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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. Biggie Smalls gets the silver-screen treatment while the Obamas get the drag-queen treatment, courtesy of RuPaul. Plus, the Screen Actors Guild threatens a strike in the new year. Could that mean even more reality television? Here to help us get up to speed on the latest in entertainment, we've got Allison Samuels, national correspondent for Newsweek Magazine. Hey, Allison.

Ms. ALLISON SAMUELS (National Correspondent, Newsweek): Hi.

CHIDEYA: Always great to see you. So, let's dive right in. "Notorious;" that's the biopic about slain hip-hip superstar Biggie Smalls. And one of the things that caught my attention was that they held an open call...

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: For the lead actor. So, what happened?

Ms. SAMUELS: They held an open call, and you know, they had all kinds of people come in. Nobody felt right. And then this guy whose name is Gravy who...

CHIDEYA: Gravy.

Ms. SAMUELS: That's his rap name, because he's a rapper, came in and Biggie's mother was there and she said, you know what? That's my son, because he looked so much like Biggie. He, you know, he's sort of the same build, he has sort of the same mannerisms, and that's the part about watching the film - it's so scary, particularly if you've met Biggie like I have...

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. SAMUELS: You're just sitting there going, wow! You know, if you just do a double take, you're like, that's him on screen. It was amazing. Just the way he held the mic, the way he stood in front of the mic, all of it was so much of Biggie.

CHIDEYA: I have to say, I can't wait to see it. I got a chance to interview Biggie at one of the big awards shows, like, 10, 12 - no, it's longer than that. Anyway, I'm old. But anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah, we all are.

CHIDEYA: A long time ago. And it was just, you know, just to see that world...

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: You're in that world a lot more than I am, but just to see that world is very interesting. So, Gravy...

Ms. SAMUELS: Yes.

CHIDEYA: Was shot before a radio appearance. What happened after that?

Ms. SAMUELS: Then he had lost his contract, because he had a contract at that particular point with a record company to come out with an album. But then he lost that, and then he just sort of went back down South until somebody called him and said, look, you should really come up here and, you know, audition for the Biggie role. And he decided, what do I have to lose, since I don't have my rap career anymore? And I can't imagine that this won't sort of send him to the next level as an African-American actor. And he had to gain, like, 45 pounds and all that other kind of stuff. So, he went through a lot of physical sort of changes to make it work, but I think it's worth it. It's a great film.

CHIDEYA: You know, what about the screenwriters? You've got Cheo Hodari Coker, Reggie Bythewood, black screenwriters. How in general, not just them, but how are black screenwriters doing these days?

Ms. SAMUELS: I mean, I think it's slow, you know? But I think it's always been slow for African-Americans. I mean, we've had our good times, and they weren't really good times. They were sort of more - where you worked a little more. But obviously, when anything impacts the industry, it's going to impact them even more because they weren't working as much in the first place. But when I look at a film like Biggie - I mean, "Notorious" - that is sort of the kind of thing that doesn't come around a lot, which is unfortunate. You just don't see it. But then Reggie's wife directed "The Secret Life of Bees," so you have sort of families that are sort of working together and sort of, you know, out there doing their thing. But it's a select group.

CHIDEYA: Super couples.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah. But it's a select group. You're only talking about a handful of African Americans that are getting that chance, and I think that's sort of the unfortunate part.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. And of course, you've got Biggie's son, 12-year-old son Christopher Wallace, playing his own father.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to move on actually to something that's a little lighter, RuPaul as the Obamas. You did a big cover story on Michelle Obama, and RuPaul has been on the drag scene for decades now, sometimes, you know, works supermodel work, you know, getting a lot of money and a lot of popular claims.

Ms. SAMUELS: Right.

CHIDEYA: Sometimes just kind of in the more underground scene, and now as the president and first lady. What's going on with that?

Ms. SAMUELS: I wish I understood what was actually going on.

CHIDEYA: Describe it.

Ms. SAMUELS: I mean, it's just sort of he, RuPaul - because he's been trying to do a show for awhile. And so, finally he has this show where he will portray sort of both of them, well, you know, because as a man - you know, I've seen him as a man, and he's very cute as a man - and then he looks fierce as a woman. So, he's going to be able to sort of interchange those two guys, and I think it's going to be absolutely fascinating. And it's perfect for him, because I think he's been wanting to sort of get out there and do something that people will really gravitate towards. And I think people will be fascinated by - you have this great couple, where it's just, like, the perfect opportunity for him to sort of show his skill as an actor, because he's been making movies; he's been doing all kinds of things underground; but now he has something where people will actually be able to see it on a regular basis.

CHIDEYA: So, he's going to play both of them, not just once, but over time?

Ms. SAMUELS: Over time, yeah. He's just, you know...

CHIDEYA: My goodness.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah, and he's going to try to sort of and see if it can sort of go on where he picks up from the news to sort of, you know, sort of portray different events that are going on with them. So, it's - I'm looking forward to that, because I like RuPaul, so I think it's going to be really interesting.

CHIDEYA: It will be interesting. All right, what about the Screen Actors Guild strike? What does that mean for people who watch movies or people who make them?

Ms. SAMUELS: I think, you know, it's going to be a problem. For us, I think, you know, again, TV is going to become even more important, and I think TV was going to become important anyway because of the recession. I think a lot of people - because they know it's really expensive to go out and see movies. So, I think it's sort of a bad time in a way just because of that. But I think, yes, reality TV is going to sort of become even bigger than it already is. And you look at the shows, and it's, like, you know, endless, the kind of shows reality TV-wise that are coming. And I think they sort of - you know, they have everything in place for that to sort of work out.

CHIDEYA: You already had the writers' strike.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: So, are people kind of, like, just take the deal and shut up, I mean...

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah. In this economic time, yeah. They're, like, you know, people are begging to keep jobs. People are sort of, you know, the auto workers, all that kinds of stuff. People are having to really work hard to sort of stay on track, so I don't know if they're going to get the sympathy that they would have gotten a couple of years ago. I think now people are, like, if they are offering you something, you need to work it out. You need to find a compromise.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we will certainly stay tuned to the screen. Always great to get your perspective and to see you during the holiday season.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yes. Merry Christmas.

CHIDEYA: Yes. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year, Kwanzaa.

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah. All of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: All of the nondenominational holidays, equinoxes, you know, et cetera.

Ms. SAMUELS: Everything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAMUELS: All of those things, yes.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, hon.

Ms. SAMUELS: OK. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was Allison Samuels, a national correspondent for Newsweek Magazine. She joined me here in the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California.

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