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Be Cool is a who's who of Hollywood talent featuring veterans, rising stars and even popular singers in its ensemble cast. Leading the pack is The Rock, who plays Elliot Wilhelm, a flamboyant bodyguard trying to snag an audition while he threatens tough guy Chili Palmer (John Travolta). Coming from the WWE world, Rock could relate to the film's satire of the music industry.
"I think there's a lot of similarities," Rock said. "I think overall the entertainment industry, period, there's a seedy underbelly to the wrestling world, the movie business, to the music business as well. I wasn't that familiar with the music business, or at least that side of it. Speaking to John Travolta over the months of us filming, as well as Andre [Benjamin], knowing a lot of musicians, it's a pretty accurate depiction of what goes on. We made it funny, we poked fun at it, but the reality of it is true."
The Rock pokes fun at his own persona as well. A running joke involves his famous raised eyebrow gesture from his wrestling days. "I love self-deprecating humor, I've always been a big fan of that, and to have that joke run through the movie [was fun]. ‘Look, I've got talent! How can you not see this?' I thought that was a great joke too. If there's another creative way to throw that in there to make fun of myself, sure."
For all of Elliot's eccentricities, Rock saw a lot of himself in the role. "I connected with Elliott. Here's this aspiring actor — that was me five years ago. And this is a guy who doesn't have any money — that was me eight years ago. I think he's an earnest man who's genuine. And by the way, I'm sure you guys have come in contact with them. That's the reality of Hollywood and the entertainment business. There's a lot of people like Elliott out there right now. You can go outside and they are those aspiring actors who'll drop a monologue on you at the drop of a dime. And by the way I live it every day, people who come up to me, ‘Hey, I got this idea, I got a cd, I got a script.' So I've seen that before."
Returning to the role of Chili Palmer, Travolta had the unique honor of taking The Rock down in not one, but two fight scenes. "I didn't particularly enjoy doing that," Travolta said. "That's not my thing. I'm in character, so it's like Chili has to set who's boss right up. The thing I love about the character of Chili is that he knows it would be easier to hit Elliot in the head with a bat or knock him down with the throat than insult his singing. You see what I mean? It's a bigger hurt to criticize him than it would be to physically hurt him. And Chili just knows that. So that's one of my favorite things about the character is that he would know the difference, that physical pain would mean nothing to these guys, Elliot in particular, but an insult would. I like that a lot."
It's been 10 years since we first met Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, and five years since author Elmore Leonard wrote the sequel book Be Cool. "I don't think I would've ever wanted to do a sequel arbitrarily," Travolta continued. "You have to have a good reason to do one. And Dutch [Leonard's nickname] is a good enough reason for me. He's a smart and clever writer. And I caught on when he caught on. [But] even though the book I liked, you have to see it in its [screenplay] form because so often a screenplay adapted cannot capture the book. The first one of Get Shorty didn't and I turned it down. Then Quentin [Tarantino] stepped in and said, ‘No, no, no, you don't turn this down. This is one you say yes to. And what do you want to have changed?' And I said, ‘I just want it to be more like the book.' And he said, ‘Well, what part of the book?' And I went through it. And I had answers. And he said, ‘Well, why don't you just ask him to put that in the screenplay?' So this, interestingly enough, was in better shape right away as a movie."
Once the story was nailed down, Travolta was overjoyed to play Chili again because he is a cinematic figure in a world of the arts. "He's a complete romantic about music, about movies, about the arts. So even though he's this tough shylock maybe hit man type guy, he's also fascinated with the arts. So you've got a guy who might have illusions of what Carey Grant might do in a situation or what James Bond might do. So he's set up to be the ultimate cinematic character within a cinematic concept."
Now through with the movie business, Chili discovers singer Linda Moon in a trashy nightclub and decides to take her out of her contract at a corrupt record label. Christina Milian plays Linda Moon.
"I auditioned for the movie," Milian said. "I wasn't offered it, nothing like that. I heard hundreds of girls auditioned, some of the usual, your R&B girls and your rock girls, everybody, it didn't matter. They all auditioned. And my agent called me and told me they were doing the sequel to Get Shorty and John Travolta was doing it and they were looking for an R&B singer and I was like, ‘Oh, that's cool'… So I decided to go in, not thinking I was going to get it and I had to sing. I sang a gospel song and I sang ‘I Will Always Love You' and I had to act out four different scenes. I think the moment that I sang the gospel song, was the one moment I think [director F.] Gary [Gray] and the casting director really got it because the casting director cried and I was like, ‘Yes'! Next thing I know I'm going in for a screen test."
Milian has made several movies and released a hit album, but Be Cool was the first time she combined her talents in one project. "This has been the most amazing opportunity for me because I've gotten a lot of scripts where it's a singer in a movie but I always turned them down because I really want to me known as a real actress. When I'm acting in a movie, that's what I want to do mainly. So, this was the one opportunity, with this cast, John Travolta, you're going to win. People know me as an artist more as a performer. When I found out about the role, the type of person that she is, I really wanted to push myself to become a better singer. Vocally, I practiced a lot. I worked really hard. I had to learn to play piano for about three weeks which I had learned a long time ago so that helped. As well as acting around all this cast, I had to stay calm because that was hard. I had to act as Linda and act like I wasn't nervous. It was a lot of work for me. But I think this has been one of the best opportunities for me because I get to showcase so many talents in one film and so many different fans are going to get to know me in so many different ways."
Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000 of Outkast, joined the Be Cool cast having known director F. Gary Gray from his work on Outkast videos. "On the ‘Ms. Jackson' video, I was doing a close up scene and he was looking at the playback monitor," Benjamin recalled. "And he said, ‘I think you're going to have a great career in film if you ever go in that direction so if something comes up I'll look out for you.' He calls me with the Be Cool script and I read it and I thought the story was great. I didn't like my character so I told him I really had to turn down. I really don't want to play it because I knew I wanted to get into film, but I knew I didn't want to play a rapper. You know it's the obvious thing to do. He said, ‘Well let's have a meeting, man let's talk about it.' So we went to a hotel and we sat down and talked about it and he said, ‘You've got to think about it. It's not really playing a rapper. Well, you're playing a rapper, but you're playing against type. People don't see you as that and you're really playing a parody of what people think rap is. So it's way over the top. It's baggy pants down to your knees, pagers, and two-ways and all these platinum chains. Try it out. And on top of that how in the hell can you turn down being in a movie with these people? That would be great for your career.' Your right, so let me try it."
Working with the ensemble cast lived up to all of Benjamin's expectations. "I think I was excited to see Harvey Keitel. I've been a fan of John Travolta's since I was little, way back to Welcome Back Kotter. Vince Vaughn was always funny to me, but you've got to imagine I'm a beginner to it so you show up to work with all these people. I was really timid and tip toeing just trying not to make mistakes and trying to be real perfect. In acting that will kill you if you're thinking about it too much so I had to ease into it and just sit down and talk to John and just know he's a normal person. Talk about flying airplanes and houses and that kind of stuff. And me and Cedric [the Entertainer], man, we tripped the whole movie. We had a good time. You get around these people and they become like a little family. You get into it and go into your scenes and don't think about it. And that's the best way to do it. Don't think about it."