really got to give a lot of credit to Chi, because he really taught me a lot of things that I didn’t know. He is the key to all of the success of this movie as far as my performance [is concerned]. He helped me so much, and really guided me to where I needed to be.”
The result, Bow Wow said, is that “Roll Bounce” can connect with viewers of all ages and backgrounds on many levels. “Hopefully when they see this movie, it will touch them at all angles…and I think that’s why to this day it’s the best movie I’ve done. Not only is this movie a skate movie, but it deals with a lot of real-life situations–the relationship between me and my father–so hopefully they can get a lot from this film. There’s a lot of laughter, but they can [also] cry, be sad, be moved.” Having watched it with audiences, he added, “And it moved me, because I haven’t done a movie that can touch everybody [before]. ‘Like Mike’ was for the kids. But this film, it’s like you might get some grandparents who take the grandkids–‘It’s the seventies, I remember that!’ It really just touches me, man, the fact that I know I worked so hard on this film to try to make it as real as possible, and to make it the best movie that I can possibly make–and the people are really getting a kick out of it. It’s an old-school movie, but it’s still got that new-school flavor, because a lot of the new-school things we do come from the old days. We just revamped it and turned it up a little bit. It’s going to move everybody and touch everybody.”
He added, “That really motivates me to go out and make more movies. I’m just going to keep elevating my game. I’m blessed, really blessed, to be on the A-team and to have all this stuff under my belt, from records to movies to everything.” And expressing his excitement about being picked to star in his first action flick, “The Fast and the Furious 3,” he joked, “I’m trying to kick out Will Smith. I’m trying to get him out of here.”