In Straight Outta Compton, Ice Cube is portrayed by the rapper’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr. But don’t call this a case of nepotism.
Jackson Jr. wasn’t handed the part. Even with his extensive, intimate knowledge of the role, he underwent a two-year process before director F. Gary Gray offered the 24-year-old actor the part, his first major film role.
EW chatted with Jackson Jr. about playing his dad, how Cube went to great lengths to stay involved in the movie, how Jackson Jr. ended up dressing up and playing an N.W.A song live in throwback garb, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When did you realize your dad was a hugely influential part of modern hip-hop culture?
O’SHEA JACKSON JR.: I was born in 1991, I was born right into his film career. I had gotten used to seeing my dad on TV, got used to riding in limos sometimes [laughs]. When I was 18, me and my older brother actually started performing with him on stage a lot. We were in Japan and we were in Australia, and I was having people in the audience tell me how my father’s words influenced and pushed them to become — one man became a doctor — lawyers. All these people listened to his words, and it fueled them to live their lives. When you hear something like that as a kid, your father becomes the coolest guy on the planet. He can affect others. He’s at the house — you see him at the house watching SportsCenter. It’s so cool. It’s so dope.
How much of the full background of the N.W.A story did you know before production? How much did your dad tell you growing up?
He let me know that somebody was trying to change him. Somebody was trying to get him to go along with it. And he felt in his heart that something wasn’t right, and it takes a lot for you to fight everything that you planned out or fight all your thoughts to go with your heart.
They were his friends, you know? And he was the young one. Just imagine you being the young one, you’re hanging with the guys and everything, you’re getting to go on tour, and then you’re on top of the world, and now you got to make the choice, and you leave. That’s a lot to take in. He’s always been open with me throughout my entire childhood, but that was the thing that I took from the movie where you just got to sit back for a second and say, “Damn.”
What kind of questions did you ask him to prep?
Well I’ve been studying my role for over 20 years [laughs]. I had his mannerisms and things like that down. It was really to get a bunch of the ’80s lingo. And really where his head was at. We would talk everyday. He would ask me, “What scene are you doing today?” I’d explain it to him, then he’ll sit back, reminisce, and be like, “Oh yeah. That day, I was really trying to figure out what was going on with Eazy, because I had just asked him about the contracts.”
Just little things like that that I can use. I can use that to make that translate on screen, because it’s not about acting: It’s about making it real. He would just fuel my fire everyday. Him and Dre were on set everyday, and the days he couldn’t be, he was Skyped, and I would see people holding him on the iPad or holding a computer screen. He was always there.
Seriously? They would Skype him on set?
He was filming Ride Along 2 during the beginning of the shoots, and he would be Skyping in. My man Marcus Woodruff would be holding up a computer with my pops on it. He was always on set, no matter what, he was gonna be there, because this one was his baby — and he’s not even starring in it [laughs].
This is your first major starring role. Was there any concern that playing your dad would paint yourself into his shadow?
This role is huge; Universal, that’s not your mom-and-pop studio; and Gary Gray is a different kind of director. It was a lot to take on, but he made sure I had the right team behind me. He got me my acting coaches: Aaron Speiser, who works with Will Smith and Gerard Butler; Dustin Felder, he works with Will’s kids; and Susan Batson, she works with Nicole Kidman. He made sure I had a nice team around me to teach me different techniques. I went through two years worth of auditions, and it’s all these things to build confidence within me.
I’m trying to be Harrison Ford, not Mark Hamill, you know? No disrespect to Mark Hamill, but everyone sees Luke Skywalker, Luke Skywalker. But Harrison is the one that made it out of [Star Wars]. Harrison is the one that kept getting roles like that. I don’t want anyone to think “We can’t get Cube, so let’s get the younger version for this film.” Nah, I’m ready to show my versatility within cinema as an actor. I’m definitely ready to put my foot in it.
You studied your dad’s mannerisms your whole life, but was there anything difficult to replicate, like the way he raps?
It wasn’t anything like that, because my brother and I have been performing with him since I was 18, so for about six years. When I was on stage, when I’m in the booth, that’s actually my comfort zone. I’m new to acting — I’m not new to rapping. That’s when I was really able to get down. Personally, I feel like you can see on camera that I’m extremely comfortable when we’re rocking.
In the film, you guys are rapping in the studio, but when the album versions of Straight Outta Compton songs were played, was that you and the case or the original songs? Did you re-record the album?
We re-recorded the entire album. That goes to Gary Gray once again. That’s him continuing to build chemistry amongst the five of us. We were really in the studio recording. We felt an attachment to the record that the group felt. When we hear songs today, we’ll text each other like, “They’re playing our s— at the airport [laughs].” They use parts of us rapping in the film mixed with the actual songs. It just gives the movie that authentic feel that you need.
At the BET Experience’s mini-N.W.A reunion, you walked out dressed as late-’80s Ice Cube and rapped “Dopeman.” Were you nervous doing that?
Yeah, because Dub C didn’t stay on stage with me [laughs]! We rehearsed, and he was on stage with me, and then when it’s show time, I’m looking around — because I’m running out of air on some of the lines — and I can’t find Dub C. But that whole night was fun. I wasn’t even supposed to be in full get-up. I was just going to come out and rock, and then Pops is bringing out Ren and Yella, I felt like I got to put on a show. I went and got my gear, put my hat on, found me a Jheri curl — my mom hooked it up [laughs]. She hooked it up actually backstage before we went on, and we ripped it.
Not only did you play your dad, you were in scenes with people playing your mom and your grandparents. Were there moments on set were like when you told them, “No, actually, my family would say or do this?”
The beautiful Alexandra Shipp plays my wife-mom — that’s weird. She plays my wife in the movie, goddammit. She asked me first day how my mom would act, how she would say certain words, would she even say certain words. What was really weird was in those where we’re in the house, I got my parents on set watching me, and I got a little kid playing me and my older brother in the back. It was all kinds of madness, bro. It was all over the place. She’s a good actress; she did a hell of a job in this film. This entire cast, N.W.A, was an all-star group, and I really feel like people are going to look at Straight Outta Compton years from now like this was an all-star cast.
What’s your favorite N.W.A song?
“Gangsta Gangsta!” My Pops is on most of the song. Just the bounce, the hook is hard, and the change-up at the end, and Eazy’s verse just sets it off. There’s just something about the hype-ness of that song. Of course, the classics are “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” “Straight Outta Compton,” and “F— Tha Police,” but “Gangsta Gangsta” is the one! If you’ve heard the album, you know.
What did your dad think of the movie?
He describes it as watching me win the Super Bowl with the team he won the Super Bowl with. He watches that movie everyday, bro. He watches that s— everyday. He’s more pumped than anybody.
How did it strengthen the bond between the two of you?
It gives me a better understanding, and it gives me a better type of feel of the things that make him him. Every son wants to make their father proud, and my father has been telling people he’s proud of me because I stepped up. I had a challenge in front of me that many people didn’t want me to have. I worked hard for years. The movie may have taken 13, 14 weeks to shoot, but I have been working on this movie for years. To finally see everything come together is crazy.
You’ve done some music, you’re starting your acting career, and you studied screenwriting at USC. Does your heart lie with one of those passions more?
USC has really developed my love for the cinema. Music always has a hold in my heart, but I know my first love is these movies. I want to pursue a career in film. I want to make a name for myself. I want to go and get my diploma, because it’s always better to go to college as a celebrity [laughs].
In what way?
You know. You know exactly why. I don’t need to explain that s— to you. I’m here for film, bro. Music is always there, but if you’re asking me my first love, it’s film.