It’s one of the hottest days of the recent heat wave, but André Benjamin insists on throwing open the windows. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says, in his suite at the Essex House. “But New York hotel air, I can only take so much of it.” He straightens the collar on his royal-blue Polo shirt and pours himself a cup of green tea.
Benjamin is André 3000 from the rap duo OutKast, and if his reserved, tea-sipping demeanor seems at odds with the crazy hairdos and off-the-wall costumes he’s known for, well, that’s kind of the point. Benjamin has always been something of an actor. Still, his demure composure isn’t entirely put on. Now that he’s really acting—as in, in a movie—it seems to have brought out an uncharacteristically cautious side of his personality.
In the movie Four Brothers, out last week, Benjamin plays one of four adopted brothers who reunite in Detroit to bury their mother and avenge her death. This is Benjamin’s first major film role, and it marks something of a public redefinition as he distances himself from his OutKast persona without entirely discarding it. He hopes to follow the likes of Will Smith, Queen Latifah, Method Man, and Ices Cube and T down the path from rap stardom to film stardom. But he also recognizes that because of his penchant for flamboyance, acting poses a particular challenge for him. “My job is twice as hard as Robert De Niro’s,” he says. “I have to convince people that I’m not the guy dancing around in a green outfit”—as he did in the “Hey Ya!” video—“getting them out of André 3000 mode; then I have to be Jeremiah. De Niro just has to be who he has to be.”
OutKast, the group founded and fronted by Benjamin and Big Boi (Antwan Patton), his pal from high school in Atlanta, rendered many of the older hip-hop dichotomies moot. Rather than choose between bohemia and ghetto, for example, they exuberantly embraced elements of both. And rather than pump up the bass on familiar music, OutKast built on the legacy of funk, creating a sound that was readily accessible and deeply creative. The duo had Top 40 pop hits with “Ms. Jackson,” “The Way You Move,” and “Hey Ya!,” but also managed to imbue their music with enough complexity that jazz musicians might cover their tunes ten years from now.
All the same, OutKast’s musical significance has occasionally been overshadowed by André’s outlandish sense of style: the jodhpurs, the knickers, the argyle kneesocks. He looked nothing like a typical rapper, but the look was, for him, the essence of hip-hop: a genre that allows one to engage in vivid self-definition.
It’s strange, then, to see him so reserved as he shifts into the acting world. “As an artist moving into another arena, there are a lot of people waiting to see you fail,” he says, offering a partial explanation. Yet critics haven’t been harsh. In fact, they praised his small role as the inept rapper Dabu in Be Cool. And his acting was good enough to attract the notice of John Singleton, who was initially skeptical. The pair first met a decade ago, when OutKast did a song for his 1995 movie Higher Learning. “It seemed like everyone was trying to make that leap [from hip-hop into film],” says Singleton, who, it should be noted, was more or less responsible for starting that trend by showcasing a young Ice Cube in 1991’s Boyz n the Hood. But they crossed paths five years later when Benjamin started taking acting classes, and Singleton found himself impressed with the rapper’s potential. So when he was casting for Four Brothers, he called Benjamin. “I thought André was a good fit for the role of Jeremiah,” says Singleton. “The character has a lot of hidden smarts and complexity.”
This time, it was Benjamin who wasn’t convinced. He read the script and decided to turn down the role. It wasn’t the ghetto context or the character’s thug posturing that turned him off. He just wasn’t sure he could play a guy with three brothers.
“I’m an only child in real life,” he says. “I love being by myself. That’s where I feel most comfortable. I didn’t think I’d make a plausible sibling.”
But Benjamin started to second-guess his reluctance, and he changed his mind one night while surfing through the iTunes Website and getting a computer-generated recommendation for an album by the folk revivalists the Brothers Four. This, he decided, was a sign of some kind, and he promptly called Singleton back. A few weeks later, he was learning how to skate for the hockey scenes. Benjamin pours himself another cup of tea and settles back into his easy chair at the Essex. He comes to New York about six times a year, he says, and spends most of his downtime shopping. “Y’all got some great haberdasheries here, and I just love hats.” But while OutKast videos suggest a fondness for the over-the-top theatrics of Alexander McQueen and Jean Paul Gaultier, his real fashion idol is Ralph Lauren. Benjamin’s eyes light up like a child’s when he mentions that he went to see the Polo headquarters on Madison Avenue on his last trip here.
“I grew up in the eighties, and I guess you could say we were all Polo kids; we always tried to imitate that style. Then I read his life story: He was just like me, from the slums, and he worked at summer camps watching all the rich kids, but he had an appreciation for a certain sense of style. He worked his way up pioneering his way in fashion.”
Benjamin adds that at some point he’d like to start his own fashion line, then stops and heaves a sigh, acknowledging that he would be pursuing the only alternative career path for a rapper that’s more clichéd than acting. “But I wouldn’t be trying to make a lot of money like Sean John [Sean Combs’s line] or Rocawear [Jay-Z’s]. I would just try to bring a love of clothes.”
“My job is twice as hard as Robert De Niro’s. I have to convince people that I’m not the guy dancing around in a green outfit.”
He admits that he did the sagging-jeans-and-20-XL style in high school, but claims that now, at 30, he wants to try something new. He designs many of the outfits he’s worn in his videos, but he would like to offer a lower-key approach. “I’m still trying to show people I’m not all about white wigs.”
That seems to be the primary project in every aspect of Benjamin’s life: gently nudging André 3000 into the shadows. The alter ego, he’s found, is not as easily shed as the white wigs or the argyle socks. But it’s an act that even he has had enough of, at least for now. “I really want to get to a point,” he says, “where what I’m playing is so tight that I don’t even recognize myself.”