The Public takes place at downtown Cincinnati’s public library as a polar vortex threatens to freeze the city’s residents. Some homeless patrons, regulars who rely on the library for its bathrooms, free computer services, companionship, and warmth, realize that they won’t survive out on the streets in the harsh weather. They stage an “Occupy” sit-in, leaving library officials torn over what to do. The situation soon escalates from a simple act of opposition to a stand-off with riot police. And, the media becomes involved, only making matters worse.

Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, the film has quite the star-studded cast. Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Taylor Schilling, Christian Slater and Estevez himself are among its familiar faces. Helping Estevez tackle today’s most significant issues — including mental illness, socio-economic inequality and the homelessness epidemic – was Grammy-winning writer and performer, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, who portrays homeless man Big George.

ScreenPicks spoke to Smith about what it was like to take on this important new role.

How did this project come about, and how did Emilio loop you in?

Smith: Well, you know it started off with a personal journey I took. I purchased a home that my father grew up in. I never knew my dad, but I purchased the home he grew up in, kind of like an inheritance that I never had that I was taking for myself. When I got into the house, I had all these emotions — who was I, who was my dad, where did I come from? So, I went looking for my biological father.

When I found him, he had been homeless for 35 years. I found my father at a homeless shelter. The first time that we met, he wanted to meet me at the library because that’s where he could have dignity. And, I did a documentary called In My Father’s House, where my father and I repaired the house and our relationship at the same time.

Emilio Estevez’s mom saw this documentary and she shared it with her son who was doing a film about homelessness in the public library. She said, “You have to put this young man in your movie.” And, lo and behold, he Facebooked me. And, here we are. But it taught me a powerful lesson [about] repairing our families. You would be surprised at how many good things would happen to you career-wise if you were good family-wise. So often, people leave the village trying to have all this success, only to find themselves back home at the end.

What do you think about transplant cities like L.A. and N.Y. where people go to try to succeed and forget their roots?

Smith: We get lost in all kinds of ways. We get lost in our success. I believe that everything we want in life — to be financially successful [and] spiritually successful — stems from grounding and foundation. Unless that’s correct, it’s hard to get anything else.

Aside from the documentary, is this your first formal acting role?

Smith: It is. It was my first time acting, but what I will say is that I’m not an actor. I’m a creator. Emilio gave me a chance, through acting, to extend creativity. Being able to be Big George, my character … well, my grandfather’s name is George – Big George, in fact – and when I put on the outfit, I saw my grandfather and lived my father.

Was that just serendipitous or did Emilio know any of that and put it into the story?

Smith: It was serendipitous. The character was already written. But, see, it’s that right there that created a close relationship between myself and Emilio automatically. That made it so any direction that he gave me, we were already in sync. And it made for a beautiful film.

Has your dad seen the film? If so, how does he feel about it?

Smith: Well, my father hasn’t seen the film yet, but he did come to visit me while I was shooting. He looked at me and my character as Big George and he looked around the room at all the other homeless guys – we were all in the library – and he said, “This looks like all my friends! I know this place!” And I knew we had something good.

How did you find Emilio as a director and creative partner throughout the entire filming process?

Smith: The great thing about Emilio is that he allows people to bring authenticity to the character. So, although it is written already in the script, whatever you would really do as that character, he welcomes [that] creativity.

You contributed three songs to the film. Can you speak about some of that?

Smith: You know, I remember that there is a fight scene in the film and Emilio gets all bloodied up. He took a picture of it and when he came to me, he looked like a cyborg almost! Like a torn-up Terminator cyborg! He said, “Yeah, Charlie said I looked ‘weaponized.’” I said, “Yeah, man you were weaponized because your character is fighting for something and you had to weaponize the character.” And he said, “That would be a great song.”

So, right there, in the middle of shooting, we created a song called “Weaponized” … which totally opened up the film. Every time you see action about to happen, the “Weaponized” song plays.

Do you see yourself writing or directing a film in the future?

Smith: I would like to do it all. What this film helped me realize is that I am a creative and a “creative” is not a career. A creative is not just, “Oh, I do music” or “Oh, I dabble in acting.” A creative means I create. I live creatively. So would I like to write or direct films? Hell yeah. That’s what I’m going to do.

What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

Smith: What I would like to happen is for people to … realize that we have control and agency over our own public institutions. The people who don’t use public libraries usually can avoid taxes, too, and usually get their kids into school because they can pay $6 million for their kids not to take the SAT or ACT. But, the people who pay taxes, the people on the ground, the people in the communities – we use the library. They belong to us. Public institutions belong to the people. And, I would like for people to see this film and take agency back over the institutions in our community instead of letting them be run from the top down; We can run them from the ground up.