The latest news from Hollywood -- Ludacris, Judd Apatow, and ''ER'' made news the week of February 22, 2008

By EW Staff
Updated February 15, 2008 at 05:00 AM EST

+ Ludacris is expanding his portfolio yet again. The rapper and movie star (Fred Claus) just launched, an online, American Idol-style contest focusing on beats and song composition; he hopes to bring it to cable TV soon after. Then there’s his sixth solo album, which is due in August and is tentatively titled Theater of the Mind. HI hears that Good Charlotte make an appearance, but Ludacris has somebody else in mind, too: ”I’d like to work with Eminem. I think we could make something hot, but who knows? It hasn’t happened — yet.”
+ Jessica Simpson‘s much-publicized foray into country music is coming together. The singer’s manager/father, Joe, tells HI that she’s close to completing her first country album and has enlisted some of Nashville’s most respected names to lend a hand — and some credibility — to the project. Jessica duets with Dolly Parton on one track, and Simpson is joined on another by Willie Nelson and Charley Pride. John Shanks — who’s worked with Sheryl Crow and Kelly Clarkson — and Brett James, a co-writer on Carrie Underwood‘s ”Jesus, Take the Wheel,” are producing. There’s also talk of a CMT series, which would mark Jessica’s second stab at reality TV. ”With Newlyweds, she let everyone into her world,” says Joe. ”Then she had to shut the world out. Now she can open it up again so people can see, here’s a girl struggling with self-esteem and finding her way. Country music is about storytelling, after all.” Simpson’s first single, which has yet to be selected, could be out as soon as April or May. — Shirley Halperin

+ For a brief moment last week, the red-band (read: adults-only) trailer for producer Judd Apatow‘s upcoming stoner comedy, Pineapple Express, starring Seth Rogan and James Franco was posted on YouTube. Quick as a bong hit, though, Sony Pictures got wind of the unauthorized posting and pulled it from the site. The studio says it always planned to premiere the trailer online under the proper ”age-gate” restrictions in the next few weeks, but someone apparently jumped the gun on the yet-to-be-finished content. And rumor has it the culprit is Apatow himself. Apatow’s rep didn’t return calls for comment, but this isn’t a shock: The filmmaker is notorious for close involvement in his movies’ marketing campaigns. In fact, he’s the guy who posted the red-band trailer of his April 18 comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that now lives on — Nicole Sperling

+ Grab the defibrillator, stat! ER could be returning for a 15th season. Many believed the drama would sign off for good in May, but since development was curtailed because of the strike, NBC may now take some of the original episodes it planned to air this spring and run them with a batch of new installments this fall. And at least one series regular says he’s eager to stay in his scrubs. ”It’s just as powerful as almost anything on television right now,” John Stamos told HI in January. ”Each week there’s a story that’s new and fresh.” — Lynette Rice, with additional reporting by Vanessa Juarez