By Chris Strauss
November 21, 2005 12:00 PM

Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson thinks he’s misunderstood. An ex-crack dealer, he’s survived a murder attempt that left him with nine bullet holes in his body and glorified his life of crime in his multiplatinum 2003 debut album, Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Now he stars as a pusher turned rapper in a loosely biographical film of the same name—a movie that’s kicked up controversy over billboards of Jackson brandishing a gun. Still, Jackson says his first movie, directed by Oscar nominee Jim Sheridan, will “help people understand the decisions I’ve made.” How did go from street thug to budding mogul? Read on.


In poverty-stricken South Jamaica, Queens, Jackson’s early years were marked by violence. His single mother, Sabrina Jackson, worked the streets as a crack dealer until her drug-related murder in 1984, and he has never known his father. Taken in by his grandparents, Jackson himself started dealing at 12. “I started hustling [drugs],” he says. “At first I could only do it between 3 and 6, when my grandparents thought I was in an after-school program.” By 16, Jackson, now 30, was a high school dropout who’d spent several stints in jail. But after the birth of his son Marquise, now 9, in ’96, he decided to focus on rapping. “My priorities changed,” he says. “My son is the reason I stopped doing the things my mother was doing.”


Selling tapes on New York’s streets, Jackson was beginning to make a name for himself in hip-hop when his dream of stardom almost ended after a 2000 shooting that nearly killed him. “I knew if he couldn’t have his music, there was no use to him living,” says grandmother Beulah Jackson, who witnessed the shooting outside her house. Now Jackson, who parlayed such experiences into gold records, endorsements and plenty of bling (see below), travels with six security men. “My son thinks I’m a superhero. He says, ‘They can’t kill my daddy.’ You kidding me?”


With a history like that, it’s no wonder cast and crew of [Get Rich] were surprised their star was anything but scary. “He’s soft-spoken,” says co-star Viola Davis, who plays his grandmother. “Not egotistical.” Indeed, Jackson, who doesn’t smoke or drink anything stronger than his signature vitamin water, “is disarmingly funny,” says screenwriter Terence Winter. “I expected him to be the guy in his songs—he wasn’t that at all.” He also cried on cue and stripped down for a fight scene in a jailhouse shower with cast-mate Terrence Howard. “Curtis had the most to lose,” says Howard, who praises his castmate’s transition from rap to acting. “I view him as an artist that is changing from acrylics to working with oils.”


While his Get Rich alter-ego has a love interest in costar Joy Bryant, the rapper is happy single. “I got so much going on,” says Jackson, whose relationship with Vivica A. Fox ended in 2003. “[But] a woman is always a priority, whether a man admits it or not” Commitment may be tougher than mastering acting: “I have trust issues.”


In the meantime Jackson hangs with Marquise and his rap crew G-Unit at his Connecticut mansion. The newest member: a cute Jack Russell terrier named Soldier. Further proof that 50’s gone soft? Not so fast. If someone breaks in, “all I need him to do is bark,” says the rapper. “I’ll handle the problem.”

Chris Strauss. Oliver Jones and Michael Fleeman in Los Angeles, Tiffany McGee and Kelly Carter in New York City