Director John Luessenhop knew he wasn't dealing with any ordinary actor when De'Aundre Bonds showed up for his first day of work on "Lockdown," a gritty prison drama that opened Feb. 14 in 80 theaters around the country, including Los Angeles, with barely any advertising or publicity. Bonds arrived on the set in New Mexico limping and walking with a crutch. He'd been shot four times just days before the film started shooting.
"He still had a bullet in his [buttocks]," Luessenhop recalls. "I had to get a doctor to approve him working on the film and then we wrote his limp into his character."
The film, which co-stars Richard T. Jones, Master P and Bill Nunn, was shot in 1999 at a former state prison in New Mexico. Despite the grim setting, Bonds couldn't stay out of trouble. Luessenhop gave Bonds a day off to fly to Los Angeles to do publicity for "The Wood," a film in which he plays a teen gangbanger. "He came back with a cauliflower ear," Luessenhop says, "from getting into a fight with a bouncer at a club who hit him over the head with a flashlight."
Luessenhop put up with Bonds' off-camera problems because he was so impressed by the young actor's talent. "There was something magical about him when he got in front of the camera. He could find any emotion. All the other actors would show up just to watch him work."
In "Lockdown," Bonds plays a streetwise kid who is wrongly imprisoned, along with two of his friends, for a murder they didn't commit. Locked in a cell with a vicious white racist who repeatedly rapes him, Bonds retaliates by stabbing his cellmate to death. His performance, like the film, has received respectful reviews, but Bonds hasn't been around to enjoy the attention. He's in Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, serving 11 years for a manslaughter conviction.
On Sept. 5, 2001, not long after he auditioned with Denzel Washington for a supporting role in the film "Antwone Fisher," Bonds was celebrating what he thought was a big career break. He drove up to his aunt's house and knocked over a trash can. When his aunt's boyfriend, Anthony Lamar Matthews, came to the car, the two men had words. A fight broke out.
"I was trying to leave and he wouldn't let me leave," Bonds explained in a phone interview from prison. "I was scared that he was going to hurt me bad. I ran into the house and my only hope was to grab [a knife] to defend myself. He came at me full speed." Matthews threatened to beat him, Bonds said. "That's when I stuck him. He was on top of me for two minutes, still going ... 'I'm gonna get you,' before I saw anything bad had happened."
Bonds noticed Matthews was having difficulty breathing when the man walked away from him. Then Matthews collapsed. As Bonds recalls, "When I saw blood coming out of his chest, I held him and kept saying, 'Please don't die! Keep on breathing, man!' I was holding him when he stopped breathing. And the next thing I remember is the police putting me in handcuffs."
Bonds says he acted in self-defense, but the prosecution persuaded a jury that Bonds used the knife with the intent of killing Matthews. Los Angeles police Det. Blair McCormack said Bonds stabbed Matthews so hard that he broke off the handle of the knife. "He had opportunities to walk away," says McCormack. "But he went into the kitchen, got a steak knife and re-engaged in the fight. It wasn't self-defense. He's lucky. He should be doing 25-to-life for murder."
This being L.A., McCormack had actually seen a couple of Bonds' films. "He's a really good actor. But I think these guys sometimes have trouble separating their film character from who they are in real life."
Bonds isn't alone. For years, many hip-hop stars have lived out the thug life they've glamorized in their music. Hip-hop deserves its popularity. The genre's most gifted artists -- Eminem, Nas, Outkast and the Wu Tang Clan -- have changed the shape of pop music, creating lyrics and music with as much depth and power as any rock or R&B; performer. But for many rap stars, the gangsta persona has become a marketing hook; the longer the rap sheet, the better the record sales.
Snoop Dogg, for example, sold 5 million copies of his 1993 debut album while he was charged as an accomplice to first-degree murder. He was later acquitted, but he hasn't put his past behind him. When Dogg was shooting his part in the film "Baby Boy," he was surrounded by bodyguards and off-duty police officers because of persistent death threats.
As far back as 1991, when Slick Rick was serving a 10-year sentence for shooting his cousin on a Bronx street corner, Washington Post critic David Mills wrote a scathing indictment of what he called "the lucrative business of violent hip-hop." Mills, now a successful TV writer-producer and the creator of "Kingpin," noted that the Geto Boys were doing harmless dance-rap until they "caught a whiff of the money gangsta rappers were raking in" and began recording violent street fantasies that made them an underground sensation.
Since then, hip-hop credibility has been inexorably tied up with the thug life. The most popular rap lyrics refer to gangster icons Al Capone and "Scarface's" Tony Montana. Today's hottest hip-hop impresario is Irv Gotti, who took his name from the Mafia don John Gotti and called his record label Murder Inc. Irv Gotti is now under federal investigation in a money-laundering probe for his links to drug lord Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff. Rap mogul Suge Knight, who ran Death Row Records, served five years in prison for violating his probation on assault and weapon violations after beating up a gang rival in the lobby of a Las Vegas hotel just hours before his label's star, Tupac Shakur, was fatally shot riding in Knight's car.
Not long after Tupac's death, Biggie Smalls died in a hail of gunfire as he left a party here. Last October, rap pioneer Jam Master Jay was gunned down in his New York recording studio. Jay-Z was sentenced to three years' probation for stabbing a record promoter at a Manhattan nightclub. 50 Cent, whose debut CD, "Get Rich or Die Trying," is riding the top of the charts, has been shot, stabbed, imprisoned and is rarely seen without bodyguards, a bulletproof vest and an armor-plated sport utility vehicle. 50 Cent has also been at the center of a feud with Gotti, who was arrested on charges of gang assault after a fight at a recording studio in which 50 Cent was stabbed. Although no one has been prosecuted, Universal Music Group, home to both 50 Cent and Gotti's label, canceled its Grammy party fearing the prospect of violence between the rival camps.
Hip-hop defenders say many rap performers have been harassed by law enforcement, but hyping their macho image has played a big role -- too many hip-hop performers have overdosed on the thug life. "You can't get confused between playing a part and living it out in real life," says USC professor Todd Boyd, author of "The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop." "I love gangster movies and hard-core hip-hop as much as the next person, but just because you love 'Scarface' doesn't mean you want to die the way Tony Montana did. In hip-hop, words have meaning, but you've got to put it into your art, not in your life."
Boyd, who co-wrote "The Wood," was on the set the day Bonds filmed a scene in which his character robbed a convenience store. "It took forever to shoot that scene because De'Aundre was so hyped up and into the character that a couple of times I think he forgot he was in a movie. It got to be frightening -- you thought he was going to rob somebody for real. It was like a modern version of Lee Strasberg-style method acting, except to a hip-hop backbeat."
Actor grows up fast
Bonds was born into a hard life in Los Angeles. His father abandoned the family and his mother was addicted to drugs, leaving Bonds to take care of his three sisters. When he was 13, he played a man hooked on drugs in a school play. "Everyone told me how good I was and I thought, this is what I want to do," he recalls.
By the time he was 19, he was playing tough kids in TV shows like "Touched by an Angel" and gangbangers in films like "Tales From the Hood" and "Get on the Bus." He was also drinking heavily, and in 1997 he was charged with rape and inflicting corporal punishment on his wife, getting probation after pleading guilty to battery of a spouse.
Luessenhop, who went to Bonds' trial every day last year, says the actor brought the life he knew to his film roles. Recalling the scene in "Lockdown" in which Bonds stabs his cellmate to death, the director says, "I was always deathly afraid they'd find that piece of film during the trial. The way he used the knife -- it was horrifying because it looked so real."
Bonds doesn't blame anyone else for his problems. "I went straight from a great future to nothing and I can tell you, it's a long way down," he says. He wants to continue acting when he gets out of prison. "I've asked for forgiveness and I know now that life is no joke," he says. "That's one thing you can say about prison -- anything can happen and there isn't a thing you can do about it."
Research assistance by John Jackson. "The Big Picture" runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org.