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COMIC TURN

Brooklyn actor-rapper Mos Def joins ’Galaxy’ of stars in his first sci-fi film

for The Brooklyn Paper
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When it came time to cast the role of intergalactic roving reporter Ford Prefect in the new movie based on Douglas Adams’ hilarious sci-fi novel, "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy," filmmakers didn’t panic, they just sent the script to hip-hop artist and actor Mos Def.

"In my initial meeting with [producer] Nick Goldsmith and [director] Garth Jennings, I was really intrigued by their energy and their perspective and when they said, ’Your character plays a journalist from outer space,’ I said, ’That sounds fun,’" Def told GO Brooklyn.

The 31-year-old Brooklyn native, who now lives in Brooklyn Heights, confided he was further convinced the job was for him once he heard the list of talented, well-respected actors the filmmakers had enlisted to play aliens, robots and other assorted space travelers in the movie, which begins the day the most ordinary man on Earth, Arthur Dent - played by British TV star Martin Freeman ("The Office") - discovers his planet is about to be demolished.

Fortunately, his best friend, Ford Prefect, whom Arthur has failed to recognize as not quite human, knows exactly what to do: abandon the planet for unknown stellar destinations and embark on what the film’s press notes cheekily call "an incredible adventure with a frustrating lack of tea."

"I just liked the character, the people who were involved in it," Def said, admitting he was unfamiliar with the British cult classic until he signed on to the movie. "When they told me Sam Rockwell was involved [as Zaphod Beeblebrox, a galactic president with a rock star attitude], I thought that was a really good sign. Martin Freeman, who for a long time I was mistaking for Ricky Gervais, because I was a big fan of ’The Office.’ Zooey Deschanel [as Trillian, a drop-dead gorgeous astrophysicist with an alien boyfriend]. Anna Chancellor [as Questular Rontok]. I loved everyone who worked on this. I was a big fan of their work. Bill Nighy [as Slartibartfast, a planetary construction engineer]. Alan Rickman [as the voice of Marvin, a chronically depressed robot], who I worked on ’Something the Lord Made’ with. It was just a great group of people."

Describing his character as a "very straight-talking, problem-solving, heroic kind of guy," as well as "part adviser, captain, philosopher, answer-man and James Bond, all rolled up into one," Def has said he likes Ford Prefect because, "He doesn’t get hung up on things" and confessed the character is someone he would like to know as a person.

"He struck me as a guy who is very unafraid and just tells it like it is," said Def. "He doesn’t get flustered. He just sees the true nature of things as they are, and I think what Arthur likes about him is that he’s this kind of man-about-town who is very hip and smart and fits in where Arthur doesn’t."

Def also said he liked the book and movie’s central theme and catch phrase, "Don’t panic!"

"It’s about the idea that your curiosity should always be stronger than your fear," he noted.

Born Dante Terrell Smith and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Mos Def (slang for "most definitely") launched his music career in 1996 with the popular single, "Universal Magnetic." The success of the record led to his collaboration with Talib Kweli, with whom he formed Black Star and made the critically acclaimed album "Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star." In 1999, Def released "Black on Both Sides," his solo debut, which went gold and was credited by critics as bringing hip-hop back to its soapbox roots.

Def’s acting career has been just as busy and successful. In addition to co-starring in light-hearted fare like "Hitchhiker’s" and "The Italian Job," Def won a Golden Globe for his performance in the HBO drama, "Something the Lord Made" and earned rave reviews for his appearances in the big-screen dramas, "Monster’s Ball" and "The Woodsman," and the Spike Lee satire, "Bamboozled," as well as on stage in the Tony-nominated, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "TopDog/Und­erdog." Def also hosts the acclaimed HBO series, "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry."

By keeping busy and avoiding repetition, Def has managed to avoid being pigeonholed - not an easy feat in myopic Hollywood.

"I get all kinds of scripts - dramas, comedies, good scripts, bad ones," he said. "But I’m not getting one type of story more than the other."

Def also said he bases his acting choices on the quality of the screenplay, the character he is offered and how passionate he is about the project, not on how different something is from the last part he played or how it might further his career.

"I do what I’m enthusiastic about, what appeals to me," he explained. "It’s really that simple. I think there is naturally an impulse to do a variety of different things. It’s never like, ’I have to break up the monotony. I’ve got to do this now.’ It’s like, ’You know, it would be interesting to do this. I’m curious about this.’ And then I’ve been fortunate enough to have these things available to me."

In addition to preparing for the upcoming sequel to "The Italian Job," Def is working on a new play, titled "Free Man of Color," a reading of which he recently did with actor Keith David and his "TopDog/Und­erdog" co-star Jeffrey Wright at Manhattan’s Public Theater. Def said he is hoping the play will be staged next year in either London or New York.

"I’m very, very excited about that," he said. "It’s set in the early 1800s in New Orleans, and it’s really just a fantastic play. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. I play the manservant to a free man of color. So, I play the slave of a descendent of slaves. I don’t want to give too much away, but it explains the creation of America, the political and social circumstances that birthed America."

So, now that his acting career is soaring, does that mean Def plans to give up his music?

"No," he assured. "I’m recording a new album to put out this August. It’s a challenge [to juggle both careers]. But it’s working out. I’m very blessed."

Def credited his Brooklyn upbringing with helping him develop his sense of self and his love of the arts and said he chose to stay in the borough because he has no interest in living somewhere people are obsessed with fame and fortune.

"I still live in Brooklyn, and so my life is pretty normal and plain as far as surviving in the industry," said Def. "I just do my work and then I go home, so I don’t really feel personally invested in the music or film industries. It’s just the place where I work right now, and I like my work, but it’s not like the centerpiece of my life. It enhances my life. It brings me great joy, but it’s not my whole life."

 

"The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy" opens April 29 at the Cobble Hill Cinemas [265 Court St. at Douglass Street, (718) 596-9113], Pavillion Theatre [188 Prospect Park West at 14th Street, (718) 369-0838] and Court Street UA [108 Court St. at State Street, (718) 246-7459].

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