In 1989, N.W.A exploded straight outta Compton with their debut release. Now, 26 years later, art becomes history as a biopic of the same name hits theaters Friday. But first, two members of N.W.A—Ice Cube and DJ Yella—the film’s director—F. Gary Gray—and three of its cast members—Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube)—sit down to talk about how the project came to be; what it’s like to play your dad on the silver screen and who they’re calling if someone breaks into their house.
What was the genesis of Straight Outta Compton?
Gary Gray: I’ve been involved with this project for four years. I got the script from Cube and one of our other producers, and at first I was a little nervous because there’s so much story there—to cover 10 years and five guys—but when I read the first draft that (screenwriter) Andrea Berloff wrote I was like, Okay, there’s something really good there. And then when I talked to Cube and explored what we really could do with this story, I joined the project.
Ice Cube: This has been a dream project forever. Ever since I started producing in 1995, this has been in the back of my mind. When it was looking to become a reality, there was only a few people I would even ask to do a movie like this, and one of them is sitting right next to me.
So by Gary choosing to direct the project, the movie started to take shape and we really started to hone in on what we needed to do to produce this movie and get it on the big screen.
DJ Yella: We didn’t realize 26 years ago, as we were doing Straight Outta Compton (the album), that it was such a good story. There’s a lot to it: Happiness, sadness, business, and all of the issues we went through.
But we kept focused on what we did. Our passion was music, the lyrics, and we didn’t let anything stop us. And it just happened to be a perfect time for the movie.
The movie revealed amazing acting from some new talent. For the three of you who acted in the film, how excited were you to be a part of it?
Jason Mitchell: Super excited. I feel like I hit the lottery. Here I am listening to Cube and Gary say it’s their best film, their dream come true, but I’m literally living all of that right now. The way I feel is… I can’t even really explain it in words. It’s emotional.
Corey Hawkins: It’s crazy. Gary used to say on set for us to keep in mind the power of what we were doing. We’re making history about a group that made history. We didn’t take that lightly. They placed a story into our hands that we wanted to do justice to.
O’Shea Jackson Jr.: It was a huge honor because we were speaking about N.W.A, but at the same time this is my family’s legacy. And I’m just so thankful that the ball was in my hands, and that I was able to cement this in history. It was hard work—two years of auditioning with Gary and things like that—to put it into motion, and with the final product I couldn’t be happier.
O’Shea, being your dad’s son you know his mannerisms, but did you have to learn some nuances to come up with your own version of his character
OJ: Well, if you wanna be technical, I’ve been doing research for 20+ years on this character. [Laughs] I know solo Ice Cube, but I had to dip into how he was hanging around with his friends. So I would look at old interviews and see how they were joking around and get some of his lingo, just to put myself back in that era.
IC: I just wanted to give him all the ammunition he needed to know what I was thinking at the time, and my perception of everybody. I knew Gary wouldn’t go for anybody being a mimic, so all I could do was fill him up with information and then let him do his thing.
Jason and Corey, were you nervous about bringing these real, larger-than-life characters—Eazy-E and Dr. Dre—to life in the film?
JM: I had so many guys who wanted me to hit the mark, making sure I had everything I needed, so it was easy to get comfortable. They had so many people who wanted everything to be right, that somebody is gonna speak up if it’s not. They don’t give you a lot of room to fail. It’s either a hole-in-one or [nothing].
But it’s a great privilege because there are so many people who never met (Eazy-E), and I get to humanize him. There was a dude who got under my bill of my hat and say, “Bro… you’re like seeing a ghost.” That’s incredible, and I will live with that forever.
CH: I just feel humbled, man. I look down this table and I see my idols, including Jason and Shea. We really, from day one, set out to do justice to this story. For me, personally, I was the guy coming from Juilliard, had just done Shakespeare [playing] Tybalt on Broadway, and so I had a moment where everybody’s like, “I don’t know if he’s gonna be able to do this.” [Laughs]
JM: Does Corey even listen to rap music?
CH: [Mimicking] Have you ever heard N.W.A before? [Laughs] But with Dre, I remember the very first time… Gary was like, “So listen, we about to go to dinner with Dre… you good?” [Laughs]
At the end of that day he pulled me to the side and said, “You’re the man for the job. You got this role. Don’t worry about mimicking me or impersonating me.” He said, “I’m just interested in you capturing the essence of what we all represented individually. Our humanity. The good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.”
If some of the critics who roasted N.W.A and wanted to crucify them a quarter century ago now end up praising the movie, what would you say to them?
FGG: See? [Laughs] Told you!
IC: It’s a little apples and oranges. I can imagine someone appreciating this movie and still having a problem with the group. [Laughs] But for those that came around, welcome to 2015. We’ve been looking for you since ’89. [Laughs]
The movie depicts the police—particularly the LAPD—and race relations at that time in a certain way. How do you think those issues have evolved since you were dealing with them 25 years ago?
IC: Ultimately in the movie, what we wanted to show was the humiliation, because that is the real issue. You know, we understand that cops have to be a little heavy-handed with criminals, but we don’t understand why they got to be that way with citizens. So we wanted to show the humiliation that we faced, and we wanted the audience to feel that “What if this was happening to you?”
That’s why we did these songs. It wasn’t because we don’t like police. You know, if somebody break in my house I’m calling the goddamn police. [Laughs] I’m not calling the homies. I’m not calling Ren, Yella or Dre.