Usher Raymond IV as Sugar Ray Leonard
By Darlene Donloe
Usher Raymond, known to his fans simply as Usher, has already made a name for himself as one of the most popular singers in the industry.
It’s been 20 years since Usher came on the scene - wowing fans with not only his luscious vocals, but his incredible dance moves.
The performer, who, according to the Recording Industry Assn. of America has sold more than 65 million albums worldwide, has amassed an impressive list of hits.
There isn’t much more Usher needs to prove. The eight-time Grammy winner has attained nine Hot 100 #1 hits (all as a lead artist) and 18 Hot 100 top-10 singles.
All of that is notable, but Usher, who recently completed a stint as a coach on The Voice, isn’t interested in resting on previous accomplishments.
He has literally thrown his hat into the ring, taking on the role of Sugar Ray Leonard in the drama, Hands of Stone, set for nationwide release Aug. 26.
The film, written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, follows the life of Panamanian fighter Roberto Durán (Edgar Ramirez), who made his professional debut in 1968 as a 16 year-old and retired in 2002 at the age of 50. In June 1980, he defeated Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond IV) to capture the WBC welterweight title, but shocked the boxing world by returning to his corner in their November rematch, famously saying the words "no mas" (no more).
At age 72, legendary trainer Ray Arcel (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement to coach Durán. Arcel convinces the middleweight boxer that winning ultimately comes down to strategy. Duran prepares for a bout against Sugar Ray Leonard, the undefeated lightweight champion. Five months later, on Nov. 25, 1980, the two meet again for an infamous rematch that makes boxing history.
Hands of Stone stars Raymond, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Ana de Armas, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ellen Barkin, Ruben Blades and John Turturro.
Usher Raymond IV
I recently caught with the handsome singer (U) at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about his career and why he decided to spread his wings as a performer.
Q: Is it daunting playing a cultural legend?
U: Normally, you don’t have the benefit of having to prepare someone to pay homage to you and what you’ve done in your life. Normally you pass and then someone does a tribute. I was fortunate to represent an icon to a lot of African American people. Rather, we knew what his value was and what he represented – not just as a boxer, but as a staple of what we could become. That message hadn’t necessarily been as relevant until the last 10 or 15 years. There are some things we’ve been able to accomplish, but now having these benchmarks - one, having an African American who was an Olympic medalist who was sought after for endorsements. That was a major accomplishment for African American people. As a kid I didn’t know that. Isn’t it great that in this time we have icons who didn’t have short lives.
Q: What was your hope in playing the part? Did you get Sugar’s (Ray Leonard) permission to play him?
U: I hoped that I would only represent the greatest parts of who he was. The movie isn’t necessarily about Sugar (Ray Leonard). It’s Duran’s movie. But Sugar has a big part in the story of what Roberto (Duran’s) legacy represents. I was mindful. I did want to get his blessings before I took it on. I wanted to be prepared before asking.
(l-r) Usher Raymond IV as Sugar Ray Leonard and
Edgar Ramirez as Roberto Duran
Q: How did you approach the role?
U: I wanted to be able to tell his story from a different angle. I wanted to show his masculinity. I want to show him defending his woman. What happened earlier between Duran and Sugar’s wife did lead to him losing, but he stood up. Duran was smart. He got to Sugar in his mind. Roberto was macho in his approach. Sugar we didn’t know to be that kind of guy. I wanted to show the masculine side of Sugar Ray Leonard. I didn’t ask him for permission until I read the book. That’s when I asked if he was alright with me playing him.
Sugar said, “Man my wife loves you more than she loves me.” So I asked him if I could sit with him and ask questions. He said yes.
Q: What was your regime in preparing for the role?
U: Well, for that I have to give you the backstory of this film. We started with a different cast. We had an incredible script. We had thought from the beginning that we wer going to shoot in Panama. One of the actors had a conflict. We had to hold. We then were going to shoot in Puerto Rico. Deniro (Robert), the director and myself had the idea to reach out to Panama. They were with it. They put a substantial amount of money toward it happening. It was a year from that date. I had other obligations to meet. But I still wanted to do the film. I had turned down tours, The Voice, the album and touring internationally. That preparation, that year of preparation was a lot. I reaped the benefits of it, though.
Q: You had an afro in the movie.
U: I grew my hair out, which was fun. Sugar asked me if I was going to have an afro. I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Cool, pick it all the way out.” I had thin, fine hair. I loved every aspect of preparation, including getting to know the character. I was standing toe to toe with amateur boxers. I wanted to know the pressure that real boxers go through. I would do three rounds with them. I had pads on. I loved it. I was in the best physical shape of my life.
Q: So, do you have the acting bug? Do you want to do more acting?
U: I have now begun to understand why Larenz Tate is so particular about what he chooses to do. I now understand, right? You only have so many shots to tell the story of who you are as a person.
Q: Talk about how you prepare for a scene and what it was like working with this director.
U: I’m a collaborative person. Everything I’ve done has been a collaborative effort. We had focused on being actors and athletes. We were in a transformed preparation. We didn’t’ have to get out of it, we were prepared. You look in the mirror. It was about his style. I liked how he (Jakubowicz) wrote the story. I read the script twice, then I had someone else read it. That way I can hear things I didn’t hear or see myself. It began to make me understand how I’m going to approach the character. One thing I will say that I liked from Jonathan (Jakubowicz) is the idea of spirituality and method.
Q: Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Sugar’s wife, Juanita. Talk about working with her.
U: Jonathan brought me Jurnee. He made us lay on this ottoman and lay next to each other and look up at the ceiling and then he through words out to her. He said we had to spiritually connect with this to understand the relationship. He (Jakubowicz) wrote with a 360 perspective. People connect to an emotional part of the character. You’ll find yourself crying. You’ll wonder, “Why am I crying?” That was a great experience for me. There was a psychological effect to him losing the first fight.
(l-r) Edgar Ramirez, Robert DeNiro and Ruben Blades
Q: Did you learn anything about Sugar that we didn’t see in the film?
U: I learned that Sugar Ray is a modest person. It has everything to do with where he started and
I’ll say it for him. When he I think that was the first time he had to sit in his arrogance and confidence. And, I don’t mean that in a bad way. My whole focus is to show how they focus. The whole move was arrogant. You never saw him do that. But his spirit was like, “this is my show. I’m going to give you a show. I have Ray Charles getting read to sing, this is my house.”
Q: Was there a struggle to make this kind of movie?
U: Yes, there is risk and it takes discipline. If everybody didn’t look at it as a labor of love, it wouldn’t have happened. Everybody had to make the commitment. As investors we decided to do what we had to. It was a great story. It’s important to preserve the essence of our icons.
Hands of Stone (The Weinstein Company) opens nationwide Aug. 26.
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity), Running time: 105 min.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (oh, yeah) and E (excellent), Hands of Stone gets an O (oh, yeah).