This past weekend, thousands of people from across the country, including President Barack Obama, gathered in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the landmark voting rights marches led there by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The soundtrack to this historic moment has been provided by Common and John Legend. Their song "Glory," featured in last year's terrific "Selma" about those marches, won them the Oscar last month. Their performance in front of a model of Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge provided the most transcendent and emotional moment of the ceremony.
amNewYork spoke with Common about this career highlight and his new movie opening Friday, "Run All Night," in which he plays a trained killer tasked with hunting down a retired assassin played by Liam Neeson across the streets of New York.
What are your thoughts on the historic weekend in Selma?
First of all, it was truly inspiring to see all the people that went out to support and celebrate, and also activate in a way what we want to see for the future. To see the president and the former president and the first family; to see the people, really, that were there, all ages, really honoring all the people in the Civil Rights movement that stood up for us in Selma, for voting rights, to see people saying, "Well, we still have to create this change, we have to carry the torch," it was inspirational for me, a good feeling.
Where does this rank for you in your career, both in terms of the significance of the film and winning the Oscar?
This is the greatest achievement I've ever had up to this point in my life professionally. To win an Oscar and for it to be for the song "Glory," which is for "Selma"; "Selma" has been the greatest experience I've had in being part of an artistic project, in the way that it was really enriching for my life, enlightening. It really made me look at things and it motivated me to do more. I met some of the best people I've met in the industry in "Selma." I continue to be friends with mostly everybody we worked with.
It's had an extraordinary impact.
The experience of knowing we were an extension of Dr. King, the SCLC and the women and men who stood up and marched and prayed and believed for us, that's one of the biggest joys I could ever feel. I grew up wanting to be like Dr. King or Muhammad Ali; somebody that makes a difference. In many ways this is one of the most profound ways I've been able to be a part of something that makes a difference.
Do you feel optimistic about the future?
I feel very hopeful. I see light at the end of the tunnel. I believe that we're going in the right direction. I say that because there are more conversations, more honest conversations being spoken; people are getting out their feelings. That's important. It's like therapy. You've got to talk about it. So the fact that we are talking about it is really, really important. It's not just being thrown under the table; being hidden. The truth is painful, sometimes it may not be easy for everyone, but it needs to be said. That's the step to healing.
What do you make of the widespread protests we've seen recently?
When you see how many people are really motivated to change things, when you see people coming out protesting, not just black people, people protesting from all walks of life, different nationalities, Asian, Latino, white, different religious backgrounds out there protesting, different ages, it just shows you that we want it. And I think wanting it is one of the biggest things, and acknowledging it, that we do still have issues, is a big thing.
It's an awkward transition point, but we should move on to "Run All Night." In a general sense what attracted you to the part?
Jaume [Collet-Sera], the director, really wanted to approach this archetype of a killer but approach him in a very fresh, new way. I also like playing roles that show diversity as an actor. I don't want to always play a teacher; I've played hit men before; it's great to play a James Bevel [Common's "Selma" character]. I want to show range. One of the joys of acting is that. To get to take on these roles, for me as an actor creatively it was fun. But then I also knew we could do something fresh with it and accomplish something we hadn't seen before on screen. To have a person of color in that type of character is unique in itself.
What'd you take away from working with Liam Neeson?
I was very inspired by him because he's diligent in his work and is continuing to be an action star and a very great actor, legendary, and he's getting better. His movies are doing great. So to see someone that experienced and has been doing this for that long continue to grow? That was an inspiration. Working for him I learned how diligent and detailed you have to be in action and fight scenes. I enjoyed it. I looked forward to it. I'm the type that loved the challenge. I wanted to go man to man with Liam Neeson.