A session with cast members from the forthcoming Tupac Shakur biopic “All Eyez on Me” Demetrius Shipp, Kat Graham, Annie Ilonzeh, and Dominic Santana

by Amy Marie Slocum

Where everyday we try to fatten our Pockets

Everyone said the same thing: you don’t want to be the one responsible for screwing up the first Tupac biopic. After years of false starts, lawsuits, and protracted battles for creative control, All Eyez On Me has finally managed to wrestle the hip-hop icon’s story onto the big screen, and Pac’s die-hard fans won’t tolerate a poor representation of their idol. This sense of responsibility united everyone who worked on the film. “That’s one thing that was amazing to see. Everyone – from the director and producer, to the actors, the extras, and the P.A.s – gave their all.” Dominic Santana, who plays notorious Death Row Records boss Suge Knight in the film, tells me, “It’s a testament to the power of Tupac’s music and the power of the story. I haven’t seen anything like it on set before.”

It’s a story with continuing resonance and all the turbulence, violence, and outsized character of a great Shakespearean drama. There’s the two star-crossed friends-turned foes (Biggie and Pac), a grand feud (the East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop rivalry), and the tragic crescendo leaving both Pac and Biggie dead – all off it chronicled in the poetry of the underground. Tupac used gangster rap and “Thug Life” as a vessel to bring the trials and tribulations of the underground to the fore of mainstream culture. America could no longer claim ignorance of the conditions faced by those she had systematically disenfranchised. As Tupac said, “I am society’s child, this is how they made me, and now I’m saying what’s on my mind and they don’t want that. This is what you made me America.” The world was captivated, and still is. It’s a legend too epic to fade away.

I’m at a non-descript photo studio in Mid-City, and as several cast members roll in one by one – Kat Graham who plays Jada Pinkett, Annie Ilonzeh who plays Kidada Jones, Santana, and finally Demetrius Shipp, Jr. as Tupac himself – it becomes clear that there is a deep sense of camaraderie between the four. They slap hands, trade ecstatic hugs, laugh and chat, catch up on each other’s lives. They give off the sense of a team tightly bound together by a monumental shared undertaking. For Graham at least the photo shoot today marks a sort of homecoming, “As a kid I used to skateboard from my apartment a block away to go to dance practice right there,” she says, pointing to a nearby building.

Surprisingly, All Eyez On Me marks the biggest role yet for each of the actors. Their backgrounds are as diverse as their roles. Graham has had a varied career as a dancer, a star on The Vampire Diaries, and as a musician. She will be releasing an album (on which she collaborated with Prince) in June, and she’s still found the time to get started on a screenplay – “It’s consuming me completely right now,” she told me. Ilonzeh has worked in television and in smaller roles on a number of movies. Santana has acted all his life but playing Suge Knight is a big step up. Amazingly, Shipp in particular had never even been in front of a camera before he was cast as Tupac. By all accounts, he’s a natural. Everyone I spoke to commented on his energy, and how the effort he put into the role established a high standard for everyone on set. “I fell in love with the craft of it,” he tells me.

It’s interesting to meet a group of young actors who are each tasked with representing such well-known and deeply iconic cultural figures, some of whom are still in the spotlight – like Suge Knight, who is currently facing high-profile murder charges for running a man over with a truck on the set of the film Straight Outta Compton. Shipp, for one, is a dead ringer for Pac. As I speak to him I experience a strange doubling of actor and subject, the massive presence of Tupac at times superimposing itself over the actor.

This phenomenon – where the ghosts of the past overwhelm the present moment and the actors who seek to channel them – came through on set as well. Both Shipp and Santana referenced the same moment as a highlight of the filming experience: during a shoot recreating the historic Tupac concert at The House of Blues, 900 extras were assembled, and the crew snuck Shipp in character as Tupac through the back to surprise the extras and to get an authentic reaction. No one knew how he would perform, which direction he would take it, but when the time came it felt like a summation of the whole experience. “I was saying to everyone around me, ‘This is the closest you’ll ever get to seeing Tupac live,’ and it really was,” Santana told me. “When Demetrius came out – it was real. Everyone was screaming, cheering, dancing. The energy was just electric. Demetrius was reaching his hand out into the crowd, and people were grasping it, tears coming down their faces – it was amazing.”

As a musician himself, it was a dream come true for Shipp. He grew up playing drums in his family’s church, and as a young man he longed to reach the masses with his music, to be the one up on the stage. Playing Tupac gave him the opportunity to experience that. “I always wanted to know what it feels like when hundreds of people are with you, under your spell as a musician, feeding off your energy. It was once in a lifetime. We did the scene ten times or something, and usually the extras start peeling off, getting restless. That didn’t happen. They were totally there with me. It was more like a concert than a film shoot.”

Ilonzeh faced this presence of the past in a different way – not as an enlivening force, but as a sort of wrestling with the weight of fate. Playing Jones, to whom Tupac was engaged to be married at the time of his death, she had to resist the pull to tell the story through the lens of tragedy, knowing as she did how it would all end. “It was hard to get away from approaching it in that way – as a tragedy. I had to keep saying to myself, ‘you don’t know that, Kidada doesn’t know that. They love each other, and they don’t know what’s ahead. They’re seeing it as a love story, not a tragedy,’ she tells me. “You as an actress know what’s going to happen, but you have to remember that that doesn’t exist in this moment. It’s just them and their love.”

This is indicative of the level of thought that this team has put into their roles. Tupac, Suge Knight – these are people whose identities have been compressed and distorted by media representation. They’ve become more myth than men. It was the task of the actors to find the real people underneath the manufactured surfaces and to bring them to the screen as the complex, multifaceted characters that they were. As Tupac said, “My only fear of death is reincarnation.” The actors in All Eyez On Me have done their best to make sure he had nothing to be afraid of.

Written by Sid Feddema
Photographer: Robin Harper for Opus Reps
Stylist: Santa Bevacqua
Hair: Preston Wada for Opus Beauty using Number 4 Hair Care
Makeup: Melissa Murdick for Opus Beauty using Chanel Ultrawear
Groomer: Autumn Moultrie for Exclusive Artists Management using Kate Somerville
Styling Assistant: Leonard Murray

Issue 154

The Cadence Issue

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