September 02, 2005 06:00 AM

Age: 24
Hometown: San Diego and Charlotte, N.C.
Current gig: Playing an undercover detective who infiltrates a high school in the action-comedy Underclassman

He liked going back to school
When Nick Cannon was in high school, he wasn’t exactly the Big Man on Campus. “I was that little kid with the big mouth,” he says. “I was like 85 lbs., 5’2″ on a good day. I looked like my backpack was bigger than I was. I didn’t grow until I was out of high school.”

But playing undercover detective Tracy Stokes, who poses as a student at an elite private school to destroy a stolen car ring, in his new action-comedy Underclassman gave him an opportunity to return to school as the cool guy. So, what would he do differently if he got the chance to go back in real life? “I’d probably command the campus the way my character does,” says Cannon. “I would say, ‘I’ve got it all together now. I can hold it down.’ ”

He’s a Renaissance man
Cannon – who dates singer-actress Christina Milian (She’s “my best friend,” he says. “I care for her and have great respect for her”) – refuses to let his age hold him back in the industry. “I always wanted to do an action movie, and everyone kept saying I looked too young. So I created my own movie and created the character around me,” he says about Underclassman, which he cowrote and executive-produced. “I created this film from its conception.”

Multitasking is second nature for Cannon: Besides acting, he has his own production company, Mr. Renaissance Entertainment; he’s a rapper (he released his self-titled debut album in 2003 and has a second one on the way later this year); he’s a video director (he helmed the clip for the single “Can I Live”); and he’s the ringleader of his MTV improv comedy show, Nick Cannon Presents Wild ‘N Out, which features Cannon trying to out-snap celebrity guests like Kanye West and America’s Next Top Model winner Eva Pigford. “He’s the hardest-working guy,” says music producer Dallas Austin.

Being funny has done him well
Growing up, Cannon divided his time between his mother Beth, an accountant, and grandmother Marie in San Diego and his father James in Charlotte, N.C., where he worked as a televangelist. At 11, Cannon got his first gig doing stand-up comedy on his dad’s local cable-access program. “He told me to write up something and said, ‘If it’s good, I’ll put it on my show,’ ” says Cannon. “I guess he was impressed.”

His father wasn’t the only one: After graduating from Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, Calif., in 1998, Cannon scored a slot as a warm-up comedian for Nickelodeon’s studio audience in L.A. By 2002, he had his own slot on the network, The Nick Cannon Show.

That same year, he hit the multiplexes with the romantic comedy Drumline – and he’s been on hyper-drive since. He’ll appear in the ’70s-set comedy Roll Bounce (out Sept. 23) and has five movies in the works, including the animated feature Monster House and the crime drama Even Money, costarring Kim Basinger.

He’s got friends in high places
Not many young actors can say they have Will Smith on speed dial. “He gave me a helping hand around the age of 17,” says Cannon of the Oscar-nominated actor. “I talk to him all the time.” And Smith has nothing but praise for the rising star. “In a nutshell, my dawg is the future!” he says.

And Cannon says he’d love to follow in his mentor Smith’s footsteps: “I can’t wait until I can create an entire film around my vision.”

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