Dominic Santana Studied Hours Of Suge Knight Interviews To Prepare For 'All Eyez On Me' Role
Dominic Santana dishes on playing Suge Knight.
Suge Knight is the living embodiment of what it means to be infamous, specifically because he’s reportedly serving a life sentence since 2015 for a hit and run style execution in Compton, taking the life of a man named Terry Carter. The incident reportedly took place on the set of Straight Outta Compton that year. Or perhaps because of the swirl of rumors that have since engulfed following the death of his artist, Tupac Amaru Shakur in Las Vegas on September 13, 1996. Knight was in the car with Shakur when he was shot. The latter died of those gunshot wounds at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada six days later.
Many speculate Knight was responsible for the West Coast rapper’s untimely death. Some people have said their relationship was toxic. Dangerous. Malicious. Manipulative. Others say he wasn’t involved at all and is now being treated unfairly. Throughout the years, his story has changed, and the media has been befuddled by his questionable accounts.
In 2014, Knight told TMZ that Pac wasn’t dead. “Why you think nobody been arrested if they said they the one that killed Tupac? Because Tupac not dead. If he was dead, they’d be arresting those dudes for murder. You know he’s somewhere smoking a Cuban cigar on an island.”
Yet his attorney, Thaddeus Culpepper, signed an affidavit according to The Daily Beast, that states, “Knight has known for many years that Reggie Wright Jr. [the former Death Row Records security chief] and his ex-wife Sharitha were behind the murder of Tupac and attempted murder of Knight.”
Although these stories leave major loopholes, maybe viewers might get a clearer perspective while watching the new Tupac inspired film, All Eyez On Me, which hits theaters nationwide today (June 16), Tupac’s 46th birthday.
In the new film, actor Dominic Santana plays Knight and does a magnificent job at portraying one of the world’s most intriguing antagonists. Like Knight, he has a dominating weight and stature that demands your full attention. The Fayetteville, North Carolina native of African-American and Puerto Rican descent excels at showcasing the real Knight, by any means necessary.
VIBE recently spoke with Santana about his role in the biopic, where he dished on the hot and cold dynamic between Tupac and Knight and revealed a few details the world may not have known about the 51-year-old.
VIBE: Describe your chemistry with Demetrius Shipp Jr. being that you played Suge Knight and he played Tupac?
Dominic Santana: I think it kind of freaked people out a little bit (Laughs), just because Suge and Pac from my understanding had a real brotherly relationship, in how they used to interact. I wasn’t around these guys personally when they were running around with each other of course because I was a kid then. But people who were there and do remember; they would see us together and me and him had that same relationship. I’m older than Demetrius, and I’m of course bigger and taller. I’m a little more chilled and laid back, and he is super energetic more like Pac. Even when we weren’t filming we would be at the trailers talking, and stuff like that. It would just weird out the people that really knew them in a good way. We were fortunate when we first met we instantly clicked.
Because Suge Knight is currently incarcerated in California, what was the research process like for this role? Were you able to speak to him?
No, I wasn’t. There was actually a phone call that was supposed to happen. As soon as I came on; the court took away his visitations, and privileges so he wasn’t allowed to speak to anybody but his lawyers. So that conversation unfortunately never got to happen. But he was aware of who I was because LT Hutton (producer) had spoken to him a few times, so he was briefed on what things were looking like, and what was going on. He was never out of the loop so to speak when it comes to that.
So I had to spend hours and hours studying old videos—thank god for YouTube and Google, because you can find nearly anything (Laughs). I just did a lot of digging. Not just the popular videos that everyone is used to seeing, but the more obscure candid videos of just Tupac and Suge interacting. I found this great video of what’s supposed to be an interview of Suge. He’s on the beach, but it’s so amateur that whoever is filming it or doing the interview was so amateur that it was so off that it was basically Suge just talking; whenever he felt like talking. There weren't a lot of questions being asked.
He wasn’t performing for the camera or anything, he was just being himself. I actually took that video, and I watched that one the most. I also made sound-bites of his voice of him talking, so anytime we went to film about 30-40 minutes before I would play that in my headphones, and listen to him talking. So by the time I got to set I had him in my head. I practiced the voice, and then go and film. I didn’t just walk on set. Also, we were fortunate to have guys on set that really knew them and still know him. So I could talk to those guys, and ask them to cross-reference things. I had mini conversations with different ones who gave me their perspective on Suge.
Do you care to share what these conversations were like, who did you speak to? What did they say about him?
LT was the main one. He spent a lot of time with him throughout the years. Before we started and did anything else, LT sat me down and we just had a long conversation about how this was going to go. He wanted to make sure that I understood—and this is no shade to any other film companies or films—he was like, 'In this movie, we don’t want to paint a character of Suge as a caveman or just some wild thug for no reason. We wanted to be real, Suge did some crazy things but it was for a real reason. If it was something real or stupid he didn’t waste time with it. So yes, he did go extreme but anything he did it was because of something very serious.’
Then talking to people like Daz Dillinger, his son was in the movie playing him. He was the one that told me, ‘Hey, make sure you throw in that shoulder twitch.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he was like, ‘Suge had a nerve problem on his back, so his shoulder would just twitch for no reason.’ And I had never noticed that. He was like, ‘Yeah watch.’ He brought up this whole TMZ video of Suge talking, and that was one of the videos I studied. I watched the video like 30 times, and I never noticed that. He pointed it out, and I was like, ‘Oh damn his shoulder does this twitch.’ So with little things like that, I was able to incorporate the small little nuances, that the audience may miss but people who really know him would say, ‘Wow he studied for real’ (Laughs). He was laughing about it because when they would be at Death Row, he said it would really kick up when Suge would get mad (Laughs) and yelling.
How will the relationship between Tupac and Suge be perceived by viewers when they see the movie?
I think they’ll see what was intended, which was the reality of their brotherhood. And just like with any brotherhood, siblings and family members you can love them to death it doesn’t mean you won't get into a situation. We all know what happens when you mix family and money. Ten percent of the time that will go smooth, but for all of us normal humans 90 percent of the time there is going to be problems in there that is going to cost a little bit of a problem. And people look at their situations but don’t equate that to their own situations and stuff like that as humans. They had a brotherhood. They both were fire, and each found a running partner in each other. Suge wasn’t an artist. Suge was the CEO of Death Row. Pac happened to be an artist, Suge was a fan of Tupac. He loved his music and found something in him the people who were over his career didn’t see.
They came together and it was like, ‘You’re wild and crazy like me’ (Laughs), but they were impactful and wanted to get stuff done together. I think he found his equal in Tupac, and Tupac did as well; finding someone who was going to let him be free, and be who he was, but also still handle business and make money.
As I was watching the film, I felt you can smell the danger when Suge was around Tupac. I felt there was something that wasn’t right there. Would you agree? What are your thoughts on that?
Even though they had a brotherhood, Suge was the big brother, and he was in a hard position to be in having that kind of relationship. Usually, CEOs are not close friends with the artist or people that work for them. And it was for good reason. I think he always had to maintain this thing of, ‘We’re close but don’t overstep any lines. I’m still that guy that won’t let anybody overstep their boundaries.’ But when you put two fires together it’s hard to maintain it and control it. And talking with the old guys who knew them, not just what the media portrayed over the years, conspiracy theories or what people think—listening to the guys that were really there around them, you hear some crazy stories, but you hear how much they clowned around, and admired each other.
Switching gears to Tupac, do you remember the first time you encountered his music? What are some of your favorite songs?
I honestly never thought about that. I can’t remember the first time because I was a kid back then. The first and only time I actually saw him in person was at a Digital Underground show, which I probably shouldn’t have been at. I was with my stepfather at the time. There was an underground performance there, but he wasn’t Tupac at the time. He was just getting to go into that phase so looking back, it was cool. Everybody was paying attention to Humphrey but no one knew there was a legend coming up.
The first time I heard him I can't even think of it, but one of my favorite songs is “Me Against The World.” That song really resonates with me it’s one of my favorite songs of all time period. “Unconditional Love,” is another one people don’t really look at as their favorite, but is definitely one of my favorites. And “Changes.” Even today when you listen to “Changes,” you’re like, ‘How did Pac know this? (Laughs). There was a lot of things he talked about that we are still dealing with. That was a very impactful song because the issues he spoke of are still so relevant, which is actually a shame 20 years later we’re still having to have these discussions, and deal with these issues.
Would you say he was ahead of his time?
Definitely. I think that was also part of his problem; all of the chaos he would end up around or have around him was the fact that it’s hard for people to understand something that was so above their head. I know it's frustrating for an artist to try to flow and try to create whatever he is trying to create, and he is needing everybody to catch up to all the things that he is doing; to get on to the next thing. So I can imagine his internal battle inside of him saying, “This is what the people can digest right now, but this is what I’m on and want to talk about and put out there.’ I think that was something that made his legacy last so long, and be so powerful is because a lot of his music still holds relevant even today because he did it in a way that was prepared for a later time.
If you could give Suge Knight any word of advice what would you say?
Never forget what you accomplished and what you brought to the world. And don’t let anyone make it seem like you didn’t do those things, which were gigantic accomplishments. But also just continue to learn, and be better. If he gets out of jail, do things to leave a better legacy than the bad things people tend to remember. Be remembered by great stuff, doing good by people.
How would Tupac receive the film if he was alive today?
I think he would smile ear to ear, and probably shed a tear. I think he would feel like he was done justice. LT Hutton, the main producer of the film always said, ‘Tupac wrote his own story.’ We didn’t have to sugar coat it and spruce it up to make it more entertaining. All we had to do was a POV telling of Tupac’s story that he already set out. It’s very much in the vein of Tupac Shakur. It’s not just a movie of Tupac Shakur. It’s of the things he focused on. I think he’d be very proud of it.
What did you learn about Tupac that you didn't know prior to making this film?
I knew he had an activist side of him, but I didn’t quite know how deep it was. We heard stories about his mother being a part of the Black Panthers, but it was always glossed over like it was only for a short period of time. It was something that was toyed with lightly but had he stayed in that direction he might have ended up a politician or something—a black leader fighting for civil rights if he didn’t go into hip hop.