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Calm, Cool, Collected

By Andrew Stone
Posted On Sep 21, 2016
Calm, Cool, Collected

Few entertainers have landed as many knockout punches as iconic rapper and affable actor LL Cool J. How does he do it, and what’s the secret to his incredible physique? Read on.

Lyrically on point and impeccably produced, the songs of James Todd Smith—better known to the world as LL Cool J—are counted among the most significant anthems in hip-hop history, and rightly so. “I’m Bad,” “Around the Way Girl,” Going Back to Cali,” “Mama Said Knock You Out”… these tracks blew our hair back when they first hit the airwaves, and they still get your feet moving to this day. Mr. Smith, a natural born entertainer, has parlayed his chart-topping charm into a thriving acting career, grabbing attention in films like Any Given Sunday, Deep Blue Sea, and S.W.A.T. For six seasons, he and costar Chris O’Donnell have played a clever crime-fighting duo at the helm of NCIS: Los Angeles, and this past summer, he hosted the hit celebrity competition show Lip Sync Battle on Spike.

Here, LL shares his thoughts on his rock ‘em, sock ‘em staying power, respecting your audience, and the secret to his success in TV’s golden age.

We’ve been having fun watching you host the goings-on of Lip Sync Battle. Are you surprised by how popular that show has been? 

I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by it. When you start a show like that you’re always hopeful people will enjoy it, but we had no idea it would end up becoming as popular as it has.

You’re a pretty universally likable guy. Did hosting this show feel like a natural fit? 

I always just try to do the best job I can and stay in my lane. I try to be funny, but I never get delusional and start to think I’m Billy Crystal. It’s really important to respect the audience and keep it all really simple. I have to give the Grammys a lot of credit. I’ve hosted 10 or so Grammy Award presentations, and it’s given me a pretty good foundation for this show.

There is no shortage of fantastic shows on the air right now, drawing tons of talented actors. How does it feel to be on the small screen so much today?

We keep hearing that this is the golden age of television, and it really is. There are lots of great actors doing great work. I’m really excited that I get the opportunity to live out my dreams and entertain people. The average person faces so many issues throughout a day. Now, I’m not curing cancer, but hopefully I’m making people smile.

A big part of making others smile is having a great time yourself. What does the acting experience bring to you? 

It’s all about having fun, and no different really from making music. A part of me is still all about making music; to this day, I very much enjoy going out on tour. There’s nothing like the instant gratification that comes from performing live. If you’re doing something right or wrong, they’ll definitely let you know.

NCIS: Los Angeles has been going strong for six years now, yes? 

Yes. We actually just had a great big get-together to celebrate the show’s 150th episode. A lot of the studio crew came out to help us celebrate. It’s been great to acknowledge the minds behind the show, and to talk about things going well.

Your NCIS: Los Angeles costar, Chris O’Donnell, recently spoke about the great bond you’ve developed. What’s that relationship like for you?

Chris is such a great guy to work with, and brings a lot of positive energy to the set. We laugh every day and he teases me. No one else does that, and I really appreciate it. For example, I’m not a morning person at all. I’ll show up on set looking like I need about 10 cups of coffee before I get going. He won’t miss the opportunity to point it out. That keeps me humble and allows us to be friends. But we truly are a family—the cast and the crew. We’re all blessed and lucky to have this kind of camaraderie and energy going on.

Recently, Vanity Fair wrote an article out of the blue about the making of the 1990 album Mama Said Knock You Out. It spoke highly of your significance in the evolution of hip-hop. Were you surprised when you read it? 

Yes, I have to say that was a very positive article. The press has been very good to me through the years. That whole album was so fun to create, and it’s pretty wonderful to celebrate the success of a record I put a lot of love into so many years ago.

The Mama Said Knock You Out era also introduced the world to an extremely in-shape vision of LL Cool J. Your fitness became the stuff of legend. What’s your approach?

As far as my fitness goes, I make sure to mix it up between weights and cardio, as well as boxing. As a meal replacement, I’ll often do some whey protein with a banana and a large spoonful of cottage cheese. It fills me up really nicely, and the protein in the cottage cheese keeps me from getting too hungry. I’ve written books on nutrition and exercise, and it’s really important for me to be conscious of what I allow into my body.

You seem to be the master of many mediums. How is it you’ve been able to find success in so many areas and stay true to who you are?

The thing about reaching for your dreams is that you have to believe you can do it. And you really have to have a generous spirit.