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

Movies & TV

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.