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Oral History: Tupac's Acting Career Told Through His Co-Stars and Producers

Some say Tupac Shakur was possessed by the role of Juice’s Bishop. But Shakur’s True Hollywood Story transcends his art imitating life. Interviewing his on-set collaborators, Vibe presents the UNCUT Hollywood tragedy of a man some influentials boldly called Denzel Washington’s successor.
One late night in the fall of 1994, Tupac Shakur was at the Manhattan restaurant Frederick’s with actors Mickey Rourke and John Enos. They’d been filming the revenge thriller Bullet throughout the city and had quickly formed a tight bond. That night, Rourke obtained an early edition of the New York Post  and read an article that slammed his acting skills. He trashed the restaurant’s bathroom and stormed out. Tupac, Enos, and then-New York Daily News gossip columnist A.J. Benza all piled into Rourke’s Town Car and drove downtown. The car stopped on Fifth Avenue, near Cipriani’s. It was 4 a.m. Rourke was still fuming.

“Mickey was like, ‘The New York Post wants a story? These motherfuckers want a story? Tupac was egging him on, ‘Give them a story,’” Benza recalls. Rourke exited the car and laid down in the middle of the street. Tupac, Enos and Benza did the same. “We were waiting for a car to run us over. Obviously, no one was sober. And nobody ran us over.”

Tupac the actor was much like Tupac the rapper: passionate, honest, talented and a little hotheaded. He was also trained. At 12, he enrolled in Harlem’s 127th Street Ensemble and appeared in A Raisin in the Sun. And after moving to Baltimore, he attended the Baltimore School of the Arts. Tupac appeared in six films—Juice, Poetic Justice, Above the Rim, Bullet, Gridlock’d, Gang Related—during his short career. Some were strictly cash grabs. Others were beneath him. But he was the best thing going in each of them. Vibe spoke with over 30 of his costars and colleagues to examine the legacy of Tupac Shakur, the actor. Thomas Golianopoulos

Director Ernest Dickerson was looking for unknowns to cast in Juice, a cautionary tale about a teenager’s lust for power, set in Harlem. Bishop was the most pivotal role in the film.

Ernest Dickerson (Writer/Director, Juice): A lot of people were in consideration for Bishop. We were looking for unknowns and cast the net out pretty wide. We went to theatrical groups and school of the arts in the New York area because no young African American actors fit the characters that I had in mind when Gerard [Brown] and I wrote the script. It was pretty wide open.

Khalil Kain (Actor, Juice): I remember Darryl “Chill” Mitchell auditioned.
 
Jermaine Hopkins (Actor, Juice): I think Donald Faison auditioned.
 
Treach (Actor, Juice): Flavor Unit Management had me go in and read for the role of Bishop. I had no acting skills. I didn’t know shit. I went there reading this shit like I was just reading if off paper and only knew half the language. My acting skills were null and void. I was like, “Riverside…um…mother…fucker.” I knew the lines but didn’t know how to deliver them.
 
Gerard Brown (Writer, Juice): They wanted four rappers for the roles but the only rapper who could act was Tupac.
 
Kain: They had brought Money B [from Digital Underground] in to read and ‘Pac was with the crew. He wasn’t on the audition list. He was like, “Can I read?” The rest is history.
 
Jaki Brown (Casting Director, Juice): This limo comes and it’s Tupac. He’s all enthusiastic like, “I have to do this. This is perfect for me. Please give me a chance to do this.” He was all over the place. He read for the role of Bishop. He read the scene and I was blown away. He was so perfect that it was scary. I brought him in and he read with Gerard Brown. Gerard said that we had to hold him for Ernest. Ernest comes back and I told him that there was this man named Tupac Shakur who I thought was perfect for Bishop. He read for everyone. We told him to wait outside and were like, “He is so perfect, it’s scary.”
 
Brown: Physically, Tupac wasn’t what I had in my mind when I was writing it. I pictured him being physically bigger and more imposing but I dropped all of that when he read for the part.
 
Dickerson: It was easy to get the more dangerous aspect of Bishop’s personality, but there had to be a vulnerability in the middle of that. I think Tupac understood that. One of the things about Bishop that people initially didn’t get is that Bishop is damaged. We have that scene where he tries to relate to his father, who is traumatized. There is a vulnerability to Bishop. There was a part of him that just wanted to be liked and loved by the rest of them. You had to feel that damage come out, that Bishop’s whole deal was coming from the great deal of pain he had on the inside. His father was brutalized in prison. We alluded that he was sexually assaulted. That’s why in the original script, Bishop commits suicide. We were forced to change that by the studio. In the end, when Bishop and Q are fighting on the rooftop and Bishop goes over the edge, he hears the police sirens in the background, looks up into Q’s eyes and says, “I’m not going to jail,” and lets go of Q’s hand. The studio found out in the test screenings that the audience didn’t like that the “bad guy” decides how he he’s going to die.They threatened to not support the film. In our original script, Bishop decides to die.
It was a heavy moment between Q and Bishop. In the last moment, these guys find their friendship again and he lets go of Q’s hand and says “I’m not going to jail” and Q is struggling to hold on but Bishop lets go and silently slides away into the abyss. That was the way we filmed it. It was really weird because the audience wanted to see happen what the movie was against. They wanted to see Q destroy Bishop but that wasn’t the point. The point was to show that this damaged state of mind that Bishop had was something real that had to be dealt with—the fact that he would rather die than go to jail. It was a better ending and we protested but the studio said, “We will not support the film the way you want us to support it.” I was hoping that maybe I could restore it at some later time and maybe have a director’s cut. But yeah, Bishop commits suicide. He elected to die and that was from having seen what happened to his father. It was a beautiful moment. 
Kain: Pac was all about making a statement. So watering down the defiance of Bishop did not sit well with him. He thought it was bullshit.
 
Treach: Tupac felt bad that he beat me out for the role so he was like, “Come with me to the set and I’m going to get you into this movie.” He got me into the movie. I didn’t have no motherfucking lines but I was the only black Dominican in that motherfucker. That shows you how loyal he was and where his heart was at. He didn’t want to experience being successful in movies without sharing that with his family and friends.
 
Kain: During lunch ‘Pac and Treach would exchange rhyme books. All the shit they were writing down all day, they would trade them at lunch and critique each other’s book. Naughty by Nature hadn’t come out yet. I heard the demo in my trailer. I was like, “Treach, you’re about to blow up.” Nobody was known. ‘Pac was all about making his name. Whoever didn’t know his name, they knew his name when he left.
 
Vincent Laresca (Actor, Juice): Tupac went into a camera shop and asked to a see a video camera and the guy behind the camera was looking down on him and was afraid to let him look at the camera outside of the showcase. When he got his first check from the movie, he went back and bought the fucking camera just to show the guy he could afford the camera. He knew he was 2Pac before anyone else knew he was 2Pac. One time he was trying to pick up a chick and she was like, “Who are you?” He goes, “I’m 2Pac. You’re gonna know about me.”
 
Dickerson: Tupac had a great sense of humor about himself. When we were shooting, there were these young ladies who were hanging around the set. They wore tight clothes and would always come around. I started looking at them really well and noticed they had strong hands with veins, Adam’s Apples and they were really guys. One day we were setting up a shot and I noticed that Tupac was down the street trying to rap to them. He was rapping to them, the body language was amazing. She kept shaking her head. My AD came over and was like, “I don’t think he knows.” Everyone was laughing. [The AD] goes down the block and he brings Tupac away and is talking in his ear. Tupac just stops, puts his hand over his mouth and starts cracking up and goes, “That’s why she wouldn’t give me her phone number!” The joke was on him and the fact that he could laugh about it with the whole crew was really priceless. 
 

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Stanley Nelson Lays Bare The Complicated Cool Of Miles Davis

Miles Davis had it. Whatever it was, Miles Davis was the sole proprietor. The aura, skill, and style that oozed from Davis’ pores helped propel the trumpeter to stardom. His musical accomplishments were only made more striking by the swagger that garnished them. Davis’ cool, projected best on stage, was an unwavering confidence with a dollop of syrupy charisma. Even his voice, a sandpaper-like whisper, which came as a result of yelling after throat surgery, weaved its way into the mythological-like figure Davis became. To be frank, Miles Davis was a cool-ass motherfucker and he knew it.

Yet underneath Davis’ cool was a man equally tormented by the second-class citizenship his country forced on him, as well as his own personal demons. Standing up to the racist government sometimes proved easier than defeating his alcoholism and drug abuse. Those closest to Davis felt his venom whenever he bit, and graciously allowed their love for him to be a balm for the wounds he left. How could the same man who composed and performed Kind of Blue be responsible for the cruelty of those who loved him so?

Well, it’s complicated.

Director Stanley Nelson lays Miles Davis bare—his good, bad, and beautiful—to a new generation while crystalizing the jazz musician’s legend to longtime fans with Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool. Nelson’s latest demonstrates Davis' complexity and all that he endured.

Nelson invited VIBE to his 5,000-square-foot Harlem office to discuss Davis. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the nearly two-hour film, Nelson offers a firm handshake and an even stronger espresso. He apologizes for not having much sugar but makes up for it with a Wicker basket full of snacks that sits atop his white granite kitchen island. I opt for cookies and sneak the last bag of white cheddar popcorn for the train ride back to the office.

As we walk past the stainless steel appliances and through the dining room, the September sun shines bright through windows striking the white living room walls. Several books about Frederick Douglass are neatly stacked on the dining room table. Nelson reveals the writer and abolitionist will be the subject of his next feature, but for now, the 68-year-old director is entrenched in promotion for Miles Davis, an artist he says “transcends music.”

In between sips of tea, Nelson explains why Davis will always be a figure worth examing,

VIBE: What is your definition of cool? Stanley Nelson: I think the definition of cool changes with the times. I think cool is a certain calmness and being ahead of the times. It’s also a certain sophistication, I think Miles Davis had for so much of his life personified.

What do you think are some of the ingredients that go into making a Miles Davis? I don’t think there are very many people, across all genres, who can compare to Miles Davis. Miles Davis did what he did for five decades and was a leader in so many different movements in music and in jazz. Miles Davis transcends music.

What do you mean when you say "Miles Davis transcends music?" Miles Davis transcended the music because he was a leader in the way he looked, in the way he dressed, in things he demanded as you can see in the film. He demanded that he be treated with an amount of respect. The fact that he had black women on the covers of his albums, all those kinds of things made Miles Davis so different from so many other jazz musicians, who we love and admire for their music. We love and admire Miles Davis for his music, but it wasn’t just the music that made Miles Davis special.

Miles was also undeniably a beautiful looking man, and this was in the 50s and 60s. Miles Davis had very dark skin which was something that was not in the general public how it was thought of, so Miles kind of flipped that on its head.

This is going to sound like a dumb question but I have to ask it anyway. Why did you decide to honor Miles Davis with this film? There are a lot of reasons for making this film. There are a lot of reasons for making any film so whenever filmmakers tell you there’s only one reason they’re probably just lying, or saying whatever their publicist wants them to say. For one, his music is so incredible I would say he is easily one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, maybe the most important, you can argue that in any genre. Two, I’m a jazz lover and three Miles Davis is a very complicated individual so it makes for a better film. It’s not a simple story. I also think as we got into the film that Miles Davis’ story isn’t only about music, but it's about being a black person in the second half of the 20th century in the United States and I think that’s what makes the film work on a different level than a lot of other jazz films.

Veering off from Mr. Davis for a bit, how do you decide which topics or events you want to turn into films? You’ve done the black press, you’ve done a story about The Black Panthers, you did a story about Emmett Till. How do you choose which one to make into a film?

One of the great lessons for me was the first film I made called Two Dollars and A Dream. It was about Madame C.J. Walker and it took me seven years to make the film and I realize at that point films can take a long time to make, to raise the money and actually get the films made, so it's really important that the film be important to me, at least, that’s part of how I think about films when I think about what to do next. I’ve also been afforded the opportunity to paint on a big canvas so I’m trying to make stories that are big. I’m not just making small stories.

Did you always have this mentality of making big stories? I think so. I think part of that was unspoken, not really something I thought of. If you make something you want it to be a success, you want it to be a big success especially if it's going to take seven or 10 years of your life.

Why was Carl Lumbly the one you picked to voice Davis? Carl Lumbly is a great actor and he’s someone that I knew. Carl did the narration for one of our other films a long time ago, so Carl is someone I thought of. We sent him a bunch of tapes of Davis’ actual voice, and he practiced and we got back to him in a week and asked him to give us his Miles Davis voice over the phone and when he did, we were like, that’s good. It wasn’t perfect, but we could make it work.

What I personally loved about the film was that you didn’t glance over Miles Davis’ bitter personality. I loved the interviews with Frances Taylor, but it broke my heart that the creator of Kind of Blue forced his dancer wife to drop out of West Side Story. Miles was not an easy guy.

That’s putting it mildly. I think it was important that we tell that part of the story. I think what makes his story so rich and emotional there’s that dichotomy with Miles. The man that made some of the most beautiful music ever created and then was so rough for so many people. How do those things exist? Miles basically ruined Frances’ career by pulling her out of this show.

Yes! He was abusive to her, and after a few years they broke up. Her career had been ruined. I think one of the things that was so great for us while making the film was that Frances was so resilient and so beautiful and so funny in the film. You realize he tried but he couldn’t break her. I should say that Frances passed away Thanksgiving of last year. It was such a joy to be with Frances and interview her.

What do you hope people who don’t know Miles Davis will take away from the film and what do you hope people who do know Miles Davis will learn? One of the challenges of making any film, especially a film about Miles Davis, some people come in thinking there’s everything to know about Miles Davis. Some people come in and say "Miles who? Why’d you drag me to the theater?" You’ve got to walk that line and tell everybody something new and also be entertaining.

My mission in this film is partly to entertain. I don’t care how much you know about Miles. If you walk into this film and it’s two hours long you’re going to learn something new, or it’s going to be told to you in a different way. Certainly you’ve never been exposed to Frances. Just being exposed to Frances in and of itself is a trip. Part of the job is to entertain and frankly, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool is in select theaters. Click here

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'The Boondocks' To Hit HBO Max With 24 New Episodes

On Wednesday (Sept. 18), forthcoming streaming service HBO Max revealed plans to host The Boondocks canon on its service. According to Variety, the cult classic will also premiere 24 new episodes set to premiere in Fall 2020.

"There's a unique opportunity to revisit the world of The Boondocks and do it over again today," creator and animator Aaron McGruder said in a statement. "It's crazy how different the times we live in are now—both politically and culturally—more than a decade past the original series and two decades past the original newspaper comic. There's a lot to say and it should be fun." A 50-minute special will also debut alongside the two-season return.

The show aired for four seasons on and off from 2005-2014. It was known for its witty and comedic yet serious take on political and social issues. A few standout episodes referenced moguls like Oprah Winfrey, television networks like BET, and controversial celebrities like R. Kelly. An episode of a fictional fast-food chain running out of its new special dish recently returned to the limelight when Popeye's decided to place a halt on its chicken sandwich offering.

McGruder will pick up the helm again as showrunner and executive producer. The new season will follow Robert "Grandad" Freeman and his grandson's Huey and Riley as they navigate life in suburban Maryland under Uncle Ruckus' "neo-fascist regime."

 

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“Old Town Road” Music Video Director Tapped For ‘House Party’ Remake

“Old Town Road” director, Calmatic, is ready to make a name for himself on the silver screen. The music video director is set to make his feature film debut with the House Party remake which will be produced by Lebron James and his business partner Maverick Carter, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

In addition to helming the visual for Lil Nas X’s record-breaking single, Calmatic has directed music videos for Anderson .Paak, Khalid and Vince Staples. The South Central Los Angeles native is touted as a “filmmaker, historian and artist,” per his website. “Old Town Road” has so far become Calmatic's most popular music video credit garnering over 176 million views online.

The film’s script was penned by Atlanta writers, Stephen Glover and Jamal Olori. James’s and Carters’ SpringHill Entertainment will produce the project for New Line Cinema. House Party was originally released in 1990 and starred rap duo Kid ' n Play alongside Paul Anthony George, Martin Lawrence, Tisha Campbell, Tischina Arnold, A.J. Johnson, John Witherspoon, and more. The hip-hop cult classic spawned the sequels House Party 2 in 1991, and House Party 3 in 1994.

The latest installment promises to offer a new take on a '90s classic. "This is definitely not a reboot. It's an entirely new look for a classic movie," James told The Hollywood Reporter last year. "Everyone I grew up with loved House Party. To partner with this creative team to bring a new House Party to a new generation is unbelievable."

 

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