BOW WOW WITH DERMOT MULRONEY, CHI McBRIDE, AND HOPE DAVIS IN THE FAMILY TREE. PHOTO COURTESY OF ENTERTAINMENT ONE.
Stealing scenes from veteran performers is nothing new for Shad Moss, a.k.a. hip-hop artist Bow Wow—he’s being doing it since he was in middle school.
The musician once known as Li’l Bow Wow was discovered at age 11 by Snoop Dogg, who was on tour in Moss’s native Columbus, Ohio. Moss was rapping during intermission and subsequently got invited to meet Snoop, who would later hook his protégé up with uber-producer Jermaine Dupri. (Previously, Dupri had successfully guided the young duo Kriss Kross into stardom). In 2000, at age 13, Moss released his debut album, Beware of Dog. His first two singles, “Bounce With Me” and “Bow Wow (That’s My Name),” hit #1 on Billboard’s Rap Chart, with the latter’s winning Billboard’s Rap Single of the Year in 2001. In the witty Dave Meyers-directed video for “That’s My Name,” Moss upstaged both his mentor and Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. “I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Moss of his breakout video. “I felt like I was born to do it. Even at 13 or 14, I felt like I was a 24-year-old man. I was always way beyond my years.'”
In the new film The Family Tree—an indie satire about a suburban family that tackles issues like race, religion, gun control, and sex—Moss, now an established actor at age 24, swipes the spotlight from a formidable cast that includes Dermot Mulroney, Hope Davis, Chi McBride, Keith Carradine, Jane Seymour, Christina Hendricks, and Selma Blair. He commits this grand larceny while playing a petty thief. Moss shines as a gun-toting, would-be thug who’s really a straight-A student and a dentist’s son. In one scene, he puts his botched burglary on hold to take a call from his mother, who’s checking to see when his book report is due.
Has Moss’s own mom ever called him at an inopportune time? “That’s what mothers do—they call you any time of the day,” he laughed. “Yeah, I get interrupted by Mom every now and then. I might be putting a record together in the studio or whatever. Moms are moms, they’re just checking up on you.”
Moss was interested in the role because of his own background: “Growing up I was a big fan of N.W.A, hardcore gangsta rap and movies like Menace II Society. It was always cool to imitate these dudes playing a thug, a robber. It’s so far from who I am but that’s the whole beautiful thing about acting—you get a chance to play someone who you’re not and put your skills to the test.”
“I’m a character naturally; I’m a goofball, I clown around a lot,” Moss continued. “That’s my personality. I was one of those kids who people always told me I could be on TV.”
Moss’s natural knack for comedy and effortless charm make him comparable to a young Will Smith. He began his acting career with guest appearances on Moesha and The Steve Harvey Show, then went on to casually outshine yet another superstar—Michael Jordan—in 2002’s Like Mike. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful dude,” said Moss of the NBA legend. “He was somebody I always wanted to meet and couldn’t believe it when I got to work with him.”
Moss also acted with Cedric the Entertainer and Solange Knowles (“we kind of grew up together in the business, like a brother and sister”) in Johnson Family Vacation and appeared in Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift before honing his acting chops opposite Forest Whitaker in the more seriousHurricane Season (2009).
That post-Katrina sports drama gave Moss the opportunity to study Whitaker’s approach to a role. “Here I am, a hip-hop kid from Ohio, standing with an Oscar winner,” he enthused. “If you get a chance to work with someone like Forest Whitaker, I might not ask for advice, but I’m definitely watching him work.” Moss said that from Whitaker, he learned “about preparation. And perfecting everything.”
Moss was also awed when he earned a recurring role as a comedian in the fifth season of Entourage. “It’s one of my favorite shows, so for me to audition and get the role and be on HBO, I think that was kind of a pinnacle point in my career. I was like, ‘I’ve made it; I’m Hollywood now!’ That’s when it hit me.” He had a blast working with the show’s cast: “Those guys are really professional and on time. I spent a lot of time with KC [Kevin Connelly]; he played my agent on the show. I also had a couple of scenes with Vince,” Moss said. He also got to sucker-punch an obnoxious Seth Green.
Moss will appear on upcoming episodes of The Secret Life of the American Teenager and has signed on to star in a new sitcom to be scored by Dupri and produced by Ice Cube, with whom Moss appeared in All About the Benjamins and Lottery Ticket. “If everything goes well with the show, I’ll be on lockdown for a year or so,” said Moss.
Unlike many rappers-turned-actors, Moss has no plans to turn his back on hip-hop. His seventh studio album, Underrated, will drop in November—a year after he released its first single, “Ain’t Thinkin’ ‘Bout You.” The song is a collaboration with Chris Brown—”We’re as close as brothers,” Moss said. Brown joins an all-star list of guest artists on Underrated, including Nelly, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Fabolous (with whom Moss performed in Montreal and Toronto last week), Game, Lloyd Banks, Nas, Talib Kweli—and, bringing things full circle, Snoop.
THE FAMILY TREE OPENS AUGUST 26.