If you know anything about Curtis ''50 Cent'' Jackson, it's that he's been shot nine times. Beyond that, you've probably heard a catchy single or two in which he alludes to being behind the barrel a few times as well.
And so, on this sunny July day on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, it's a shock to see fussy Irish director Jim Sheridan kneeling by Jackson, advising him to ''be more aggressive, less scared.''
For the past few months, Sheridan, the man responsible for revered biopics My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, has been fleshing out Jackson's two-dimensional gangsta image for Get Rich or Die Tryin', a film based loosely on the rapper's life. As evidenced by Jackson's struggle to show just the right amount of emotion, it's a feat of brand extension that requires some finesse.
''The average [music] consumer doesn't care about your personal life,'' Jackson says later, lounging in a trailer that doubles as a recording studio for working on Get Rich's soundtrack. ''They want to hear music. They don't want to hear your moods.'' Though the thinking seems to greatly underestimate his listeners, it's hard to argue with a guy boasting two multiplatinum solo albums.
Movies are different. Jackson figures that if he wants to be a hit at the box office, he's going to have to reveal more of himself, like his buddy Eminem did in the $117 million-grossing 8 Mile. And he really wants to be a hit at the box office. ''When you're hot in music, you might sell 11 million records worldwide and gross $110 million,'' he says. ''If you're hot in film, you might do that in a weekend. This is the ball game I want to play in.''
But expressing vulnerability no longer comes easy for the 30-year-old, whose mother, a drug dealer, was killed when he was 8. Soon after, he took up dealing himself and it hardened him. ''I spent so much time conditioning myself not to cry when bad things happen in my life,'' he says, ''that I kind of suppress my feelings.''
''He wanted to stay cool all the time,'' confirms Sheridan, who was introduced to Jackson by U2 frontman Bono at a party at Interscope honcho Jimmy Iovine's house. Iovine, Jackson's record-label head and one of Get Rich's producers, was no doubt angling for a credworthy helmer to do for Jackson what Curtis Hanson had done for Eminem, another Interscope artist (Iovine also helped produce 8 Mile). Sheridan, seeing similarities between Jackson's story and his own rough Dublin upbringing, was up for the task.
''The hardest part was taking it from the macho male world and letting it sit there on the feminine edge,'' says Sheridan. Getting Jackson to cry during a tender scene with leading lady Joy Bryant (Antwone Fisher) was a high point of the challenge. The relentlessly ambitious rapper eventually arrived at his own version of Method acting to get the tears flowing.
''I imagined failing,'' he says.
That would be a fate worse than death for 50 Cent, the consummate hustler. Whether it's this motion picture, the accompanying soundtrack, the ultraviolent videogame, the latest edition of his sneaker, or the new line of watches all launching this month Jackson sees everything he sells as ''product,'' same as the stuff he pushed as a kid on the streets of New York. Well, there is one difference. ''Selling a CD or a pair of sneakers won't get you arrested,'' he says with his signature nonchalance. ''Which means my work ethic should be even harder.''