Straight Outta Compton: Casting the World’s Most Dangerous Group–Ice Cube

Casting the Brothers in Arms

Casting for the key roles of a complex, emotional, real-life street drama like Straight Outta Compton was highly personal for all and took an immense effort by Gray, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Woods-Wright and their fellow producers.

Their goal in casting the five coveted roles was to get triple-threat performers, men who could act, look the part and perform with an unfiltered intensity that channeled Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella and MC Ren.

Director Gray discusses the process: “The most important aspect of casting N.W.A was authenticity. Hip-hop is about being authentic, and when you have Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella—who come from a very specific place—it’s an even bigger challenge.”

The director and his fellow producers knew where their priorities were with talent on screen. “Our mandate was performance first, then street cred and likeness to the member of N.W.A they were portraying. Your story has to be correct, and that lives and dies with performance.”

What started with traditional casting in Los Angeles and New York soon branched out to numerous open casting calls across the country to the cities of Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta, among others.  The roles of Eazy-E and Ice Cube were the first to be cast. As the early development stages of the project began to take shape, Ice Cube could easily envision his then-20-year-old son stepping into the on-screen role of Cube’s younger self. One look at O’Shea Jackson, Jr., and there’s no mistaking he is his father’s son. It’s not just the striking physical similarities between the two, but subtle nuances that genetics can’t deny—like a confident swagger that comes from a deep and strong sense of self.

Parental intuition: Ice Cube knew his charismatic son had the talent. He just needed the proper training and tools to be considered seriously for the acting role. With no prior acting experience, Jackson was admittedly nervous about taking on any role, let alone one that was as personal and high-profile as portraying his father in a long-touted, highly anticipated biopic about the seminal rap group.

Ice Cube was straightforward with Jackson about what was expected of him in preparing for the role, but assured him he would guide him through the whole process. Yet just like his father, Jackson adheres to the tenet “go big or go home,” and once he made the decision to audition for the role he was all in.

“It started to become an obsession,” says Jackson. “I knew I couldn’t go see Straight Outta Compton and watch somebody else play this part. It would have drove me crazy because I feel that no one can play this part like I can. When you think about it, I’ve basically been studying for this part for over 20 years.” He laughs: “I’ve become super method with my approach to the role.”

For Jackson, developing that “super method” form of acting began after multiple auditions to prove himself and win the role. To draw out the deep fire from within him, Jackson began to work with director Gray for close to two years of continuous acting classes and coaches in Los

Angeles and New York. Like the majority of his fellow cast members, the young performer utilized the ultimate resource: their real-life N.W.A counterparts. As filming commenced, the artistic exchange between father and son was a vital and integral part of Jackson’s stepping into Ice Cube’s younger persona with ease.

“Dad has told me these stories my whole life, so to be able to re-enact them on screen is the coolest thing in the world,” relays Jackson. “He’s always accessible; he’ll call and talk to me and let me know where his head was for certain scenes…so I can use that knowledge to make the scene pop and be as authentic as possible.”

When it came to the musical and performance aspects of the role, Jackson’s DNA kicked in and he was completely at ease…whether filming concert scenes on stage in front of thousands or laying down tracks in the Eazy-E raps for Dr. Dre. recording studio. Jackson, who did his own rapping in Straight Outta Comp ton and sounds uncannily similar to his father, cites years of traveling and performing with his dad on tours around the world for contributing to his comfort level while performing in the film. Little did he know then that those years of getting the rare opportunity to soak in the stage presence of the rap impresario would lend itself to this new endeavor.

For the role of Eazy-E, actor Jason Mitchell, who was living in New Orleans at the time, submitted an audition tape that wowed the filmmakers from the get-go.  Mitchell’s physicality, coupled with his intensity, made Gray and his fellow producers stand up and pay attention. With only a handful of acting credits to his name and no formal training, the 28-year-old made an indelible impact.

He fully embodied the man known as the Godfather of Gangsta rap. “It’s a gift and a curse to not have Eazy here to coach me along this ride,” Mitchell reflects. “I want to be able to re-humanize him and be what people remember of him. But the ultimate challenge as an actor is to re-create and really embody that person. If I’m able to tap into even a smidgen of something that his family or friends may have remembered, then it’s all good.”

Actor Corey Hawkins, a graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School, is perhaps best known for his stage work, including the role of Tybalt in the Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet opposite Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, and a small role in the Liam Neeson actioner Non-Stop. He would be the next performer to be cast in the film, in the role of rap pioneer Dr. Dre.

Hawkins almost derailed on the road to that part when he got the call to audition. The actor, an ardent N.W.A fan, at first believed he didn’t possess the voice, the physicality or even a passing resemblance to portray Dr. Dre, and he didn’t want to jump into the casting fray if he wasn’t a serious contender. Ultimately, he chose to submit an audition tape, and based on that powerful audition he was offered his first major leading role.

“The casting process was intense,” recalls Hawkins, “but Dre shared a lot with me and became a huge mentor throughout the whole process. I remember him saying, ‘You don’t have to imitate me; you don’t have to mimic me. I’m not looking for you to do any of that. I’m looking for you to represent N.W.A and what we stood for. If you put that first, then everything else will follow.’”

One of the defining moments for the filmmakers in casting the film was one of the final chemistry tests, which gathered the top contenders for the roles of Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Eazy-E. In front of the cameras, Jackson, Hawkins and Mitchell had a rhythmic interaction that excited everyone.

It was evident to everyone in the room as they watched the trio settle into an easy, relaxed camaraderie behind the scenes that this energy ultimately and seamlessly informed their collective performances for the cameras. As nerve-racking and arduous as the process was, the actors admit they felt that kinship. That connection sustained the three as they began the journey of transforming themselves into the poetic artist, the epic music producer and the legendary icon.

After casting Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E, the filmmakers still needed to reinforce their efforts to pin down their top picks to play MC Ren and DJ Yella.  The goal as the search continued for the final pieces of the casting puzzle was to complement the undeniable dynamic already established with the casting of these three N.W.A members.  Soon after, Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown, Jr. stepped into the final two roles and completed Gray’s dream team, cementing the real-life brotherhood of actors. Hodge, perhaps the best-known member of the core cast, co-starred in the TNT television series Leverage and portrays MC Ren, while Brown, who has had small roles in films like Fast & Furious and Battle: Los Angeles, plays DJ Yella.

As with Jackson and Hawkins, one of the bigger bonuses for Hodge and Brown was the access they had with their real-life counterparts. Not many young actors land a potential career-defining role and get the personal phone number and email for rap royalty. Their entrée into N.W.A was immediate and immersive, and the group of five bonded during the process.

“Very rarely do you get a cast that you vibe with naturally, and genuinely like,” says Hodge. “We all came to this with the same mentality that N.W.A had—to lean on one another to make their dream happen—and we would do the same,” says Hodge. “We’re a team, and that’s how it’s been from day one. These are my boys.”

Mitchell, too, utilized the resources of the surviving members of N.W.A, but more importantly, he had the privilege of spending quality time with Woods-Wright, some of the Wright family and friends who shared their memories of Eazy-E. The family, in turn, accepted the filmmakers’ invitation to visit set to watch filming of select scenes and to see firsthand how the story was being told.

Eazy-E’s daughter, Erica, and son, Eric Wright (also known as Lil’ E), were both particularly helpful and came to the Los Angeles film set several times. “I tried to find every video I could,” explains Mitchell. “Tomica was a big help with that, since she had access to unseen footage and all kinds of behind-the-scenes material. Then there were the little things that you get from conversations that were helpful to piece together the character.”

Gray, a stickler for details, mined all he could from N.W.A to re-create as much of their world as possible. On set, it afforded him the luxury of turning around from his seat at the video monitor to ask Ice Cube or Dr. Dre, or their wives Kim and Nicole, respectively, their thoughts on a particular scene or mood or hairstyle at that point in time. Likewise, the director used bonding strategies he’d developed with the cast in his earlier actioners that made it easier for each member of his core ensemble to slip into character and truly feel the brotherhood that they were portraying.

In addition to Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Woods-Wright, both DJ Yella and MC Ren joined in to give their recollections and assist in the production and costume design—from their general thoughts on their first tour or performance at Skateland to the more emotionally driven subtext of the period leading up to Eazy-E’s HIV diagnosis…and his death soon after. Even procedural elements, like how DJ Yella approached working the mixing board or Dr. Dre’s distinctive style spinning on his turntables, it all mattered, and the cast was schooled until they got it down.

Bernstein discusses the active involvement of the group’s original members: “Their presence on set added a deep sense of authenticity and realism to the film. Having Dre and Cube involved from the get-go, and then Ren and Yella on the set during production, allowed us to capture their nuances. It allowed the actors to have one-on-one time with them all and understand the essence of N.W.A.”

With the five core members of N.W.A set, it was time to round out the supporting roles. One of the bigger coups for the filmmakers was casting Golden Globe Award-winning actor Paul Giamatti for the role of N.W.A manager Jerry Heller. Giamatti, who had previously worked with director Gray on the 1998 thriller The Negotiator, was a student at Yale University when he first heard N.W.A. As such, when he got the call about the project, he was well aware of their innovative music and their societal impact.

“Nobody had ever heard anything like N.W.A before, and for them to achieve such a level of commercial success and become this cultural moment in history is remarkable,” offers Giamatti. “They are fascinating guys, so when I read the script I was not disappointed. It’s an exciting story; it’s epic in all different kinds of ways.”

As Giamatti has done with previous roles in which he portrayed living people, he opted to rely on the material at hand and go with his gut instinct as he approached the role. He purposely did not want to get sidetracked by the controversy swirling around the veteran music manager, who managed big acts like Elton John, Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye, Ike & Tina Turner and The Who. “The filmmakers treat Heller pretty evenhandedly,” says the performer. “It was interesting to be able to play that, because he was genuinely into the music and really did hear something unique and important in N.W.A. He genuinely thought this was important music.”

Establishing a rapport between Giamatti, an experienced actor with decades of critically acclaimed film, television and theater performances, and acting newbie Mitchell, whose scenes together lift the curtain a bit about Eazy-E and Heller’s dynamic, was key to the filmmakers’goal of exploring all aspects of the relationship. As with the rest of the cast, the pair settled into an easy working relationship, despite the intense material with which they had to work.

From the start, Giamatti was impressed with Mitchell. “The second I shook Jason’s hand the first day I got to Los Angeles, I thought there was something very special about this guy,” Giamatti commends. “He’s extraordinary, and I don’t know if he realizes how good he is. But he’s the real deal, and it was interesting to watch him work.”

As much as N.W.A’s brotherhood put them on the map, several women alongside them sustained them through the tumultuous ride. Kim Jackson, wife of O’Shea and mother to O’Shea, Jr., is played onscreen by ALEXANDRA SHIPP (Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse).

Jackson was a fixture on set with her husband, watching her son re-create moments from their shared past in a film that spans their courtship to the birth of their children. Tomica Woods-Wright, Eazy-E’s widow and the curator of the legacy he left behind, is portrayed by CARRA PATTERSON (Why Did I Get Married Too?), while actress ELENA GOODE (TV’s As the World Turns) stepped into the role of Nicole Young, Dr. Dre’s wife of 19 years. Supporting roles in the film are played by up-and coming and seasoned talent alike, including KEITH POWERS (Yahoo!’s Sin City Saints) as Tyree, Dr. Dre’s little brother; LAKEITH LEE STANFIELD (Selma) as Snoop Dogg; TATE ELLINGTON (TV’s Quantico) as Bryan Turner, Ice Cube’s former manager; COREY REYNOLDS as Lonzo Williams, club owner and fellow member of World Class Wreckin’ Cru, with Dr. Dre and DJ Yella; and R. MARCUS TAYLOR (Life of Crime) as Suge Knight.