By ANGELA DAWSON
HOLLYWOOD—Call it a preparation process 20 years in the making. O’Shea Jackson Jr., spent much of his life watching his dad perform—his dad being the famed hip hop performer Ice Cube. As he grew older, the lookalike son sometimes would take the stage with his father, exhibiting the same charisma and bravado that made Ice Cube a star, first with the rap group N.W.A. in the late 1980s, then as a solo act and later as a respected Hollywood actor, writer and producer.
When the long-in-the-works effort to bring the hip hop group’s rise to fame story to the big screen began to jell a few years ago, it was Ice Cube himself (a producer on the project) who suggested that his son, then 20, depict him onscreen in “Straight Outta Compton.” The film’s title, of course, is taken from the top-selling debut album of the five-member N.W.A. rap group, whose members grew up in and around the notoriously rough and tumble Los Angeles community. As young black men, they wrote about the challenges and hardships of growing up in a drug-infested community where the police department would sometimes exert excessive and indiscriminate force on bad guys and innocent citizens alike.
Starting off in 1987, the drama focuses on the lives of Ice Cube and MC Ren (portrayed by Aldis Hodge), two young emcees from the neighborhood who joined forces with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), a charismatic drug dealer, and local club deejays Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), to form N.W.A. (which didn’t stand for No Whites Allowed). Tired of dead ends and eager for change in their lives and their community, they used their uncensored and often explosive rap lyrics to try to bring awareness to what was happening in their society. Though initially criticized by mainstream music critics as exploitative, glorifying drugs and disrespectful to women, their gangsta music connected with their young, disenfranchised listeners and became a worldwide phenomenon.
The film follows N.W.A.’s rise to fame, their relationships with each other and with those around them, including their complex and sometimes duplicitous manager Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), their temptations and tensions, loss, and ultimately their brotherhood that bonded them.
In anticipation of portraying his father onscreen, Jackson himself was understandably anxious about taking on such a well-known music icon as his first acting gig, but the young music artist also couldn’t envision anyone else depicting his father onscreen, so he decided to go for it.
Though he obviously had somewhat of an advantage going in—Ice Cube is one of the producers and advocated for his son to play him—Jackson had to audition just like every other actor for the warts-and-all urban biopic. F. Gary Gray, whose long list of credits include “Friday,” starring Ice Cube, which launched a popular film franchise, “The Negotiator” and “Be Cool,” directs the film from a screenplay by longtime development executive Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (“World Trade Center”). Gray had the five leads learn and record the entire Straight Outta Compton just to make sure they were completely comfortable in their characters and with each other.
Father and son recently spoke about bringing the N.W.A. story to the big screen, presenting the story honestly and fairly, revisiting the tumultuous late ‘80s and the legacy of the influential group.
Q: Ice Cube, can you talk about why you wanted to make this film and how do you feel about seeing your life story on screen?
Ice Cube: This is really a dream project I’ve had ever since I started producing in 1995. This was in the back of my mind. When it started looking like it would become a reality, there were only a few people we could ask to do a movie like this. With Gary choosing to direct the project, the movie really started to take shape and we really started to hone in on what we needed to do to produce this movie and get it on the big screen.
Q: O’Shea, why was it important to you to play your father on screen?
Jackson: It was a huge honor because we were speaking about N.W.A, but at the same time this is my family’s legacy, and I’m just so thankful that the ball was in my hands to cement this in history. It was hard work. There was two years of auditioning with Gary and things like that to put it into motion. And with the final product, I couldn’t be happier.
Q: Being your dad’s son, did you have to learn some of his nuances to come up with a version of this character?
Jackson: If you want to get technical, I’ve been doing my research (on Ice Cube) for 20-plus years. There were certain things I did to put me into that time period. I know solo Ice Cube; I know that guy. So I had to look at old interviews and watched how they were joking around or get some of his lingo like, “Do you know what I’m sayin’”—stuff like that, just to put myself back in that era. That’s what my research was.
Q: Ice Cube, you helped guide O’Shea throughout the pre-production and production process, encouraging him to work with acting coaches and giving him insight on what your life was like at the beginning of your career.
Ice Cube: I just wanted to give him all the ammunition he needed. I wanted to let him know what I was thinking at the time, my perception of everybody, what I thought of (N.W.A. manager) Jerry Heller, Eazy-E, Yella, just so if he went off script, he’d have the ammunition to be able to address this one or that one, and just how to be in the scene. I knew that Gary wouldn’t go for anybody being a mimic. All I knew was that I could just fill him up with information and then let him do his thing. He developed into a great actor during this process. I just had total confidence in him and Gary that he could deliver his role.
Q: Of course, you didn’t grow up knowing you were going to play this role.
Jackson: Not at all. In fact, when he told me about it, it was intimidating. It’s a Universal movie, a big time studio, and Gary doesn’t play. It’s a lot to take on, especially if you’ve never acted before. He got me the coaches I needed. He put me in front of all these different coaches teaching me these different techniques to mold me into an actor. So it was all in the preparation. Those two years—I’d do it all again, doing the auditions, getting callbacks and getting homework from Gary. The boot camp was what really brought out my performance.
Q: What do you say to the critics who originally crucified N.W.A. and will likely turn around and praise this movie?
Ice Cube: (laughing) See! The (Straight Outta Compton) record was real life moving at the speed of real life. This is a movie that looks back. It’s a piece of art just like the things we were speaking on (in 1989). I think you can appreciate this movie and still have problems with the group. That’s natural too. But for those who came around, welcome to 2015. We’ve been looking for you since ‘89. It’s great because I’ve been doing films for 20 years and it’s great to be able to deliver a movie like this. We didn’t stumble and fall. It shows a different talent level and creative energy, so I would suspect there are some people who will love the film and hate the group still, and that’s fine. It’s all about being real, and we want people to be real even when criticizing the group. And if you don’t like the movie, you can kill yourself.
Q: What do you think N.W.A.’s legacy is today?
Ice Cube: It’s amazing that after all this time, the group still provokes controversy and the same energy it did back then. That’s kind of remarkable. We did a lot to change the texture of entertainment in a lot of ways. If you think about how entertainment was before N.W.A. and after N.W.A., I just think we opened it up for artists to be themselves and not put on the mask and be themselves, and not portray a squeaky clean image. You didn’t have to be Fresh Prince. You could be yourself and still make an impact on the world. The movie shows the why. Not just where and when but why we did this kind of music. People have got to understand that’s where we come from and that’s what forged N.W.A. We came from the streets of Compton, Watts, South Central, Long Beach—that’s what forged N.W.A.
Q: How have relations with the police evolved since 1989 in L.A.? There are a few scenes in the film where you are roughed up by police for no good reason. At one point, you and the others are simply standing outside a recording studio eating sandwiches in the middle of the day.
Ice Cube: What we wanted to show is the humiliation (we endured). We understand that cops have to be a little heavy-handed with criminals but we don’t understand why they have to be that way with citizens. What we wanted to show (in the movie) is the humiliation that we faced so the audience could feel like what if this was happening to them. Most of the situations (depicted in the film) are situations that could happen to anybody at any time. When the audience sees that we’re not criminals and they see what happened to us (at the hands of the police), it feels like it could be happening to them or their neighbors. That’s why we did these songs. It wasn’t because we didn’t like the police. If somebody breaks into my house, I’m calling the *** **** police. I’m not calling my homies, Ren, Yella, Dre. So we understand that. We want to say, “Don’t do the citizens this way.” That’s what has to stop.
Q: Were there scenes in the film that were difficult to watch either while shooting them or in the editing?
Ice Cube: Yeah, I’d find myself in the editing room welling up. It was emotional in a lot of different areas. Eazy getting cornered in the studio was kind of rough. The hospital scene was real rough. While we were shooting it, I had to walk (away from the set) a few times.
Q: O’Shea, when did you meet your co-stars?
Jackson: The first time we met was at the chemistry test. I’d never done movies. I didn’t know how those (tests) go. I just thought it would be me, “Dre” and “Eazy.” I saw a guy with a Jheri curl, and I thought, “He must be going for ‘Eazy’.” And he said, “No, I’m going for ‘Cube.’” And I said, “Well, I’ve got some news for you!” And then another actor was there who also was auditioning for “Cube.” So we have three “Cubes” there, three “Dres” and one “Eazy.” Gary already had made his decision to cast Jason (Mitchell) as Eazy. From there, we did some mixing and matching, trying to find the perfect combination. When it was (Hawkins and Mitchell) and me, Gary would throw some ideas at us and watched us improv. We would bounce things off each other and you felt it. By Day 3, we were kind of like, “Do we have it?”
When I met Jason, we were chopping it up. I could feel he was a good person. This was the first time he was in L.A. They were ordering pizza. I told him we should go to In-N-Out (a popular L.A. burger chain). Then, we met Corey, and were kickin’ it. And we’ve just been bonding ever since.
Q: This being your first acting role, did you find it helpful to get to know your co-stars really well before production began?
Jackson: Yeah, Gary really worked on us because that chemistry really has to translate on screen. He said, “You guys have got to be lifelong friends right now.” He would call rehearsals, and while we were waiting for him because he was so busy in pre-production, we’d be talking and getting to know one another. When we were recording (the Straight Outta Compton album), we were critiquing each other and trying to sound like the artists we were portraying. So with things like that we really built a brotherhood; we really are friends to this day.
Q: The film depicts some of the tensions that arise within the group as you become successful. Ice Cube, were there things you would have rather had left out?
Ice Cube: No, we’ve always been honest with each other. We don’t pull any punches. I have love for Yella, and we’ll tell each other what we really think. We weren’t going to gloss over (any disputes). It’s something we did without having to ask each other “Is this cool?” We just did what was great for the movie.
Q: Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, who is rather a complex person.
Ice Cube: With the Jerry character, we knew we had an opportunity to cast a well-respected actor. We knew that we were doing this movie with a lot of unknowns and if we didn’t have somebody in it with some weight, none of the (critics) would take the **** movie seriously. We felt like it was important to try in any way we can to put serious actors who had a following to the point where people knew we were making a serious movie and not just a hip hop on tour for our video.
As far as Jerry Heller is concerned, he was always a champion for the group. When it N.W.A. versus the world, he would always jump out and fight for us. He always fought for the right for us to be who were are. But dealing with us individually was a different story. We wanted to show him and his humanity as well as everybody else. We didn’t want to shortchange him. He’s (also) our villain. We wanted to be fair and authentic through this whole movie.