"It was an honor for me to be the next guy in line to get beaten up by Sam Jackson," says an affable Affion Crockett.
It may have been a charge to get tuned up by one of the highest-grossing movie stars ever in "Soul Men," but the even bigger thrill for the lanky, former regular of TV's "Nick Cannon Presents: Wild 'N Out" and hip-hop impressionist was to work with the guy who inadvertently launched his comedy career.
"I got started doing Bernie Mac impressions," he says. "That's what made this movie such a big moment for me. It's Bernie's last movie, and I'm a major part of it."
In the movie, Mac and Samuel L. Jackson play the Real Deal, former backup singers to a legendary soul figure (played, naturally, by John Legend), separated by years of acrimony but finally reunited on the occasion of the late star's televised memorial. As the aging soulsters make their way across the country to perform at the tribute at the Apollo Theater, among the obstacles they encounter is Lester (Crockett), the wannabe gangsta and aspiring rapper who is inexplicably shacking up with the lovely and talented daughter of one of the singers.
His big rap, which the filmmakers let the scene-stealing actor compose, is an idiotic celebration of how Lester took over his girlfriend's house after her mother died and how he enjoys slapping her around. Describing his character, Crockett freestyles: "I'm the worst rapper ever! / I ain't said nothin' clever!"
"So he's just disrespectful in that whole first verse; it's completely not cool. And the hook is: 'Get the . . . / out my grille / or you get killed,' " he intones with foolish bravado. "I would sing that to Bernie in the scene as I'm walking out. He started singing it on set. He had the whole set singing that hook."
Crockett, who pronounces his first name AY-fee-ahn, soaked up as much knowledge from Mac as he could but regrets he wasn't able to express the depth of his debt to the comedian, who died Aug. 9 of complications related to pneumonia.
"Unfortunately, you never know when you're never going to see someone tomorrow. I don't know if I was able to get him to understand -- 'Without you doing what you do, I wouldn't be here today.' But I'm sure he's looking down now. He kept telling me on the set," Crockett slips into a dead-on Mac imitation, complete with signature head tilts, " 'Yeah, man, you got a lot of Mac in you, young brother! Young buck, I like what you're doin'. You know what I'm sayin'!'
"We spent a lot of time on the set just chilling. He would give me advice about the industry. He would always tell me when I did a great job on takes. He was just that generous and giving. Every time we had a free moment, he would pull me aside and give me game."
The self-described Army brat and huge Bruce Lee fan (whose odd pitches and inflections Crockett has down cold) says the accented voices on his mother's side of the family -- from Trinidad, including a Chinese grandfather -- inspired his first impressions. Now he's most recognized in public for his version of Jay-Z, but he hasn't worked up a Samuel L. Jackson yet.
"Bernie Mac had a good Sam Jackson. He did the walk," Crockett said, demonstrating the solidly built comic's Mr. Cool strut with his own wiry frame. "He did it one day and I fell out of my chair laughing. Sam just laughed it off, 'cause he and Bernie were old friends.
"I'm trying to tell you, I'm still dreaming," he said with a disbelieving laugh. "I still go home to my apartment and things still look pretty normal. We're doing all this press and the movie's about to come out soon, and we're about to have our first black president -- all this stuff is going on right now. I have to take care of business, I'm thinking logistically, but then there's that side of me that's in Disneyland right now."