Ohio-born John Legend is an award-winning, platinum-selling singer/songwriter. His work has garnered him ten Grammy Awards, an Oscar and a Golden Globe, among others. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania where he studied English and African-American literature, John participated in a wide range of musical activities while in college.
During that period, he was introduced to Lauryn Hill, who hired him to play piano on her track “Everything Is Everything.” After college, he was introduced to an up-and-coming hip-hop artist named Kanye West. Kanye quickly signed John to his G.O.O.D. Music imprint and had him sing vocal hooks on some of his tunes.
Here, he shares his thoughts about playing his first, major movie role opposite Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in “La La Land,” a picture which he also executive produced. And he talks about his philanthropic work and his new album, Darkness and Light, too.
Kam Williams: Let me start by asking what made you decide to do this film?
John Legend: It really started with meeting the director as a filmmaker in my capacity as a producer, because my company, Get Lifted Film Company, has done a few movies and a couple of television shows now. We love meeting with up-and-coming directors who are doing great things. My producing partner suggested we connect with Damien very early on, after we saw a screener of “Whiplash.” We finally got a chance to sit down and discuss something creative when he was in the process of preparing to shoot La La Land. The script was finished, and they were already in talks with Ryan and Emma to star in it. Damien wanted to see if we were interested in getting involved. He was originally thinking in terms of executive producing and in terms of the music for the character, Keith, and his band, The Messengers. But eventually, he asked me if I wanted to play Keith. I said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” I hadn’t done anything like it before. I hadn’t had a major speaking role in a film before. But I guess he felt that I could pull it off, because the character had some similarities to my own background as a musician. Damien thought I could relate to the character, and I felt the same way.
KW: After watching the film, I was surprised to see that you have so few acting credits, because you did a phenomenal job.
JL: Thank you! I’d spent my whole career focused on music. Acting wasn’t something I was really pursuing, even though we were doing film and TV behind the camera as producers, because music takes up so much of my creative energy. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with such great people.
KW: I’ve always been impressed by your incredible commitment to charity work. What has inspired you to do that?
JL: I’ve always thought that if I were successful in this career, I would have a lot of resources and a lot of influence, and that I would would want to use them to make the world a better place. Part of my making the world better involves creating great art, and part involves my being an activist and contributing directly to causes that improve people’s lives with my time, my money and my influence. I think that’s part of who I am and of who I always will be.
KW: Congratulations on the Best Song Oscar for “Glory” last year. And it looks like you’ll be back in contention, since it looks like La La Land’s going to be nominated for a lot of Academy Awards.
JL: Well, I don’t know whether I’ll personally be nominated, but I’m going to be rooting for the whole team. We have some wonderful contenders in a wide range of categories.