Beyond the Lights: Machine Gun Kelly Learns to Act Like Himself - DJBooth

Beyond the Lights: Machine Gun Kelly Learns to Act Like Himself

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The first time I saw Machine Gun Kelly he was contemplating jumping from a balcony and I was contemplating having to catch him. It was 2011 and the hip-hop world was just beginning to realize that they were going to have to reckon with the young punk, myself included. So I had made my way over to his SXSW show and that’s how I found myself staring up at the wire of tattoos and energy that was MGK, microphone cord wrapped around one arm, the other holding onto the scaffolding at the side of the stage.

In retrospect, there was never really any doubt. Machine Gun Kelly leaned out over the crowd then pulled back repeatedly, as if some still rational part of his brain was telling him the potential broken arm wasn’t worth it, but really that rational part of his brain had been buried the second he touched the stage, maybe before, maybe years before. He was always going to jump, and he did, disappearing for a moment beneath a sea of hands and then re-emerging triumphant and sweaty and a rock star. The Wild Boy was here. 

The first time I spoke to MGK was at the House of Blues in L.A. during a Tech N9ne show.  I had followed a friend to the bar, as fate would have it that friend also knew MGK, and before I knew it I was downing a shot with the same man I had seen destroy more than a few stages. Not figuratively destroy, literally destroy. And yet the Kelly I was now talking to with was almost disarmingly relaxed. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect…this. After a few minutes he went home early, leaning on a cane and subtly limping, seemingly due to an injury I didn’t have the guts to ask him about, and I was left wondering which MGK was the real MGK: the high octane rock star who trashed hotel rooms, or the supremely chill guy I had just spent 15 minutes talking about Tarantio movies with? Was there a “real” Machine Gun Kelly? Or was the real Machine Gun Kelly both of those people?

So the next time we talked, during a press run for the movie Beyond the Lights, I asked him. He was admittedly high, which may have made him more receptive to my probably overly-complicated questions about his “true” self, but he didn’t hesitate to dive right into the conversation. In some ways, he explained, he had created Machine Gun Kelly as an armor to protect himself against all the painful experiences of his youth, but he wore that armor so constantly, for so many years, it became his skin.

“It gets to where you really think you're Machine Gun Kelly,” he said. “That's all you know. I erased my life prior to that in my head, because I was such a loser. Machine Gun Kelly is who I am. “

It was a transformation that served him well, giving him the energy and strength to ascend from a hard fought childhood to an artist with an army of loyal fans, but while Machine Gun Kelly was fearless, that fearlessness came at a price. Onstage he was larger than life, and people loved him for it, but especially in 2014 when the cell phone cameras are always on, when there are always people watching, are you ever really offstage?

“There was a point in my career when I couldn't turn it off, and that became a problem,” he explained. “But now I’m using my shows as therapy. My energy never runs out, and now I’m using all that angry energy I had and I’m channeling it into fun energy.”

And now he’s pursuing another outlet for his apparently infinite energy - acting. In Beyond the Lights he plays Kid Culprit, an already famous artist with a bad boy streak. It’s a role that’s so close to Machine Gun Kelly it didn’t require him to stretch far. Show up to the set, say your lines, flash the tattoos, go home. What more’s needed? Right?  

Or at least that’s how it would seem on the surface. But in some ways playing Kid Culprit brought MGK closer to who he was before MGK existed, before he built and began to live inside the suit of armor. As he explained, “When I was on the red carpet for the movie premiere, I heard photographers yell Colson, that’s my name, and it shocked me. That was the first time I'd really heard my name in public in the past six years, probably since I graduated high school. When I heard my name, it was like, you're not just an artist, you're a human.”

During the shooting of Beyond the Lights there were scenes when MGK was required to unleash that trademark energy, and while those would seem to be the most potentially stressful scenes, when the most people were watching and the spotlights were brightest, in truth that’s where MGK now feels the most at home. Where he found himself uncomfortable, when he truly felt like an actor, was during the quieter scenes where it was just him and Noni, the female protagonist, talking in the trailer. It was quiet and intimate and vulnerable, things that Machine Gun Kelly isn’t exactly well know for. So in order to pull those scenes to off, he had to reconnect with that person he was before rap, a person he now almost has trouble recognizing.  

For Colson Baker, Machine Gun Kelly is a role he’s been playing for so long it’s no longer a role. It is him; the ultimate commitment to method acting. So maybe that’s why his charisma translates so smoothly to the big screen, and why he’s set on pursuing acting even further; he’s got a sequel to the cult-classic SLC Punk on the horizon, as well as a major studio thriller he wasn’t yet able to divulge the details on.

And as he continues to live as MGK he’ll continue to transition through a rotating cast of characters, but is that really any different than what we all do every day? Who’s the real me? The father who watches Doc McStuffins with his daughter before bedtime, or the drunk who hits Vegas with his boys? Truthfully, I can play both of those roles with ease, and more, and all of them are me. So whether he’s Colson, MGK, Kid Culprit or whatever name the new script says, maybe Machine Gun Kelly’s actually not that different from all of us. We just get to watch him figure out who he is onstage, while we wait below, wondering if he’ll jump and if we’ll have to catch him. 

[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. His Twitter is @RefinedHype.]

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