Thursday, September 8, 2016

Usher Receives a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Considering that Usher Raymond IV released his first album at age 15, accepted his first platinum plaque from the RIAA at 19, and notched nine No. 1 singles before turning 37, it might seem counterintuitive to say that patience has been the key to his career longevity.

And yet the singer, who is set to receive a star Sept. 7 on the Walk of Fame, reflects on the importance of timing and long-game experimentation as he readies the release of his long-delayed eighth studio album, and prepares for general audiences to get a glimpse of him in his most high-profile film role yet, in Jonathan Jakubowicz’s Cannes entry “Hands of Stone.”

The film, in which Usher plays champion fighter “Sugar” Ray Leonard opposite Edgar Ramirez’s Roberto Duran, offers an intriguing step forward for Usher’s wildly varied acting resume, which ranges from such highs as playing Billy Flynn in “Chicago” on Broadway, to starring in the long-forgotten “Texas Rangers” and “In the Mix.”

“My idea of artistry has always been: try everything until you find out what works,” Usher says. “So with film, I did everything to find out who and what I represented. I acted in sitcoms, in soap operas, in teen horror. I did this one thing for ‘Twilight Zone.’ I was just trying to figure out what was out there for me.”

Viewing his ventures into film as part of a continuum, Usher notes, “People tend to focus too much on anything that might not necessarily live up to being something great. But I’m not gonna say anything I’ve been in was a failure, because it’s all a part of getting acculturated to who you are. Imagine if Laurence Fishburne stopped acting at ‘Pee-wee’s Playhouse.’ Or look at Samuel L. Jackson — he’s done everything, every type of role. You do it all until you find your place.”

For “Hands of Stone,” it was actually Usher’s skills as a dancer, rather than his filmography or resemblance to a professional fighter, that helped get him the part.

“I was auditioning lots of actors, and I wasn’t really finding anybody I was excited about,” recalls director Jakubowicz. “Then I was invited to [boxing coach] Freddie Roach’s gym in Los Angeles to watch Manny Pacquiao train. I asked Freddie if he thought there was a fighter who could play Sugar Ray Leonard. He said, ‘Listen, for Sugar Ray, you should find a dancer. He was so slick, and he had so much showmanship, that it would be easier for you teach a dancer to box than to teach a fighter to box like Sugar Ray.’ So I went home and started thinking, who’s the best dancer in the world?”

As soon as he read the script, Usher impressed the director with his seriousness — “he started doing the Ali shuffle at our first meeting,” Jakubowicz remembers — and immediately started training with amateur boxers, and working with Leonard himself for nearly a year. That training shows through in the film: Usher’s celebrity is effectively tamped down, his stadium-ready dance moves honed into lightning flurries of attack and misdirection. Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman called Usher’s presence “a nifty piece of casting, because the actor, with a touch of prosthetics, doesn’t just look like Leonard, he embodies his exuberant nimble-kill spirit.”

According to Jakubowicz, Leonard was sold on Usher once he decided he “had the right smile,” and the singer’s lack of pugilistic experience ended up being a benefit.

“A lot of the things that might get Usher criticized by his peers were the same things that Sugar Ray Leonard was criticized for,” Jakubowicz says. “Basically, that he was a pretty boy.”

“I do think that this is the beginning of a new journey as an actor,” Usher says. “The things I had done before are a part of it, but this definitely was a major step for me.”

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