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The pantheon of chart-topping singers turned successful actors is a small one. Frank Sinatra managed to do it. Cher and Barbra Streisand did, too — with all three winning Oscars in the process. Lady Gaga looks to be well on her way toward joining them. But in another corner of Hollywood, far from its glittery awards circuit, a different music superstar is making his own play at an acting career.
Machine Gun Kelly — the lanky, bleach-blond rapper turned pop-punker — has been quietly building a serious acting résumé while the rest of us were writing him off as just another rock star, snatching headlines and commandeering social feeds for his splashy romance with Megan Fox and red carpet scuffles with Conor McGregor.
But forget everything you knew, or thought you knew, about Machine Gun Kelly. Beginning with his name. He now wants to be known by his birth name: Colson Baker.
“I think it’s more just out of respect for the art,” Baker, 31, explains of the decision in a phone interview promoting his first starring role, in a violent period Western called The Last Son. “If you’re looking at a Basquiat piece and you have feelings about him personally,” he continues, “is that fair to the art because of how you feel about him personally?”
He’s previously had small or ensemble roles in films like 2014’s Beyond the Lights and 2019’s The Dirt, in which he played Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. He also had a small role in 2021’s Midnight in the Switchgrass, the Bruce Willis crime drama that introduced him to Fox, but he appears to have written off the poorly reviewed film, tweeting on the day of its release: “if i don’t talk or tweet about a movie i’m barely in it’s because it’s [trash-can emoji].”
But Last Son is a major step in his acting career — a meaty role that requires him to play a cold-blooded killer with deep-seated abandonment issues. As such, it felt time to hang up the Machine Gun Kelly moniker and get back to basics.
As Baker explains it, “There is music and then there’s movies.” In the music realm, he created Kelly — what he describes as a “character” who in the early 2010s rose to prominence out of the Cleveland hip-hop scene for his rapid-fire rhymes (that’s what the “Machine Gun” refers to) and outlaw swagger.
“I don’t feel like being Inception in a person,” Baker says, referring to the 2010 Christopher Nolan film. “Like there’s a character inside of a character inside of a character inside of a character. I’d rather it just be me playing a character in one world and then me playing a character in another world.”
Fans of his music, however, need not worry about their Spotify settings: He will remain Machine Gun Kelly in all musical endeavors. “That legacy has defined itself and solidified itself,” he says. “I love my fans and I don’t want to make them choose.”
Character building has always been part of Baker’s DNA. The product of a difficult childhood — Baker’s mother left the missionary family when he was very young, and he was raised, and clashed often, with his father — he turned to alter egos and hid behind veneers of hip-hop bravado as coping mechanisms. (A father himself, Baker shares custody of his own daughter, 12-year-old Casie, whom he had at age 18, and who accompanied him to this year’s American Music Awards, where he won favorite rock artist.)
“I was always playing characters because I was a nomad in my childhood,” says Baker, who lived in a dozen places around the globe before settling in Denver and later Cleveland. “I was very much lost and I found grounding in being other people, like the people that I saw on TV or the people I was listening to. I think they just combined and it turned into being a character on-screen.”
The character Baker plays in The Last Son — which debuts in theaters today as well as Redbox VOD — isn’t entirely out of left field. For starters, when viewers first glimpse of Cal, a hyper-violent outlaw being hunted down by his own father (Avatar’s Sam Worthington), he’s mowing down an army unit with a hand-cranked Gatling, the world’s first machine gun. Cal is also grappling with extremely complicated feelings about his mother (Heather Graham), a prostitute who has given him the only safety and affection he’s ever known.
“I mean, sure, there’s the obvious, which is, ‘Oh, he has a machine gun and there’s ‘Machine Gun’ in his name,'” he explains. “But if you look at that character, he’s tortured in his own, unique way. He has an Oedipus complex. He has a present relationship with his mom, which is something that isn’t in my life.”
Still, when it came to accessing Cal’s rage, Baker tapped into his own deep wells of torment. “He’s looking for love,” says Last Son director Tim Sutton of the character. “I think he’s chaos and he’s punk rock and he’s anarchic, but he’s also an abandoned child. And I think that’s what makes Colson so good in the role — he also had to work through that void. That’s what the character is all about. He’s Billy the Kid, if Billy the Kid were an existentialist.”
The result is a performance that may surprise the naysayers — nuanced, believable, and never less than engrossing. Baker’s own co-stars, veterans all, were impressed with his chops. “I thought he did a terrific job,” says Thomas Jane, who plays a U.S. Marshal on Cal’s tail in the film. “He’s not a trained actor, but he certainly does have the instinct for it.”
Adds Graham, who shared several Hamlet-esque bedroom scenes with Baker, “When you start to work with someone like that, you think, ‘Well, do they know what they’re doing?’ And then when I worked with him, I really liked how raw he was. He’s just kind of this raw talent, which I think is really cool. I really had a fun time working with him. I felt we connected in the scenes and that he was really emotionally present.”
Acting is just one branch of a rapidly expanding empire for Baker, which like any good provocateur, manages to amuse, confuse and titillate. His latest move: getting into the beauty and fashion space with a gender-neutral nail polish line, UN/DN LAQR, and a recent takeover of Calvin Klein’s Instagram account (along with close pal Pete Davidson).
But don’t let the hijinks fool you: He’s dead serious about his acting career. Would Machine Gun Kelly — sorry, Colson Baker — expand beyond biopics and oaters into others genres, say comedies or musicals? “I would,” he says. “And I have. 2022 is just a year to look out for all of that.”
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