NEW YORK – Not long ago, star-struck teenagers and outraged activists seemed to be the only people anywhere who cared about Eminem.
But the rapper-turned-actor is suddenly a big topic of conversation after his new movie, 8 Mile, pulled in $54.5 million at the box office last weekend. And from the family breakfast table to the office water cooler, many folks seem to be asking the same question: Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?
"When it gets to this level you have to wonder, is that what he really thinks, or is it a ploy like 'this is working so lets keep going,' " said Lori Conte, a 30-year-old magazine editor who says she's no fan of Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem.
"He doesn't impress me. I don't know why he gets all this attention ... He doesn't take any responsibility or apologize, and his audience is a bunch of impressionable kids."
Others clearly see the movie as a turning point in the rapper's already controversial career.
"Now there is a way for 'Average Joe American' to experience what others have known about him for years," said Tom Moon, music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "The growth of interest in him generated by the movie has helped attract people who didn't have a handle on him."
Movie insiders were shocked a niche film like 8 Mile took in such a large debut and say it's a sign of Eminem's crossover appeal.
"Who knew that older audiences would come out, that non-rap fans would come out to see this movie? But they did," said Paul Dergarabedian, whose Exhibitor Relations tallies movie theater receipts.
Universal Pictures is reportedly so happy with 8 Mile that the company is considering a sequel, though there's no word if Eminem has been approached with the idea.
In the meantime, reaction to the movie's loosely autobiographical, man-overcoming-obstacles storyline seems split between new converts and others who say Eminem's new sensitive guy image is just a sham.
"I thought he was one of those annoying hip-hop guys who mouthed off a lot," Julia Wang said from New Jersey. "But with this movie and the new album, I really started to understand the Eminem phenomenon. He's matured as an artist and a person."
But it's simplistic and naive to think Eminem has really matured, others insisted.
"He's being talked about as though he's fundamentally changed. He showed up at premiere of 8 Mile in glasses and that means he's sensitive?" said 29-year-old Californian Andi Zeisler. "The movie has added a dimension to him, but it doesn't take away from the fundamental things about him that people like me find really bad and unworthy of praise."
Some said they're more amused than angered by all the attention being heaped on Marshall Mathers, and can't understand the hype.
"I just saw 8 Mile, and he was fine," said Conte. "But it makes me laugh reading reviews praising him. It's not like he's playing a congressman or a politician. His facial expression didn't change once through the whole movie."
Some, like Moon, maintained Eminem has been misrepresented by his media critics over the years.
"He was so often paraphrased and so often not accurately quoted ... The best way to counteract that is to let work speak for itself. People who see 8 Mile and go back to buy the record are in for a treat."
But what the audience sees and hears may or may not be the real thing, said some.
"You don't hear his own words so much anymore. You hear the director and magazines and tabloids talking about how he's not as bad as we thought," said Zeisler. "If he were to come forward and say 'this is what is going on,' I would listen.
"Or if Barbara Walters did an Eminem special, I would totally watch that."