Freddie Gibbs and Diego Ongaro on the Realism of Down with the King

Maybe the last place anyone would expect to see Grammy-nominated rapper Freddie Gibbs is on a farm in the Berkshires, ranching under the tutelage of a scruffy, scrappy white man with a coincidentally deep, abiding love for rap music. The second to last place anyone would expect to see Gibbs is in an independent neorealist movie about the same subject that’s set in the same place, directed by a Parisian expat and staffed by non-professional actors playing versions of themselves—a la that scruffy, scrappy white farmer.

The farmer is Bob Tarasuk; the director is Diego Ongaro, whose last feature, Bob and the Trees, cast Bob as its lead in a story about the effects of the 2014 polar vortex on his livelihood and mental wellbeing. In Ongaro’s new film, Down with the King, which premiered at Cannes 2021 and went live on Digital and VOD last month (courtesy of Sony’s Stage 6 Films), Bob once again plays a version himself and reprises his role as a narrative fixture, but the focus is on Gibbs, likewise playing a version of himself: Mercury “Money Merc” Maxwell, a top-tier rapper hunkering in the Berkshires to record his new album. But Mercury’s worn out. He’s enervated. Rapping, and simply existing in the world of contemporary rap, has just about sucked him dry. Instead of making music, he spends his time with Bob learning how to farm.

Down with the King sits on this “fish out of water” bedrock, but pivots away from the comic overtones associated with the subgenre. Ongaro treats the film as a character study, asking Gibbs to dig deep into his own experiences—as a rapper, a father, a son, an American, a Black man living in America—to give Mercury’s fatigue grist. Their efforts breathe honest life through the screen, and the work marries Ongaro’s gifts as a filmmaker with Gibbs’ gifts as an actor; both are given an anchor through the casting of non-professionals performing their daily routines in rural Massachusetts.

Ongaro and Gibbs’ relationship reads as incongruous on the page, at least at first blush. But Gibbs wanted to branch out as an actor with “something more avant garde” rather than “get a bunch of guys together and be gangster and shoot a gangster-ass movie about selling drugs.” That’s a played-out cliché. Meanwhile, Ongaro saw Gibbs in the music video for “Crime Pays,” where Gibbs runs a zebra farm and berates workers for doing a shit job shoveling shit; Ongaro instantly knew he wanted to work with Gibbs and his raw charisma. Through the mixed blessing of COVID, which forced everyone to lock down at home (and also kept Gibbs from touring), Ongaro met him through his manager, told him about Down with the King, and voila: He had his lead and Gibbs had the acting opportunity he’d been craving.

Paste Magazine spoke with Ongaro from his home in Connecticut, and with Gibbs from the set of his next project, about the fruit their collaboration bears in the movie, how the story reflects Gibbs’ background (and how much), the benefits of using a cast of seasoned actors and non-professionals, and how even a story about farming in a place like the Berkshires speaks to American white supremacy without even trying.

Paste Magazine: I didn’t see any interviews with you and Diego together. So I’m really glad the two of you were able to make it, because it feels natural to me that you guys should be in the same room, so to speak, talking about the film. This feels like the meeting of two different artists. Did that quality define the movie for you two? Was it about both of you bringing your experiences and perspectives together?

Freddie Gibbs: Yeah, it was the perfect dynamic, you know what I mean? Now when I work, I’ll be trying to look for directors that work similarly to how Diego works, because he made me feel real comfortable. He ushered me into acting. He made the transition as easy as possible. It was like learning on the spot and on the go, and he simplified the game plan. That was the beauty of it.

I think you cited him as a brother/father figure.

Gibbs: Yeah, definitely.

Diego Ongaro: Let’s stay with the “brothers!” I’m not that much older than you.

Diego, you use a lot of non-professional actors—Bob, of course, is a major figure in this—but you have that next to Freddie, next to other actors like Jamie Neumann. This is not a new thing for them. Was it important to you to have that professionalized component to help bridge the gap between the non-professional component, for the story and for Freddie? And Freddie, did that feel like that to you, too?

Ongaro: It was extremely important to, in addition to Bob, have Freddie’s character be the real deal, be a real rapper, and have Freddie come in with his experience, his personality, his rap skills, his sense of humor, and have that be very real. For the other roles, I felt like we could bring in some seasoned actors to be bouncing off of, and fitting them within that canvas would work and would help make it a little more real as well for these characters.

That’s something I didn’t do on my first film. It was mostly non-professional actors. This was Freddie’s first role, almost, although he has done a lot of music videos and shorts and stuff like that. But yeah, it was really important to have these two elements meet: The first time actors or non-actors meeting with more professional actors. And I think it worked really well.

Gibbs: Yeah, I think so too. Working with Jamie in particular, I think that helped sharpen me up. She is so seasoned as an actor, and that was a blessing, that I got to work with her real closely. I took some things from her as well.

At the same time, you vibe so well with Bob. He is a larger than life figure. He feels like the kind of person you hear about like he’s some kind of giant coming down out of the mountains. He’s got such a commanding presence. It feels like in that regard, you two are really well matched.

Gibbs: Definitely, man. With Bob, the chemistry was crazy. Like you said, Bob is definitely a larger than life figure in a little white guy’s body. [laughs]

It was real easy to talk to Bob. And like I said, everybody on the set was really comfortable with each other, and you know, that’s rare. I’ve been on sets where there’s a lot of tension, and you’ve got actors who just want to sit in their trailers and don’t want to talk. But everything was real comfortable. I mean, we were in Bob’s home. He was real hospitable, and his wife showed love. It was a real family atmosphere on this movie set.

There’s so much tension, so much rough conflict that comes up in this. How did you guys come together, in that comfortable atmosphere, to make that happen?

Ongaro: It’s a combination of what was on the page, what we made up for the story as conflict for the character, whether it’s an inner conflict for him being tired of the music business or an outside conflict with Bob, for example, and then matching it to Freddie’s life experience. This was the beauty of Freddie and I meeting on this, was that Freddie could really relate to the character, having been through a lot of stuff in his life and his career as well, just the fatigue from that hustle and that violence and the rap game. It was also something he felt very strongly, and Freddie can talk more about this, but I think that really helped him draw on that dark side, and that inner conflict that you can really read on his face.

It was wonderful to watch that, because I could see Freddie do nothing and I was just happy with it. The face and the body told so much already. But luckily it’s not just a film about Freddie doing nothing. [laughs]

Gibbs: I can relate to Mercury’s pain and the things that he was feeling coming from the rap game, because I can share some of those same sentiments. I’m not gonna say it was easy to be Mercury because I don’t agree with his feelings all the time, but it was certain things—like the tension with other rappers, being distant from your children, things of that nature—I could add into the character because I’ve been through those things in my personal life for real.

So it was easy to sit there and cry about it sometimes, because I’m going through this right now and it’s hitting home as I’m on set. The character was complex. He was definitely going through a lot, mentally, so I got to bleed a little bit of my own experiences into it.

Ongaro: To add to this: I think also, Freddie, correct me if I’m wrong, but you being away from your life for, I don’t know, four or five weeks, that was a long time in the middle of nowhere, far from the people you love and your family. It must have almost felt like when—I forgot, what do you call that?

Gibbs: It was like method acting.

Ongaro: Yeah, method acting, a little bit. Because you were really living it!

How much of Mercury’s life, on a really personal level, echoes your own?

Gibbs: I would say a great portion of it. I would say about maybe 75% of Mercury. I mean, it’s scary to watch the movie sometimes, man, but it’s crazy because I gotta watch it every week because I feel like, as of right now, that’s my best piece as an actor. As I’m trying to grow as an actor, I’m using that. It’s like my study piece, you know? But it’s definitely eerie to watch sometimes because I’m like, “Yeah, I feel that too.”

But then, it’s other parts of the film that I watch and I’m like, “Okay, Mercury can rap his ass off, I can rap my ass off, too. Okay, cool. Let me go make another album.” You know what I’m saying? It’s inspiring in so many ways and yet it’s scary in some ways.

“Scary” is such a big word, but this is also something that you feel like you have to go back to. Subjecting yourself to something that you’re scared of, what impact is that having on you with your current acting jobs, or your next album?

Gibbs: This role ushered me into acting even more, made me take it even more seriously. I was auditioning and doing things of that nature, but I felt like I wasn’t getting anything that was speaking to me. I feel like Diego gave me that. Moving forward, I feel like this movie definitely made me a sharper actor. It’s probably making me a better rapper, too, because it’s given me a new life experience, other things to write about and make songs about other than the things that I’m used to.

I would turn around that question for Diego too. What are you taking from this for your next movie?

Ongaro: I mean, working with Freddie on this was just incredible because the instinct that he has is something unmatched. He would do something sometimes with the little bit of information that I gave him, or that we talked about before the scene, and he would just either nail it or do something completely different that would also be amazing. I mean, the sense of timing that he has—not even talking about rapping or anything, just acting or being in the moment. That was amazing.

I want to keep making movies in the future mixing up professional actors and also people who are starting up or non-actors. To me it is this documentary aspect of things that I like to see and watch, and mix it with more fictional stuff, and tell my narrative like that. That’s something I wanna keep exploring when making films.

Freddie’s way of working was very different from Bob’s. My first experience was with Bob, and then working with Freddie in a way was easier because I think he’s very in control of what he’s doing. He blew me away. The memory you have, Freddie, is just incredible. This film was unscripted, so when we had a good take on a scene, we would sometimes say, “Okay, let’s try to do that in the same vibe.” And Freddie would be able to completely match the dialogue that he had on the take that was good, like almost a carbon copy of what he just did because his memory is incredible. That’s something I’ve never seen before.

I’ll take a moment to say that I was also mesmerized by [Freddie’s] work in the movie. The gravity around Merc feels heavier, like he’s being pulled down all the time by everything. Do you feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world, like Mercury?

Gibbs: The rap game could definitely make you feel that way, because we’re in a business that’s so predicated on how people feel about your work, and it’s difficult. Another thing, a main thing that I related to in the film, to Mercury, was his age. He was getting up there in age—as a rapper, not as a man. Late 30s is young. But in the stage of rap today, I feel like we really hit it right on the head, because we mimicked where rap was really at. It didn’t feel like we were in the ‘90s or early 2000s. I feel like we really put the state of rap where it really is, and what it is right now is youthful.

It’s flooded, it’s oversaturated. I could relate to Mercury not wanting to be a rapper anymore. Rap used to be in a place of prestige. It used to be a prestigious thing, to be a rapper, you know, to be the Jay-Zs, the Biggies, names like that. I feel like we only have a handful of rap superstars anymore, because anybody can set up a microphone in their bedroom and be a rapper on SoundCloud tomorrow. The gate’s been busted wide open, so the prestige of the job is kind of lost, and I think it left Mercury kinda lost, you know?

And I could be in that space sometimes when I’m recording an album. I’ve still got a fanbase, but you wonder as an artist, is my fanbase gonna turn on me because I’m not doing the music that a Little TJ, a Little BJ, or Little whoever is doing? [laughs] Mercury got to this point of his career because he’s not one of the Littles anymore. I’m not Little Freddie anymore. The transition of growing up being a rapper and becoming a grown man is difficult. Ask Lil’ Bow Wow.

What happens when you’re Big Bow Wow?

Gibbs: Yeah, exactly! What do you do? You know? And as a man you get tired of it, all of that gangster shit. I know I’m at that point in my life. I come from that. I’m from the projects in Gary, Indiana. There’s certain shit that I just don’t want to be around anymore, and rap brings a lot of those elements to your life, because let’s keep it real: This is a street-oriented profession. A lot of guys in rap come from the streets because that’s one of the products of white supremacy in America. It’s only certain industries that, as Black men, we feel like we can get into, even though that’s a farce. That’s not true. But lack of education will make you feel like, “all I can be is a rapper, all I can be is a basketball player,” or some shit like that. It’s difficult for a lot of us to take ourselves to new heights.

A movie like this can make a comment about white supremacy without having to even mention it. There’s no point where that’s brought up directly, but you can feel it a little bit in the atmosphere. Mercury is the only Black man out in this area. I’m curious if that was a subject you guys talked about, thought about or brought up on the set, or if it seeped in unconsciously.

Gibbs: We didn’t talk about that at all. No, I think that the story just naturally unveils, uncovers all of these thoughts and all of these feelings. We weren’t trying to make fuckin’ Selma or a goddamn Million Man March movie or shit like that, you know what I’m saying? [laughs] I think that we played the characters out and the raw emotions and the raw feelings and the thoughts, they come about from watching the film. It’s thought-provoking. It makes you think, “Well, what if this, or what if that?”

Ongaro: Just backtracking a little bit, this was in my mind making this film a little. I mean, it has to be.

Gibbs: Right.

Ongaro: You’re making a film about a Black man in America and in a white city, and I’m white, and everyone’s asking me, “Oh, how are you going to do this? Why are you going to do this?”

The point of making this film, the main subject was not about race. It was about this man [who’s] lost, but it’s there, it’s present. It had to be. We thought about it in the writing a little bit by incorporating small things. But when Freddie came on, it was more about how Freddie would incorporate that, his race, and he does that really subtly throughout some of the dialogue in the film. When he is with the beat maker, and he talks to him, at some point they get into an argument and he’s like, “Oh, that’s every white person in the music business, they want to tell you what you have to do.” And you have some similar argument with Bob.

And I had some little things, like [Mercury’s] windshield gets broken, and you don’t really know who’s done that. A lot of people who read the pitch might think, “Oh, okay, well, he’s gonna move into the countryside. He’s gonna meet a bunch of right-wing fundamentalists, and they’re gonna be out for blood.” That’s not at all what we wanted to make. But it’s there in threads, and I think Freddie brings in his own experience and his own take on this in a really subtle way. I think that’s really impactful, without being on the nose.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.