Detroit native Xzibit shines on ‘Empire’

Rapper, actor says he’s nothing like Shyne, the villainous character he plays on the hit Fox drama

Mekeisha Madden Toby
Special to The Detroit News

Xzibit is having fun playing a villain on “Empire.”

This is no easy feat when one considers how much fans love to hate Lucious (star Terrence Howard) on the hit Fox drama. But Xzibit’s character Shyne is more prone to violence than Lucious, beating down a bodyguard for leering at his adopted sister Nessa (Sierra McClain) in one episode and in another, choking Nessa when she refused to sing on a track he was producing.

“Being in the music industry as long as I have, I’ve known producers who conduct themselves like Shyne,” Xzibit, 42, said in a recent phone interview. “I’ve been around that and it gives me a lot to draw from, but I’m not going to say any names. We’ve all heard the stories, you know. But I drew from those guys and threw in a little Ike Turner.

“There are a lot of layers to Shyne. One minute, he’s trimming a bonsai tree, and the next he’s beating somebody up.”

Acting suits the rapper and former “Pimp My Ride” host, who was born and raised Alvin Joiner on Detroit’s northeast side. The middle child of five moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the age of 9 to live with his father shortly after his mother passed away. He’s still close to his uncles and cousins in Detroit, he said. At age 17, Xzibit moved to Los Angeles to live with his older sister and pursue his rap dreams, but also considered other professional pursuits.

“I never thought I would be a rapper and an actor. Absolutely not,” the husband and father said. “I wanted to be an architect. I took classes and everything, but it didn’t really work out. I guess this was meant to be. One door closes and another one opens.”

To that point, when Xzibit first auditioned for “Empire,” he read for the role of Tariq, the FBI agent and Lucious’ vengeful half brother. The role went to actor Morocco Omari instead, but the producers liked what they saw and when they created Shyne, they called Xzibit first.

Xzibit’s list of acting credits also includes “Detroit 1-8-7,” “Hawaii Five-0,” “8 Mile” and the upcoming independent film “Sun Dogs.” The latter stars Melissa Benoist (“Supergirl”), Allison Janney (“Mom”) and Ed O’Neill (“Modern Family”) and is slated for an early 2017 release.

More than anything, Xzibit said he is grateful for every opportunity, but hopes fans of “Empire” remember he’s not Shyne in real life, especially when addressing him on Twitter and Instagram.

“My timelines are blowing up, but dang, I’m playing a character,” Xzibit said with a chuckle. “ ‘Please relax and make the separation, guys.’ It’s crazy. I didn’t really choke Sierra (the actress who plays Nessa).

“I was in ‘8 Mile’ 13 years ago and people still ask me ‘Man, why’d you let Eminem do you like that?’ It was just a role. It was written down that way, my dude. I can’t beast and be Xzibit in the middle of a movie. It doesn’t work that way.”

The fact that some fans aren’t able to differentiate the real Xzibit from the parts he plays has a lot to do with the actor’s ability to immerse himself, said TV producer Gail Berman. She worked with Xzibit five years ago as an executive producer on the failed Fox pilot “Weekends at Bellevue” but still recalls his acting abilities.

“I love him. He’s a really good actor,” said Berman, whose producing credits also include “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel” and the recent Fox musical reboot “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again.”

“Because of ‘Empire,’ people are finally starting to appreciate what a really fine actor Xzibit is,” Berman said. “He just brings a lot of authenticity and a sense of humor to the work. And he brings beauty because of that thing, that spark in his eye that makes him very believable. He’s a very special actor.”

Music also plays a part. When he’s not acting, Xzibit is in the studio working on new songs and hosting the Dr. Dre Beats 1/Apple Music radio show “The Pharmacy” a couple times a month.

“I’m doing what I love and focusing on the things that I have the energy and joy to do, and they’re all related to my creativity and my art,” Xzibit said. “The whole cast and crew on ‘Empire’ is so talented and have made this such an easy and enjoyable experience. To be able to stand with them and bring added value to what they’re doing is a blessing.”

Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic and entertainment writer.


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