There’s method acting, and then there’s what Brooklyn-born rapper Jamal Woolard endured to become Biggie Smalls for “Notorious,” the recently released biopic detailing the life (and untimely death) of Christopher Wallace, also known to the hip-hop world as the Notorious B.I.G. Woolard’s tales of “Biggie Bootcamp,” his immersion into Biggie’s predilections and physical tics, guided by the late rapper’s friends and family, have earned admiration from both fans and cineastes.
But none of his stories about gaining weight, guzzling Pepsi or donning Coogi sweaters turns out to be as relevant as the one about the cotton balls.
Inspired by Marlon Brando in “The Godfather,” Woolard expanded his jowls with gauze. The act proved crucial because it changed his rhyming flow.
“Biggie had a breathing pattern that was enormous,” said Woolard by phone. “Also, he had asthma. So we had to study that. I did things like hold my tongue -- it’s an exercise that gives you more clarity. And his tongue lay down on the bottom of his mouth. When you put cotton balls in your mouth it causes that.”
Woolard faced a challenge particular to actors portraying musicians -- a club that’s rapidly growing with the recent uptick in musical biopics. Such roles demand more than sensitive mimicry. Whether lip-syncing or actually performing, as most now do, actors must tap into their own musicality and align it with the style of the stars they play.
In the age of YouTube, the task is trickier than ever. Artists like Biggie aren’t half-forgotten heroes -- they live on in videos, performance clips and other archival footage available for viewing at any time on any computer.
Not so long ago, actors could riff on a myth. The carnal innocence of Val Kilmer’s depiction of Jim Morrison in “The Doors” or the strength through which Angela Bassett -- who plays Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace in “Notorious” -- channeled Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It” emerged through attention to detail, but the stakes are higher now. An artist’s fans and fellow travelers easily can call out inauthenticity. For that reason, and also because they themselves are drawn in by pop’s rich archive, actors and directors are creating music in films that eerily echo the original recordings.
In “Cadillac Records,” Darnell Martin’s film about Chicago’s Chess Records, Jeffrey Wright gives a dazzling performance as the late bluesman Muddy Waters. He brings the same nuance to scenes of Waters playing guitar and singing as to the ones in which he’s interacting with his wife or close friends. Wright said he pored over photographs and film clips of Waters to develop his stance.
“He had a very specific way of moving,” said Wright by phone from New York. “He held his body with a sort of coiled rigidity. In some ways, he vibrated from within. And there’s a sideways movement. It’s almost as though he’s emerging out of these constraints.”
For Wright, performing as Waters was a way of tapping into a musical birthright and paying tribute.
“That we sing in this movie [instead of lip-syncing] is an homage to the potency of these people, and it’s also an homage and a lifting up of our culture,” he said. “We’re going back and discovering the language of the blues, which is an essential American language with which we attempt, through this movie, to share some breath -- to literally share our breath with this cultural legacy.”
Such dedication doesn’t shock coming from Wright, one of today’s most lauded actors, yet immersion is becoming the standard for music-based films. Joaquin Phoenix and Jamie Foxx hit career high points for their turns as Johnny Cash and Ray Charles in recent biopics; since then, Foxx has maintained a side career as a singer, while Phoenix has threatened to abandon acting altogether for music.
In last year’s “Control,” Sam Riley went so far into his performances as the late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis that it’s difficult, even for fans, to tell them from the real thing.
Shane West took similar risks playing Darby Crash, the intense (and suicidal) singer for the L.A. punk band the Germs in Rodger Grossman’s film “What We Do Is Secret,” now on DVD. Grossman explained recently that lip-syncing would have been impossible for West.
“I felt that what Darby was doing wasn’t always singing,” he said. “It was animalistic and guttural. It came from a deeper, inner place. And lip-syncing wasn’t going to achieve that. I needed somebody that could get up there and really channel Darby from inside.”
West lip-synced only one song, miming over his own vocal performance for a scene that depicted Crash in the recording studio. “We had no choice because it was the last day of shooting and Shane had literally lost his voice,” said Grossman.
“What We Do Is Secret” might provide the most extreme example of actors merging with their musical subjects. Grossman enlisted the surviving Germs -- guitarist Pat Smear, drummer Don Bolles and bassist Lorna Doom -- to teach the “baby Germs” how to play their music. West even eventually began touring with the actual Germs.
Discussing his film’s process, Grossman wondered aloud whether it was unique. In fact, the closest thing to it could have occurred during the making of “Notorious.”
Most of Biggie’s key collaborators were intimately involved in making the film -- his former manager Wayne Barrow was a producer, as was Wallace’s mother, while Sean Combs served as executive producer. Actor Derek Luke appears as Combs in the film.
What connects “Notorious” to the new wave of musical biopics is the role music plays. It works not just as color or illustration or even a set of turning points but as the core from which the story itself emanates. Director George Tillman Jr. constructs the film around several key Biggie Smalls performances, from an early street battle to his debut at Howard University’s annual Yardfest party to his final tour.
The producers provided Tillman with actual footage for reference.
“We re-created all the elements we thought were important to the audience, important to Big,” said Barrow. “Battling on the street showed you what his potential was. That was a special moment.”
“I was able to really look at these shows and choose specific shows to capture what Biggie had onstage,” Tillman added. He cast Biggie’s actual sidemen, rapper Money L and DJ Enuff, in small roles to add energy and “make it as live as possible.”
Armed with much study, Woolard stepped into this half-real world and mastered one of the most difficult vocal deliveries in pop history. “Big’s voice is really booming,” explained Tillman. “His voice stood above the track. Just to do a Biggie freestyle can really be complicated. . . . It took months to get to that level.”
Once Woolard had learned Biggie’s early style, he focused on his evolution. He worked to feel the rapper’s development in his mouth, like those cotton balls.
“His swagger changed, and his wordplay became more comfortable,” said Woolard of Biggie’s musical evolution. “Battling, this was his first time letting the streets know he can rap. He was really unsure of himself. But when he won, he started believing in himself . . . asking himself, ‘Why am I so hard and yelling?’ In the beginning he had the style, but he was too aggressive.”
Woolard rapped a few lines from Biggie’s repertoire to demonstrate the change. “Once he learned how to flip that, it was over.”
Like most biopics, “Notorious,” “Cadillac Records” and “What We Do Is Secret” have their faults -- they slide around the historical record and sometimes flounder into sentimentality. But as musical documents, they’re crucial. Reinterpreting key pop moments, they cause us to absorb them with fresh eyes and ears.
“I was happy to take it all on,” said Woolard. “I felt like it was an honor to even mention my name in the same breath as the king. It’s a universal story, the legacy. I’m just keeping it alive.”