After a quarter century in Hollywood as a rapper and actor, you’d think there’d be no one left who hadn’t heard the name LL Cool J. But the 42-year-old multihyphenate (born James Todd Smith) says his latest gig, starring in CBS’ hit spin-off NCIS: Los Angeles (Tuesdays at 9 p.m.), is exposing him to a whole new audience. ”I know there are people watching me — I’m talking about silver-haired ladies in Boise — who know nothing about my music,” admits LL, who plays former Navy SEAL special agent Sam Hanna. ”And that’s totally okay.” Though he’s a hip-hop pioneer who has been busting rhymes since 1985 (while also scoring parts in films like Halloween: H2O and Any Given Sunday), LL’s role on TV’s most popular new drama — which pulls in 16.9 million viewers each week — represents a significant milestone for the ripped rapper. ”This is the first acting job I have done that has finally eclipsed my music,” he says. ”Before this, there was nothing bigger than ‘Mama Said Knock You Out.’ So I guess I am an overnight success in 25 years.” EW talked to the star about that 25-year journey — including his early rap career, picking up nifty acting lingo from James Woods, and what it was like to go mano a fin with an animatronic shark on the big screen.
LL was just 17 when he released his landmark debut album — a raw, aggressive effort that launched not only his music career but the trailblazing rap label Def Jam as well.
”I was just a kid who wanted his first Mercedes, who wanted to hear his voice on the radio. I wanted to feel what it was like to be empowered. I didn’t have a plan. It wasn’t strategic. I wasn’t the guy who was going to predict what the next trend was going to be.”
”Going Back to Cali” (1989)
The stark video for the hit single featured the now-iconic image of LL driving around L.A. in a Corvette convertible.
”There was a girl rubbing my chest! I remember saying, ‘This is so crazy right now. I am standing here getting my chest rubbed.’ There was this look on my face like ‘I cannot believe this. This is unbelievable.”’
MTV Unplugged (1991)
The buff and shirtless star was one of the first rappers to perform acoustically; he did an unplugged version of his hit single ”Mama Said Knock You Out” on the influential show.
”It felt totally natural and organic, nothing was forced — even though I had the white deodorant caked up under my arms. That was historic too. People have teased me about the deodorant for years, but I love it. It was raw! It was nasty! At least you know I wasn’t stinking.” (Check out LL’s Unplugged performance on YouTube.)
The Hard Way (1991)
The rapper made his acting debut in this buddy-cop comedy starring Michael J. Fox and James Woods.
”At that time [rappers transitioning into acting] wasn’t being done that much, so it was really new territory. The funniest thing I remember about Woods was his vocabulary. He was so sophisticated! I was standing on the set just watching the action and I hear him say, ‘So you want me to banana around this person?’ That’s a simple thing in acting to me now [meaning to walk in a curved line to avoid blocking another actor from the camera]. But when he said ‘banana around,’ I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, he knows everything!”’
In the House (1995-99)
Amid criticism that he was jeopardizing his rap reputation, LL took a role as a ballplayer-turned-nanny in this sitcom that first aired on NBC before moving to UPN.
”I always felt I was more of a straight man. I don’t know that I was the knock-down, drag-out funny guy. The show was humorous, but I don’t know that it was fall-down funny. I wanted to do something fresh and new, but I was not totally dedicated and committed to that process. I had more balls in the air. I was recording, I was ripping…. I guess it’s the equivalent of getting married really young. The focus was not there.”
Halloween: H2O (1998)
LL played Ronnie James, a security guard who manages to escape Michael Myers’ wrath — despite the dubious tradition of African-American characters dying early in horror films.
”Jamie Lee Curtis really taught me a lot about being classy on the set. Me and my guys would be there, and she would be leaving and say, ‘Oh, take my trailer!’ I played the security guard who everybody thought was going to die, but I didn’t. The brother lived! That was wonderful. I shocked the world! Then I shocked the world a year later in Deep Blue Sea and lived again.”
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Yep, his parrot-loving character Sherman ”Preacher” Dudley ends up surviving a school of rogue sharks — but it turned out to be a hazardous movie for LL nonetheless.
”The parrot chewed my ear something crazy. I had to take my earrings out because he kept biting them like a chew toy. Also, the [animatronic] shark didn’t always work on cue. I almost drowned once. The guy took his hand off the joystick [that maneuvered the shark] when they called lunch, but I had put my leg in the shark’s mouth, so I was stuck underwater. Luckily, they had given me a little canister with some extra oxygen. When I finally came up, I was furious.”
LL Cool J’s Platinum Workout (2007)
The star released a workout book to dispel rumors that he hadn’t developed those righteous abs naturally.
”Right around 9/11, I remember looking in the mirror and saying, ‘I got to get in shape!’ So I got a trainer and really started working out hard in the gym for about a year. I did a music video while I was in shape, and then all of a sudden I got this big wave of people thinking I got surgery, I was on steroids, I was on meth — all of this crazy stuff. So I said, ‘You know what? This is one way to nip it in the bud. I’m going to show people exactly what I did.’ And it worked. Now I have another book coming out on April 13 called Platinum 360.”
NCIS: Los Angeles (2009-present)
Having first cast LL in its failed drama pilot The Man, CBS tried again to make him a TV star by giving him the role of surveillance expert Sam Hanna opposite Chris O’Donnell in the much-anticipated NCIS spin-off.
”I wanted to play a character that is a large thinker and has a big worldview. My character gets to represent the military in such a highbrow way. The action is always a plus — I mean, ever since I was a little boy with my Speedos on and my towel tucked into my undershirt, I was jumping over the refrigerator boxes and playing cops and robbers — but it would be very boring for me to only run around and blow stuff up. You need fulfillment — not just spiritually, but psychologically and intellectually. So to have a character that can actually speak a few languages, be strategic…that’s cooler for me. It’s the most mainstream thing I have ever done.