"I hope that it helps them understand that we can be better to each other, be better to the planet, be better to the animals, to people who are different from us, and to listen to the goodness inside each of us”
Common on his uncommon role in Smallfoot and how he found his Yeti voice
Lonnie Lynn, better known as Common, or formerly Common Sense, is primarily a rapper. He has released 11 studio albums since his 1992 debut Can I Borrow a Dollar? collaborated with big names such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Erykah Badu and Kanye West and has won numerous awards, including Grammies and the Best Original Song Oscar in 2015 for Glory, from the critically acclaimed Selma, in which he also starred. Common even ignited his very own East Coast-West Coast rap feud when Los Angeles rap crew Westside Connection took issue with the lyrics to the Chicago rapper’s 1994 track I Used to Love her. The LA outfit felt Common was blaming West Coast gangsta rap for the questionable direction hip-hop was taking, and responded with the track Westside Slaughterhouse.
Although Common continues to work extensively in the music industry – his most recent release was this year’s August Greene as part of the rap supergroup that he formed of the same name that he – Common has increasingly become a regular fixture in films and TV shows in recent years. He’s appeared in blockbusters such as Suicide Squad, Now You See Me and Selma. This week, however Common takes on a completely new challenge – voicing a Yeti in Warners’ animated adventure Smallfoot.
Indeed, Stonekeeper is not just any Yeti, but the head of the film’s whole Yeti tribe. Bearing in mind that Yetis are probably fictional, and it’s safe to assume Common has never met one for research purposes, I ask how he approached finding the voice for his character:
“[I tried] different things, repeating them a few times, and then maybe doing some ad-libs. Our director, Karey Kirkpatrick, was great at making sure that the Stonekeeper had the tone and power that we wanted for the character, as well as the darkness and warmth,” he explains. “I listened to what Karey and the producers wanted the Stonekeeper to be. I thought about what he would have to be to run a village. What kind of life and professional experience would he have? Would he have a voice that would be both commanding and welcoming? It was an organic process to find his voice. I didn’t find it, definitively, until I got in the recording booth, where I tried a particular voice – and suddenly it was right there…the tone that hits it. Karey and I found that voice. I was just throwing it out there. It wasn’t carefully mapped out with a specific register. My heart told me where to go, and I went there. Karey said, ‘Okay, that’s it. Let’s do it. Let’s do some of that.’”
Although Common is no novice at providing voiceovers, with appearances in the Happy Feet franchise and the Disney Junior series The Lion Guard already on his CV, the rapper admits that it is still a challenge to act without other cast members around him: “Not working with other actors was definitely a different experience for me. It’s nice to experience their energy and look. But Karey was brilliant in the way he was able to bring out the best in me, as an actor voicing a role in an animated film,” he says.
Common suggests that his experience as a rapper may have been his biggest advantage in the solo role: “Voicing a character in a sound booth is very different from working on a set, in full costume and makeup, in front of castmates and dozens of crew people. As a musician, I’m used to recording in a studio with no visuals to reference. I enjoy the experience of finding the voice of an animated film character. Then, the filmmakers add their animation magic.”
The film itself, based on the book Yeti Tracks by Sergio Pablos, is a quirky take on the Yeti legend, in which a young Yeti, Migo (played by Channing Tatum), is convinced that the legendary “Smallfoots” (humans) exist, and seems to prove his theory once and for all when he encounters a human TV news reporter Percy Patterson (James Cordon). With Yeti folk having long believed the human story to be a myth, the new discovery naturally causes something of a commotion in Migo’s village, and Stonekeeper’s secrets look set to be laid bare at last.
Unsurprisingly, Common admits that the younger members of his family, especially his young cousins, are particularly excited about seeing the new film, and he insists that we can all learn plenty from the younger generation, just as the wisened Stonekeeper learns from Migo, even when, like the rapper’s own daughter, they’ve hit the ripe old age of 20: “My daughter is a great teacher for me. She is twenty years old, and I’ve been learning from her since she was born,” he says. “She has a wisdom that I really connect with. I’ve talked with her about everything from music to girlfriends. I have learned so much from a young person who happens to be my daughter, as well as other young people I’ve talked to. I feel they have a lot to offer, and when we as adults open our minds to them, we can learn a lot.”
As for what audiences can learn from the film, Common hopes there’s plenty to be gained there too: “I hope that people enjoy the film and experience its warmth, humour and music. I also hope that it helps them understand that we can be better to each other, be better to the planet, be better to the animals, to people who are different from us, and to listen to the goodness inside each of us.”