In The Land, out on Friday in theaters in New York and L.A., director Steven Caple Jr., captures Cleveland, gritty side while confronting tough decisions four characters make in order to escape poverty. Tragedy strikes when a group of venturesome boys get caught up in a cutthroat drug-ring after selling molly pills in hopes to finance their professional skateboard careers.
Before the story came together on film, rapper and first-time actor Ezri "Ezzy" Walker, who turns in a brilliant performance as the rational Boobie, was trying to strategize how to make his rap career take off from his family's home in West Side of Cleveland's housing projects. Caple cast him in the film after seeing Walker's impressive freestyle on Sway in the Morning. Boobie is a level-headed teenager in the skate crew who's focused on his dreams and helping his family. Walker also lends his rap skills on "Goodbye," from the The Land's soundtrack.
On Monday, Walker came into The FADER office and talked about the power of hard work, overcoming the hardships of Cleveland, and the gems he received from the film's producers, Nas and Erykah Badu.
The Land is ultimately about doing risky things to support a dream. How can you personally relate to that?
The director definitely wanted to showcase the four different boys and the choices that they made early on. One of the kids might have been more willing to sell the drugs and my character is more standoffish about it. He wanted to highlight the decisions we make early on in the film and for it mainly be about choices and how they can affect you. I can definitely relate to that. I didn't do the norm of what people can get caught up doing in Cleveland and always staying focused. I’m living proof of the choices that you make when you’re given the opportunity to make a right choice or a wrong choice. Some people are happy doing what they’re doing. I chose to put a pause on school in order to focus on music. When Sway called me, I was in my dorm room and he was like, “Do you want to fly to New York to do the show?”
One of my teachers wasn’t giving me time off so I ended up dropping the class to do the radio show. After that I started traveling more and I made the decision I made the decision to put a pause on school and do what I love to do.
Was that hard to do?
Yeah because my mom wanted me to go to school and a piece of me was like, “I've already been going through taken college courses in high school so I was already ahead of the curve.” Stopping school resulted in my losing my scholarship so it was a decision that I have to live with and it resulted in me doing Sway and catching the ear of the director of The Land.
Tell me about your character Boobie. How would you describe your character? What’s his connection to the story line?
Boobie is similar to me in real life. He’s got this crowd of friends and they’ve got ambitions and they’ve got dreams but are more inclined to make wrong choices than he is. He’s the voice of reason when they’re talking about selling molly, he’s asking the questions like, “What if this happens? What if this guy comes back for his stuff?"
The leader of the group and the boys start clashing and there’s tension between them in the film because I’m like, “Yo, let’s chill out.” It’s another guy in that group and he’s like, “Bro, we have to get out of the city.” He makes more conscious decisions, he’s also the best skater out of the group. It matches his character because he’s more controlled in his thinking and he’s smarter than the rest of the gang. He’s from the slums, his mom, doesn’t really do anything, but his dad works overtime all the time. He’s the kid that wants to help his family which is why he does follow through with selling drugs eventually.
You're also the only one from Cleveland out of the four boys. How did that impact the way you were able to connect with the script and what you were able to channel in the film?
If anything it probably impacted everyone else more. In interviews they say, "Ezri actually helped me bring the Cleveland character out of myself." In reverse, everyone else was more experienced in acting than I was so they helped me get more acclimated with it, where I was helping everybody else get more acclimated with the nature of Cleveland. It was a cool contrast and a cool balance.
What types of things did you all do together during the filming to immerse them into the vibe of Cleveland?
When the my casts members, Rafi Gavron from London, Moises Junior from Atlanta and Jorge Lendeborg, Jr who's from Miami came to Cleveland, they were staying in these nice lofts like 10 minutes from where I was staying in the hood. They took it upon themselves to say, “You can stay with us,” so that it could help with the chemistry. It kind of took me a little bit out of my environment but we were still going to skate parks just to get the vibe of what we were going to be dealing with on set. we went to a bbq with my family and got to see my little cousins and other family. I took them to a trap house where someone I know sells drugs out of. [Laughs]
As a native, how would you say the film captures Cleveland?
I would say that it captures Cleveland in a slightly different way because the Queen Pin is a white woman. It’s a specific story, but the moral of the story is very relatable. We shot all around Cleveland and it’s shown throughout the film, but how it’s portrayed is pretty spot on in a sense that a lot of people from Cleveland are ambitious and have dreams. But, it’s an underdog city and it’s hard to find resources and necessary means to make it out of the circumstances of “The Land.” It definitely portrays the struggle and the underdog mindset.
The next time you see a kid on a skateboard don’t just assume that he’s a young punk out here trying to cause trouble. They have their own story but you just see them as kids. If you see them in Cleveland you might only look at them as a drug dealer and a thug.
There are a lot of films with similar narratives built around boys and young men in the inner city who are navigating some sort of conflict brought on by their environment. How does The Land stand out from those?
I feel like it shows reality better than most films that are similar because it’s not just a happy ending. People might expect we find these drugs and since we’re trying to be skateboarders, we all get sponsors and move to L.A. or whatever. At least from my personal opinion and from what I’ve been hearing from people at screenings is that it’s way more rugged. This woman said she got night terrors because it’s so violent. Even still, she said it’s "eye opening" to reality. The next time you see a kid on a skateboard don’t just assume that he’s a young punk out here trying to cause trouble. They have their own story but you just see them as kids. If you see them in Cleveland you’ll look at them as a drug dealer and a thug.
The soundtrack for The Land is backed by Mass Appeal and features a lot of great artists including yourself. How important is music to the film and how does it feel to be able to both act and rap for the film?
It’s an independent film and to have all of these people involved is like a blessing and pushing it has been easy because of the director’s vision. Having Nas involved is important. I met him for the first time at Sundance at the film premiere. One of the actors in the film and one of the four boys, Rafi, is a producer and I didn’t know at first. So when I moved into the loft with the boys he bought a beat machine and I brought my equipment from my bedroom and we started making music. In the back of our minds we’re like, “We’re going to submit this to the director. It’d be awesome to get it into the film.” We were just making it with those hopes but at the end of the day we were just creating. We ended up making four songs, showed them to the director, and now two of them are on the soundtrack and in the film. One is featuring Machine Gun Kelly and the other is just me and it’s called “Goodbye.”
It was cool to be a musician, have music in the film, and have Nas listen to my music. It came full circle for me. Nas is an artist, so having him be the one to piece songs to certain scenes goes hand in hand with how the story flows. The stuff Nas picked is key and a lot of it is written for the movie. Erykah [Badu] being in the film and writing music catered to the film is also important.
Did any of the other artists like Erykah Badu or Nas pass along any gems to you?
Nas is a reserved individual and he doesn’t talk much. He just expressed his appreciation for what I’m doing and let me know just to keep going. Hearing it from these people who are successful just sticks with you. Just to stay focused. Even if it’s something they don’t tell me specifically, it’s just stuff that I pick up on. They give me the gems without even knowing. Erykah on the other hand she’s a quirky individual. I remember she called me one day and she was like, “I just wanted to see how you were doing. I just wanted to make sure you’re good and you’re safe out here, and you know what you want, and what you’re doing, because niggas done started flying cars. And it’s not a lot of space up here, so you gotta get your car up here before everybody else does.”