After just 10 days in wide release, the rap music biopic “Straight Outta Compton” has rung up more than $111 million at the box office.
At the helm of the feature about pioneering rap group N.W.A. is revered director F. Gary Gray, whose previous films have included urban comedies including “Friday” and action dramas including “The Negotiator,” “A Man Apart” and “The Italian Job.”
Reconnecting with his old friend and former N.W.A. founding member Ice Cube, Gray set out to tell the story of the rise of the group from this impoverished south L.A. community that rose to fame in the late 1980s with their controversial debut album, which gives the film its title. It’s explicit and anti-authority lyrics connected with a generation of disenfranchised young urbanites, and changed the music scene with a musical art form that is still relevant today.
“Straight Outta Compton,” the movie, tells the story of the rise of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren, whose music connected with fans and inspired other rap artists. (A sequel is reportedly in the works.) It also tells the personal stories of each of the men and how their fame and notoriety affected their relationships with each other and how their manipulative manager Jerry Heller drove a wedge between them.
Beginning in 1987, the drama focuses on the lives of Ice Cube (portrayed by his real life son O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) and MC Ren (portrayed by Aldis Hodge), two young emcees from the neighborhood who join forces with Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), a charismatic drug dealer, and local club deejays Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), to form N.W.A.
Gray recently spoke about his directing the film, casting the right actors and working again with this friend Ice Cube.
Q: How and when did you get involved in this project?
Gray: I’ve been involved with the project for four years. I got the script from Ice Cube and one of the other producers. At first I was a little nervous because there was so much story to cover. It was 10 years and five guys.
Q: How did you prepare these young actors for their roles?
Gray: I had these guys going to the gym. Some had to lose weight; some had to gain weight. They had to go to DJ school. These guys recorded “Straight Outta Compton.” I had them record the entire album. It was over a two-month period where they worked around the clock with wardrobe and their trainers. They worked with (rapper) WC, who is William Calhoun, which is where I got my start. He worked with them to perform onstage and have them walk, talk and absorb the L.A. culture, the West Coast hip hop culture. They did it in such a short amount of time. It was a great feat what these guys did. They delivered such a natural performance. They didn’t pretend or mimic (N.W.A.); they delivered a world-class performance.
Q: It would seem that O’Shea Jackson had the advantage of being able to study his father for more than 20 years to prepare to play him?
Gray: It only helps if you know you’re going to play this role, but (O’Shea) didn’t know he was going to play this role. (He had to audition.)
Q: Your film is set during a turbulent time in L.A.’s history. How have race relations with the police evolved there since 1989?
Gray: I grew up in roughly the same area (as the N.W.A. members). I thought it was important to show why a 16-year-old would write these lyrics. I’m optimistic because of the headlines about excessive force and law enforcement. You can’t watch these videos without realizing that change is coming. It’s not about protests now; it’s about solutions.
Q: How did Dr. Dre view Corey Hawkins’ depiction of him, particularly during an emotionally difficult scene like when he gets the news that his brother has died?
Gray: Corey’s performance took him back. This big guy who you don’t associate with vulnerability was overcome because of Corey’s performance. He couldn’t stay (and watch that scene being filmed).
Q: When you were auditioning actors for this, how did you come up with the combination of Corey Hawkins, O’Shea Jackson and Jason Mitchell?
Gray: (laughing) They cheated, because they purposely didn’t do as well with the other actors. I knew what was going on. They sunk right into this process and it worked out well.
Q: How did you come to cast Paul Giamatti as their manager Jerry Heller?
Gray: I worked with Paul on “The Negotiator.” He was my first choice, my absolute first choice for Jerry. When the casting conversation came up he was my first choice. Jerry wrote a book called “Ruthless.” We just did our homework. A lot about his relationship with Eazy-E and Ruthless Records was in there. Paul did his homework. I was just happy that I was able to get my first choice. It doesn’t always happen that way in films.