LOS ANGELES - Tip "T.I." Harris has spent considerable time in recording studios and a prison cell. He's now occupying an entirely different kind of box: Your TV set. The Grammy-winning rapper is building an acting career by appearing alongside Kelsey Grammer in Boss, the Starz drama that kicked off its second season Friday.
For those who have seen T.I. in the feature films American Gangster and Takers, it's no surprise that Harris, playing a former gangbanger trying to take new turf in City Hall politics, is good.
He's just the latest performer to successfully make the transition from hip-hop artist to credible actor, joining the likes of Will Smith, Ice Cube, and Queen Latifah, all of whom have turned their abilities to master more than one craft into cottage industries.
"Acting just seems like the natural progression, because when you do it right, the payoff is so huge," said T.I., sipping water recently in a restaurant booth at a Beverly Hills hotel. "It's like basketball. If you play, the next thing you aim for is your own tennis shoe."
The most obvious link between acting and rap is an ability - if not unbridled desire - to perform in front of other people.
Maria Isa, a Minneapolis-St. Paul hip-hop musician and actress, said she notices that hunger in many of the young people she teaches at Minneapolis' El Arco Iris Center for the Arts.
"If I see a 5-year-old that's comfortable rapping, I know there's a good chance they're going to get involved in acting," Isa said.
T.I. first got a chance to show off his acting chops in 2006's ATL, a coming-of-age story set in his home state of Georgia. Will Smith, a producer on the film, told the studio he would walk away from the project if they didn't take a chance on the up-and-coming musician.
Smith gave Harris some valuable advice.
"He told me to keep in mind what I have to offer, and that is authenticity," Harris said. "I can bring certain characters to life the way no one else can because of my life experiences."
Those experiences include stints as a drug dealer and a federal prisoner (on a weapons charge), baggage that can scare away film producers. Harris, who is not used to hearing people say "no," said he understands that not getting certain roles is all a part of business.
He said he also knows that his presence in a film can move tickets. Takers, the 2010 thriller that he coproduced for roughly $20 million, went on to gross $57 million.
"Sometimes I'm right for a role and people don't see it. They have to learn the hard way," he said. "Their box office will bear witness to what it could have done if they had considered me more."
Harris' confidence has served him well in front of the camera, but ego isn't enough to get the job done.
Isa, a stage veteran who just wrapped up her first movie role in Strike One opposite Machete veteran Danny Trejo, said there was something comforting about working in a medium where a mistake can be corrected by the director simply yelling "cut." But she did find it challenging to perform simple acts such as lifting a coffee pot exactly the same way during reshoots.
Common, one of hip-hop's most respected figures, said it's a mistake to assume that a rapper can automatically make the leap into acting. He has built his screen career slowly, first making guest appearances on sitcoms and lending his voice to video games.
Ten years later, he's starring in AMC's critically acclaimed series Hell on Wheels and has a memorable appearance in the new film The Odd Life of Timothy Green.
"Acting is a different medium of expression," he said at a poolside party celebrating his drama's second season. "As a rap artist, your thoughts are the seed. You are the creator. As an actor, you need to learn to be a piece of an ensemble."
Common compared the pressure of going in front of the camera to participating in the Olympics: You'd better be well prepared and hit your mark, or your mistakes will be documented forever.
So what kind of medal would he give himself for Hell on Wheels?
The rapper/ actor took several seconds before answering.