Isaiah Stokes: New Jack Swagger

Isaiah Stokes may not be a household name, but if you watch closely, you’ll see a man carefully preparing for his close up. With roles in Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and Killa Season under his belt, the 26-year-old Southside Jamaica, Queens talent is building his resumé. He has made appearances in films directed by Sam Raimi, Ridley Scott, Julie Taymor, Spike Lee and Ivan Reitman. Not bad for a career jump-start.

Stokes plans to make 2007 a memorable year. He will appear in Spider Man 3 and is acting alongside Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and Platinum artist-turned-actor T.I. in the upcoming film American Gangster. Add to that his own fledgling career as a rapper and record label CEO, and Isaiah is poised to do some big things in the future.

Isaiah recently spoke with us about his experience working with Hollywood veterans, wearing multiple hats in business, and why Star Wars and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure attributed to his personal appreciation of film.

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: You’re definitely working with some heavyweights on American Gangster. Denzel, Russell Crowe. How was it working with them?

Isaiah Stokes: Well, Denzel Washington…that’s like working with Sidney Poitier. It’s like pretty much his presence is felt on the set. You have to be on your P’s and Q’s – the most professional you ever been in your life. It’s like working with the President or something.

AHHA: What did you learn from the experience?

Isaiah: I learned that it’s a zone that you have to be in. It’s like a light switch you have to know how to turn off and on. My first scene in the film was with T.I. You may come around T.I. and you may expect him to start singing his songs, but he’s in a whole ‘nother zone. Like, he’s not even thinking about rap music when he’s on the set. You have to be in that zone on the set and really be in character.

That’s what I noticed about Denzel. That’s what I noticed about Russell. That’s what I noticed about T.I. Off camera, they’re cool guys. Russell, he brought American Gangster hoodies for the whole set. He would buy lobsters for everybody for lunch. T.I., he’s a cool dude too, but when the cameras are on him, he goes to action. It’s like the whole vibe; it changes because you have to be in character.

AHHA: American Gangster is based on the on the life of drug kingpin-turned-informant, Frank Lucas. Why are we as a society seemingly intrigued by American gangsters and the gangster lifestyle?

Isaiah: I think it’s because no one wants the consequences or repercussions from being a bad guy, but everybody wants to live that life. It seems like the bad guys have their way, and they do what they want to do, and they don’t have anybody to answer to – which is true for as long as their reign goes. But all good things come to an end. So when people see Scarface and King of New York, they see these movies and are like “Wow. These guys really live like that.” I came from Southside Jamaica, Queens, so I seen a lot of drug dealers. And just not even being from Queens, but New York as a whole, you see a whole lot of people living the fast life, having the fast cars and you’re like you know they didn’t go to school. You know what they doing and it looks fabulous.

But then down the line you see those people wind up dead, wind up murdered. Some of them wind up actually using the drugs that they were selling. So that’s the part that nobody wants. But I think the fascination of just having the world in the palm of your hand is what a lot of people want. It’s just like having sex and not wanting the baby afterwards. Everybody wants that feeling, but ain’t nobody too eager to raise kids all the time.

AHHA: With so many rappers branching into acting, do you feel like there’s a stigma attached to MC’s who genuinely want to act?

Isaiah: I think that if you’re a rap artist, the same energy that you would put into being a rap artists – which should be writing your rhymes, practicing your flow, making sure you get the right beat, spending time in the studio, spending time in the dictionary and really perfecting your craft as a rapper – I think you should have that same respect for acting. I went to auditions and everything just like everybody else, went to cattle-calls. I was never too egoed-out to be in the background. I been in acting gigs for nothing. Got paid nothing to act, just because I wanted to be into acting that much and I knew that it would help my rap career. I’m not afraid to put in that work. I’m not looking for a handout. I want to start from the ground up so that I know that I built a strong foundation.

AHHA: Well that’s interesting you would say this because it leads right into my next question. If you recall, a while back Samuel L. Jackson had made some negative remarks about rappers wanting to act. I believe it had to do with rappers taking jobs away from the real actors who train and work hard or something to that effect. Do you feel rappers are taking jobs away from full-time actors?

Isaiah: Well, [laughs] I guess they are, but that should make actors work harder. Just like an actor can take a job away from a rapper if he really wants to. If one of these actors wanted to put out a rap album, they would get more publicity and more promotion than someone just trying to rap, just because of who they are. But I think some of the actors might respect rap for what it is, and know that it’s a craft and it takes training and practice – [and] they don’t want to step into that realm. So I would say to any rapper who wants to act that they should respect it as a craft, and know they have to go through training and put in the work and they have to pay their dues.

AHHA: I read somewhere that Hugh Jackman would take a cold shower in order to get him into the mind set of playing Wolverine in the X-Men films. Do you have any particular rituals or routines to get you prepped for getting into character?

Isaiah: Yeah. What I like to do is kind of be left alone and I kind of like knowing the background. Knowing the character is very important too. When someone gives you a role and says “Ok. Now you’re a guy and you’re gonna run into this store and you’re gonna rob the store, and you’re gonna take the money from the cash register and run out.” That’s cool. I mean it tells you what you have to do, but it’s more important to know the character and the background behind the person you’re playing because now you can get totally into character.

I know a lot of actors do that. I know for a fact that Will Smith does it. Denzel Washington does it. Once you know that, then pretty much what I do is I just stay quiet, and I stay in that zone at least for an hour before I touch the screen, just so I can be in the mind frame of that person.

AHHA: So with that said, which is more important to you: acting or rapping?

Isaiah: The way I look at the situation is, believe it or not, the rapping fuels the acting and the acting fuels the rap. To be on set, and you talk about the other movies you been in or how long you been acting, that’s really a dull conversation amongst a bunch of actors and a bunch people that do films all their life. But if you can be on set and talk about how you’re a rapper and you have your videos being played on BET, and you did shows here and you got your music here and there. Now it’s like you stand apart from all the other actors, and it kind of makes you shine a little differently.

As in the same thing with the rapping, if you a rapper you really set yourself apart from all the other rappers when you can say, “Oh yeah. I just filmed American Gangster with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.” Not every rapper can say that. So I think that they both work hand in hand, and I’m a big fan of cross promotion. I think whatever you can do to cross promote your career, whichever it is, is like an A-plus. A lot of rappers are into real estate. A lot of rappers were radio DJ’s. Puff Daddy was a dancer for Father MC. It’s all about how you use what you got to get what you don’t got.

AHHA: You’ve got a couple of films under your belt, particularly, the 50 Cent movie, Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ and Killa Season with Cam’ron. Are there any plans on expanding your resume to include more dramatic roles, maybe even comedy or action?

Isaiah: Yeah. Definitely. I’m actually putting together a script of my life story right now. That will probably be on the drama side. I definitely want to do a comedy. I definitely want to do a horror film.

AHHA: Piggybacking off of that, if you could put together your dream cast to work with, who would be a part of it?

Isaiah: I would definitely say Denzel. That’s like a no-brainer. Jim Carrey. I really respect him as an actor and a comedian. Jamie Foxx, I respect him as an actor. Leonardo DiCaprio. Elijah Wood. A lot of people don’t know, but before Lord Of The Rings hit, Elijah Wood was in a film [Black And White] with Method Man, Raekwon, Mike Tyson, Robert Downey Jr. He had a significant role in the film – I like his versatility. Definitely the Wayans Brothers, and I can’t end the list off without mentioning, last but not least, Will Smith, because I think he really came a long way as an actor also.

AHHA: With the movie thing, you’ve been associated with an impressive string of directors. Who was the most fun director to work for?

Isaiah: Sam Raimi. It’s almost amazing that he’s a director because he makes you feel like he’s one of your classmates or something. Sam Raimi is the guy that does Spider Man, and I guess you have to have that type of character to do a Spider Man movie. You gotta have somewhat of a childish disposition to enjoy the whole comic book story. He’s a hands on type of guy. He talks to the actors [and] background actors. He gets involved in the film. It’s a just comfortable vibe, working with him.

AHHA: It seems like every actor has a film they look back on that inspired them to do what they do. Do you have one?

Isaiah: Yeah. I’d probably say one is probably Star Wars, because that looked like a lot of fun. And as far as wanting to be an actor, as far as really wanting to perfect my craft, I’d say that Denzel Washington film called Out Of Time. I thought that was one of his best performances ever.

AHHA: What’s your favorite film of all time?

Isaiah: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I’m serious. There was a lot going on in that movie, even though it was a comedy. Paul Reubens. I think he’s real animated. Before Jim Carrey got big, it was Paul Reubens. Just his facial expressions and everything.

I thought that movie had so many turns and twists – it was almost like watching Pulp Fiction or the Big Lebowski or something. I could watch it right now and enjoy that movie.

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