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Antonique Smith Has Faith

The former poster girl for Rent shows off a new side of her talent as singer Faith Evans in the film Notorious.

Antonique Smith in Notorious
Even if you never saw Antonique Smith during her many years as a member of the Broadway company of Rent, you probably know her face; her pose as Mimi Marquez was on the show's posters (and on New York taxis) for a long time. Now, the actress and singer from East Orange, New Jersey is showing a different side of her talent as singer Faith Evans in the film Notorious, which opens nationally on January 16.

This bio-drama of Evans' late husband, the rapper Biggie Smalls (aka the Notorious B.I.G.) -- who was murdered in a drive-by shooting in 1997 -- is the first film for Smith, as well as acting newcomer Jamal Wollard, who plays Biggie. However, the cast also includes such experienced actors as Derek Luke (who plays Sean Combs), Anthony Mackie (who plays Tupac Shakur), and Angela Bassett (who plays Small's mom, Violetta Wallace). "I didn't feel like I worked differently from those people, but I was definitely trying to take notes and pick up tips," she says. "Everyone, especially Derek and Angela and our director George Tillman Jr., was a big help to me. There was a whole lot of love on that set."

Smith was in many ways a natural choice for the coveted role, since she was a longtime admirer of the singer. "I was a total fan of Biggie and Faith," she says. "So it was crazy reading the script, since i remembered all the stuff in the movie. But the audition was even crazier, because when I was younger, I had studied Faith's voice -- she has this wonderful airy tone -- and I used to try to sing like her in my bedroom."

Once Smith got the part, she got some insights into the role from her real-life counterpart. "I was able to talk to Faith before shooting and sometimes during it, and she pretty much told me how she felt emotionally during the time the movie takes place," she says. "But the big thing was that she trusted me to read her memoir, Keep the Faith, six months before it was even published. I had it on email, and it was kind of my study sheet during the times that I couldn't talk to her."

She says that getting into Evans' hair -- specifically, the blonde wigs she wore -- also helped with her characterization. "I am the kind of actor that when I put on a costume or wig, I feel like another person and I'm no longer Antonique," she says. "And it was a lot of fun being a blonde -- although after so many people told me I look better as a blonde, I began to think I don't look so good now. Maybe someday I'll put in some blonde highlights, but it would have to be a long time from now."

What she also learned from talking with Evans was the larger picture of her tumultuous marriage to Smalls. "They were really in love with each other when they got married; but more important, even after they broke up, they were trying to get back together. What happened was really tragic."

Fortunately, Evans has never experienced such tragedy, but she found her own ways of expressing grief during the movie's key funeral scene, "I was sobbing, but it was happy tears. I really thought about how grateful I was to be doing this. I wanted to be a movie star since I was three years old," she says. "During Rent, I used to really cry eight times a week -- our director Michael Greif thought I was crazy and my dad hated that I wanted to do that -- but I felt I had to. Sometimes I would think about who died that day or I'd read the news or I just felt broken down; but some nights, it was just happy tears."

Smith admits that as much as she loved playing Mimi, she wasn't interested in joining the current national tour of Rent -- until she found out one thing. "Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp actually requested that I go on tour with them, and that made me want to do it. It was truly the biggest honor ever," she notes. "But, in the end, I couldn't do it and still promote this movie."

While the actress hopes to return to Broadway someday, she's currently working on a solo album and considering the many film offers coming her way as a result of the buzz on her Notorious performance. "I want to be selective and not just do some movie because it's been offered," she says. "But I am so grateful for this success. I think Notorious has this message that applies to me as well: No dream is ever too big."

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