ST. LOUIS – St. Louis got a small but real taste of Hollywood in 2000 when one of its favorite sons, rapper Nelly, snagged a key role in the little indie flick “Snipes.”

At the St. Louis premiere, Nelly rolled up at the AMC Esquire in a blue Bentley and strolled down the red carpet escorting his mother, Rhonda Mack. Other red carpet arrivals included several St. Louis Rams, including Marshall Faulk, and the “Snipes” cast and crew.

Turns out, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Sunday afternoon, the red carpet was rolled out again for the local premiere of “The Longest Yard.” Nelly was joined by the comedy’s other stars – Adam Sandler, Chris Rock and Burt Reynolds – in a benefit event supporting the 4Sho4Kids Foundation/Jes Us 4 Jackie Campaign.

In this remake of the 1974 Reynolds movie, the rapper plays convict Earl Megget, one of several prisoners recruited for a ragtag football team competing against the guards. The film, which opens Friday, is expected to be a summer crowd-pleaser.

Clearly, Nelly’s budding film career has jumped several notches up from the blip that was “Snipes.” Interviewed last week from a Phoenix tour stop, Nelly says, “I was a young guy trying to get my feet wet with “Snipes,’ finding my way, seeing if this acting thing was for me. “Snipes’ was cool. I had a cool trailer, but I didn’t know better, and I made the best with what I had. For “The Longest Yard,’ I had a plush trailer with a DVD player, a lounger bed, a separate workout trailer. It was bangin’.”

It sounds like Nelly could get used to the luxury life of movie stars. Maybe Nelly, who remains one of music’s biggest players, is headed the way of Will Smith, Queen Latifah and Ice Cube, ground-breaking rappers who’ve found success at acting and now view their music careers as secondary.

“That’s not up for me to decide. That’s for the fans. The reviews have been great for me, and people are coming to me with roles. Movies are coming in from all over the place,” said Nelly. “Adam’s production company (Happy Madison) has been trying to work me into a lot of projects. So, I’ll continue it and see where it goes.”

If it goes anywhere near his recording career, he’s set. Nelly’s debut CD, 2000’s “Country Grammar,” sold more than 9 million copies. Add in follow-ups “Nellyville” (6 million), the “Suit”/”Sweat” combination (3 million and 1 million, respectively), remix album “Da Derrty Versions,” and St. Lunatics CD “Free City” (1 million), and you’re well over 20 million CDs sold.

Nelly has no reason to start looking immediately at an alternate career, especially considering all his other businesses – his ownership in the Charlotte Bobcats basketball team, Vokal clothing line and Pimp Juice beverage.

But Nelly understands a rap career doesn’t last a lifetime, and movies are a viable option. “I have loyal fans, but I don’t know how long I’m going to do rap,” says Nelly, pointing out that music industry sales are down and it’s affecting everyone.

“I don’t like to put others in my business, but me and Eminem are on the same page. We’ve been so high, the highest of the game. I wouldn’t say you get burned out. But you do look for new ways to challenge your energy, things that excite you more. I’m fortunate to have fans and No. 1 hits, but it’s bananas. You wonder how long you really see yourself doing this. That’s a question I have to ask myself,” Nelly says.

“I love making music, but the music business irks you, and that’s not a good thing. Music is 365. You have to think about the album, record it, promote it, do videos, tour, then you do it all over again without getting much time to reflect.”

Nelly likes the way Smith and others do it, recording albums “at their leisure because they want to do it.”

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Nelly says he began re-evaluating things after the recent death from leukemia of his sister Jackie Donahue. He’s also said that he wants to spend more time with his two children, which can be difficult while maintaining a rap career.

“These are the moments when I want to be around my children. I want to be more involved. I want to be around,” says Nelly. “You can do movies for six months and then be off for six months.”

The short shoot for “The Longest Yard” must have looked especially nice to Nelly. “The Longest Yard,” filmed last year in Santa Fe and Los Angeles, took a mere month to shoot. Nelly fell into the project. He and Sandler are friends and fans of each other, and he couldn’t resist the big-name cast, who kept things funny on the set.

“It was downright hilarious at times. I’m sitting there, and I’m new at this trying to remember lines and they’re free-styling. I’m trying to keep my composure, and they’re cracking jokes. But they’re still about business,” says Nelly. “Adam is naturally funny, one of those funny white guys you go to school with. And he can hoop. Those shots you see of him in the movie are really Adam. And when it comes to standup, I love Chris Rock. You don’t see a lot of comedians going back to standup where it’s just you and a microphone. He always goes back to his roots and keeps it hot.”

He referred to Reynolds as “the legend.” “We’re cracking jokes, and he’ll say “that reminds me of a story’ and you shut up and listen. He has generations of legacy, and you want to hear about the hot girls he’s been around. We were taking notes and asking questions and he was much obliged. He wasn’t shying away from our questions, and they weren’t questions I can repeat,” he said.

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Nelly was also quick to jump on board because of his well known affinity for sports. “I love my Rams, so I thought it was a movie I could relate to easily. I relate to guys playing football, so it’s not a big challenging role,” said Nelly, who played receiver at University City High School and running back in the Junior Football League.

Nelly’s Earl is the first African-American prisoner in the movie to play on the prisoner football team set up by Sandler’s Paul Crewe, a pro on the downswing, after the rest of the African-American prisoners resist. Earl agreed after witnessing Crewe hold his own on the basketball court with a much bigger African-American prisoner:

Nelly’s best scene takes place in the prison library, where Earl encounters white characters who liberally use the “N” word. This created some tension on the set.

“That was the toughest part,” he said. “After every take, they were apologizing. But everybody was great about it, and we talked about the scene before it happened, and I think that helped. And people cracked jokes to keep the tension down.”


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