Usher's pulling no punches
US singer Usher gets serious about acting in new role as legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard
Grammy-winning R&B star Usher may have started dabbling in Hollywood with his acting debut in the 1998 slasher flick The Faculty.
But the US singer is finally getting serious about his film career with Hands Of Stone, a biopic on how Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) and his trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) changed each other's lives.
Opening here Aug 25, it sees Usher, 37, playing Duran's opponent, the legendary US boxer Sugar Ray Leonard.
He recalls how he talked to director Jonathan Jakubowicz about the role, which he thinks he got partly because he was a dancer.
Dressed in a black jogging suit with the obligatory bling, he tells M at the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills: "I wanted to live up to what Sugar Ray was, and I think Jonathan recognised that. I had read Sugar Ray's book. I think he was blown away that I had done that much research."
In his book, Leonard details his challenges, including being sexually abused by a coach when he was 15 and fathering a child at 17.
Usher said: "One thing he (Jakubowicz) did say is he had been advised that if you want someone to play Sugar Ray Leonard, you should go after a dancer."
Usher asked for Leonard's permission before committing to the role and spoke with the 60-year-old US veteran several times.
"I asked him questions because I really wanted to introduce the complicated nature to who Sugar Ray Leonard was. Reading his book, you understand that there is so much more to who he was as a person. He is not just an Olympic athlete, he was a person who dealt with racial issues and who had very complicated beginnings. I wanted to show a bit of a different perspective of Sugar Ray."
Does Usher see himself as a champion?
"Boxing is a metaphor for life and you are going to take punches and you are going to fall down. Do you get back up? What do you do to make yourself better if you do lose? What do you do the next time that makes you a better person?
"We are not perfect... Your personal declaration I think in many ways is what makes you or certifies you as a champion, even if you lose."
Given how physically demanding the part is, it is no surprise that a lot of training was involved.
Usher says: "I had to change my eating habits. I had to train two, maybe three times a day, and I had to understand the manner of recuperation, which has always been difficult for me because I am a night owl.
"I always work at night or move around in the night time. But as a boxer, you have to get your rest.
"And I wasn't just preparing for the role, I really stood toe to toe with amateur boxers in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Brooklyn and many other gyms all around the world."
IN THE RING: Usher (left) portrays Sugar Ray Leonard in Hands Of Stone and with the legendary boxer himself (right). PHOTO: AFP
Even though he was already a boxing fan before Hands Of Stone, he became more of one as a result of the training.
He says: "I did not prepare for this role as though this was some method thing that I just needed to pull together quickly. I spent the time working with trainers and amateurs... and I was probably in the best shape of my life when I finally arrived in Panama (for the shoot)."
That's not to say music is taking a back seat.
For Hands Of Stone, Usher co-wrote and performed the title track Champions with Panamanian singer Ruben Blades. His next album, Flawed, will be released soon and has already spawned the singles Crash and No Limit.
He says: "I am always trying to find ways to do something that I feel will introduce a different facet because it's not about success.
"If we have a No. 1 album and sell a million records in the first week, that would be great. But I did that. So what more can I do now as an artist?
"How can I be a contributor more artistically through all the mediums and how can I begin to tie those worlds together?
"I am not just an artist who sings or dances or acts, I am an artist who does all of it.
"And that's always who I wanted to be and how I wanted to be recognised."